Tag Archives: winter 2012


Laurent Binet
Translated by Sam Taylor
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($26)

by Christopher Urban

Laurent Binet’s HHhH, a novelization of the assassination attempt of high-ranking Nazi officer Reinhard Heydrich, is written with a postmodern self-consciousness that’s uncertain of its own authenticity. It proceeds cautiously from the very beginning: “Gabčík—that’s his name—really did exist.” Composed of 257 short chapters, many no longer than a page or a paragraph, the novel, after many false starts, finally manages to retell the story of “the most dangerous man in the world,” also known as the Butcher of Prague, The Hangman, and The Blond Beast, among other dubious nicknames.

The assassination of Heydrich, code named “Operation Anthropoid,” was conceived by British special forces and involved two young French Resistance parachutists, Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík—a Czech and a Slovak—who were asked to perform what would probably be a suicidal task. We learn, thanks to the double narrative of the novel, that this story was first told to Binet by his father, a not-yet professor of history, and, according to the first person narrator we presume to be Binet, it’s “one of the greatest acts of resistance in human history, and without doubt the greatest of the Second World War.” But for Binet, and therefore the reader, there are no easy answers surrounding this remarkable event. Nothing is taken for granted: not the interior life of long-dead historical figures, nor the color of the automobiles they drove, nor, least of all, the gimmicky devices found in the genre of historical fiction.

As it is with most great books, it’s hard to classify HHhH. It often seems to be as much about how to write a novel as it is an historical novel—a category that for the most part Binet parodies. The unnamed narrator that we take to be Binet constantly brings the action of the novel to a halt in order to interject his own thoughts and fears into a scene he’s describing or is about to. In these instances Binet speaks directly to us, not unlike the fictions of Milan Kundera. In fact, it’s no surprise that Kundera shows up on the very first page of HHhH:

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera implies that he feels a bit ashamed at having to name his characters . . . what could be more vulgar than to arbitrarily give—from a childish desire for verisimilitude or, at best, mere convenience—an invented name to an invented character?

Binet makes it clear from the beginning that he will not be a slave to verisimilitude—a silly, if not entirely futile notion for fiction to strive for anyway, or so he’d like us to believe. “In my opinion,” Binet continues, “Kundera should have gone further: what could be more vulgar than an invented character?”

Kundera, a master of digression, loves the parenthetical remark—perhaps no punctuation is dearer to his heart. HHhH uses four parentheses on page one alone. Like Tristram Shandy trying to tell his life story only to realize that he hasn’t been born until Volume III, Binet’s goal of retelling Heydrich's assassination gets derailed from the very beginning. While the author attempts to convey the historical facts of Heydrich's murder, he feels compelled to tell us how he came to hear of the extraordinary event in the first place, of times spent abroad with his girlfriend, of the unnamed lady at the Army Museum in Prague, and, of course, of his own insatiable obsession with the all things World War II. “I devour everything I can find, in every possible language. I go to see all the films that come out—The PianistDownfallThe CounterfeitersBlack Book—and my TV remains stuck on the History Channel.”

This may sound annoying or superfluous, but these digressions are in fact the raison d'etre ofHHhH (“Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich” or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”). Of course, it also helps that Binet’s thinly veiled autobiographical narrator is as entertaining and compelling as any voice in contemporary literature. We never tire of hearing the author’s artful, witty, and modestly confessional commentary, as he contemplates the book he’s writing, the one we’re reading: “Months flow past, they become years, and all that time this story keeps growing inside me. And while my life passes—made up, like everyone’s, of private joys, dramas, hopes, and disappointments—the shelves of my apartment fill up with books on the Second World War.”

Breaking down the fourth wall, Binet switches the action of the novel between historical Prague and present-day Prague, where the narrator visits “For the hundredth time.” Debates between Binet and himself occur constantly on the page, like whether or not to buy a rare book for his research purposes. Later, reminding us of that same book, he says: “Here more than for any other section, that extremely rare and costly tome would undoubtedly have been a great help.” And just as the reader learns the fateful curve in the road where the parachutist Kubiš and Gabčík decide is the best place to attempt the assassination, Binet jumps in to tell us shamelessly, yet comically, that he’s “spending a few days on vacation in a beautiful house in Toulon,” where he nevertheless assures us that he’s “doing a bit of writing.”

The historical incidents of the novel are narrated with Binet not far from the background. His voice hovers over most of the true-life scenes, making the novel a kind of satire on historical novels, or—and as wrong as it sounds to say—a little like those popular “Drunk History” YouTube videos. For instance, Chapter 124 begins: “You don’t need to be head of the secret services to see that President Beneš is extremely worried.” Or when the narrator tries to imagine the home life of Heydrich, he ponders how the evil husband/father must have spent his free time: tea with the wife? Games with the kids? Or perhaps just “work on the Final Solution?” When Karl Hermann Frank is not sure what to do next at the hospital while visiting the wounded Heydrich: “Frank bites the bullet and rings Hitler.” And finally, in the passage below, we have the imagined mindset of Heydrich as the new Deputy Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. By switching point of view to the second person, Binet’s freestyle summary comes across as a sort of childish or insecure boast on Heydrich’s behalf:

You are strong, you are powerful, you are pleased with yourself. You have killed people and you are going to kill many, many more. Everything you do succeeds. Nothing can resist you. In the space of barely ten years you have become “the most dangerous man in the Third Reich.” Nobody makes fun of you anymore. They don’t call you the Goat now—they call you the Blond Beast. You have undeniably moved up the hierarchy of animal species. Everyone is afraid of you, even your boss—a bespectacled little hamster, albeit a dangerous one.

You are sitting comfortably in your Mercedes convertible and the wind is whipping your face. You are going to work; you work in a castle. All the inhabitants of the country where you live are your subjects: you have the power of life and death over them.

