Tag Archives: Winter 2013

Sex Workers Unite

sexworkersuniteA History of the Movement from Stonewall to Slutwalk
Melinda Chateauvert
Beacon Press ($26.95)

by Kelsey Irving Beson

Although Sex Workers Unite’s language is dispassionate and academic, the story that it tells can be heartbreaking. It is well known that sex workers are the frequent targets of violent individuals; far less notorious is the fact that they also suffer at the hands of lawmakers and police, who can be as hateful as vindictive johns, but are doubly dangerous because they are in a position of systemic power. The scope of this brutality would be difficult to explain with mere statistics, but Melinda Chateauvert gives it a human face when she relates individual stories. For example, in 1989 District of Columbia police spontaneously rounded up about twenty-five street-based sex workers and forced them to march to Virginia. A Virginia congressman’s response was to decry the action as part of a legacy of DC sending its “sewer sludge, garbage, and convicted felons” outstate. Chateauvert effectively exposes this combination of systematic bigotry and personal brutality that enables people such as Gary Ridgway, a Seattle man that murdered at least forty-eight women. When he was finally brought to justice, he stated that “I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.”

In spite of these emotional stories, the tone of Sex Workers Unite is not overwrought or maudlin. The reader never gets the impression of being invited to pity the book’s subjects. Chateauvert is also realistic about the everyday tedium of sex work, which entails quotidian drudgery remarkably similar to that of more conventional service industry jobs. Alienation is a frequent complaint, as are physical problems associated with repetitious motion (one study of professional strippers, for example, cited high heels as a more pressing health hazard than STDs). This clear-eyed analysis is refreshing compared to the common hipster narrative of sex work as an empowering, sexy performance rather than a job done by ordinary people. The author’s focus on the work rather than the sex aspect also enables her to build a connection with the overarching fight for unionization and labor rights, especially in the wake of NAFTA. The struggle for humane working conditions and a living wage in the face of greedy bosses and indifferent authorities can and should be included in the larger narrative of U. S. worker’s rights.

The book also connects sex work activism with many other midcentury countercultural movements and concepts. These include the shift toward increased sexual honesty and freedom, the debate over privacy and civil liberties, and AIDS activism. Chateauvert pays close attention to the concept of intersectionality, and race and gender normativity (or lack thereof) figure heavily into her analysis. Big personalities abound, with sex work activists such as Margo St. James and Flo Kennedy instigating riotous (but relevant) pranks such as “awarding” a giant keyhole to nosy San Francisco police or judging an Anita Bryant drag contest. The focus on grassroots activism really emphasizes that sex workers are free agents that can improve things for themselves.

The author’s thesis that her subjects are capable individuals, not a crowd of victims, is well-supported, and it works best when she justifies it with specific events and quotations. Unfortunately, the book is liberally peppered with snarky asides about pretty much everyone that isn’t a sex worker. Combined with a rhetorical strategy that often consists of describing (purportedly) opposing groups and their endless clashes with each other, this makes parts of the book seem unnecessarily combative and almost whiny. For example, when discussing AIDS activism during the 1980s, the author decries the marginalization of sex workers by “gay male” movement leaders. When these men (none of whom, apparently, were or cared about sex workers), finally extended a hand of welcome, sadly, it did little good:

The result [of inclusion] often looks more like a poor woman’s fixed-up ranch facing foreclosure than the professionally rehabbed and decorated city brownstone of a married professional gay couple.

This reference to the stereotype of the wealthy, materialistic gay urbanite feels especially pernicious when one considers that this refers to a time before any kind of legal recognition of gay couples actually existed. The emphasis on antagonistic differences is so ubiquitous that it ventures into the absurd—breast cancer and AIDS framed as competing diseases whose activists have no appreciable overlap, for example.

The bulk of the author’s ire is overwhelmingly directed toward feminists of all stripes; including radical, liberal, separatist, and mainstream; even modern-day sex-positive allies can’t get a break. It is here that the binary framework is most obvious, and possibly least appropriate. Admittedly, the 1970s and 1980s were an era of rampant and vicious infighting among feminists, and by no means should this be whitewashed or sanitized. However, “sex worker” and “feminist” (even radical feminist) were not discrete categories—some of the most vocal leaders in the movement to abolish sex-for-pay (seen by some feminists as an intrinsic part of patriarchy) had been sex workers themselves. This fact is glossed over in favor of literally designating sex workers as “bad girls” and everyone else as “good girls,” terms that make numerous appearances throughout the book (lesbian separatists especially might have been surprised at the “good girl” designation). The recriminations against feminists (which frequently lack citations or attributions to actual people) include everything from vague implications of joylessness to the very serious allegation of “successfully suppress[ing] safer-sex literature,” essentially accusing feminists of endangering people’s lives. Indeed, there are parts of the book that make it seem as if other women were the authors of societal misogyny, instead of fellow casualties.

Sex workers are a largely subaltern group, and hopefully this useful book is a catalyst for the beginning of a scholarly, serious documentation of their history and activism. Chateauvert’s effort is well-executed, her quest laudable, and her passion palpable; these qualities save Sex Workers Unite from drowning in its own vitriol—but only just.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013/2014

The Sanctuary of Illness

sanctuaryofillnessA Memoir of Heart Disease
Thomas Larson
Hudson Whitman/Excelsior College Press ($15)

by Renée E. D’Aoust

Illness as a sanctuary—a necessary retreat from unconscious living—is something the eminent Canadian physician Gabor Maté focuses on. When the body has had enough, it says “no.” Dr. Maté tracks reasons for illness, long before dramatic episodes present. Indeed, the signs were there for Thomas Larson, author of the graceful and engaging memoir The Sanctuary of Illness.

The signs are strongest, of course, when Larson’s first heart attack strikes. But the word “strike” is suspect; coronary disease creeps up and reveals its message. “Every year 1.1 million Americans have a heart attack. Four in five infarcts come out of nowhere; they’re asymptomatic . . . in all, one in three Americans die of cardiovascular illness, one of two adults.” Larson continues, “I’ve had no omniscient caller brand me with a condition as this disfigurement has. Such certainty of self has always eluded me—and now, bidden and not, it’s here.”

In language befitting the heart, Larson takes us into the “here,” including both the lead up and the aftermath of three heart attacks in five years. Those attacks don’t happen in a vacuum. Life continues, family members are ill, he teaches, and his buddies look at him as if they dodged the heart hardware, for now. Larson reports from the frontlines of newfound insight; he sees his friends differently, and they regard him suspiciously: “There’s something new: their collective mask—the saggy eyes, the cloister-y smiles. This has entangled you and spared us—for now.”

Coronary disease is not infectious, but in metaphoric terms it is one way to explain the high numbers of people with the disease. Like William O’Rourke’s equally compelling On Having a Heart Attack: A Medical Memoir (University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), Larson’s prose makes us pay attention. Accounts of disease (especially of heart disease) are one urgent way that memoir educates about personal experience while helping readers identify changes needed in their own lives. Larson writes:

It’s then that I finally hear the all-caps phrase at the report’s end shouting at me, an emergency siren pushing through this diagnostic snowstorm: CHRONIC ISCHEMIC HEART DISEASE.
My disease is chronic. It’s here to stay—and it’s going to kill me. It’s here to kill me. Perhaps not tomorrow. But sooner not later. That’s what the no-comment techie and the nothing-to-worry-about doc were saying. By not saying it.

By “saying it,” Larson reveals the inner places he terms the “dodgy now”—a place that necessarily involves dramatic action. Larson doesn’t scream about the need for change; he’s methodical, not righteous, showing us the way while he makes his way. His partner Suzanne is there, making her way, too. They grow together, especially after she suffers her own medical emergency.

That the conscious acknowledgment of love, in addition to diet and exercise, heals the heart should come as no surprise, but Larson writes of his emotional growth without sentimentality. Larson makes clear that emotional awareness helps a damaged heart to keep beating.

I used to think our separateness defined us. The road bricking up before us is the path of partnership, as wary as I am to admit the fact: one loads and carries the other’s worry. My feelings embody hers. And she already has my worry pouring through her.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013/2014

The Rain Wilds Chronicles

bloodofdragonsVolume 1: Dragon Keeper ($7.99)
Volume 2: Dragon Haven ($7.99)
Volume 3: City of Dragons ($7.99)
Volume 4: Blood of Dragons ($27.99)
Robin Hobb
Harper Voyager

by Kris Lawson

Hobb, who also writes under the name of Megan Lindholm, is a prolific author known for her rich world-building, evident here in the evocative, detailed descriptions of the plants and animals that her characters encounter.

