Tag Archives: winter 2011


Edited by Andrew Schelling
Oxford University Press ($55)

by Graziano Krätli

Religions typically evolve from individual and spontaneous to collective and organized forms of experience. Each time an intensely subjective spiritual awakening solidifies into an increasingly complex and codified set of beliefs, practices, and rituals, a reaction usually occurs, in which one or more individuals cast themselves beyond the pale of orthodoxy, choosing a path of renunciation, retreat, and reflection, or undertaking more active and antagonistic forms of dissent. In the Judeo-Christian world, anchorites, mystics, and martyrs variously represented this reaction in different countries and time periods. In medieval India, a renewal process characterized by unorthodox forms of intimate devotion started between the fifth and the ninth century C.E. with two groups of Tamil poet-saints, the twelve Vaishnava alvars (“immersed in god”) and the sixty-three Shaivite nayanars (“lords, masters, devotees”), whose hymns to Vishnu and Shiva helped define a new spiritual and literary sensibility. Rejecting established forms of dogmatic and ritual mediation in favor of a pure and passionate relationship with a personal god, the new devotional approach gained rapid popularity, especially among the non-brahmanical castes and the lowest strata of the population, spreading across the subcontinent and eventually giving rise to a counter-tradition of spiritual practices and devotional songs known as bhakti. The term itself, explains Andrew Schelling in the introduction to this new anthology, first appeared 2500 years ago in the Shvetashvatara Upanishad and the Bhagavad Gita, indicating “love or devotion directed to a deity or a god.” More specifically,

the word derives from the Sanskrit verb bhaj, which initially meant to divide, share, or distribute. Over time, the verb came to mean partake, enjoy, participate; to eat, to make love. From such personal colourings it took abstract meanings. To experience, to feel, to adore; to serve, honour, or worship. There is also a noun, bhakta, meaning a votary, a worshipper, a lover.

Often referred to as a movement, bhakti is more a “state-of-the-heart” or, in Schelling’s words, “a prominent countercultural force,” whose philosophical, religious, social, and literary relevance and implications have become the object of frequent scholarly investigation. Most bhaktas were low-caste men and women who rejected social conventions (caste, family, marriage) and orthodox religion (typically Brahmanic Hinduism) to live an itinerant existence, alone or in a group of similarly minded devotees or followers, in pursuit of a direct communion with a personal deity. Their spiritual quests were often characterized by unconventional looks, provocative performances, and ecstatic outbursts of singing and dancing, and in time gave rise to rich and expansive poetic traditions associated with individual figures of poet-saints. Given the lack of manuscript sources, and the fact that bhakti poems originated and circulated for centuries in oral form and in a number of vernacular languages, modern attempts to trace a nucleus of poems to their presumed authors (i.e., the poet-saints they are commonly associated with), and to separate the authentic from the spurious and the apocryphal, have proved largely unsuccessful.

From the far south of the subcontinent, the spiritual counter-tradition spread north, to Kannada-, Telugu-, and Marathi-speaking areas (corresponding to the modern states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra, respectively), and eventually reaching the Indo-Gangetic Plain, where bhakti poetry fully flourished between the twelfth and the eighteenth centuries. By the end of this period, India had started to develop her own literature in English, and it is largely through this imported medium that bhakti poetry started to circulate and to draw attention as a literary form and tradition, both in India and abroad. Starting at the turn of the twentieth century, such an interest has grown steadily since the 1970s, with new studies and translations being published every year, mostly in India and the United States. The past decade alone has produced editions of Antal, Chokhamela, Kabir, Lal Ded, Mirabai, Ramprasad Sen, Surdas, Tukaram, and others; while the current one has started, quite promisingly, with three major works, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Songs of Kabir, Ranjit Hoskote’s I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded, and now The Oxford Anthology of Bhakti Literature, edited by Andrew Schelling.

With only one distant antecedent—John Stratton Hawley’s and Mark Juergensmeyer’s 1988Songs of the Saints of India, a more scholarly work which focuses on six northern figures—the Oxford anthology is truly the first attempt to chart the field of bhakti poetry in English translation, and to provide a rich and valuable resource for the general reader. It is a task for which Schelling is uniquely qualified. A poet and prize-winning translator of classical Indian poetry, with teaching appointments in the United States (at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics) and India (at Deer Park Institute, Himachal Pradesh), he combines an engaged and insightful perspective with a deep knowledge of the material involved.

Although rich and diverse, such material lends itself to a natural arrangement in four sections—South, West, North, and East—following the geographical progress of bhakti literature across the Indian subcontinent, from sixth-century Tamil poems to contemporary Shakta poetry from Bengal. The first section, largely dominated by A.K. Ramanujan’s scholarship and translations from the Tamil, Kannada, and Telugu, documents the growth of an intensely individual, and acutely physical approach to the divine. “The greatest noticeable shift from classical poems of the Tamil anthologies to the emergence of bhakti,” writes Schelling, “occurs in the stance of the poem’s speaker.” Borrowing themes, situations, and settings from classical poetry, bhakti poets of both genders represent the relationship between devotee and divinity in terms of a passionate and forbidden love affair, typically expressed by a woman’s intense longing for a selfishly absent and unreachable male god. The following verses by the ninth-century Shaivite poet Manikkavacakar contain already most of the typical ingredients of a bhakti poem: the furtive and predacious intervention of the god; the devotee’s submission to his will, characterized by physical and psychological abandon; the ecstatic response of the all-possessed; the erotic imagery of the melting wax and the piercing nail; and the devotee’s ultimate indifference to, and rise above, social norms and bonds:

He grabbed me
lest I go astray.

Wax before an unspent fire,
mind melted,
body trembled.

I bowed, I wept,
danced, and cried aloud,
I sang, and I praised him.

. . . . . . . . . .

Love pierced me
like a nail
driven into a green tree.

. . . . . . . . . .

I left shame behind,

took as an ornament
the mockery of local folk.

We will find similar images and themes again and again in the poems of other female poet-saints like the ninth-century alvar Antal (“Like an arrow / from the bow of his eyebrows / the sidelong glance / of him who destroyed Kamsa / enters my heart, / makes me sore with pain, / weak and worn”), the twelfth-century Virasaiva poet Mahadeviyakka (“Cut through, O Lord, / my heart’s greed, / and show me / your way out, / / O lord white as jasmine”), the fourteenth-century varkari guru Muktabai (“Cast off all shame, / and sell yourself / in the marketplace; / then alone / can you hope / to reach the Lord / . . . / Jani says, My Lord / I have become a slut / to reach Your home”), and the sixteenth-century Rajasthani princess Mirabai (“Dark One, don’t go— / when only cinder remains / rub my ash over your body. / . . . / Listen, friend, / the Dark One laughs / and scours my body with ravenous eyes. / Eyebrows are bows, / darting glances are arrows that pierce / a wrecked heart.”

By the time bhakti reached the Indo-Gangetic Plain, it had incorporated elements of Tantrism and Sufism, and the wealth of esoteric references in the work of Lal Ded (a fourteenth-centuryyogini from Kashmir), or the caustic comparativism and “upside language” (ulatbansi) of Kabir (a fifteenth-century Muslim-raised weaver from Varanasi) are a proof of such development. Indeed, their complex and diverse religious backgrounds led to their message often being misinterpreted or misunderstood, and their legacy (beginning with their funeral rites and bodily remains, as a number of colorful legends document) being claimed by both Hindus and Muslims.

Moving East (to Bengal and areas corresponding to the modern-day states of Bihar and Orissa), devotional attitudes changed under the influence of the Gita-govinda, Jayadeva’s twelfth-century poem whose subject (the relationship of Krishna and Radha) and composition (in twelve chapters and twenty-four songs) had a huge impact on bhakti poetry. Although written in Sanskrit, the Gita-govinda drew inspiration from folk songs and in turn inspired vernacular poets who composed songs based on the divine love affair. This may be depicted from alternative points of view (Krishna, Radha, a messenger or a girlfriend), and represents a significant change of sensibility from the female “devotee longing for a male god” perspective of previous poets. A further and more significant development occurred under the influence of Shaktism, a major devotional tradition focused on Shakti or Devi, the Hindu Divine Mother. Starting in the second half of the eighteenth century, a wave of popular Shaktism spread throughout eastern India with the love songs of Ramprasad Sen and his followers, Kamalakanta Bhattacharya, Mahendranath Bhattacharya, and Najrul Islam, creating a bhakti tradition that continues to this day.