Since we already know how the “real story” ends, most of the conflict in the book derives from the author in conflict with himself, uncertain how to handle various scenes, concerned about which bits and pieces to take out and which ones to put back in. As chapter 177 concludes: “This scene is not really useful, and on top of that I practically made it up. I don’t think I’m going to keep it.” Nevertheless, HHhH excels where other historical novels, or novelized biographies have failed. Consider, as the narrator does, Death Is My Trade by Robert Merle. Of this fictionalized life of Rudolf Lang, chief architect of Auschwitz, Binet writes:

It’s obvious what the author is trying to do: find the causes, if not the explanations, for the path this man would later take. Robert Merle attempts to guess—I say guess, not understand—how someone becomes commandant of Auschwitz.

Binet promises never to succumb to such faulty logic. “I do not claim that Heydrich ended up in charge of the Final Solution,” says the narrator, “because his schoolmates called him ‘the Goat’ when he was ten years old.” Numerous works like the Merle book get mentioned throughoutHHhH (including the recent Jonathan Littell novel, The Kindly Ones), and are scrutinized by Binet for the presumptuousness of the details they claim as truth—details that no one could possibly know, such as what so-and-so was thinking at this or that precise time or how the expression on one’s face must have looked at a given moment in the past. It may seem like such details are beside the point, especially considering the subject matter. And yet, in light of this scrutiny, we learn to read HHhH with the same kind of intense demand for clarity and truthfulness that the author constantly brings to our attention.

As soon as the reader is provided with a brief description of a character’s looks or thoughts, the author may just as quickly take his words back and confess that he has no way of knowing if it’s true or not. It’s almost as if we can only believe the novel’s “divine details,” as Nabokov once called them, when they remain unquestioned, such as when Binet declares raspberry the color of a character’s lips. It’s so easy to see, then, when Binet’s guilty of the same fictionalizing as his predecessors, as when he describes Kubiš and Gabčík snacking at a safe house. He writes, “They let the biscuits melt in their mouths.” How, the reader may demand, could Binet, or anyone else, have known that? (Couldn’t they have devoured the biscuits before melting?) Perhaps Binet is only testing us, having some fun with the reader as he lets his own assiduous standards slacken just a little, for effect. As no mention of the “melting biscuits” in the proceeding chapters occur, it must be true. Yet we can be sure of the dread it must have caused him, whether or not to leave the detail in.

A number of historical aspects are retold more or less straightforwardly in the novel with an omniscient narrator that makes the presence of the author seemingly fade away. Here the book reminds us of the satisfaction historical fiction (or any fiction) can offer a reader: you feel like you’re there! This is especially true near the end of the novel, which depicts the parachutists trapped in the ground floor of a Cathedral surrounded by Nazi troops.

But if the reader is placed in the middle of these action sequences (a sensation heightened by the novel’s present tense, which gives said sequences a cinematic quality), then Binet, ever playful, wants us to know that he’s there too. During Gabčík’s escape from the botched assassination attempt he quickly becomes “lost in this maze of residential alleys” only to end up right back where he started, near the scene of the crime at Holešovice Street, before finally running towards the river. “And I,” Binet suddenly chimes in at the end of the paragraph, “limping through the streets of Prague, dragging my leg as I climb back up Na Poříčí, watch him run into the distance.”

Of all the screen representations of Heydrich that Binet encountered during his research, the most convincing one, he says, was a character in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, a kind of composite of Heydrich’s existence that Chaplin could have only guessed at since little to nothing was known about Heydrich at that time. It’s no coincidence, then, that many scenes in HHhH are re-imagined with a kind of Chaplinesque flair, as when Kubiš makes a desperate escape on his bicycle after the assassination attempt:

He grabs the machine’s frame and jumps on the seat. Now, anyone who’s ever ridden a bike will know that a cyclist racing against a man on foot is going to be vulnerable for the first ten, fifteen, let’s say the first twenty yards after starting up, beyond which he will outdistance his opponent easily. Given the decision he’s just made, Kubiš must have this in mind. Because instead of fleeing in precisely the opposite direction to the one Klein is approaching from—which would seem the natural thing to do for 99 percent of people in a similar situation: that is, a situation where you must very quickly escape from an armed Nazi with at least one very good reason to want you dead . . .

The passage continues in absurdly funny prose characteristic of HHhH, as Binet goes on to suggest the possible reasons behind Kubiš’s escape route: “I don’t like putting myself inside people’s heads, but I think I can explain Kubiš’s calculation.”

It is difficult to be clever and sincere at the same time, but HHhH effortlessly succeeds at both. Mixed in with all the jokes and gags is an unmistakable earnestness of a writer trying to tell the truth. “My story is finished and my book should be, too, but I’m discovering that it’s impossible to be finished with a story like this.” And a bit later, he writes “I now know that this story will never truly end for me, that I will always be learning new details relating to the extraordinary story of the assassination attempt on Heydrich on May 27, 1942 by Czechoslovak parachutists sent from London.” In the last chapter, almost like a flashback, the two men meet for the first time on a steamboat bound for France. This short, dream-like sequence, richly told, starts the story all over again in a way that’s both haunting and mawkish, as if it were the beginning of the book that Binet could not bring himself to write.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2012/2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012/2013


Louis Armand
Equus Press ($8.50)

by Benjamin Woodard

Louis Armand’s Breakfast at Midnight crackles across the page like a cloaked drummer keeping time on a hi-hat cymbal in some broken down, forgotten nightclub on the wrong side of the tracks. A darkly radiant ode to the underbelly of Prague, the novel is a pinball fever dream, sopping with sweat, booze, and sex, that bathes its confines in an unsettling atmosphere of grime while breathing unexpected life into the modern noir.