The Rain Wilds Chronicles document a quest with world-changing consequences, but Hobb keeps the narrative focus on her characters. There are no pre-ordained outcomes or messianic Luke Skywalkers here, only people with their own problems to solve and their own journeys to adulthood and/or freedom to complete. Her series does include dragons who use telepathy to communicate with certain special people, but if the reader is expecting the beneficent, empathy-driven dragons of Anne McCaffrey's Pern books or the childlike, humorous dragons of Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, then Hobb's dragons, who are alien in every sense of the word, will be a welcome surprise.

Hobb has already set two other trilogies in the world where the Rain Wilds Chronicles takes place. However, she provides enough detail and backstory so that reading the earlier books is not necessary. Rain Wilds refers to the vast swampy basin surrounding a slow-moving river full of acidic water, on which only Traders travel between cities located far apart from each other (most communication between cities is through carrier pigeons). There is little arable land; most of the Rain Wilders live in trees. Vague legends of an earlier, better time are articles of faith to the Rain Wilders, and are physically manifest in the magical relics that occasionally surface in trade. The relics are said to originate in Kelsingra, the legendary, lost city of dragons and their Keepers, known as Elderlings, immortal humans who tend to and partner the dragons.


As the books open, only one dragon, Tintaglia, is left alive. In a desperate attempt to bring more dragons into the world, she has herded their proto-forms, serpents, from the sea into the Rain Wilds River, and then has arranged for a guard for them as they hibernate in cocoons. But the acid river water and exhaustion from the journey take their toll on the hibernating serpents; they hatch too early, before they are fully formed. Dragons are supposed to be born with the memories of their bloodline, which serves to make them fully developed personalities and self-sufficient from birth. These hatchlings have only vaguely formed memories to aid them. Tintaglia disappears before they hatch; her Elderlings, Malta and Reyn Khuprus and Malta's brother Seldin Vestrit, are left behind to watch over the cocoons.

The official guardians of the cocoons are the council of the city of Cassarick, who struck a deal with Tintaglia. In exchange for fostering the young dragons, they would in turn receive protection from the warlike inhabitants of Chalced, a city far south that nevertheless presents real danger to the Rain Wilds inhabitants. Faced instead with Tintaglia's mysterious absence and malformed dragons who cannot fly or even hunt for themselves, Malta and Reyn Khuprus and the council make a drastic decision: hire Keepers for the dragons and send them all north to re-found Kelsingra.

The first volume, Dragon Keeper, sets up the world and the characters whose adventures Hobb will be chronicling. One of the main characters is Thymara, an 11-year-old girl who has been marked physically by the Rain Wilds “magic”—an invisible power that alters some humans, leaving them with claws, scales, or other mutations. Thymara's mother is ashamed of her daughter's appearance and keeps her isolated and fully aware of her “inferiority.” Thymara becomes a hunter, preferring the chase to the company of most other people. When she is offered the chance to become a Dragon Keeper, she seizes it, backed by her father and her friend Tats, a young boy who is a former slave.


Another member of the trek north is Alise Kincarrion Finbok, a scholar forced into a conventional marriage by her Trader family. Eager to escape from her cruel husband Hest and explore the realities behind the faded histories she labors over, Alise uses what little power she possesses to leave her unfulfilling married life behind. Accompanying her is Sedric, Alise's childhood friend and, unknown to her, also her husband's lover, sent along to keep an eye on her. Together with the young Keepers, they travel on the liveship Tarman, captained by Leftrin and his crew.

A liveship is just that: a living ship, with a figurehead that can see and communicate with its crew. The aliveness originates in the materials from which the ship is constructed: wizardwood (the cocoon of a dragon). By adding more wizardwood to Tarman, Leftrin gives his ship even more independence and personality, but at the same time, he opens himself to blackmail: using a dragon's cocoon, even with a dead dragon inside, is taboo. Since liveships are the only ships that can withstand the acid water of the Rain Wilds River, Leftrin, eager to make a better life for himself and his crew, is willing to take the risk.

Hobb's description of the journey to Kelsingra (volumes two and three) mainly documents the struggles between the dragons and their Keepers to adapt to the changes that adolescence and magic bring to their bodies and minds. The Keepers and Alise discover that constant contact with the dragons, the act of being “chosen,” is what creates Elderlings: immortals with some of the physical characteristics of dragons. As they continue the slow trip to Kelsingra, Chalced and its ailing, insane Duke are a constant threat; he is obsessed with consuming dragon blood and flesh in order to stay alive, and his agents have infiltrated the travelers on board the Tarman.

As the final book, Blood of Dragons, opens, Kelsingra has been achieved. However, the dragons are too weak or malformed to fly and the city lies across a vast body of water too far for the dragons to swim. Leftrin returns to Cassarick for supplies and to pick up the payment owed the expedition's members. There he meets with Reyn and Malta Khuprus, who persuade him to let them travel with him to Kelsingra; Malta's baby is dying and needs to be healed by a dragon.


Now that the news of Kelsingra’s discovery is out, greedy Traders, including Alise's husband Hest, are ready to travel there themselves and plunder the city; some have allied themselves with agents from Chalced. In Chalced, Seldrin Vestrit the Elderling sits in prison, waiting for the Duke to feed on him if he can't get the dragon's blood he really wants. Tintaglia reappears, bringing with her an ancient, half-mad dragon named Icefyre who is obsessed with establishing dragons' rule over the world. The Keepers and the young dragons need to adapt quickly to face the growing danger that surrounds them. Alise and the Keepers work frantically together to find what they desperately need: the knowledge the ancient Elderlings have left behind.

Hobb's Rain Wilds Chronicles are a welcome change from epic or high fantasy. Her stories are informed by self-discovery, especially that of the young women characters. Unlike epic fantasy, her characters are refreshingly human and imperfect. Especially refreshing are the dragons themselves: alien and animal, replete with personality but not human. Magic is not the solution, the deus ex machina that all too often appears in this genre. Instead, it creates more problems, worse problems: deformity, illness, addiction. And instead of the quest for power, achieved by brute strength or armies and battles, Hobb depicts the quest for knowledge—a far more intricate and interesting journey.

Click here to purchase Dragon Keeper at your local independent bookstore
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Click here to purchase Dragon Haven at your local independent bookstore
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Click here to purchase City of Dragons at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Blood of Dragons at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013/2014

A Child Is Being Killed

achildisbeingkilledCarolyn Zaikowski
Aqueous Books ($14)

by Gavin Pate

Carolyn Zaikowski’s novel, A Child Is Being Killed, tells the story of Shrap, a young girl sold by her father into sexual slavery. It is a story with little exposition, one that hurls the reader immediately into the sickening conditions Shrap must endure. However, while the violence of the book, both physical and psychic, feels unrelenting, Zaikowski manages to transform Shrap’s torture chamber of a text into a defiant struggle for survival. By doing so, A Child Is Being Killed both inhabits the terrifying space of its title while giving a singular, lyrical voice to its victim.

The novel opens with the line, “A beautiful woman asks me, what do the dead dream?” Within this line, the narrator lays out the dream logic that propels the book forward, the surreal twists and turns of Shrap’s journey, and the formal constructions Zaikowski uses to tell her tale. For if a child is being killed, and Shrap’s narration is a record of that moment, and that moment turns out not to be an instant but an eternity, then the line between life and death is forever soiled. This may be the dilemma for such a book: if hope is but a dream, and life a living nightmare, then what might it take for such a story, and its narrator, to survive?

A Child Is Being Killed is an experimental book, one that uses prose blocks and competing voices, fragmented consciousness and paratactic juxtapositions. In doing so, it refuses to allow the reader to capture Shrap’s story in a simplistic way—a move seemingly meant to mirror Shrap’s own refusal to succumb to her captivity, to give over her body and soul to those that corrupt it. While the novel might not be as successful in its innovations as it wants to be, it still undeniably impresses itself on the reader. You suffer alongside Shrap and you end up cheering the violence she summons against her captor in its climax.