The final section ends with poems and songs recorded in Bengal in the 1970s. Around the same time, Ramanujan in Chicago, Dilip Chitre and Arun Kolatkar in Bombay, and a few other poets in India and abroad were creating a distinctive poetic idiom in English, bridging tradition (i.e., Indian classical poetry) and innovation (European and North American modernism), and often using translation, particularly of bhakti poetry from various vernacular languages, in new and original ways. The trend set by their pioneering work continued over the following decades and is very much alive today, with new versions published regularly by Indian authors in India and abroad, as well as by non-Indian scholars and poets. Yet the contribution of translation to the growth and renovation of contemporary Indian poetry in English has not been fully explored, assessed, or appreciated yet. A comprehensive and timely work like the Oxford anthology, featuring over thirty poets and as many translators, could have offered a richer and more diversified picture of bhakti poetry in English translation.

Unfortunately, Schelling’s choice of translators is not as inclusive or representative as his selection of poets and poems, and consequently a good opportunity is somehow missed. Of the thirty plus poets featured, only three (Janabai, Kabir, and Ramprasad Sen) are represented by more than one translator, and in a couple of instances the predominance of a particular translator feels oddly reductive. For instance, it is understandable—and to some extent inevitable—that Ramanujan dominates the first section (South), but it is far less clear why the next (West) is almost entirely represented by Dilip Chitre’s translations. While the inclusion of material from Chitre’s unpublished anthology of Marathi bhakti poetry is noteworthy, the section is weakened by the absence of other translators of varkari poetry, particularly Arun Kolatkar, whose tight and snappy versions of Janabai, Namdev, and Tukaram have attained a quasi-legendary status (and whose own reputation as poet in English and Marathi has long surpassed Chitre’s).

Similarly, the next section (North) could have gained from a slightly more catholic selection, particularly in regard to Kabir and Mirabai, arguably northern India’s most popular and beloved poet-saints. Yet both poets are somehow shortchanged, although in different ways. In Mirabai’s case, a selection from Schelling’s own collection, For Love of the Dark One, seems hardly representative of a poet whose work has been translated several times in the past three decades, most notably by A. J. Alston (1980), Hawley and Juergensmeyer (1988), Shama Futehally (1994), and Robert Bly and Jane Hirshfield (2004). As for Kabir, Schelling first identifies the three main literary traditions in which his poems have been preserved, namely “the Guru Granth of the Sikhs in the Punjab, the Pancavani of the Dadu Panth from Rajasthan, and the Kabir Panth of eastern India, for whom the Bijak is scripture;” then switches gears and adopts Charlotte Vaudeville’s distinction between a “western” (i.e., Punjabi and Rajasthani) and an “eastern” tradition, the former typically “softer [and] more emotional,” the latter “fiercer [and] far more confrontational.” (108) Adding that “the ‘softer, more emotional Kabir’ . . . has been well served by American poet Ezra Pound” (a questionable statement to say the least), Schelling includes all ten of Pound’s versions of Kabir (originally published in The Modern Review in June 1913) and a selection from Linda Hess and Shukdev Singh’s 1983 Bījak of Kabir, to represent the western and the eastern traditions, respectively. Next, besides these two textual traditions of Kabir, Schelling adds another one, originating “from a manuscript that emerged in Bengal in the nineteenth century and was translated into English by Rabindranath Tagore and Evelyn Underhill.” Published in 1915, the Tagore-Underhill translation has been “influentially available in England and the United States for a hundred years,” especially after Robert Bly reworked forty-four of the one hundred poems selected by Tagore (whose English he considered “hopeless”) in The Kabir Book, which was published in 1971, reprinted many times, expanded in 2004, and popularized through hundreds of public readings. During one of these events, at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1971, a young Indian poet was so impressed by Bly’s achievement that he put aside his own plans of translating Kabir. It took Arvind Krishna Mehrotra exactly forty years to act oedipally (just like Bly had toward Tagore), and to produce his own Songs of Kabir, which came out in the spring of 2011 and is likely to remain the most innovative and provocative English-language Kabir for some time. (The fact that Mehrotra’s versions came out right before Schelling’s anthology does not justify their exclusion from the latter, since a number of them circulated in magazines long before their publication in book form.) Now let’s backtrack for a second and consider the sources of both the Pound and the Tagore translations. The former was admittedly derived “from the English versions of Kali Mohan Ghose,” a young friend of Tagore. As for the latter, according to Underhill’s introduction, “it has been based upon the printed Hindī text with Bengali translation of Mr. Kshiti Mohan Sen; who has gathered from many sources—sometimes from books and manuscripts, sometimes from the lips of wandering ascetics and minstrels—a large collection of poems and hymns to which Kabir’s name is attached, and carefully sifted the authentic songs from the many spurious works now attributed to him.” Kshiti Mohan Sen’s four-part edition was published in 1910–11, and it is the same source Ghose used for his literal versions. This and the fact that Sen’s sources included variant songs from the Bijak, show how the “western,” the “eastern,” and the “received” tradition, as represented by Schelling, are all genetically related, if not hopelessly tangled.

Apart from the choice of translators, the book could have used a more rigorous critical approach, as well as more thorough editing and copyediting; a few entries read as if they were put together hastily. The British religious writer Evelyn Underhill is correctly identified on page 108, but rather surprisingly becomes “the American anthropologist Ruth Underhill” fifteen pages later. The Virasaiva poets are introduced (on page 28) without mention of the fact that their poems were composed in Kannada rather than Tamil. Jayalal Kaul, Lal Ded’s translator, is omitted from the list of translators at the end of the volume, and occasional spelling inconsistencies (e.g., tantrik, Tantric, and tantric on pages 213, 216, and 217, respectively) and typographical errors further detract the reader’s attention from the content of the book. Nonetheless, The Oxford Anthology of Bhakti Literature is a rich and engaging treasure trove; readers interested in the saga of a unique genre of writing should dive into it today.

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


Macgregor Card
Fence Books ($16)

by Alexander Dickow

Poetry Is No Joke (But an Endless and Repetitive One)
The quest for originality yields a great deal of hip and hollow idiosyncrasy, and only occasionally, something whose oddity seems driven by an earnest puzzling about language and the world rather than by self-indulgent posturing. One of the symptoms of this more enduring strangeness is the sense of a gradual uncovering or discovering. Things you didn’t notice before turn up to remind you more is there than meets the eye. You can’t open a poem like a present—you don’t just get a poem once you’ve opened it, and in fact, a good poem is a gift you can never (completely) open. As such, it should make interesting noises when you shake it. Macgregor Card is a difficult poet. His poems make wonderful noises when you shake them.

Card conceived his first book, Duties of an English Foreign Secretary, as a “companion volume to Karen Weiser’s To Light Out” (Ugly Duckling Press, 2010), according to an author’s note. I have unfortunately not had the occasion to read To Light Out, but I should hope the present review would encourage readers to seek out Weiser’s work in addition to Card’s, since the qualities of the latter no doubt reflect as many qualities in the former. For the moment, and pending a future reading of To Light Out, I’ll discuss Duties alone.

I see, said the blind man
Card borrowed the title of Duties from the 19th-century poet Sydney Dobell, labeled “spasmodic” because of his ostentatious mannerism, of which Card provides an example in an epigraph to his own book:

Oh the wold, the wold,
Oh the wold, the wold!
Oh the winter stark,
Oh the level dark,
On the wold, the wold, the wold!

This excessive reliance on repetition might suggest a naïve belief that the device’s expressive potential could compensate for vacuity of content, although Poe’s well-known “Bells” displays the same excess. Card’s peculiar brand of wit suggests that he is sensitive to the parodic potential of the inane and self-deflating hyperbole such devices suggest:

in the song that is so true
no ship moves up to the one star night
without a plan to execute
in perpetuity, no no no no no no no
No, my boy, no no no no no no no no no no no
No no no, my boy, no no no no no no no no no no no
(“That Old Woolly Bloodletting”)

Here, the comical deluge of verbal tics reminiscent of a paternal old man (“no, my boy”) follows an archetypically lyrical evocation involving songs, stars and a ship: such anti-romantic jibes have become a familiar feature of poetry.