Armand’s Prague is rechristened Kafkaville, a rainy nest where the air smells sour and the buildings are little more than rubble. Trapped in a decade long tragedy that has left him existing in the shadows, a nameless fugitive communicates with lost souls through ritualistic means and buoys his quest to find a vanished love with alcohol and mind-altering drugs—the latter mostly provided by his lone friend, a pornographer named Blake. But things take a turn when a dead girl washes ashore. Staring at her carved body in the morgue, Armand’s protagonist spirals:

Regen’s lying there, watching me. Red hair and jade eyes like an oriental fetish. A blur of stage-light on porcelain. Too naked. And then she’s gone again. Where she lay, there’s a corpse. Like a Janus figure. They might’ve been twins, but not quite. Two images reflecting one another through a gap in time.

A cryptic mystery follows, one that unfurls in a staccato, gumshoe voice, as our corrupt hero stumbles into the day, imbibing and cavorting with strangers and wondering if there’s a connection between this dead girl and his lost companion. His stream-of-consciousness meanderings—at one point confessing, “Sometimes I have trouble remembering things the way they happen. Or else I remember too well and reality palls”—splinter his narrative timeline into shards where past and present comingle, where reality blurs (“Sometimes I wonder if Blake really exists, or if I really exist, or if we made each other up as alibis”), and where answers exist as opaque, slippery creatures. And though several mainstays of the noir genre—the tortured anti-hero, a death or two, revenge, a conniving confidant—find their way into the novel, the typical thriller template gets dropped into a blender. The result is an intoxicating narrative as much about reliving past grief as it is about the truth of life.

While the residents of Kafkaville would find solace with those creations of the master writer to which their city’s name pays tribute—whether it’s the shared quality of isolationism, the brutality of family, or the existential tangents—it isn’t hard to find comparisons for these men and women in the characters of the great Jim Thompson as well. Thompson’s prose was similarly stuffed with alcoholic haze and bouts of violent insanity and nihilism, the kind of stories that make the reader want to take a shower after reading. With Breakfast at Midnight, Armand has matched Thompson blow-for-blow, crafting a faultless, convincingly hard-boiled world that welcomes the downtrodden, the depraved, and the damaged—not to mention those casual visitors who watch it all fall down from beyond the page.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2012/2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012/2013


Lev Loseff
translated by G. S. Smith
ARC Publications (£10.99)

by Amy Henry

This bilingual collection of the poems of Lev Loseff begins with a preemptory acknowledgement, by series editor Jean Boase-Beier, of the difficulties of translating poetry, especially when a reader has no knowledge of the original language and thus might miss subtleties that the poet intended. As Boase-Beier puts it:

We know that translated poetry is neither English poetry that has mysteriously arisen from a hidden foreign source, nor is it foreign poetry that has silently rewritten itself in English. We are more aware that translation lies at the heart of all our cultural exchange; without it, we must remain artistically and intellectually insular.

With this in mind, both Russian and English versions are here provided “side-by-side because translations do not displace the originals; they shed new light on them and are in turn themselves illuminated by the presence of their source poems.” And translator G. S. Smith shows a similar attention to detail and attitude that goes beyond mere words: Smith was actually able to translate much of Loseff’s personality in the poems, as the two collaborated over the translations over a period of several years and Loseff gave his approval to the resulting works. Loseff, an editor himself who has translated Joseph Brodsky, guided Smith in some areas with comments and suggestions, but his firmest request was that the poems be presented in reverse chronological order. It was Smith who chose the poems for the collection, selecting those that had the best prospects for accurate translation.

Yet another scholar, Barry P. Scherr, contributes an introduction to Loseff that gives some essential biographical information, making the poems that much more compelling. Loseff was part of what was casually called the “philological school” of Russian poets; intensely familiar with and influenced by traditional Russian literature, he refers to his country’s most famous writers (e.g. Pasternak, Dostoevsky, and Pushkin) in many of his own poems. Besides this cultural expertise, Scherr notes that Loseff is also a poet of observation, one whose emotion “arises from contemplating the world outside the poet, rather than the writer’s most intimate thoughts.” Yet Loseff does reveal himself on his terms, subtly, and G.E. Smith picks up on such nuances.

“At the Clinic” for example, will strike many readers viscerally (here’s the full poem):

The doctor mumbled things about my kidneys,
and looked away. I pitied this MD.
For life to me had burst its inhibitions,
and now flowed heatedly and easily.

Diploma on the wall. MD. His awkward silence.
Hand scribbling out a slanting recipe.
While I'm astonished by this easy lightness—
so easy had the news turned out to be!

What happened to the demons that beset me?
I'm breathing easily, not like before.
I'll go and let them have some blood for testing,
and give a bit more blood to sign this poem.

A great deal is revealed in the poetic subtext: “Burst” and the phrase “flowed heatedly” contrast with the idea of ease. In fact, Loseff uses variances of “easy” four times in the poem’s three stanzas. At the conclusion, there’s a play on words in regard to blood—using both “give” and “let”—that indicates a sense of surrender despite the lightness he’s just described. Curiously, Loseff initially speaks of the “doctor” delivering the news, only to repeatedly call him “MD” afterwards. The usage on the facing page in Russian also uses a different word for doctor after the first, which made me curious if there was an aural play on words here, as “MD” in English sounds like “empty.” Does the Russian word Loseff used, Врач, also hint at another meaning?

A poem that reaches into Russian literary history is “The Blood Washed Off. The Axe Dumped in the River,” which seems to make a clear reference to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. While Raskolnikov stashed the axe rather than dumping it in the Neva, Loseff contrasts this murderer’s obsession over guilt (felt even before the murder occurred) and cleanliness with contemporary criminals, who “abandon axe and empty bottles by the body, mumble / when questioned, not bother washing off the blood.”