Too often, violent novels ask us to relate to their monsters, be they Humbert Humbert, Patrick Bateman, or more recently, from Alissa Nutting’s Tampa, Celeste Price. In these books the transgressive is celebrated under the cover of satire, and the victims are often an afterthought, a construction of the monstrous voices that present them. In contrast, A Child Is Being Killed forces us to bear witness from the point of view of its victim. The healing at the end feels faint, and lines like “Even if someone loves you the world is still a dirty liver” seem to suggest how hard it is to be clean of such atrocities. But the book’s best success is the unflinching way it steers us away from melodrama and refuses the assurances of false hope.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013/2014

The Dark

thedarkSergio Chejfec
translated by Heather Cleary
Open Letter ($14.95)

by Kristine Rabberman

Early in Sergio Chejfec’s The Dark, the nameless narrator describes his disorientation when looking over a landscape as “the vertigo of simple things.” This phrase describes the experience of reading Chejfec’s novel, an interior monologue by the reclusive narrator. He remembers his affair with Delia, a young factory worker whom he abandons after she becomes pregnant. His search for meaning leads him to interrogate his memories: “I always felt as though I occupied a place on the outside, that my role was to register things and to draw conclusions from what I saw, whatever the circumstance.” He analyzes fragments of the past as an archaeologist. However, he is the most unreliable of narrators, specializing in indirection, circling around difficult memories only to be deflected into abstraction.

Throughout The Dark, the narrator sparingly discloses details about himself: he is much older than Delia, and from a higher social class. He obsessively tries to understand Delia and himself, but has no understanding of intimacy. He cites lessons learned from reading novels, though he notes the differences between fiction and reality. Novels are created to last, while actions and events are fleeting. At the same time, “One doesn’t write to uncover what is hidden, but rather to obscure it further.”

In light of this belief, the narrator turns from words to other manifestations of the past. He dredges up memories of objects, from a flattering skirt that Delia borrowed to her uniform, and later, even garbage. He states, “in order to salvage the past, to salvage that which is hidden behind things, we also need the concrete and mechanical objects and situations that give us life to this day; it is this past that sustains us, but it abandons us if we recover it exactly as it was.” He reads Delia herself as a sign, noting, “there is more to Delia than just the woman, the worker, the person without whom I was unable to wake or to function; there are also the symbols and the forces hidden within her name.” In this mechanistic view, even Delia’s passion is impersonal: “What I mean is that Delia did not understand her desire—she was aware of it only as an assortment of vague ideas that she, nonetheless, was forced to obey as it pursued its own fulfillment.” In the narrator’s world, “people do not express themselves outward; it is instead the outside world that manifests itself through individuals.”

The narrator devotes special attention to Delia’s job in the factory and her social status in the working class. He remembers watching Delia and her fellow workers from afar, marveling at their appearance as a collective entity, describing them as a “herd.” He applauds Delia’s ability to subordinate herself to machines, the commodities she produces, and the collective she creates with her fellow workers. In the end, he is attracted to Delia in part because of her identity as a factory worker; her later combined identity as a mother and a factory worker threatens his sense of her and of himself.

Why, in spite of these difficulties, does the narrator interrogate his past? One clue may be held in the novel’s title. Remembering the early stages of their relationships, the narrator recollects, “If there is beauty in the world, Delia and I thought, if something moves us to the point we are unable to breathe; if something presses our recollections to the very limits of memory, so they can never be as they were, that something lives in darkness and only rarely makes itself known.” These moments, when Chejfec combines exquisite prose with the human yearning for truth and beauty, keep us reading, weighing the novel’s contradictions, sifting through the narrator’s abstract reflections in search of his life’s meaning.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013/2014

Psychedelic Norway and Dance

Psychedelic Norway
John Colburn
Coffee House Press ($16.95)

Lightsey Darst
Coffee House Press ($17.95)

by Benjamin Paloff

In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rilke has a bit about how, if you gather experiences throughout a long, rich life, you might be able to eke out maybe ten decent lines of poetry at the end of it. He’s talking about how meaningful utterance announces itself spontaneously from what we live through, though there is also something here of the Modernist word fetish, the same kind of bravado that Oscar Wilde expressed when he claimed to have spent all morning removing a comma and all afternoon putting it back. What it also suggests, and what is easily overlooked in our eagerness to be as badass as our masters imagined themselves to be, is that the line, the phrase, or even the lowly comma might serve just as well as the poem as the basic parcel of lyric expression, its most readily identifiable real estate. When teaching poetry so often means spending an hour discussing a line, why not treat that line as self-sufficient? Why not make it the subject of an article or give it its own page in an anthology? What if the references in a book’s table of contents are merely suggestions, or a rough map of the whole, rather than an itemized list of individual works?

Lightsey Darst’s Dance and John Colburn’s Psychedelic Norway both reflect this rethinking of what constitutes the lyric, and they do so in bold, often exhilarating ways. In trying to grasp these poems’ movement from start to finish, we cannot lean on prosody, as we could with traditional English forms, nor on narrative, as we might with postwar Confessionalism. Neither form nor story makes a convincing case for where these poems should begin or end, though they remain insistently invested in both. Instead, these books, for all their clear attention to design, consist of parts coalescing into wholes, like the exquisite notes of Nicolas Chamfort or Joseph Joubert, or the micro-journalism of Félix Fénéon, published as Novels in Three Lines. (An aspirational title, since many of them are only two lines long in the American printing.) Given that literary journals are by their very nature organized around the principle that individual pieces are self-contained, one has to admire the perspicacity of those editors who accommodated this work as it was being developed, or who might otherwise have tricked themselves into reading these pages as autonomous.

That’s an easier sell in the back half of each book. But even in standalone poems like Colburn’s “what we knew and what we decided and what we built (guerilla warfare)” we encounter lines spoken with such authority and control that any one of them could lend the book its title. It just happens that the last of these did:

Someone lit the firecracker in the trendsetters’ mope warehouse.
We decided to set a travesty.
Then for a while the motorbike was everything.
Our travesty was sin and it could travesty anything.
We built a small fire-eater-in-waiting,
we built a gigolo gland.
We heard singing from the fjords of psychedelic Norway.

It’s not that the lines don’t fit together, or that they don’t accumulate value. Clearly, they do. The “set” of “set a travesty” assumes the weight of the firecracker in the preceding line—itself an echo of “firebomb” and “firecracker-in-waiting” earlier in the poem, soon to be “fire-eater-in-waiting”—just as that travesty, now set, sets up the antanaclasis of “travesty” one line later. The composition is sinewy, both in the thickness of its internal resonances and in the force it commands. But it is also modular, with the strong pauses between lines suggesting a finality to each.


While he sometimes breaks away from them, Colburn is most at ease in these direct declarative sentences, coterminous with the line, their tone sloping downward so smoothly from start to finish as to render the fact of the matter simply, matter-of-fact. Without the line breaks, the same effect features strongly in his previous book Invisible Daughter (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2013); poised in that Phantom Zone between prose poem and flash fiction, Invisible Daughter is loaded with delightful nuggets of faux-wisdom that, on further reflection, turn out to be not-so-faux: “Historians would ring the bells but in the woods history meant nothing.” “A door slows you down.” “Speech had gotten stuck in our big steak dinner.” In form, the pages of Psychedelic Norway tip decisively toward the lyric poem, but the acutely-observed, aphoristic pronouncements—“may the red birds sing for anyone trapped,” “all of this meat is how I am”—are equally prominent as the site where the poems happen.

Does this mean that the poet—and why not the reader?—might rearrange these sentences without damaging the integrity of the whole? Yes and no. Colburn’s work is deeply invested in story; “pre-occupation,” the accomplished, thirty-one-part sequence that is the heart of Psychedelic Norway, is as close generically to a minor epic as anything being done in English today. Yet here, too, we find statements that fit together beautifully without completely foreclosing the possibility that they might be refitted some other way:

Some animals are given the names of their cries.
Birds may have fatal habits.
Any leopard vibrates at a frequency a good deer can hear.
When it is time to mate, the cockroach speaks in the voice of Old Glory.
Little is known.
In fluency of embrace the alligator has advantages.
During mating season, the emperor spider withholds its vocabulary of string.
Baboons spit pulp as a form of gratitude.

As with most any narrative, plot proves more flexible than story, which maintains its contours even as the components of its telling may be re-sequenced. Such surgery typically alters our experience of the story—the art of poetry is predicated on the assumption that structure conveys meaning independently of representation—though the story remains the same. Colburn’s work garners much of its energy from the sense that it is what it is by some fortuitous, tenuous miracle. It seems constantly on the verge of taking its considerable gifts away, but then it doesn’t.