But the Dobell epigraph, by suggesting the comedy of our everyday, futile verbal gestures— “Little bit hungry / Yes so am I / Little bit hungry / yes so am I,” one poem concludes spastically—sets a kind of interpretive trap for the unwary reader. It seems to prepare us for a catalogue of contemporary poetry’s rehearsals of Dadaism; it also signals a recuperative project at work throughout the book. Dobell represents a forgotten literary curiosity, mocked by his contemporaries, that the epigraph displays as a potential model. Card’s writing does not resemble Dobell’s, but explores excentric and excessive language, including repetition. As Card writes, “What is there to sing / but a round?”—a statement that suggests Card is not deriding Dobell’s whirling and cyclical iterations, but admires them. Choosing Dobell as a visible literary antecedent reflects Card’s audacious reinvention of the literary past: at the risk of losing his reader, his poems are sprinkled with curiosities like Dobell as well as a few well-known figures. This eclectic and erudite exploration of tradition forms a singularly odd personal library reminiscent of Apollinaire’s Alcools or Pound’s Cantos. For the reader willing to explore this library, Duties reveals a more frankly lyrical worldview than the book’s off-kilter absurdity and apparent fondness for triviality at first suggests.

Let me present a few examples of this apparently haphazard archeology:

I hate to confess
sometimes I feel
volunteered upon
by a formal quality of sky
cowed trust
(“To Friend-tree of Counted Days”)

Card apologizes here for identifying with the expansive sentiment Gerard Manley Hopkins experienced when faced with certain natural patterns which, for the Jesuit poet, reflected the perfection of divine order, and which he referred to as inscape. Card’s “cowed trust” and “formal quality of sky” very likely alludes to Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty”: “Glory be to God for dappled things— / For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow.” The allusion suggest a much more obviously lyrical sentiment than Card’s deliberately casual delivery leads the reader to believe; “To Friend-tree of Counted Days”, as the title indicates, is a perfectly recognizable elegiac meditation on a tree and the seasons:

I wish I was not
on a burning tree
but a tree that was
really on fire

The apparent contradiction betrays the implicit metaphorical value of the “burning” tree, whose leaves are turning red in autumn, in which season the poem ends:

What is there to counter
but fall? (emphasis mine)

The idea of countering fall implies a resistance to inexorable change, while the immediately preceding lines echo the theatrum mundi topos, then the End of the Line (death’s “barrier”), the cyclical shape of the seasons, and Horace’s carpe diem:

How long is the comedy
about me?

How far to the barrier
I know?

What is there to sing
but a round?

What is there to seize
but a while?

What is there to counter
but fall?

Even the epigraph to “To Friend-tree of Counted Days” insists on the poem’s preoccupation with sublime elegiac sentiment, quoting the French poet Rene Char. Another atypical reference for American poetry, Char is known for his singularly humorless oracular obscurity. Card playfully presents his hermetic epigraph in English translation, but leaves the title of Char’s poem, “Effacement du peuplier,” in French. The title translates as “The poplar’s erasure” —another elegy.

Say fromage! (or, Vengeance is ours)
Card displays his relationship to France in other poems. His author’s note specifies that the poem “My Donkey, My Dear” “is based on a French nursery rhyme, and the same poem is dedicated to Claire and Olivier Brossard, French friends of Card, who has also produced idiosyncratic translations of contemporary French poets such as Philippe Beck. “Le soleil et le police dog” playfully mixes the two languages. Less obvious is the grammatical meditation at the heart of a two-line “Poem”:

London, it is very ornery
Heathrow Airport, it is a nudist colony

In English, these sentences sound strange. We may read them as appositions: “London” and “it is very ornery” have nothing to do with each other; the name of the city has been randomly inserted at the head of an unrelated proposition. One might otherwise view these as a form of anacoluthon displaying a duplicated grammatical subject: London = itHeathrow Airport = it. This syntactic arrangement in fact mimics that of the French native speaker with approximate English. In colloquial spoken French, these duplications are so frequent that they do not register as solecisms, though they are discouraged in written French. “Le francais, c’est une langue difficile” translates literally as “French, it is a difficult language”; a sentence like this one is banal among French speakers. The hypothesis is all the more plausible since this “Frenchman” is making disparaging comments about England.

In light of these observations, the title of Card’s book calls for a rereading. The title could refer to a person occupying the English monarchy’s position of Foreign Secretary. It could also designate a Foreign Secretary in the employ of any country, but who happens to be English. But the title might also suggest a paradoxical Englishman who is also a foreigner in England. Hence the poem “Afternoon of a Foreigner,” which parodies Mallarme’s “Afternoon of a Faun”: here, the foreigner is naturally excluded and vilified, as though his foreign speech were unpleasant to the ear:

You ought to learn English and carry a gun
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
You may not enter to talk for the night
You may not enter to talk
or enter to rest

All of these secretive games involve matters of translation, a recurrent preoccupation throughout the collection. “Afternoon of a Foreigner” mentions a Roman

about to
Hail / Farewell                                 Hail / Farewell

The explanation for this apparently unmotivated statement, apart from an association betweenhail and the rain mentioned in a previous line, lies in the word vale, which in Latin means both hello and goodbye. Likewise the word salut in French, whose equivocation Rimbaud famously exploited in A Season in Hell: “Cela s’est passé. Je sais aujourd’hui saluer la beaute” (“This occurred. Today I know how to greet / bid farewell to beauty”). “Ursus Memento Mori” plays with both the Latin ursus (bear) and the meanings of the word bear in English. At the end of the poem, Card offers a translation of a pair of latin verses:

Ad astra per aspera, ursi
non numero nisi serenas

To the stars, through hardship
I only mark the hours of the day. (p. 95)

In fact, this is a mistranslation disguising a series of puns. The phrase horas non numero nisi serenas is one of many mottoes written on sundials, but it is already a pun, translating the idiomatic “I count only the sunny hours”, but also the literal “I count only the hours of contentment” (serenas, serene). I have found it translated as “I count only the bright hours,” a fine way to import the ambiguity into English. But Card’s Latin verses replace horas with ursi, so that his lines, translated literally, mean To the stars, through hardship, I only mark the bears of the day. Earlier in the poem, Card attempts another deliberately mistranslated variation on his parodic ursi non numero nisi serenas: “The bear does not speak against the sun.”

These Bears of Time, of course, are not Carebears. This memento mori reminds us repeatedly that we are each one doomed to die: the word “bear” and its many variations disguise a singularly insistent meditation on mortality, wrapped in dense layers of multilingual puns, many of them variations on familiar proverbs in various languages. The hardships mentioned in the Latin are, of course, all of the things in life that are so hard to . . . bear, as the first line of the poem reminds us: “The bears are too much to suffer.” The visual presentation of the poem is odd; a number of words are littered to the left of certain lines:

Come vary my iron plate
bear.        Stand a little closer to me
bear.        Now a little further
bear.        [. . .]

As these positional adjustments suggest, one might say that these marginal jottings are bearing to the left. Or just a little more to the right. Move back. There, you’ve got it: don’t move: say cheese.

But what do bears have to do with time? The bare truth of the matter is that we are all going to croak, like frogs. The French word for bears, ours (pronounced “oorss”) derives directly from the Latin ursus. But the French have a great deal of difficulty with the aspirated h of the English language. Card’s bears might therefore be those of a Frenchman mispronouncing, à la française, the English word hours.

Some readers may find these puns difficult to, er, tolerate. Card himself notes that he can “hardly [barely?] suppress [his] gorge,” which might be a mistranslation of the French j’ai du mal à ne pas rendre gorge, i.e. it’s hard for me to keep from vomiting. Personally, I find these half-hidden word-games delightful.