Throughout the collection, Smith’s translation beautifully captures a duality to the meanings. A phrase like “the river’s molten-honey seethe” in a poem about the death of a commercial area easily reminds the reader of the river Lethe and the feeling of forgetfulness. The layers are uncovered by Smith but never fully revealed—keeping Loseff an enigmatic poet whose work is destined for further study.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2012/2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012/2013


New and Selected Poems
Charles North
Turtle Point Press / Hanging Loose Press
by Terence Diggory

What It Is Like surveys four decades of work by one of America’s most engaging experimental poets. The word “engaging” has old-fashioned connotations that much contemporary experiment seems to repudiate, particularly in its critique of the subjectivity associated with the tradition of lyric. “Engaging” attaches to “personality” to form a cliché. North is fully aware of the modern critique of the subject, though his awareness registers not as a subscription to a program but as a restless—ironically subjective—desire. The first line in this book is: “Now that I am seeing myself as a totally different person.” In a sense, this statement echoes Rimbaud’s famous proclamation, “I am an other” (je est un autre). But whereas Rimbaud’s proclamation is inseparably bound up with his desire to be a seer, for North the act of seeing remains separate from the “I.” The result is, on the one hand, an objectivity of image and, on the other hand, a modesty of tone that, taken together, make North’s poetry so engaging.

Objectivity of image may “originate in a real // Interest in describing what is immediately before us,” but that “what” has traveled a considerable distance by the time it arrives in one of North’s poems. The book’s title is not What It Is, but What It Is Like. The distance is imposed necessarily by the medium of language, and extended in the act of writing, as illustrated in a writing assignment inserted into “Aug.-Dec. for Jimmy Schuyler,” a prose poem in the form of a series of diary entries. (“Ceci n’est pas un diary,” North warns in a later poem composed in the same form). The writing assignment begins, “Describe an object so that its dullness is its virtue,” and the distance begins to open up in the next sentence: “If you have time, describe the same object so that it is at one remove, the dullness leaking out like helium [what is it like] from the best kept balloon.”

As I read this sentence, it involves more than “one remove.” First, there is the removal from “object” to “balloon” performed by the simile. Then, underlying the simile, there is a buried metaphor of “the best kept secret,” a “dull” cliché deceptively brightened by the substitution of “balloon,” but simultaneously deflated by the “leaking” of its secret, the virtue of its dullness. Finally, or rather, initially, the seemingly banal opening of the sentence, “if you have time” —a stock phrase in the language of academic assignments—initiates a progressive extension of temporal distance throughout the remainder of the paragraph, until “all is in the past”:

Be sure to leave time before during and after you write. The sky has so much gray woven into it that blue seems a thing of the past—beyond the striking and ultimately insupportable notion that all is in the past, courtesy of our perceptual workings and all they would embrace.

The objects that North’s poetry describes are always colored by an awareness that “our perceptual workings” occur in time, “the notion that nothing outlasts our fleeting perception of it,” as North puts it in a virtuoso poem, “Shooting for Line.” Although this is a subjective condition, it is universal rather than individual, thus dispelling the air of privacy in traditional lyric. “We know what it is like” is the statement from which the title of North’s book derives. The shared nature of “our” knowledge is one of the reasons North’s work engages the reader. Another reason more specific to the experience of reading, as distinct from the experience of perceiving, is the strange life that language acquires from the death of the object, its removal into the past. North calls this effect “poignant,” which is perhaps a stronger term for what I mean by “engaging.” He defines the effect at the end of “Summer of Living Dangerously”—the “ceci n’est pas un diary” poem—amid a dangerously unpoetic excursion into the philosopher Saul Kripke’s theory of proper names as “rigid designators.” North contends, “the use of a rigid designator for something or someone who no longer exists brings with it a poignancy that can sometimes verge on the intolerable”—“intolerable” here echoing the “insupportable” awareness of time portrayed in “Aug.-Dec. for Jimmy Schuyler.” But North’s analysis of the rigid designator, as it becomes “paler,” less rigid, ultimately less referential, reveals the operation of time in language to be not only tolerable but even strangely desirable: “the non-referential aspect becoming progressively clear as well as progressively poignant over time.”

If the poignancy North describes here is obviously elegiac, the term for the bittersweet savoring of time past in traditional poetry, “the non-referential aspect” highlights the quality of North’s work that is most obviously experimental. In fact, a non-referential extreme (“vieux tub of the fort year”) is reached in poems that North calls “Elegiacal Studies,” which What It Is Like samples from three different moments in North’s career, including the section of “new poems” at the end of the volume. This is just one instance of a use of repetition that not only patterns North’s work—both individual poems and the book as a whole—in a formal sense, but also endows the formal object—poem and book—with the function of image. Repetition measures time, and North’s elegiac sense of time is imaged in the repeating patterns of traditional forms such as sestina, villanelle and pantoum. Forms of his own invention, such as the sixteen-line poems that North simply calls “sixteens,” appear in sequence in the manner of sonnets (“Building Sixteens”) and reappear on separate occasions throughout the volume. Even more striking, as an instance of formal invention, is a set of “translations” in which earlier poems are simultaneously overwritten and recovered. For instance, the first line of “Building Sixteens,” “The building is doughnut-colored light” becomes, “The windowed construction is the rusted color of a cruller.” Buildings and architecture frequently appear in North’s work as images of the poem as construction. North is a New York poet because he lives in New York City, but he is a poet of the New York School because he evokes the urban environment as “a city piled high with representations.” Representations drawn from popular culture—like the doughnuts and crullers in the lines just quoted—help to lighten the elegiac mood with a dash of humor—(and frequently much more than a dash). Although they are not represented in What It Is Like, North is often identified with his “lineups,” arranging virtually anything that can appear in a list—from British poets to body parts—according to baseball batting order and field position.