Darst’s Dance operates on much the same principle, with the notable exception that whereas Colburn tells stories, Darst performs. Written almost entirely in long-breathed, disjointedly-punctuated couplets, these pages bleed one into the next, the headers in the book’s first and third sections providing performance notes that are by turns cryptic, whimsical, and occasionally instructive: “[Listening, chanting. Let a crown / rise from your head.]” “[Leaving air open for water or fire.]” “[Lie down in the open space: let fragments / be heaped around you.].” This last one could serve as instructions to the private reader as well as to the public performer, which makes sense, insofar as a poem’s reader is, in silence or otherwise, necessarily the medium of its performance. True to the book’s title, the more urgently Darst heaps her fragments around us, the more we feel swept up in a remarkably kinetic, visceral movement.

A few years ago Katie Peterson wrote that in contemporary poetry the couplet had become the default stanza of deep thinking; it is curious how poorly this otherwise sharp observation applies here. Not that Darst writes free from intellect, or that her lines are any less intelligent, authoritative, or pithy than Colburn’s: “I’m the one who’s always right: the Author. Now I’ll burn you; you’ll feel little bites;” “if he can touch / down in seven states causing millions in damage he can sure touch you.” But a natural consequence of the poems’ dynamism is that such assertions, whether they pertain to the Self (as in the first of the above-quoted lines) or the often erotic Other (as in the second), come to us as precipitates of a lyric process that evades them until they become inevitable. In this way, the most ordinary, direct language in the book consistently arrives at just the moment when it will strike us as revelatory. It is much as John Ashbery described, now nearly four decades ago, as a poem’s performing the failure to avoid ideas: “But we / Go back to them as to a wife, leaving / The mistress we desire?” Darst makes arriving at ideas feel like a homecoming.

What she does in the meantime is to float us in the aesthetic—more or less literally, in the sensual experience of surfaces. This is especially true in the book’s first section, and there especially in the sequence “The Ash Palaces,” whose attention to the finer details of costumery blurs the distinction between theater and still-life, constructing a hypnotic tableau vivant on the page:

. . . as this lust
shakes us into

astrakhan w/ panne velvet train guipure lace w/ broadtail pearl-painted silk chemise
w/ infant nail paillettes so pay, take a broke limb, drape it, artful slashes as if you made

love in a rose thicket. Once all was clean, now “darling, I hide nothing” creeps through our
city like dye
in a vein” “don’t breathe on me” collar of emerald on a jade-eyed captive corrupts, once “I was
worth more

than an alley of museums

Here there is, as the would-be title of one of these poems suggests, “No shortage of symbols.” In their speed and length, however, Darst’s lines are so physically demanding—on the lungs, certainly, but even on the eye—that they usually forestall the kind of contemplative pause, that momentary respite, that symbolic representation typically demands. Then, with a timing whose accuracy befits a dancer and dance critic—Darst is both—she provides that respite, and the surfaces reveal their inner layers: “It parts, waters of the Red Sea close after, what after there is none. empty. Curtains / end this fine chain of impressions your mind could indeed be represented on paper or in // a nightclub fire. We dig old graves but even the best embalming only ends in corpses.”

Coffee House Press, which has given us both of these excellent books (as well as Darst’s earlier Find the Girl (2010), which shares delightful, if likely coincidental, thematic ground with Colburn’s Invisible Daughter), has in recent years demonstrated a substantial editorial commitment to poetry books composed as books—line by line, gesture by gesture, with each part echoing the unity of the whole and the whole thereby guaranteeing the self-sufficiency of the parts. As a model for the book, this is a significant departure from the miscellany of poems arranged, however artfully, from a poet’s work over a given period. While the miscellany has been the dominant model for making poetry books in the Anglo-American tradition (and is likely to remain so), the alternative represented by poets like Colburn and Darst rewards our attention. Done this well, the experience is utterly satisfying.

Click here to purchase Psychedelic Norway at your local independent bookstore
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Click here to purchase Dance at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013/2014

The Cloud That Contained the Lightning

lowen_cloudcontainedCynthia Lowen
University of Georgia Press ($16.95)

by John Bradley

There's something magical about a persona poem. The Latin root of the word “persona” helps explains why: mask. The poet steps out of her own identity and embodies the person called forth by the mask. But when the transformation doesn't fully occur, the audience is left with a creation not entirely the poet or the mask. Sadly, that's the case with most of the poems in Cynthia Lowen’s The Cloud That Contained the Lightning, which was selected for the National Poetry Series by Nikky Finney.

Robert J. Oppenheimer, "the father of the atomic bomb," offers a rich, complex subject, one much written about in historical accounts and biographies, yet few poets have taken on his persona (only Ai, in her poem "The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer," comes to mind). Perhaps this is because he was such a complex figure, with his brilliant mind and skillful leadership (herding cats must be easy compared to organizing physicists). On the other hand, he developed a weapon that devastated two civilian populations. He even specified that the Hiroshima bomb be exploded above ground in order to make the blast more destructive.

Cynthia Lowen thus deserves praise for taking on this major figure of the twentieth century, though it makes it all the more disappointing that some of the poems lack depth. Take "Bedding Down,” which begins with an arresting revelation:

Sometimes, when we are lying here,
I have the urge to pull my hand
from your breast, ball it into a fist,
and smash your near-unconscious


The poem promises to show us Oppenheimer’s underlying character, which might help us to understand how such a brilliant mind could create such a horrific weapon. But the poem quickly unravels in the next stanzas. We see no action, hear no words spoken by Oppenheimer to this lover, nor do we hear or see the anonymous lover.

This buried anger returns in "Quantum Mechanics," which presents another unspecified female. Now Oppenheimer’s anger encompasses all women: "I watched her brush her hair / and thought of all the women, at that moment, brushing their hair¬— / wanting to yank a whole handful from her head / so she'd tell me what a prick I am." Yet once again the poem tell us nothing more. Did he act on his violent thoughts? Is this woman his wife? Mistress? If this trait is important enough to appear in two poems, why not explore it further?

"Building a House for the Boat," which opens with a quotation on Oppenheimer’s wife ("Kitty drank with an abandon"), seems to be a persona poem in Kitty Oppenheimer's voice. In the poem, a drunken figure muses on water imagery, but the voice remains lost and powerless: "I can't help wanting the fish to say something." The reader is in a similar situation: we can't help wanting Kitty, if that is indeed her speaking, to say something about the cause of her drinking, about her husband, and about his work.

There is one moment in the book, however, when a persona feels fully embodied. In "The Scientific Method,” we hear Oppenheimer trying to justify his actions:

because this is not about destruction
but generation through methods
associated with destruction . . .

Here Lowen captures the tormented scientist wrestling with his ethics. The "gadget," as the creators of the bomb called it, represented an exciting scientific breakthrough to Oppenheimer and his colleagues, albeit one designed solely to destroy. Here we see the persona poem at its best, plumbing the depths of this disturbed and disturbing man’s psyche.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013/2014


lucindaJohn Beer
Spork Press ($10)

by Stephen Burt

Once you have figured out that every idea comes from somewhere, everyone’s inner self is a confluence of influences, every claim about any shared feeling drops the claimant into one or another layer of the great hermeneutic circle, everything’s borrowed, and nothing’s uniquely you, should you—if you have set out to create poetry—give up on representing strong feeling entirely, trying instead for a frictionless intervention into one or another debate? Or should you do as much as you can to show how it feels to have feelings anyway, how to put passion into its strongest terms, while acknowledging that it, and you, and we are crisscrossed by discourse?

The former course seems more common, but John Beer’s having none of it; this elegantly assembled short book, or big chapbook, following up Beer’s The Waste Land and Other Poems, appropriates (as did his Waste Land) titles and lines from preexisting works, as if to show how they inhabit him, but then concocts effects that seem traditional, descriptive, emotional, even (cough) lyrical anyway. It’s glorious, drawing on Jonathan Richman and Friedrich Schlegel (as well as the titular singer, Lucinda Williams), especially when Beer gets to deploy his uncommonly fluent blank verse (though there are also prose blocks, lists, and several flavors of quatrain). His pages reach for an intimacy that comes after, rather than denying, the knowledge that we are constructed, deferred, incomplete:

In other words, I need to sit right down
And finish up this letter. You should make believe
It really came from me. I’m going back now
And adding all the passion and innocence
That you couldn’t find before: you knew it was there,
But you just couldn’t see it, sitting in your room,
Twirling a pen around your finger, trying on
A big red hat. It’s not hard to give up on your dream.