Friend, Lover, Foreigner, Pariah: the Poet’s many roles
In “Afternoon of a foreigner,” Card exploits the role of the poet-pariah, the troublingly different social element, the eternal Foreigner. Similarly, the final poem opens with “A boy lifting a foreign whistle,” which strikes an ultimately melancholic concluding note. A similar sense of difference and exclusion marks some of the most intense pieces in Duties, such as “Shipfilm,” in which the poet seems to pursue friends who flee from him, poignantly echoing Wyatt’s “They flee from me that sometime did me seek”:

There might be friends along a shore
I will not know unless I follow

There might be friends below the water
Moving toward the other shore

I need to see where they are moving
And why they hurry from me

The forsaken poet then walks into the ocean. Card also invests an inverse role: that of the poet-seducer, the insatiable erotomaniac, who, unlike the repellent pariah, attracts irresistibly. The “Libertine” is featured in several poems sprinkled with allusions to the Don Juan tradition, or to the story of Bluebeard, reimagined as a universal emblem of the unrepentant lover:

Your own colossus I’ll invite
To you, you, libertine
With your beard of friends
You and you and you and you
Speak loudly and stay
Speak loudly to us and stay with us
To see us on our way
To nothing, together

The Libertine’s “beard of friends” designates him as Bluebeard’s symbolic double whose many “wives” represent the lover’s many conquests. Here, Card temporarily fills the avenging role of the “colossus,” the Stone Commander who dines with Don Juan and drags him to hell. The Commander-poet passes sentence, aiming his deadly stone index finger at anonymous members of his audience, as though every reader were a Bluebeard or a Libertine: “You and you and you and you.” Those who “stay” with the Commander are indeed soon sent on their way to “nothing.”

These two roles, the Lover (or the Friend) and the Friendless Foreigner, have a symmetric relationship throughout the book. While the lonely poet of “Shipfilm” walks into the sea in search of friends, in the “Libertine’s Punishment,” we watch as the poet-libertine is “grabbed by the arm” and dragged or sent to the bottom of the sea, in another variation of the Don Juan myth. The poet’s stone heart, like the cement shoes of a Mob victim, sends him to the bottom of the sea:

I was grabbed by the arm near the highway
Then grabbed by the arm near the shore
Until grabbed by the leg near the stone
at the ocean’s floor

The progression suggests a kidnapping, followed by manhandling at the docks, ending in a post-mortem farewell.

The attraction to figures like Bluebeard and Don Juan (particularly via Lorenzo Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni, another favorite and recurrent reference) suggests a fascination with folklore and collective myth. “The Sleeping Monk of Innisfree,” for instance, refers to an Irish folktale closely akin to the Rip Van Winkle story, in which a particularly sinful monk of Innisfree gets lost after too much drinking, and awakens many years later in a kneeling position: he had slept (or prayed . . . ) so long that his knees had worn two deep ruts in the stone where he had knelt. Card also enjoys echoing proverbs or quotations which have been absorbed into collective memory. “Once a liar, always a judge” revises the proverbial expression “once a priest, always a priest” and its many variants, but the two terms imply hypocrisy rather than self-identity: those who judge are no better than those they judge; liars are always judges (of other people). In “The Merman’s Gift,” whose title hints at dialogue with another literary, and possibly folkloric source, Card hilariously reinvents JFK’s famous saying, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”:

Proverb not
you are your friend’s own family

but you are your friend’s own family

This comical proverb equates friendship and shipwreck, as though we wash up on the shores of our friends. But the shipwreck scenario also suggests an ambiguous relationship to friendship borne out in many other poems: “The Rondel Friendship” hints at the power and ambivalence at work in every relationship (“a friend is only a machine / delivering consent”). Every friendship may become a friendshipwreck.

Portrait of the Artist as Professor Cuthbert Calculus
I’ve hardly scratched the surface of Card’s collection of literary allusions. “Fear and Trembling and the Sickness Unto Death,” as the title indicates, fuses almost direct quotation of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling with a meditation on marriage and fidelity; “I am the Teacher of Athletes” is a quote from Whitman’s “Song of Myself”; “The Giant and the Hunchback” may refer to a scene in Rabelais’ Quart livre, or to a play by Alfred Jarry called Par la taille featuring a Giant and a Hunchback; “Yield to Total Elation” is the title of Achilles G. Rizzoli’s series of posthumously published drawings of an imaginary world exhibition; “Studies of Sensation and Event” is the title of an obscure volume by the poet Ebenezer Jones (1843). Many more allusions probably escape me.

Card evidently inherits no canon, but invents his own. One might compare this relationship to the literary past to the foreigner’s relationship to a language and culture “from the outside.” In France, scholars and writers often quote Proust’s remark that the great writer reinvents his own language and makes it into a foreign language, an affirmation popularized by Gilles Deleuze. Card’s handcrafted tradition, distorted proverbs and often cockeyed syntax suggest that he would take Proust’s affirmation quite literally: I’ve already observed how his language often resembles that of the ESL speaker (English as a second language), as though poetry according to Card bore a kinship to flawed translation, or more generally to a kind of perpetual process of happy or tragic misunderstandings. In “Hey Friend,” “A friend says to a corpse, ‘I can sayanything to you, and you can understand,’” denouncing friendship as a kind of one-way communication. (As it turns out, “Hey Friend” concludes “I am about to show you that you cannever have seen me, anywhere”: this friend is anonymous). The friend’s message to a corpse closely resembles Card’s translation into table-ese in “A Chair is Not a Singing Man”:

I know you hear this
“beef needs salt”
But table understands
“                        ”

Duties is littered with similar situations of mistransmission, non-transmission or foggy perception, as if all of this poetry were spoken (and heard) from very far away. The initial phrase of “You jacket!,” a kind of insult-poem, appears in this light as a misspoken jackass, while “Ursus memento mori” resembles an assemblage of translation errors. In the title-poem “Duties of an English Foreign Secretary,” the poet repeats, “I only hear those friends sawing in the fog,” and evokes people who

face perform
the words “light company at four”
and a “mall to leaf through eye-correction
literature at eight” . . .

To “face perform” suggests exaggerated facial expressions destined for a lip-reader who seems unable to decipher a clear message. This lip-reader may be myopic, since this “eye-correction / literature” seems appropriate for the poet’s inability to see his friends through the “fog.”

“Overheard in the Bathysphere” is explicitly written around the conceit of the mistransmitted message. A bathysphere is a submersible device for exploring the depths of the sea (bathus, from the Greek, signifies the deep). This underwater excursion echoes the deep sea poet of “The Libertine’s Punishment” and “Shipfilm” (but the deep-sea voyage is also a companion to the voyage into the clouds evoked in “Gone to Earth”). Inside the bathysphere, sounds seem distorted by the water and the acoustics of the submersible:

Actionable wrong ear
Delay, I thought you said a man field

Like Hergé’s Tryphon Tournesol (alias Cuthbert Calculus, according to the English translation), the poet’s “wrong ear” has apparently misheard the word “minefield” (the poem’s “municipal axe” might likewise refer to “municipal acts”). “I thought you said you were in danger,” the poet later misunderstands. Even the title might be fruitfully misunderstood. The poet mentions an “observation tower / at cross-bathos / with applauding audience,” hinting at an alternate etymology according to which bathysphere derives not from bathus, but from bathos, a Greek concept which corresponds to a sudden shift from the sublime to the trivial or absurd, producing a punchline-effect that comically deflates the initial high-flown gesture. In this sense, the poet finds himself enclosed inside a bubble that makes everything appear absurd or trivial, not unlike a high observation tower from which grand human affairs resemble those of an ant-colony. To be at “cross-bathos” resembles being at “cross-purposes,” working in contrary directions. By analogy, what seems important to so many appears trivial to the bathos-sphere’s inhabitant—and vice-versa, since Card regularly laces his jokes with melancholy.

This reversibility of pathos and bathos might lie somewhere at the heart of Card’s writing, to the extent that it returns us to our initial observations concerning the Sydney Dobell epigraph, which seems at once to lampoon and offer homage to the ridiculed 19th-century poet. Card’s delightful, oddball humor often seems to apologize, as in “To Friend-Tree of Counted Days,” for the book’s intense lyricism. But the book ultimately best rewards the reader sensitive at once to our sad comedy, and to our farcical tragedy.