Humor helps to make North’s poetry engaging because it warns us not to take the poet too seriously while allowing us to take the poetry very seriously indeed. North stands back from the poem out of modesty, but somehow that modesty becomes a necessary condition for the reader’s engagement in the poem, which promotes an awareness that might otherwise prove “intolerable,” “insupportable.” In past poetry, North finds this condition met in “the level motion of the feeling tone” in William Cowper—a rather surprising choice at first encounter, until we recognize that “minor” poets, so-called, are especially likely to exemplify the quality of modesty that inspires North. John Clare is another example he cites repeatedly, as is his New York School predecessor James Schuyler, whom he has described as both “modest” and “minor,” in a sense not at all meant to be disparaging (interview in Pataphysics, spring 2005). In the same sense, these terms apply to North.

Since “comparison to the other arts seems / all but inevitable,” as North notes, it is not surprising that the level tone he seeks in poetry is expressed also in “a certain calm” associated with “Elizabethan & Nova Scotian Music,” the title of North’s first collection (1974). Trained as a musician himself, North is on guard against the “Clarinetist’s Fallacy, coaxing excessive / feeling out of what is essentially a cold instrument,” whether that be a musical instrument or the poet’s instrument of language. In his wife’s art, painting, North shows a predilection for “still lifes as ‘absent-mind,’” though he is quick to acknowledge that impression as an illusion of art. More accurately, painting is an objectification of an inward gaze, an emblem of poetry’s objectivity of image. The title poem of North’s volume comes from a series entitled, with a wry glance at William Carlos Williams, “Pictures from Bruegel.” In this case the particular picture in question shows two monkeys chained to a window sill (1562, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). “We know what it is like,” North writes, “for them to have given up hope and to look only inward, while appearing to stare at the ring imprisoning them and the space just below the window in front, between it and us.” That is the space, between it and us, in which North engages his reader.

Editor's Note: A version of this review with a formatting error was published in our Print Edition.We are pleased to provide the correct version as the author intended here.

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


Matthew Thorburn
CW Books ($18)
by Warren D. Woessner

With a title like Every Possible Blue, you might expect Matthew Thorburn’s second collection to be a series of laments, but you’d be wrong. These poems are filled with blues—but they are the blues of blue skies, blue birds, and most emphatically, blue pigment.

There are anthologies of poems about paintings, but many of Thorburn’s poems are as close to being paintings as poems can be. Take “Self-Portrait with Unmentionables”:

O shimmery shower
curtain (mauve, salmon) jammed to one side—
Bonnard, you’d be happy here. Closer up, the green
neon of the mouthwash. A squiggle of cinnamon
floss pokes out of its plastic case.

The reference to Bonnard evokes a small sub-school of turn-of-the-century Impressionism—“Intimism”—which sought to bring the vibrant colors of Seurat and Gauguin indoors, where they could be arranged and put to proper domestic use. A bit of research into art history will help the reader of Every Possible Blue, since painters and bright colors pop up in poem after poem. The title is taken from the last lines of “Still Life,” a poem dedicated to Bonnard. Thorburn tells us that the painter would get guards to let him “go back / after hours to retouch / the ones hanging in the gallery . . . to get it righter / if never right,” and captures his fascination brilliantly:

. . . but light. Imperfect mirrors,
imitation mirrors. His broken
pinks and reds, green and
yellow mottle, the dash of white—
no, light—no, canvas
showing through.

Other painters make appearances, some unexpected, like the German Expressionists in “Self Portrait in Secondhand Tuxedo.” However, even those masters of dark decadence let the poet join their company:

One of Max Beckmann’s flat black numbers—
just shy of midnight, shiny at the elbows,
on loan tonight to help me fit in here

in Bad Homberg, to hear that pale starling
Edda Green sing one more encore.

Thorburn even manages to inject color into this black and white tableau, where “snowflakes like wishes fall into the river” but “blue-stockinged gals: Greta and Inga in inky / silks, slinky satin” brighten the salon.

Le Dejeuner sur L’Herbe,” Thorburn’s tribute to Manet’s hoary Impressionist classic, which created a scandal with its casual co-ed nudity in 1863, celebrates its enduring power to embarrass in the twenty-first century:

I blink. I blush. But no one’s
stopped to worry about poison
ivy, deer ticks, grass-stained

pants or elbows, and surprised
as I am to see them, I see no one here
seems surprised to see me.

In “Triple Self-Portrait,” the poet goes a step further and depicts the reader as a painter who he instructs:

Dream of the distant, bearded
old Masters. To join them you must be lucky

and dead. Make the most of your new
Minimalist period. Yellow’s good
but let hot pink predominate.

Sharon Dolin has blurbed Every Possible Blue as “a love song to New York City,” and urban landscapes are glimpsed—but mostly from inside looking out, as Matisse would have it. What makes the book such a fun read is Thorburn’s love of wordplay of every sort; strong with clever rhymes, he is also a master mixologist of aphorisms and “poetic” conventions. “Triple Self-Portrait” ends with a bounce:

How quickly
we get to be sixty. Don’t forget
every day is one more chance to—
be careful what you wish for, everyone
says, but that doesn’t mean quit wishing.

One sign of a fine poem is that you feel compelled to read it to the next person you see, and many of Thorburn’s poems work this magic. Try to resist “Like It’s Going Out of Style”:

What might have been love

was a wolf content to wear wolf’s clothing.
“The trouble with trying to think
outside the box,” she said, “is first getting in.”
Old hat, Lord knows, but it fit like

a glove. They were two birds
trying to get hit with the same stone.