Other pages use appropriated texts: they are mash-ups that endorse and update, rather than undercutting, what their source tries to say. The Richman of The Modern Lovers visits “The Museum of Fine Arts in Jena” and hopes to “look right through the Absolute;” later Richman/ Schlegel/Beer (with a side of Nietzsche) asks, “Isn’t there a world behind this world? Can’t I take the subway to your suburbs sometime?” (See Richman’s songs “Girlfriend” and “Hospital.”)

Like Beer’s far larger previous book, Lucinda plays games with the bounds of “a poem”: is the blank verse on the final page, after the acknowledgements, part of a book-length work, or an untitled poem of its own? Are the smallest prose units meant as independent? What about the bits that look like footnotes? Or the copyright page (“Bound with Internet, loose morals, smoke . . .”)? These puzzles about the boundaries of one work of art also imply puzzles about the boundaries of historical periods, and even of persons: if none of my ideas, feelings, or even artistic techniques are original, who’s to say I’m not just another version of you?

But if identity and originality are suspect here, feeling is not: nor is artistic making. “Our ideas of civilization still suck, errata sheets attached to a book that some hipster misplaced, and still, that tiny book could do a whole lot more than you were ever planning to with your life.” Lucinda is simpler than Beer’s Waste Land, less canny, more devoted to yearning (he yearns to find love, or make art) because its sources are devoted too: the tongue-in-cheek bits are just bits, the admissions that we are all intertextual fade (though they never vanish entirely) and the whole book ends up showing how a thoughtful poet has entered the realms of radical historicism, of self-consuming skepticism, and come out the other side. Here he is, full of texts as he may be, and here we are.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013/2014

A Fugitive Language: an interview with Richard Powers


photo by Jane Kuntz

by Allan Vorda

The biography of Richard Powers almost reads like a book. Born in 1957 in Evanston, Illinois, Powers lived in Bangkok, Thailand from age eleven to sixteen while his father taught there. Upon the family’s return to the United States he majored in physics at the University of Illinois, but later switched to English, in which he subsequently received his B.A. and M.A. degrees. Powers then moved to Boston where he worked as a computer programmer; after publishing his first novel, he lived in the Netherlands and spent a year at Cambridge before returning to teach at the University of Illinois. His eleven novels to date include The Gold Bug Variations, which uses the double-helix as a metaphor for two separate romances; Galatea 2.2, a meditation on artificial intelligence; and The Echo Maker, the story of a young Nebraska man suffering from capgras syndrome, which won the National Book Award in 2006. Powers has received both a MacArthur Fellowship and a Lannan Literary Award, and recently became a Professor of Creative Writing at Stanford University.

Orfeo (W. W. Norton & Company, $26.95), Powers’s latest novel, offers a montage of time capsules from the life of Peter Els, a 70-year-old musician-composer who is on the run from the FBI in connection to bioterrorist activity. We see the people and events that have now brought him to national attention as he is dubbed the Bioterrorist Bach—apparently for putting his musical compositions into bacterium. As the title suggests, the story riffs on the Greek myth of Orpheus, the legendary musician who could enrapture the gods themselves, to produce an allegory of the possibilities of music and how it can shape and affect people’s lives. Throughout, Powers meditates on a litany of composers (from classical to contemporary) as well as historical events, creating a wonderful composition of its own in the process. Orfeo is a beautiful book from a writer who has the gift of literature at his fingertips; all we have to do is listen.

Allan Vorda: The title Orfeo is a reference to the Greek myth of Orpheus, a legendary musician who could charm all living things with his music. The myth recounts his playing music to soften the hearts of Hades and Persephone in order to let his dead wife Eurydice return to earth. How did you come up with the title Orfeo, especially since Peter Els’s music doesn’t always charm everyone, and he leaves his wife to pursue music?

orfeoRichard Powers: The Orpheus legend is one of the oldest and most important stories in Western literature. Make that world literature. It’s a complex set of loosely linked stories, with Orpheus’s descent into the underworld being the best known and most important part of the legend. As far as I am aware, Orpheus is the only mortal who ever succeeded in beating death and persuading Hades to let one of his dead souls return to the world of the living. Orpheus’s mastery of music and his ability to make even stones weep with the beauty of his playing makes him a perfect metaphor for music’s mysterious ability to produce the profound human feelings from nothing but patterns of vibration. Reworkings of the legend pervade the arts, especially music, where everyone from Monteverdi (in the first ever opera) to Gluck to Offenbach to Stravinsky to songwriters like Andy Partridge and Nick Cave have taken a crack at it. In films, of course, there is the classic Black Orpheus and Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy. I wanted to try my hand at a twist on that very long tradition and to indicate, in the title, that this book functions as an allegory even as it tells a realistic contemporary tale. Since my story is concerned with one man’s attempt to locate and reproduce the transcendent power of music, and since it also concerns a flight through the underworld of the contemporary culture of fear while attempting to resurrect a lost past, the legend was made to order. Nothing can compare to music in its power to raise the dead.

AV: Since you wrote your last novel, Generosity, you had teaching assignments in Germany and at Stanford University. Did these experiences contribute in any way with writing Orfeo? For example, your novel utilizes the Seige of Munster (Germany) as well as Peter’s visit to Dr. L’Heureux (writer and former Stanford professor).

RP: My fascination with the Siege of Münster dates back to a visit I made to that city in the early 1980s. When I saw the iron cages still attached to the steeple of the St. Lambert’s church, where the bodies of the leaders of the rebellion were kept after their deaths, a quaint centuries-old story suddenly came alive—one of the most incredible accounts of a group search for transcendence I’d ever heard. I used the event as an intertext in my novel Operation Wandering Soul, although it makes only a small cameo there. I always felt that the Münster Uprising would have made the greatest kind of contemporary opera, and since I was incapable of writing that opera myself, I had to get Peter Els to do it. The story is a kind of archetype for the millennial cult gone horribly wrong, a pattern that has recurred again and again over the centuries. Suffice it to say that Waco was far from being the last recap we’ll see. People long so badly for heaven on earth that we’re willing to go to hell to try to bring it off.

As for “Dr. L’Heureux” and the terrific Stanford novelist of the same name—well spotted! The use of the name is my Easter egg for a wonderful writer, who happened to supply me with the story on which Els’s malady and diagnosis are based. During that same visiting stint at Stanford (where I now hold a permanent position), I had the extraordinary opportunity to work as an assistant in the lab of biochemist Aaron Straight. My weeks doing bench work on a large-scale genetic screen gave me a chance to see the field from within and helped me imagine my way into Peter Els’s second career as a would-be DIY molecular engineer.

AV: You have used places where you have lived, especially Illinois, for settings in your novels. One place you haven’t mentioned very much is Thailand where you lived from age eleven to seventeen (1968-73). What was it like growing up there as an adolescent, did anyone you know claim to have seen a (pi) ghost, and do you foresee writing a novel set in Thailand?

RP: In fact, there are similar small references to my experience growing up in Bangkok scattered here and there throughout most of the other novels. But the fourth of those books, Operation Wandering Soul, treats those experiences in depth, and one of my strongest memories of my years growing up there forms the foundation for the dramatic centerpiece of the childhood of Richard Kraft.

I moved to Bangkok when I was eleven and returned when I was sixteen. I left the north shore suburbs of Chicago and returned to the northern Illinois cornfields of DeKalb. In between, I lived another life altogether, one that would have been unimaginable to me without living through it. And when I came back to the States, I never again entirely fit in to life as lived here. Those years in Southeast Asia made me a permanent outsider, an observer in my own life. They started me in an itinerant life that has led me through many countries and lots of temporary addresses. It’s pretty safe to say that that early dislocation and relocation to the other side of the world was the first step in my becoming a writer.

AV: Intersections: Essays on Richard Powers (Dalkey Archive Press, 2008, edited by Stephen J. Burn and Peter Dempsey) states “Powers has consistently constructed his books around interlocking narrative frames, splitting his novels into two or more story-lines. Rather than advancing toward some melodramatic convergence, these parallel lines typically uncover resonant symmetries in apparently dissimilar situations.” In what ways do you agree or disagree with this statement?