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

THEATER OF THE AVANT-GARDE, 1950–2000: A Critical Anthology

Edited by Robert Knopf and Julia Listengarten
Yale University Press ($27)

by Justin Maxwell

This anthology offers a rare combination of breadth and depth, without becoming a brick-heavy tome of plays. While such a collection seems destined for the hands of undergraduates, it’s a useful text for anyone wanting greater entrée into the world of the theatrically avant-garde. A much-needed amalgam of theatrical theory and practice, it provides works within their aesthetic context and theories reinforced by scripts; more importantly, it takes on the great question of innovative performance: what was that? Anyone who has ever left a theater enjoying that fabulous question will find the beginnings of the answer in this collection. While the anthology is unfortunately typo-ridden, its otherwise strong content is further strengthened by a thorough index and solid bibliography, giving readers the opportunity to move further into the unexpected.

Like much avant-garde work itself, Robert Knopf and Julia Listengarten’s anthology assemblage coheres around a collection of loosely structured yet fundamentally valuable concepts. Adhering to a narrative convention that flows chronologically would be a disservice to the collection’s content. The aesthetics being explored do not flow steadily one work to the next, one decade after another, but instead manifest various artistic methodologies, all happening simultaneously after World War II. Consequently, the structure lets Knopf and Listengarten focus on six performative paradigms: “Language and Silence,” “The Ritualistic,” “Disruption,” “Camp,” “Landscape,” and “Terror.” This structure gives the editors expanded room to comment and contextualize—to enliven the unexpected—while simultaneously avoiding the fettering bulk that characterizes many Norton Anthology-like doorstops.

“Language and Silence” explores one of the most arresting and poetic facets of the avant-garde: These plays don’t sound like what we expect. Often, they don’t sound like something we can even understand. The impossibility of non-narrative comprehension is, of course, a falsehood generated by the dominant representational paradigm; after all, our language represents ourselves, and we are acculturated to see ourselves in the representational. This anthology is one path away from that limiting perspective. “Language and Silence” provides three of the most innovative language-users in Western theatre: Beckett’s silent “Act Without Words I,” Richard Foreman’s free-association Rhoda in Potatoland: (Her Fall-Starts), and Mac Wellman’s found-text amalgamation Terminal Hip. Like all the plays in the anthology, these are presented organically within a context that enriches the unexpected. Here, a mainstay interview with Wellman supports the plays with his excellent observation that “most bad language describes a spiritual condition which is not grammatical, but it is real.”

Wellman’s linguistic position that performance is spiritually charged inspires the second section, “The Ritualistic.” The use and role of ritual in modern society manifests in Kenneth H. Brown’sThe Brig, Naomi Iizuka’s Body Beautiful, and Suzan-Lori Parks’s The Death of The Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World. Each of these plays takes repetition and the physicality of the stage in powerful, divergent directions. When the plays are contextualized with an excerpt from Sartre’s Saint Genet and an interview with Jerzy Grotowski, then their layers of ritual are illuminated anew, both directly and vicariously.

The unity created by ritualized activity stands in important contrast to the third section, “Disruption.” Here, we get some of the most unsettling (and evocative) manifestations of post-war performance. These are not works designed to disrupt a comfortable convention or idealized abstraction, but to leave an audience member physically shaken. Most notable here is an excerpt from Karen Finley’s We Keep Our Victims Ready, whose work was at the core of the NEA controversy in 1990. Finley uses “the ‘art of offending’ to question sexual politics and disrupt norms of gender subjugation,” and her work is some of the most visceral and powerful in the collection. Given that avant-garde work—on the page at least—can be a cerebral or emotionally cool experience, this section reminds us that on the stage these plays roil with passion.

The fourth section, “Camp,” offers a completely different take on passion and ideology. While the editors acknowledge that “camp has always been on the margins of the avant-garde,” the section is an unexpected and valuable addition to the anthology. The editors summarize their position with the artist Cleto, who defines camp as a “‘crisis of identity, of depth, and of gravity. Not a stable code, but rather a discourse produced by the friction with and among other discourses.’” Such contrarian discourse is at the heart of the avant-garde. In Charles Ludlam and Bill Vehr’s Turds in Hell, the instability of code is juggled like a mad circus performer: scary, awful, and amazing. Furthermore, Susan Sontag’s classic essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” is juxtaposed with Charles Ludlam’s essay “Camp,” which directly argues against her. In their disagreement, the position of Cleto (and the editors by default) is reaffirmed.

The most visual facet of avant-garde performance appears in “Landscape,” the fifth section. Drawing the term “landscape” from one of Gertrude Stein’s lectures, the editors are able to illustrate the plasticity of space, for both the physical and psycho-emotional performance arenas: “allowing audience members to experience the totality of the theatrical event, rather than to follow a plot through time.” Such a broad categorization is, handily, the largest section of the anthology, incorporating long works including Hélène Cixous’s Portrait of Dora, Tadeusz Kantor’s The Dead Class, and Charles L. Mee’s Vienna: Lusthaus. Of the multiple prose documents to re-inform and contextualize these plays, Heiner Müller’s essay “Dove and Samurai” best articulates the poetic heart of the section. Müller says that “Robert Wilson comes from the space Ambrose Bierce disappeared into after he had seen the horrors of civil war.” Suddenly Robert Wilson, the most sculptural of 20th-century theater artists, rises like an obelisk and defines this artistic landscape by standing ninety degrees against it.

The anthology culminates in “Terror,” which showcases innovative artists who understand the darkest facets of Western society and unknowingly presage the cultural fallout of 9/11. Caryl Churchill’s Far Away offers the unexpected experience of encountering individuals in the process of being removed from society, while Griselda Gambaro’s Stripped has an Argentinian sense of disappearance that “emphasizes the conspicuous presence of political and social content in her plays, setting them apart from the works of Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett and bringing them closer to the political theater of Brecht.” Such dark waters get contextualized by Charles Marowitz’s essay “Notes on the Theatre of Cruelty” and Anne Boggart’s “Terror, Disorientation, and Difficulty.” Boggart sums up the experience for potential fans of the anthology: “Most of the truly remarkable experiences I’ve had in the theatre have filled me with uncertainty and disorientation.”

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


Helen DeWitt
New Directions ($24.95)

by Brent Cunningham

Given the sundry occupations of the last couple months, the timing of Helen DeWitt’s wicked new satire of corporate America probably could not have been better. As some other reviews of the book have noted, satire has not been a favored form in contemporary American fiction in recent years, but DeWitt illustrates its power, political edge, and intellectual charm in a brisk story that the Wall Street occupiers would do well to keep in stock in their free library.

Lightning Rods is the story of Joe—not Joe Six-Pack exactly, more like Joe Business Class. After spectacular failures as both an encyclopedia salesman and a vacuum salesman, Joe embarks on the path of classic American entrepreneurship. “Classic” in all ways except one: the inspiration for Joe’s particular widget comes from his own perverse and highly fastidious sexual fantasies. After some precursory research and development, he is soon marketing and selling to corporate America a product that is basically a glorified glory hole. For a sizable fee Joe will bring in specially trained women, which he calls Lightning Rods, to work in the company and surreptitiously draw away overabundant male sexual energy. They do this by waiting for a signal to enter the women’s bathroom, undressing from the waist down, and climbing onto a contraption that moves their lower and rearmost portion through a sliding wall into the men’s bathroom. Meanwhile, selected men in the company (high-sellers with libidos so overactive they constantly threaten to entangle their company in sexual harassment lawsuits) enter the men’s disabled stall; the wall slides back; and the high-seller, in a manner the novel repeatedly compares to going to the bathroom, takes care of his special needs.

Satire and comedy traditionally have the advantage of allowing an author to develop ridiculous premises to absurd lengths, and DeWitt follows the logic of her premise all the way. She winks at her reader here and there but mostly adopts a mock earnest tone, which is a shrewd move. Her many cliché-ridden passages justifying the Lightning Rods are argued with such force and conviction, the reader begins to envision certain real-world businesses giving the green light to such a project. The result is a book that manages to be titillating and breezy even as it hides a clusterbomb of social commentary under its glittering, aphoristic surface.