Every Possible Blue is like a gallery tour led by a charismatic docent-shaman. My advice is to sign up for it.

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Marjorie Welish
Coffee House Press ($16)
by Terence Diggory

“Nature is a temple where living pillars / Sometimes allow confused words to arise.” These lines, from the opening of Baudelaire’s “Correspondances” (in Elaine Marks’s translation), provide the starting point for Marjorie Welish’s extended meditation on nature, architecture, and language in In the Futurity Lounge / Asylum for Indeterminacy. The two-part title designates the two sequences, or serial poems, that comprise the book. The second links directly to Baudelaire by recycling phrases from “Correspondances” through various levels of translation and abstraction. But the first sequence, too, explores the postmodern consequence of a process to which Baudelaire bore witness under the name of modernity: the replacement of nature by artifice. Architecture (the temple in Baudelaire) is the sign of artifice for Welish, or as she might prefer to say, the sign of construction. As sign, it is subject to the condition of language. The High Line in Manhattan, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, as landscape architecture raised (literally) to a higher power, provides a paradigm of these relationships: “You are not pretending to be nature the garden pretends / but this garden professes textual strategy.”

So much for the subject matter of Welish’s book. What distinguishes the book as poetry is its ability to engage readers in the process of construction that creates a text in time, as much as “textual strategy” constructs a building in space. Welish practices a materialist poetics. Matter acquires emphasis as we move from a poem entitled “Subject Matter” to the next poem, entitled “Matter in Hand,” where textual matter is manhandled: “inverted involved upside down scrambled sampled and / put through a sieve crushed with the blade of a knife cubed / and quartered split off from plaintext.” As descriptions of physical process, these actions read metaphorically, but they literally perform a textual process, the multiplication of various expressions of roughly the same meaning. To bring this device into focus, we need only to think of a thesaurus, one of the models for textual construction that Welish invokes repeatedly. Another model is the dictionary entry, exemplified a few lines later in “Matter in Hand” when Welish picks up on the word “involve” from the previous list: “as ‘involve’ is a warrant to roll up or wrap to engage as a participant.” On a theoretical level, this passage alludes to the operation of folding, a theme dear to poststructuralists and frequently invoked by Welish. On a more practical level, this passage is about reading, another theme that runs throughout Welish’s book. Here, the italics, which are Welish’s, leave no question about her designs on her readers.

Among these designs, one important tactic is to engage with readers in the plural, especially the first-person plural: “we, a compendium”; “We, the world.” While the first-person mode “recollects a lyricism,” the plural number creates a voice with a public dimension—perhaps a “voice-over,” as Welish suggests—that turns inside out the presumed inwardness of the romantic lyric. With increasing concentration since her 2004 volume Word Group, Welish has been reconsidering lyric voice as written artifice, the mode of inscription signaled in the title of Isle of the Signatories(2008). In her most recent volume, the parallel exploration of architectural sites as “PUBLIC SPACE” (even Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater is an example of a private residence now open to the public) highlights the political implications of the “discursive space” of inscriptions, from epitaphs (“HERE LIE / THE FALLEN”) to legal notices (“THIS IS A NON-EVICTION PLAN”). However, the politics implied is “the realpolitik of utopia.” While “public space” has to an extent been realized in the present, in the architecture that Welish points to, the fragmentary nature of the “discursive space” that her words construct suggests that the public, as polis, resides in futurity. Poetry still resonates, lyrically, with the “confused words” that emanated from the “living pillars” of Baudelaire’s temple. As readers, we stand outside the temple—literally, in a pro-fane space—where our use of confused (indeterminate) words determines our relation to each other. As Welish puts it, “some assembly required.”

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Bill LuomaSome Math
Kenning Editions ($14.95)
by Lightsey Darst

Reading Bill Luoma’s Some Math is like facing a linguistic hurricane. Take these lines, for example:

I’m calling the destructor on an iroq layer of inodes
by inserting into the sidebodies of the multiplex of molly

Iroq looks like Iraq, but is either a stock, an abbreviation for the International Rally of Queensland, or nothing. Inodes: index nodes, data structures. Sidebody: meaningful in dance or plumbing, but it makes me think of where one might holster a gun. Multiplex we know. Molly can mean a lot of things: a fish, a female mule, a prostitute; a character in William Gibson’sNeuromancer, a hard-assed assassin with retractable razor nails; molly is also short for molecular, a type of ecstasy. Finally, molly might echo moly, the herb Odysseus used to thwart Circe’s metamorphic magic. And all this leaves us where?

I’m reminded of science fiction, where sometimes the point of language is less to sketch a clearly understood scenario than to whip up a futuristic maelstrom. Luoma’s maelstrom concerns language itself, and he presents us with a future in which omnivorous English gets still more ravenous, gobbling up strands of acupuncture lingo, crumbling Euro-prefixes, and ragged lines of code. Strangely convincing unwords amply abound (“aaamphi”), as well as words we badly need: “vomitante”—one who tosses her cookies, or one who makes one toss her cookies; “virdividual”—a independent virtual presence, or a green person. Nothing ever exits this linguistic stage: ancient, imperial, trivial, “androne” to “zamfir,” it’s all here, in an ever more creative and less coherent medium.

With miasma winning over message, stormcloud over singular subjectivity, Luoma isn’t strong on subtlety. He has about four speeds: horny, future-fearing, quasi-mystical, and watching baseball. His loosely constructed poems—sometimes mere strings of words held together by rhyme, rhythm, and repetition “lotsa lingus / kat si so / xoxo manna / braiden flow”)—can come to seem like stands in a bazaar, laden with jumbled wares. Among these wares are astronomy, anatomy, ecological disaster / B-movies (“the bhopal of die hard”), porn, porn / programming / reruns (“who memcopies the clit of little white opie”), and the occasional note of sentiment (“the autopsies reveal people in kitchens / holding colanders”). You can even find a little nostalgia for clarity:

pain for yangxi met English trigger finger
met that lightning storms can clear the sky
lower fires integrity and higher integrity feels
a burning sensation in the hand
of broken sequence.