RP: The Burn and Dempsey collection is filled with wonderful things, and I am deeply appreciative of the insights it contains. I do think it correctly identifies my interest in creating parallax and triangulations of plot using multiple narrative frames. But I think the way that my books deploy multiple narrative frames has been so different over the eleven novels that such a stripped-down description threatens to become a little misleading. The qualitatively distinct frames of Three Farmers, for instance, share almost nothing with the temporal shuttling between different moments of Peter Els’s life in Orfeo, now appearing twenty-nine years later. There is a big difference in alternating between adjacent frames of equal importance (such as in Gain) and creating a kind of nested-Russian doll structure (as in Prisoner’s Dilemma). I have seen reviewers and critics desperately trying to shoehorn the formal and structural devices of Galatea or Time of Our Singing into that formula, thereby missing as much of those books’ structure as they succeeded in capturing, using the simple generalization.

AV: One of your early influences was Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which you first read at age sixteen and which you have “re-read portions of . . . every year.” What is it about Pynchon that you admire since your writing styles are dissimilar?

RP: More things than I can name. One of the many pleasures of Pynchon is that he doesn’t have a single style, but manages to create a whole panharmonicon of voices and styles and tones and moods and registers, borrowing from high and low, sublime and ridiculous, combining the entire spectrum of what prose can do into a symphonic whole. I can’t pretend to do even a fraction of what he manages, but he has inspired me to open up my own stops and try to vary my own style as much as possible, depending on the needs and purposes of any given scene. Pynchon is also the master of casting the reach of fiction far beyond the concerns of the merely personal and domestic, out into the vast world of human concerns, professions, researches, and industries. I learned from him that the sciences and math and engineering are actually the stuff of human passion and obsession, and that the erotics of knowledge can make for a story every bit as mystifying and thrilling as the old questions of who’s up and who’s down, who’s in and who’s out, and who gets to marry whom.

AV: Orfeo, your eleventh novel, is the journey of Peter Els and his life-long obsession with music. It has been documented that your family would gather around an organ for sing-alongs, and that you and your four siblings “all sang and played instruments.” What was your musical background like as a child, and who were your favorite composers or musicians?

RP: First above all, Bach. I loved him passionately from the earliest age. I had an old, scratchy set of the Brandenburgs that my choir director gave me, and I would listen to them again and again every night, sometimes all six of them at one go, before falling asleep. It made my brothers and sisters nuts. (This is the experience that forms the basis for young Peter Els’s transcendent early bliss, listening to Mozart’s Jupiter.)

The rest of music opened up to me out of that deep spring of Bach’s endless invention. Interestingly, I had a real affinity for thorny, twentieth-century music while I was still in my early teens, and I had to circle back to the Romantics and the warhorses of the nineteenth century when I was a bit older. And most embarrassing of all, it took me until well into adulthood before Beethoven opened up to me and I could hear him as the heart-crushing, restless revolutionary that he is. Late in life, I came to love early music, especially Renaissance vocal polyphony. A couple of years ago, I felt a period of sadness, thinking there was no more of Western concert music left for me to discover and thrill to. The beauty of writing Orfeo was that I could spend my days returning to the amazements of the music of my own lifetime, and to hear much of it for the first time.

AV: Orfeo chronicles the life of Peter Els from a child to age seventy, but the story is told in snapshots at various times in his life. One of the most important early life-changing events is when he meets Clara Reston. Els gives up a possible career in chemistry after Clara introduces him to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder: “the song began its chromatic wanderings, and Peter Els never heard music the same way again.” It’s ironic that Clara makes him fall in love with her and music, but then leaves him, yet Els has now become addicted to the possibilities of music and his life will never be the same. Can you comment on how choices early in life can totally change the direction one takes? I believe you had your own career change as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois when you switched majors from physics to English Rhetoric.

RP: Oh, gee. Where to start on this one? Our beginnings never know our ends. There was a Clara in my life, who I commemorate in this fictional girl. People leave, you find them again decades later, and you discover that the influence that you thought had ended long ago goes on forever, a stranger thing, different, and luckier than you could have supposed. I always thought I would be a scientist. Then I was sure I would become a poet. Then I programmed computers for a living, thinking that it was simply a way to keep a roof over my head, never dreaming that, far from delaying my growth as a novelist, that experience would one day supply the bread and butter of three of my novels’ plots. And then there is that closet full of songs and musical compositions that I have accumulated over the decades. If you had told me, when I was young, that I would one day, in my fifties, work in a biochemistry laboratory, in preparation for writing a book about a composer who trained in chemistry and who becomes, in his seventies, a DIY genetic engineer, I’d have said, Tell me another one.

AV: The major relationships in Peter’s life include his wife Maddy Corr and his friend, Richard Bonner. Of the two it is Bonner who exerts the most influence, though it is not always positive. It probably is too much of a stretch to liken the Els-Bonner relationship to the Humbert-Quilty doppelganger, but how did the character of Bonner evolve, since he is so different from any character you have created?

RP: Well, where do any of these troops and troops of people come from? Bonner has his precursors, both in my work (I’m thinking of Eddie Sr. in Prisoner’s Dilemma and Philip Lentz in Galatea) and in my life. We find, in the memories of the big personalities that change us, the extremes hiding in our own temperaments. But all my characters—the principals, in any case—are composites of many lives and much aimless imagining.

AV: Wagner, Mozart, and Mahler influenced Peter in various ways. Did you have experiences similar to Peter’s when you first heard Mahler’s Fifth Symphony? It’s amazing that Mahler could create such great music and then enter into a disastrous marriage, which seems to have greatly stifled his creativity.

RP: I was eighteen when I first heard Mahler’s Fifth. “Clara” hated it; I thought it was the bee’s knees. She later did a one-eighty, completely forgetting about her antipathy, and claiming that she’d always adored the piece. So it goes, with the gap between our experiencing and remembering selves.

Mahler, too, has been making cameos in my novels for a long time. But for me, it’s the song cycles first and the symphonies second, as far as the force of their influence.

AV: Peter’s love of the old classical composers gives way after being influenced by teachers such as Karol Kopacz and Matthew Mattison. Peter then turns to minimalist composers like John Cage, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Harry Partch. Do you have any special affinity for these minimalist composers, in particular, for Partch who led a very strange life and composed some very strange music?

RP: I do have a little trouble with the label “minimalist.” It runs the risk of obscuring more than it reveals. And I certainly wouldn’t use it in reference to Cage or Partch, who were each up to very different things than the cycling, strobing, phase-shifting preoccupations that sometimes characterize Glass and Reich. My fascination with Partch dates back to my undergraduate days at the University of Illinois (where I have Peter Els go to graduate school). Partch had been in residence there, not too many years before I arrived, and one could still feel his ghostly presence. I think his whole menagerie of invented instruments played in my imagination as much as his microtonal subdividing of the octave into dozens of intervals.

But what these four composers do have in common—and what thrilled me about them and made me want to use them to inspire Peter Els—is their insistence that the language of music can be extended into whole new places. Strange places? What isn’t strange, heard for the first time? All four of these composers were preoccupied with sonority, with the sound of sound itself. All four of them asked people to listen again to what they thought was noisy or banal or trivial, and to hear it as beautiful and new.

AV: You also devote attention to Olivier Messiaen and his Quartet for the End of Time, first played in a Nazi concentration camp in 1941. When did you first encounter Messiaen and why did you choose to incorporate it into Orfeo?

RP: The Quartet is one of those few avant-garde pieces that have entered into the canon of commonly performed concert music. I first heard it in the mid 1970s, performed by the very hip “supergroup,” Tashi, who had formed for the express purpose of performing the Messiaen! I had to include it in the book because it is such an otherworldly thing, and the story of its creation is one of the most dramatic stories of 20th-century music. As much as any other piece, it shows the capacity of the human creative spirit and reveals how making music can be a matter of life and death.

AV: You also refer to Steve Reich’s Proverb, which utilizes Wittgenstein’s proverb “How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life.” Reich was a philosophy major at Cornell and studied Wittgenstein. I interviewed him a long time ago and asked him what he thought about contemporary musicians. He said: “When I was fourteen years old there was rock and roll—Fats Domino and Bill Haley—but frankly I thought it was stupid. I didn’t like rock and roll. I was a snob and still am.” This sounds a lot like Peter, who was forced to listen to rock and roll by his brother Paul. Is Reich’s comment something with which you can identify and did you have any similar experiences?