DeWitt’s precise understanding of satirical metaphor accounts for much of the book’s deeper pleasures. In a satire of this sort, too much complexity of character or plot would end up muddling the clarity of the attack, so the ideas need to provide the majority of the depth. Superficially the book’s target is sexism in the workplace, as well as the sexism of the general corporate culture, but the story makes it clear that DeWitt thinks there’s no higher ground in other social circles. The exploitive, amoral logic so omnipresent at the first company to install Lightning Rods turns out to have distinct parallels in the worlds of government, law enforcement, and the legal community. There are also hints that the world of publishing is on the hook, since a number of her clichés about business sound like they could come out of a how-to guide for writing a novel or screenplay: “Making mistakes is how we learn. If you’re not making any mistakes, chances are you’re not taking enough risks.”

But if DeWitt’s satire aims to savage more than corporate culture, broadening out to the rest of society, does that also mean it is watering itself down? To rephrase a debate that is taking place right now among many Wall Street occupiers: if she is attacking everything, is she in essence attacking nothing?

This is where Lightning Rods rewards a closer reading, and where DeWitt reveals her true target. The book intentionally beats a few phrases into the ground, including variations on the phrase “he looked at it this way” or “the way to look at it is like this,” which effectively illustrate the way subjectivity acts as an abdication of responsibility for many people in business and beyond. But the most-repeated notion the characters rely on is summed up thusly: “Any salesman knows that you have to deal with people the way they are. Not how you’d like them to be.”

This is, of course, the favored mantra of all capitalist economies. People are naturally immoral, greedy and self-interested. As much as we might wish that fact were different, sigh, it’s just what is, what always has been, and what always will be. DeWitt’s tale reveals deep and facile tautology in such thinking. Joe has some problems getting Lightning Rods off the ground but it is not for lack of women willing to do the work for financial remuneration; rather, his main challenge is convincing management to install the service and the high-sellers to actually use it. Upper management justifies their acquiescence by using the mantra: high-powered and money-driven men are what they are, sigh. But the high-sellers, although they are indeed oversexed sexist pigs, initially have serious reservations about using the service. What pushes them past their inhibitions is not “how they are” but an array of non-natural factors. Some of them remember that Joe, in his introductory presentation, tossed a few scientific-sounding “facts” their way, and these—all of which speak to supposedly natural urges—allow them to justify themselves. But what really convinces them to try the product is simply that the whole contraption is there, it’s been approved, they’re expected to use it, and so they consider it out of their hands. As one user thinks of it, “There’s no point in needlessly alienating someone who has gotten the go-ahead from higher up.” In short, management has signed off because these men are what they are, but the men enact what they are only because management has signed off.

If this is a remedial concept in many circles, it is still an important one to articulate often and loudly. People, according to most thought systems besides the fantasy of capitalism, find themselves already embedded in a network of specific power relations. Their “nature” is a product of ideological awareness, often specifically the awareness about exactly those power relations. Every human subject makes myriad calculations before they act, but one thing these calculations have no problem doing is incorporating the idea of “naturalness” into their equations. Only a different ideology, and/or different power relations, can hope to condition the subject to act differently.

Sadly, a lot of highly praised contemporary literature continues to offer characters who are motivated by what they supposedly are, not by what relations they are in. There are many deft jokes in DeWitt’s book, from the utter lack of disabled employees in these companies (hence the ease with which everyone repurposes the disabled bathroom stalls) to the Lightning Rod employee who teaches herself to read Proust in the original while “on duty,” but at its core the book is refreshing for a simple but important viewpoint it shares with the Wall Street occupiers: people are the way they are because of capitalism, not the other way around.

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


Erin Morgenstern
Doubleday ($26.95)

by Greg Baldino

Authors, at their best, are illusionists. They shuffle language like cards, draw plot twists from up their sleeve, and misdirect your attention to the dancing girls while the denouement appears on the page. The last several years have seen a number of books, for adults and children alike, with magic at the forefront, and those that make a mark are talking about more than just the dazzle of spells and the glamor of enchantment.

Spanning the late 19th century into the early 20th and criss-crossing the globe, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus starts when a stage magician named Prospero is delivered an unexpected parcel: the young daughter he never knew, sent to him on her mother's passing. Prospero's stage act plays a double bluff; while other stage magicians pass off their trickeries and gimmicks as supernatural power, his abilities are real, disguised as mere entertainment. His daughter Celia appears to have inherited some of his aptitude, and he sets about training her. It is not an altruistic decision, as the appearance of a longtime acquaintance of similar ability prompts a competition between the two, to set their protégés against one another.

The contest, as it were, takes a different form than expected. Rather than hurling fireballs at one another or summoning deep beasties from the sea to ravage and attack one another, the competition is played out in a circus. It's a game of one-upmanship to see who can craft the more elegant illusions and constructions. The "wizard duel" takes the form of an artistic competition. When Celia crafts a candlelit wishing tree, her opponent, a former street urchin named Marco, responds with a garden sculpted entirely of frosty ice.

What unfolds across years, continents, and lives, is more than just a mysterious fantasy with rich imagery. In a sense, Morgenstern is writing about the creative life. As Celia and Marco's challenge continues over the years they are faced with many of the same anxieties and struggles as artists. Can I do better? Are my ideas still fresh? What am I doing this for? The blowback of the challenge spreads to the lives of those nearby as well. Lives are ruined and lost, but lives are enriched and begun as well.

Like every book of recent years which deals with magic in the modern era, The Night Circus has been compared to the Harry Potter series. On the surface, this doesn't seem to extend beyond the common plot element denominator of characters who use magic. But on reading, the elements which would prompt such a comparison (beyond the fact that it makes for a convenient hand-sell in book shops) becomes apparent. There is the attention to the presentation of wonder, the distinct supporting characters (who at times overtake the narrative, as the ripple effects of Celia and Marco's gambit spreads beyond their contest), and most importantly there is that sense that as you are reading this story about a magic circus and dueling wizards, Things Are Not As They Seem.

In the book, the circus inspires its own fan culture, people who call themselves reveurs and dress in the show's trademark black and white, with a dash of crimson thrown in. It's easy to expect the book's fans to adopt this fashion sense as well; it is much more easily deniable than a Hogwarts cloak, and easily amenable to one's own fashion sensibility. In a sense, The Night Circus is just as amenable to its reader's literary tastes. There are those who will enjoy it for its air of restrained mystery, those who will be enchanted by its imaginative descriptive vocabulary, and those who feel their hearts pull along with the characters as lives and loves are torn when they are not outright broken. In the words of Herr Thiessen, journalist laureate of the reveurculture: "We add our own stories, each visitor, each visit, each night spent at the circus. I suppose there will never be a lack of things to say, of stories to be told and shared." So as the barkers of old used to call out from the ticket booth: There's something here for everyone; reserve your seat today!

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


Colson Whitehead
Doubleday ($25.95)

by Victoria Blake

By his own admission, Colson Whitehead—MacArthur genius, Whiting winner, PEN/Faulkner finalist—is uncomfortable saying the word “zombie” fifty times a day. He’s “getting used to it,” he told Terry Gross. He’s saying it to the New York Times and he’s saying it to NPR and he’s saying it to audiences across the country on his book tour to promote Zone One, his well-marketed zombie apocalypse novel, published in hardcover to much fanfare in October.

Reviewland consensus is that Zone One is a literary treatment of a popular theme, which is shorthand for “beautiful language, no plot.” True, and true. The novel follows a narrator named Mark Spitz, a man whose dominant trait is his mediocrity. Working on reconstruction, Spitz’s job is to sweep an area of lower Manhattan clear of leftover zombies, work that requires floor-by-floor and room-by-room attention: busting through doors, exterminating anything that moves, and clearing out corpses in body bags. The novel takes place over three dreamy days, most of which passes deep inside the narrator’s rambling head. Whitehead’s strength is not the forward propulsion of narrative; rather, it’s his ability to build a novel out of a slow, obsessive circling, unpacking an idea piece by piece, setting each piece on the bureau, and looking at it with ironic distance. Whether the reader likes the approach is largely a question of taste.