In this rabid proliferation, it makes sense that of becomes the key word, the link between one unlike object and the next and the next:

of the following of always
of arrested of have

Or, relentlessly,

of Of of Of of of of of of aphasia of asthma
of Of of of of of in case of the pain of Of

Of, an ancient word (note its similarity to its Latin cousin ab), denotes the possessive, or as it’s known in grammar, the genitive. Genitive, kin to genitalia, comes from a root meaning beget. Ultimately, that’s Luoma’s desire: to get into the molecular structure of English and work magic on it, to graft everything else to it and make it bear new fruit.

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John Rybicki
Lookout Books ($16.95)
by Steve Dudas

John Rybicki’s latest book of poems, When All the World is Old, is an emotional sequel to his previous collection,We Bed Down into Water (TriQuarterly Books, 2008). If that previous book was the fire searing the poet’s soul in the wake of his wife’s death from cancer at age twenty-nine, then When All the World is Old is the ash he stirs and sifts in search of a means of moving on. Or, at least, the collection suggests that its author has hope for a life that is once again tranquil. This hope, articulated through tight, elegant verse and imaginative prose, suggests that the poet is in fact on the threshold of healing.

Much of the book exists in a place of memory. The poems are often narrative, capturing a moment of tenderness or joy between the husband and wife in the months leading up to Julie’s death. The scenes and images are those of hospitals, beds, chemo tubes. The antagonists are the cruel lumps at the back of Julie’s neck and the waning time the “Dame” and her “Dude” have left in their “One body, really, like you dream about.”

For Rybicki, Julie created a kind of earth, one he says he would “straddle” to reach “far-flung ends of the compass, / tugging red and yellow and orange thread / out of living things, weaving them about my love’s wrists.” Theirs was a place of joy and protection from which the poet is now a refugee. In a poem titled “I Flew Out to You Through Bone Timber,” Rybicki makes his plea to return to that state of happiness: “Disassemble this flesh to morning dew / so I can seep into the earth and come home to you.”

Rybicki operates comfortably in quatrains and couplets as well as prose poems. One of the most interesting of the latter is “Quarter,” in which the speaker imagines himself “swimming inside silver,” the coin he has picked up off the street. In this dream, the speaker tries to save a mother and her son from a house submerged inside the coin. The son fights the speaker off with drumsticks. And the mother refuses to come, remaining to “fold the T-shirts and blouses and blue jeans floating all about the room.” The final sentence suggests Rybicki’s concerns for his own adopted son after Julie’s passing: “Sometimes I hear the boy drumming inside my pocket, drumming his little sticks in George Washington’s head.” When he chooses to employ prose, Rybicki switches briefly from his role as writer of songs to that of a storyteller. He has a mind and ear for an almost surrealistic fiction, one that serves as a means of distraction from the “conventionally” formed poems that possess the bulk of his pain and sadness.

Other interesting formal moves include the poet’s references to poems that appeared in his collections Traveling at High Speeds and We Bed Down into Water—specifically “Tire Shop Poem” and “Tire Shop Poem Revisited.” In his previous books, Rybicki explored his occasional work as a tire shop crew member as a kind of experienced meter, a lived rhythm shared by a team of persons repeating a very mechanical work. In his first two books, that sharing behaves as a microcosm of the poet’s ideal for social interaction—depending on one another to produce something beautiful. However, in When All the World is Old, a new layer of dependency is added into the tire shop poems, a need to share one’s personal sorrows with friends. The relationship becomes more than a system of rhythms; it becomes a forum for externalizing personal fears and frustration among those who “say the unsayable when we smash our palm meat against rubber.”

What is most beautiful and thrilling about this book is its fourth and final section, one introduced by a tender line from the writings of Rybicki’s late wife, who was also a poet: “Dude, if you’re reading this and I’m gone, you are my world.” The poems here are especially lyrical. They invite the prediction that Rybicki is preparing to depart from the highly literal and narrative meditations of a widower—a state he has been inhabiting for two poetry collections—and enter a kind of writing that is more interested in metaphor, in imagined planes of being. The pieces converse with the spiritual, as well as with Rybicki’s attempt to consider himself as a dynamic, poetic figure capable of evolving past sorrow rather than dwelling on the conditions of mourning that inspired the first three movements of the collection.

The poems here are prayers, testaments, and vignettes of a man’s sorrow as a destroyed version of a former self. They obsess on loss as a state of being, as an elemental condition to which a person, especially a person who is also an artist, is subjected. The work not only meditates upon the humanness of living with loss, but also the impact that loss has on creative output. More so through example than through discussion or theory, the poems begin to realize that they need to take on new aesthetic characteristics in order to transcend their lament. And in this sense, Rybicki has very much left his reader both curious about and confident in the tonal differences, aesthetic experiments, and, importantly, the subjects that the poet will explore in future work.

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SKY ABOVE, GREAT WIND: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan

Kazuaki Tanahashi
Shambhala ($17.95)
by Justin Wadland

Children flocked around Ryokan when he came on his begging rounds through the village near his home. To them, he was the monk who joined into their play as if he himself was a child. One of Ryokan’s poems expresses how he abandoned himself to such activities:

Day by day, day by day, and day by day,
quietly in the company of children I live.
In my sleeves, tiny embroidered balls, two or
Useless, intoxicated, in this peaceful spring.