RP: Reich’s comment made me laugh! I, too, was a musical snob as a kid, and I still am, I guess. Only it doesn’t feel like snobbery; it just feels like a flavor of deep and different joy. I didn’t hate rock and roll; I loved lots of it. I absolutely worshipped the Beatles and every band that succeeded in sounding the least bit like them. But a good song was a burst of adrenaline. Even the most interesting of them rarely survived repeated listening. I wanted a kind of music that could concentrate me, that could teach me how to concentrate. Music that would keep getting richer and deeper, the more I listened.

It’s funny, that accusation of musical snobbery that lovers of “classical” music have to suffer. Rock is always considered the rebellion—the cutting loose from the staid, stiff conventions of concert music. But the reality was, when I was growing up—and this is ten times truer now—popular music was the triumphant, hegemonic, staid, conventional form, and it took a fair amount of courage and rebellion for a kid to hear the wildness in “serious” music.

For me, the real difference isn’t between high music and low, adventuresome versus conventional, exciting versus dry. The big difference is between music that employs a high degree of repetition and music that depends on change and development. The first kind of music can pop up on your car radio and you can love it before you get to the end of the first chorus. The second, you have to live with for a while, before you can hear where it wants you to go. But for that, you need time and attention and effort, resources that are deeply endangered, in the era when all music is available to anyone from anywhere all the time.

AV: Another major change in Peter’s life is when he chooses music over his family of Maddy and Sara: “For nothing, for music, for a chance to make a little noise in this world. A noise that no one needed to hear.” Later on, Peter tells Clara that “it’s all your fault,” but that he felt it was “as good a life as any.” Then, after Peter sees Maddy in St. Louis, he tells her: “I never should have left you and Sara for music. Even to change the world.” It seems Peter vacillates on whether he has made the right decision, but do you agree that Peter’s choice of music was neither right nor wrong?

RP: Right or wrong? I’m not sure it’s a question of morality. It’s a question of trying to know with precision what it is that we’re really after in life and to predict accurately how best to get it. And we are all notoriously bad at that. I think Peter is filled with all kinds of feelings about his choices by the end of his life—as many feelings as he has tried to locate and capture in the mystery of music: horror, shame, pride, perseverance, regret, recommitment. Do I judge him? Naw. I love the guy. I’ve been there.

AV: For all of Peter’s efforts to create music, he is troubled by the loss of his relationship with his daughter Sara, thinking “he’ll never make anything to compare to her for pure wonder” and that Sara is “my only decent composition.” It’s ironic that Peter compares his daughter to a composition, but ends up making music that isn’t always satisfying.

RP: More than that: he’s forced to admit that this “composition” came about largely in his absence, and that whoever his daughter is, she is only his doing to a very small degree. And yet: he feels, for her, a pride that nothing else he has ever made can give him. I never had any children but my books. Regret? Sometimes. But then I start to think of the next book, the perfect one that I might still write . . .

AV: Peter’s life-altering decisions are wonderfully exhibited later in the novel when Peter, who is on the run from the authorities, stops at a café and sees “a bat, hunting by echo-map, flying in paths so skittish they seem random” and then hearing Reich’s Proverb “electrifies Els: one simple veer that changes everything.” What was the inspiration for this scene?

RP: I honestly don’t know. I seem to have dragged that up from some dream world. I set the scene in a favorite café that I frequented when I was an undergraduate and still filled with the excitement of discovering new music. But I gave the scene that soundtrack from Reich, a piece I didn’t discover until I was well underway writing the book!

AV: In the fall of 2009 at the age of sixty-eight, Peter has an epiphany while walking his dog Fidelio. It is based on his love of music over everything else (“Music to abandon a wife and child by”) when he hears on the radio soundtracks extracted from DNA: “But the real art would be to reverse the process, to inscribe a piece for safekeeping into the genetic material of a bacterium.” Is this possible? How did you come up with this idea, which eventually turns a gentle composer into the fugitive Bioterrorist Bach?

RP: It is indeed possible, and shortly after I submitted the manuscript to my publishers for final production, I read a news article announcing that scientists had succeeded in doing it. A little bit of googling will turn up the account. There are many more similar stories on their way into the world, I am sure.

The first use of a similar technique that I know about was by the bioartist Eduardo Kac. Way back in 1999, he encoded the line from Genesis, “Let man have dominion over the fish in the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the Earth,” and inserted it into a bacterium.

But the idea of telling a story about an artist whose work would alert the authorities in Patriot Act America came from the arrest of the bio-artist Steve Kurtz, back in 2004. Kurtz’s work using genetically modified organisms appeared in museums all over the country. Nevertheless, it was four years before the government accepted the obvious and dropped charges against him.

AV: There are several references to God throughout Orfeo. There is the epigram that states: “But I was like a kid who confuses his grandfather with God” and Partch’s comment to “bless the giver. And she shall be multiply blessed . . .” Sara says to Peter: “I thought you were God.” Partch’s comments are his own and I can understand Sara’s comment, but the one that bothers me is when Jen, Peter’s much younger platonic-girlfriend-student, asks what he thinks about a piece of music she has just played. Peter’s response: I have two words for you, he intones. And one of them is Holy. . .” Assuming this means the Holy Ghost, why would Peter make this statement when he apparently gave up religion as a young man when he was seeing Clara: “She only had to smile at his churchgoing, and from one Sunday to the next, he quit his family’s faith.”

RP: Well, the second word he has in mind isn’t “Ghost,” but something much more scatological! He is happily astonished by his student’s composition, and he is praising her as playfully as he can. So I suppose that renders a bit of your question moot. But it’s true: the quest for a transcendent music is, throughout the book, shown to have religious overtones. The link between religious and musical awe is a strong one, as evidenced by the fact that half the greatest music in the world is religious. Peter is after a kind of atheist’s salvation through art.

AV: Peter’s picaresque journey ends when he meets Sara in California to patch up their relationship. This reconciliation occurs just before he runs outside holding a “bud vial high, like a conductor readying his baton to cue something luckier than anyone supposes. Downbeat of a little infinity. And at last you will hear how this piece goes.” Essentially, Peter was an innocent man whose guilt and fate were fabricated by the legal authorities and the media; his only real guilt was his self-inflicted psychological guilt from hurting the ones he loved. One can only think that Peter deserves a better coda.

RP: I would like to think that this is a complex, rich, somewhat mysterious ending. But I feel pretty certain that I would only diminish it by spelling out my own interpretation of it. I have no doubt that people will hear that piece in lots of different ways. That, too, is the beauty of art: you can’t control what people will think of or do with it.

AV: Can you briefly discuss what your next novel will be about, and if there are any plans for your books to be made into movies? I would think that Generosity and The Echo Maker would be interesting to see on film.

RP: I have become obsessed with trees, a massive part of the world and of human history that has been almost invisible to me until now. Seeing trees, and starting a story about them, has changed the way I see everything. I am savoring the idea of spending the next several years in their company.

AV: As they say in Thailand, Khob khun krab!

RP: Allan—Mai pen rai krab! And thank you, for the chance to do as expansive an interview as I’ve done in a while.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013/2014

Intersections: an interview with Chath pierSath

Chath PierSath_

by Greg Bem

Cambodian American Chath pierSath is both a visual artist and poet. He was born in Banteay Meanchey province, Cambodia, before he escaped the Khmer Rouge with some of his family. As a refugee Chath was relocated to the United States, where he has lived off and on since. His most recent move to the Lowell, Massachusetts area has influenced a major output of paintings, collages, and other tactile art, as well as his long-term writing projects. Through his intense personal history, as well as his leadership in social work and independent ethnography, Chath has channeled community and identity into all of his creativity.

Chath’s most recent book, This Body Mystery, was published by Abingdon Square Publishing in 2012. The book of poems focuses on narratives of AIDS victims in Cambodia during the 1990s; over ten years in the making, the poems are both haunting and redemptive portraits of universal figures from everyday life. Chath’s visual and written work often intersect, and no clearer is this relationship relayed and reinforced than by the twenty or so paintings included in the book. Bringing multiple visualizations to the harrowing and empowering lives of those who have lost, suffered, and rebounded, this powerful collection reflects Chath pierSath’s growing maturity as a documenter and storyteller. I had the opportunity to interview him in Phnom Penh during his recent trip here.