Here’s a more interesting question: Why, after 270-some pages of considered exploration of zombie disaster and its accompanying ennui, is Whitehead just now “getting used to” the word “zombie”? There’s no simple answer. If asked directly to explain the Fresh Air quote, he would probably back-peddle a step or two and reframe the question. He could offer, as he did in a Harper’s Q&A, the aesthetic notion that “The world is a junkyard—take the parts you need to make the machine work the way you want it to.” Or he might reply, as he wrote on his web site, that “I like my zombies like I like my women: slow and implacable.” He might even establish his zombie cred by listing his fan-boy badges—comics devotee, George Romero fan, nightmare dreamer, apocalypse voyeur.

What Colson probably wouldn’t say is what New York Times reviewer Glen Duncan said loud and clear: zombie novels, like all genre writing, is to literature what porn stars are to college professors. (Reviewer Duncan is the author of The Last Werewolf, which suffered from one-star Amazon reviews submitted by genre fans discontented with the author’s literary syntax, characterizations, and plot structure. In the New York Times, he predicts, correctly, the same fate for Zone One.) Why wouldn’t he say this? Because college professors secretly want to be porn stars, and porn stars secretly want to be college professors, and it doesn’t do any good to put either one firmly on their side of the stripper pole. Plus, true art recognizes no boundaries. Plus, Whitehead’s absolutely right: the world is a junkyard.

Here is the battleground, then: On one side, those in the mainstream literary establishment—from reviewers to blurbers to marketers to publishers to fans—are defending their turf and waving their flag on behalf of Literature-with-a-capital-L. On the other side, the genre establishment is either failing to take notice—there are no reviews of Zone One yet on some major science fiction websites—or is lashing out at the novel’s slow and implacable approach. And in the middle stands the novelist himself, with one foot in each camp, saying “I wrote a zombie novel, damn it,” and “Forgive me for writing a zombie novel, please.” It’s an uncomfortable position to be in. Nobody gets tenure—or the MacArthur—by writing zombie novels.

The fact that American letters maintains a genre ghetto points more to the failings of our high-brow/low-brow cultural hierarchy than it does to the readers, writers, and fans of literature, in all its various forms. No serious reader dismisses a work of fiction based solely on its setting or theme, just like no serious writer turns away from the fission of culture, self, and idea at the core of every sustaining novel. Writers make and remake our forms. Examples of this, the highest practice of art, abound, from José Saramago’s Blindness to Justin Cronin’s The Passage, from Victor LaValle’s Big Machine to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. We devour the structures and concepts of our influencers, and, if we’re good, we digest and assimilate them, making them our own. As Colson Whitehead knows, there’s a little bit of the zombie in us all.

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


João Ubaldo Ribeiro
translated by Clifford E. Landers
Dalkey Archive Press ($13.95)

by Shane Joaquin Jimenez

João Ubaldo Ribeiro’s House of the Fortunate Buddhasrevels in the bygone Olympia Press tradition of literary erotica. Recently translated into English, the novel was originally commissioned by Brazilian publishers Editora Objetiva for a series on the seven daily sins. Ribeiro chose lust, a theme that he weaves into a hyper-sexual satire of the confessional memoir; his book becomes “a socio-historio-literary-pornographic testimony” that asks:what is the nature of lust and why do we repress it?

Our unnamed, uninhibited narrator recounts her life in post-World War II Brazil, where she liberated herself from reactionary society through polyamory, incest, and bestiality. “Life is short,” she says, “to hell with being square.” Out of her effusive anti-narrative rises a unique form of lipstick feminism, in which sex becomes the prime eradicator of traditional, Hester Prynne-ian male dominance:

it’s sad . . . to live in a society where a woman’s honor is located between her legs—my God, how stupid. Isn’t it, isn’t it? Sometimes I feel like holding a rally. How many lives have been lost, how many fates have been ruined, how many tragedies have occurred, how many convents have been inhumanely overcrowded, because of the honor of so many, many unhappy women?

However, Ribeiro raises the question: is this point of view a true denial of male domination or simply one of its polyphonic consequences? For example, many of the narrator’s sexual impulses are linked to childhood trauma, an unfulfilled Electra complex, and a quite fulfilled lust with her brother Adolfo. One of the more compelling issues at the heart of the novel is how our narrator’s sense of lust becomes mixed up with other, darker impulses—manipulation, dominance, violence. Yet this synesthetic dilemma is shown to be infinitely preferable to the gloomier obverse: succumbing to the hold of the “phallocratic society,” which, by refusing to be honest with its own impulses and biology, lives in Glauconian darkness about its true nature. InHouse of the Fortunate Buddhas, freedom is sexual freedom, with pleasure found in its attainment in spite of men and not because of them. Through this doorway lies not only a subversion of the traditional male narrative, but an actual path to spiritual enlightenment. Evoking the Buddhas in the novel’s title—a poetic roomful of gold statuettes—Ribeiro goes to great lengths to show that all religions practice an absurd polytheism, with “saints in place of specialized gods.” Our narrator claims that she is truly the only monothesist, her religion being the call of lust, which in actuality is the voice of God. We have to only listen to this voice to know what we must do to achieve completion.

It is interesting to note that if House of the Fortunate Buddhas had been published in the time period in which it is set, it would have been illegal in many places. Written in a defiantly sexual style reminiscent of Anaïs Nin, the novel only occasionally missteps in its characterization of a sexually free woman in the 1950s, such as when Ribeiro writes that female motivation for group sex is to make a man feel like a “king for the day.” Yet, Ribeiro manages to take a rather simple thesis— “life is fucking”—to the limits of our reckoning, and then beyond, into matters as cosmic as they are personal:

I embodied all the goddesses of love, all the insolent she-devils that people the universe, Lust with its treacherous, wriggling shadows and its immoral banners, its summons to debauchery and dissipation, to complete surrender to the delights of every shade and color that lead to a lascivious death.

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


Terry Bisson
PM Press ($14.95)

by Jade Bové

Terry Bisson’s latest collection of short stories, TVA Baby, presents thirteen science fiction tales that focus on voyeurism and violence—and sometimes both.

The title story starts the collection with a dose of hyper violence that unfolds with dark humor. The main character, a southerner whose Yankee father came to the south to work for Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority, is never named but refers to himself as “TVA Baby.” And he’s got some issues: the story starts out on a plane where TVA Baby punches a guy in the face, driving the bone into the brain and killing him. “You hardly ever see blood on a commercial flight,” he exclaims. When he takes a hostage he misinterprets her fearful stuttering for an actual speech impediment and relates to us the lesson he learned in the Boy Scouts about kids who stutter: “cruelty isn’t a merit badge.” The story progresses with increased violence, and ends with a dramatic shoot-out at a Wal-Mart with “Darth Vader types” (a SWAT team) and a hurried conversation with Ellen Degeneres through a television screen about what to do next.

The voyeurism theme is common throughout the collection, but most prevalent in the story “Private Eye.” In a not too distant future, people are implanted with video cameras in their eyes that stream to pay-per-view websites; the story is told in first person but because of the streaming aspect, the reader becomes a subscribing voyeur to the romantic relationship that develops between the two main characters. Bisson also toys with point of view in “Pirates of the Somali Coast,” an epistolary tale told by a ten-year-old boy via e-mails to his mom and his best friend. An innocent, the boy never fully comprehends the ultra-violence that the pirates are committing; he is overjoyed when he gets to keep a murdered child’s Game-boy but finds disappointment when he discovers “the batteries are all ready dead, just my luck.”

The strongest story here is “Charlie’s Angels,” a stylish piece of noir fiction. Jack Villon is a supernatural investigator hired by a chain-smoking Edith Prang, the director of the New Orleans Museum of Art and Antiquities. His job is to find out who is mysteriously killing people by pinching off their heads, and also where a giant statue keeps disappearing to. The mystery intensifies when clues begin pointing to the statue itself as the culprit, and a mysterious voice starts talking to Villon via cell phone asking him to “Kill me . . . please . . .” Villon’s cynicism toward his job is summed up nicely when he is told about the legend of the giant statue: He reveals he “never figured out why people want to believe in the supernatural. It’s as if they find the existence of the irrational somehow reassuring.”