The word “zen” has entered the vernacular as an adjective often used to denote calm detachment, but in Kazuaki Tanahashi’s new translation and overview of the life and work of Ryokan, this man of Zen is not detached but radically engaged and deeply compassionate.

Ryokan lived from 1758 to 1831, during a time when Japan was largely closed to the outside world. He trained as a monk for ten years, but it is the ordinary details of his existence as an eccentric hermit and mendicant monk afterward that appear in his poems and the anecdotes about him. He listens to crickets from his mountain hermitage. At a tea ceremony, he picks his nose and wipes snot on a cushion. He sleeps under a mosquito net not to protect himself but the insects, leaving one leg exposed so that they too might get sustenance. Ragged and poorly dressed, he is often mistaken for a thief and a criminal. Famous for his calligraphy, he will not produce it on command, but when a child asks him to write something upon a kite, Ryokan composes, “Sky Above, Great Wind.” He longs for times past and admonishes his fellow monks for their dissembling and pride. Of himself, he writes:

If someone asks
about the mind of this monk,
say that it is no more than
a passage of wind
in the vast sky.

Yet his sleeves are often damp from dew and his own tears. When smallpox takes the lives of children in the nearby village, he embodies in his poems the unbearable grief of their parents.

Within Zen poetry of Japan, there are levels of expression that are nearly impossible to translate. In the original, the calligraphy itself and the language of the poem unite to convey the insight of the poet. Since Ryokan wrote in cursive, using a poetic style that was antiquated in his own time, contemporary Japanese readers might even have difficulty understanding his poems. Kazuaki Tanahashi—who was born in Japan but has lived much of his life in the United States—seems uniquely qualified as a translator to provide English readers a glimpse of the generous spirit and open mind of Ryokan. Just a few years ago, he completed a monumental project to translate Zen master Dogen’s major work, Treasury of the True Dharma Eye. Thus, he can not only comment on the influence of Dogen on Ryokan’s poetry but articulate the role of Zen in Ryokan’s aesthetic: “Although there is no evidence that he used one of his Buddhist names, Daigu (Great Fool), [Ryokan] was indeed a great fool—having practiced Zen intensively and being well versed in literature but showing no trace of his achievement.”

Even more significantly, Tanahashi is a renowned brush artist in his own right and brings a trained eye to Ryokan’s calligraphy, explaining it in a way that previous translations have not. For example, he explicates the technique on display in the calligraphy of “Sky Above, Great Wind,” noting how its flaws reveal the quality of Ryokan’s art: “We see vast freedom in his childlike brushstrokes, which demonstrate that Ryokan was a child when he was with children.” In the final section of the book, a chapter on Ryokan’s poetic forms, Tanahashi combines his experience as a translator and artist to give an invaluable glimpse into the challenges of translating Ryokan. It may be the closest in English one might get to reading the poems in the original language. Those familiar with Ryokan from previous translations will encounter another, intimate side of the poet, but those coming to him for the first time will receive a bracing introduction to the Great Fool.

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Jessy Randall
Red Hen Press ($17.95)
by CL Bledsoe

Jessy Randall’s new collection begins with “Metaphors,” a clever piece that bucks preconceptions: “A duck is like the moon / because a kid can point at both. A house / is like the sky: both hold things.” The comparisons layer one upon the other until the poem ends with a playful conclusion: “This poem is like a pillow: I hit you with it.”

Randall’s poems tend towards the brief, often minimalist. Throughout, her sense of humor reigns. “One Day, the Ass-Talker Stopped Talking Out of His Ass,” describes the fateful day we all wish would come for some people, “I was wrong, he said. I was only guessing. I never really knew the answer,” she concludes. If only. “Trouble in Pac-Land” is about exactly what you’d think:

The truth is I don’t know
what it was that set me,
well, packing. Maybe it was
the lack of scrutiny.

All those teenagers
for so long, caressing
that perfect round
controller. And then
they were gone,
move on, grown up.

A disenfranchised Ms. Pac-Man sets herself up in a new life out of boredom. “I’ve got my own game / that no one plays,” she says. It’s a study in existential despair; the waning housewife recreated as pop culture icon who isn’t really any happier.

“The Consultant” gives us the volume’s title in the opening line: “The scientists told me they were injecting dreams into cows.“ Randall describes the experiment—the scientists inject human dreams in some cows and cow dreams in others—and the results the scientists are getting: “The cows with the human dreams, they told me, were keeping / journals of their dreams in their dreams. But the cows with the / cow dreams were not keeping journals.” She goes on to point out that “the cows with the cow dreams don’t have hands in their dreams . . . so they can’t hold pens or pencils . . .”

Randall eventually shifts from humorous and sardonic tones to more sincere ones, though she manages to maintain her sense of humor. “My Son, When He Is Sick,” presents a sweet portrait of concern:

My son, when he is sick, is a little wet
hot ball candy, sweaty forehead,
damp hair on the back of his neck,
his eyes screwed shut as if that will help.

His toddling voice repeats “oh dear, oh dear”
when we ask what hurts. He says a quiet
“yes” to everything: Is it your tummy?
Your throat? Your foot? Your toy hippo?

He slurps his water and then throws up
everywhere, his father and I leaping to catch it,
begging “throw up on ME, here is my sweater,
my lap, my cupped hands.”

“Why I Had Children” is another poem to which many parents will relate:

Because I was reading too many books and getting too much
sleep and my self-esteem was too high. Because I needed to be
taken down a peg. Because I thought love was one thing and
really it’s another. Because I thought I knew everything about
everything and I didn’t know anything, not anything in the world.

Randall’s poems waste no words: they are often short but pack a powerful punch. Her language is clean and precise, which allows her to sneak-attack the reader with profound images. Randall’s poems have been appearing in various literary journals for some time, and this collection solidifies her reputation as a talent to watch.

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