Greg Bem: Why did you come to Cambodia this time?

Chath pierSath: I’ve been coming to Cambodia off and on, six months of the year usually, and this year I have come because I’m doing a collaborative project with another artist, Mary Hamill. My project is to gather the oral history of war widows, starting with the women of my village, Kop Nymit.

The family I grew up in had three generations of widows. I met Mary in New York at my exhibition and when I told her about my oral history project she asked, “Would it be possible to incorporate visual art?” My sister stitches pillowcases, which led to Mary suggesting using cyanotype on them. I originally thought of the idea of pillowcases because when people get married, they have the bride and the groom lay their hands on each other’s pillows while their relatives tie ribbons on their wrists. And then on the bed you usually have two pillows—one for yourself and one for your loved one—so when one is gone, one pillow remains. So I thought of the pillowcases as a symbol of love and loss, of retaining the memory of your loved one.

The first stage is to get women who are widows from the Khmer Rouge to tell me their stories, and from their stories I will get them to think of ways to retain memories of their husbands through the use of cyanotype on pillowcases. I will have to teach them about the process as well.

GB: With your own story and the stories of those who have survived the Khmer Rouge, is memory strong?

CP: Some people have witnessed the killing of their husbands, or they survived other horrific things. My sister is a widow but her husband was killed after the Khmer Rouge. There are different periods in which violence has occurred, and differences in how these women became widowed and how they survived afterwards. In Cambodian culture the male figure in the family is important; when you lose your husband you lose your economic ability to survive. So these widows had to readjust their lives accordingly. My interest is to look at how they adjusted their lives to these losses and how they manage to survive, and what lessons other people in the world can learn from them.

GB: Have you worked with stories of the Cambodian people a lot? Have you communicated with people who have been victimized or gone through tragedy before?

CP: All throughout my work, even in the United States, I have worked with the greater Cambodian community. I am a community social psychologist and a lot of my work deals with social work and helping people overcoming addiction and trauma. I’m very connected to the story, the history, and the trauma people experience. For this project, I’m also developing my own narrative, because I’m the son of a widow. And so, while working with women and gathering their oral histories, I’m taking a step back to do my own art book and visual work.

GB: That brings us to the idea of education. You mentioned working to create this art with these other people, but you’re also educating yourself. Can you talk a little about the process of learning and education in your life and how that’s reflected here?

CP: I think that through the narratives of other people you get closer to your own. You get closer to your own humanity by understanding the stories of other people and the struggles they have. I think every person has a unique story to tell and we each have the different life events that happen to us and sometimes we may feel sympathetic toward a certain aspect of that life event. For me, the more I understand the story of others, the greater I am able to learn and help other people. Often when people tell their story, they talk about their strengths and resiliency. It’s really about their determination and their aspiration to survive and live.

GB: That’s also what you were touching on in This Body Mystery.

this-body-mysteryCP: Yes, in This Body Mystery, even though it was written in the voice of people with HIV/AIDS, it’s about how people come to accept their fate and their sickness. It’s about accepting the way your life is.

GB: Have you found similar acceptance in your own life up until now, as an artist moving back and forth between Cambodia and the United States?

CP: I think so. I used to despair about the condition of the world, to feel a sense of hopelessness; now I find more and more that I need to focus on what I can do, however little it is, to help others. Whether I affect one person or an entire family, or even a group of people, I feel like I have resources and education and ability and skills that some people may not be fortunate enough to acquire. But by sharing and inquiring, being a listener, and being interested in the stories of other people and their lives, I can also pull things out and say “What can I do for them? What can I share with them that may alleviate some of their suffering?” Sometimes the mere connection we make with each other can change people’s lives. It doesn’t have to be something big. The mere fact that you’re interested in them makes them happy.

GB: I think that you have affected a lot of people’s lives, including those people you interact with as an educator and through social work, but also those people that view your art and your writing. I’m curious about how you look at your audience and look at your readership. Do you think a lot about audience when you create new works of art and new poems and other writings?

CP: I don’t approach my writing or my work from an academic or analytical point of view. I do it for myself. How am I placing myself in the world of other people around me? For me, I feel that I am not really alone, that others can feel it too. I see art in this way. I think that there are certain feelings and things you can convey in a simple form that people can see and understand. A lot of my work is process-oriented. I delve into my work and sit alone in silence and work with the material and process it, like talking to yourself.

Sometimes it may be something I hear in the news that affects me. There are multiple things entering in your mind. When you make art, those things change shape into something else. It’s transformation into a body of different visual elements. Every day you are bombarded by so many different things. When you sit down to process everything, it can become interesting visually. You can incorporate a lot of those things that you internalize.

GB: Is it easy to go through this process with collaborators, like Mary Hamill?

CP: This is my first collaboration so I’m going to learn how it’s going to work. I’d like to do more collaborations because collaboration creates different viewpoints. Mary’s working from an outsider perspective and I’m working from an insider-outside perspective. In this case, it will bring an added dimension to the visual aspects of the work. Also the processes and approaches that I’m thinking are about learning. I’m playing it by ear to experiment and see what happens.

GB: It seems like experimentation is a big part of your artistic journey, your process as an artist.

CP: You have to experiment with different mediums and things around you. Art is really about how you capture different things you see around you and bring them into forms and words and shapes and meaning. Everything around you can use. It’s like your tools and your material. Whether it’s in performing arts like dance, or visual arts, or poetry, a lot of those elements can come and help you, can trigger your creativity. But you have to be open, be aware, and you have to be ready to look.

GB: Can you talk a little bit about your experimentation in writing and where you learned your skills in writing poetry?

CP: I read a lot when I was in school in the United States, and even though writing in English is very difficult for me, I wrote in journals. I tried to write poems in rhyme. I tried writing songs. Sometimes I jotted down a thought. I would keep a log of spontaneous thoughts. I think every writer has their waves of inspiration and their ways of doing things. But writing is very difficult for me. It’s something I haven’t practiced as diligently as my visual art. I’ve been doing visual art because I think it’s easier for me to construct, whereas words are very difficult. It’s hard to choose the right word, the right line. This Body Mystery is a small book, but it took me over ten years.

GB: How long have you been doing art in general?

CP: I started to paint in the year 2000. I never thought of going to an art school, even though I loved art. I liked museums but I wanted to be a dancer, I wanted to go into performing arts, or be a writer. When I was in the sixth grade my friend and I always won writing contests, and we read a lot of books. We were always the ones that read the most books in class. I thought about writing but visual arts weren’t part of my vocabulary.

It’s really hard when you read literature in a language that’s not your own. There are all these cultural references you have to be born into that particular language to get. Even if you look in the dictionary you know the meaning of the word or phrase, but there’s still the feeling of it. When I hear Khmer poets, when they recite their poems, I know what they’re talking about, I get it right away. When you’re reading from a different language that’s different from your own, it’s not the same as being fluent. If I were really fluent and born into the English language, I would probably become a greater writer. But on the other hand, I have a great advantage: I write from the perspective of my own voice. I’m not copying anyone’s voice. It’s my voice. I have the advantage of being a writer of English as a second language.

GB: Where does English and Khmer intersect for you?

CP: I think there are things I can’t write in English that I wish I could write in Khmer. And sometimes I fantasize about learning to write in Khmer. Because if I could write in Khmer, my perspective would be very different, because I’m both an outsider and insider and I see the writing in a different way. My description would be different from, say, a local writer.

I have some advantages of viewing from the two lenses, the two perspectives. I think that a lot of visual artists who come back here from the United States and are Cambodian also write from their American references—looking inside the old culture, and looking at themselves as an American looking into the country where they were born. The dynamic sometimes pulls them this way and that way and it’s a struggle. Some people choose to go to the extreme. Their perspective and view on the culture might be that of the colonizer and might be more judgmental and dominant. You have to be aware and conscious of those things, when you write and look at a culture—especially when you’re bicultural, and you’re returning to that place from a different place where you’d been shaped.

I write and I write and a lot of times I go back to the American lens, though sometimes it’s a struggle to come from that perspective. Even though I’m not privileged in the money world, I’m privileged in other ways: I had greater access to education, I can travel, etc. It’s the same with writing: the freedom to move in and out of different places, of different realms of existence, of different life forms. It’s like you’re organically developing yourself, moving out, metamorphosing into other forms depending on where you are, what you’re doing at the time, how you want to play on things.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013/2014