Here and throughout the book, Bisson maintains a lighthearted tone amidst the darker atmosphere very well, and his playful incorporation of real-world humdrum amidst the science-fiction mayhem offers a lens on contemporary society. Watch your heads!

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


Neal Stephenson
William Morrow ($35)

by Alice Dodge

Neal Stephenson is a rare breed of writer. His early novels—most notably Snow Crash—helped found the cyberpunk genre and gave us a dystopian vision of an ultra-capitalist future, one which included a virtual universe not very different from the online multiplayer video games that have become ordinary in the twenty years since. He has set novels in World War II, 17th-century Europe, and in alternate worlds where cloistered academics debate quantum realities. But however surprising his latest choice of setting or subject, his celebration of geekery remains consistent. His astonishing talent is to take subjects that only a geek could love (the birth of the stock market, mine engineering, cryptology, virtual geology) and work them into books you are simply unable to put down.

If you avoid science fiction because you think it’s more about clever ideas and less about a good reading experience, embrace your inner geek and pick up Reamde. Stephenson’s prose is conversational and funny with a clear voice. While some of his novels take breaks from their story to perform an exhaustive exploration of a specific subject or idea, this one focuses entirely on the action at hand. The lack of learning may be noticeable to long-time Stephenson readers—unlike many of his works, this book never feels like it really stretches the brain—but it keeps the pace up, keeps you interested, and keeps you engaged with its world very much like a video game.

Reamde tells the story of Richard, the billionaire founder of a World of Warcraft-style online game, and his adopted niece Zula, an Eritrean-born Iowa farm girl who ends up embroiled with the Russian mob and then jihadists due to poor taste in boyfriends. Along the way we get a British spy, a Russian hit man, a teenaged Chinese videogamer, a Hungarian hacker, and others. The action rarely slows down and yet it never gets boring the way a three-hour action movie inevitably does (for those who read the hefty novels in Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle and skimmed until you got to the parts with pirates, this book’s for you). As opposed to Snow Crash, in which virtual reality is a large part of the story, Stephenson has tried to write a story that takes place in a video-game-like world.

To outsiders, video games can seem inconsequential. You can kill or be killed, gain and lose money or power, and usually resume playing almost as though nothing has happened. Characters might have a lot of stuff—magic swords, invisibility potions, really big guns—but in an absence of personality, it’s hard to empathize with them. Those of us for whom suspension of disbelief is more of a challenge may feel like video game worlds, at least the fantasy-themed ones, are just too foreign to enter—we need a thread of common experience to hold our attention.

In Reamde, Stephenson turns each of these assumptions on its head. He gives us the high fantasy world of T’Rain, the online game in the story, but it is mostly a background reference for the rest of the novel. The real-world characters that surround it play the roles you’d find in a game like T’Rain. We meet computer programmers who act like wizards, scrying for information in server logs and IP addresses. We search for a band of Chinese game-players who make real money by mining for virtual gold (there is, in fact, a huge economy of young Asians who work in sweatshops where they play games in order to sell virtual items to other players—something Stephenson brings to light with this novel). We see jihadist suicide bombers, whose obsessive devotion to their cause and unquestioning embrace of violence show us what a Warrior class might actually look like.

Stephenson gleefully sprinkles video game touches throughout the novel. There are a lot of guns and ammunition, which present themselves the way they might in a game—characters find them or take them from each other—and we pay great attention to the way they work (Is it a long-range gun? Automatic? Shotgun? Is there enough ammunition remaining? Is it heavy? How does a character’s breathing affect aim?). Most of the characters start with nothing and have to find what they need in their travels—and many of those items might seem useless but come in handy for solving a later problem. As in a video game, there are overarching goals and enemies but also lots of smaller situations that stand in the way and demand resolution before the characters can move on.

Watching these is where a lot of the fun happens. I don’t want to give the impression that this book is formulaic—an obvious danger when writing a game-like novel—because it’s not. Stephenson avoids that pitfall by giving us fully dimensional and generally realistic (if, on occasion, a little too competent) characters who solve problems creatively, but are not superhuman. They have to eat, and go to the bathroom, and do not already know how to use their weapons. They get scared, and their plans backfire, and they make mistakes; they may get in dramatic fights, but they have bruises afterwards. It is easy to imagine yourself as any one of them, which makes the story compelling and entertaining.

If you’re looking for something you’ve truly never seen before, try one of Neal Stephenson’s other novels. If you dream of spending several solid days in front of the Playstation this winter, remember that you don’t need a controller, a screen, or a vacation for Reamde.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

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


David Bergen
Counterpoint ($15.95)

by Matthew Duffus

Morris Schutt joins the ranks of fictional midlife crisis sufferers—a group varied enough to include both Moses Herzog and Tony Soprano—in David Bergen’s Giller Prize-winning novel The Matter with Morris. Morris suffers from the typical career and personal problems of the genre, but what makes the novel so fascinating are the ways Bergen has adapted these problems to contemporary society. A syndicated columnist in Winnipeg, Morris used to mine his personal life for stories that he could convey, often in fictionalized form, to make points about life in general. But after his son dies in Afghanistan, his columns lose the humorous optimism readers had enjoyed. Even worse, he fabricates the facts about his son’s death, blaming it on the enemy instead of friendly fire. This lie, and his willingness to share Martin’s death with the public, destroys his relationship with his wife, Lucille, and eldest daughter, Meredith.

Finding himself alone, Morris turns to the consolations of philosophy. Here Bergen wisely avoids the road most traveled by fictional midlife crisis characters. Instead of buying a motorcycle and a leather jacket or chasing after women half his age, Morris asks strangers, “Are you free?” in search of a justification for the war that took his son. Still dissatisfied, he isolates himself further by cashing out all of his accounts and canceling his cell phone. In place of these, he relies on a filing cabinet-sized safe and a landline, though he makes regular trips to a nearby Internet café. Free of the trappings of contemporary society, he digs out the notes from a college philosophy course on The Republic: “if he could understand the bigger questions, questions that soared above his own insignificant world, then he might not be so flummoxed by his own littleness.” But the result of this quest is equally dissatisfying: “he had hoped, in the last month, that he was gaining knowledge. But his reading was making him more ignorant, or at least making him more aware of his ignorance.” Unlike Socrates, who might have been pleased by this realization, Morris feels lost when faced with his own ignorance.

Like most midlife-crisis narratives, The Matter with Morris occasionally strays into the comedic. Reflecting on his and Lucille’s courtship, Morris thinks, “they had taken so much for granted, as if she and he and their youthful blazing condition would last forever and ever. This is how one thinks at that age.” Nothing humorous so far, but Bergen adds one more sentence: “Note, Morris thought, read Hobbes.” The juxtaposition of the personal and pseudo-philosophical pokes subtle fun at Morris’s pretensions. Better to delve deeper into his thoughts than to come to the surface and attempt a reconciliation. When the comedic moves from smaller to larger moments, however, it often falls flat. For instance, Morris’s involvement with Leah, a prostitute and classmate of Martin’s, begins with a humorous recognition scene in his hotel room. Inevitably, Morris soon decides to “save” her, a hackneyed plot strand that ends with an unnecessarily dramatic flourish involving a botched break-in.

It is fitting that this novel’s strengths and weaknesses are so closely linked, as Bergen revels in exposing the contradictions in his characters’ lives. The same Morris who cancels his cell phone because it “has become a soother, an umbilical cord, a clattering intrusion” later gets online specifically to Google himself and ends up editing his own Wikipedia entry. Morris does not recognize his hypocrisy, just as he has no qualms about frequenting prostitutes, driving a Jaguar, and using a personal shopper while referring to average Canadians as “the slaves of modern society.” Perhaps this is Bergen’s point. Morris does not solve all of his problems by the end of The Matter with Morris, but he does acknowledge something important about himself: “he was a doer. An actor. And idler.” It is a testament to Bergen’s skills as a novelist that his warts-and-all depiction of Morris Schutt illuminates all three of these qualities and leaves readers contemplating how they fit into our lives as well.

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

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