Tag Archives: Winter 2017

Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music

Michael Robbins
Simon & Schuster ($24)

by Henry Gould

Michael Robbins might be the Baudelaire of 21st-century America. Like the Parisian polymath flâneur, he rambles wide-eyed and open-eared across intersections of seemingly disparate neighborhoods, mixing them together: high art with low life, arcane literary scholarship with drugs and rock 'n' roll. What for Baudelaire were the frissons of modern art, Robbins finds in pop music, to which he responds with bracing enthusiasm—as one might expect from a music writer schooled in the journalism of Pauline Kael, Greil Marcus, et al. His erudite post-grad chops (he holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago) combine with an attentive, ecstatic, hermeneutic relish for the sound-meaning of both poems and song lyrics. The lines speak to him across distant reaches of genres, levels of discourse, and historical eras—and by interpreting what he hears, he humanizes and draws them close with a few deft phrases (about that canonical and much-anthologized 16th-century lyric "Westron Wynde," for example, he writes simply: "I love the poem because it is a perfect condensation of loneliness—a kind of pop song").

This carefully-honed multidisciplinary approach opens a surprising chapter in contemporary poetics, for Robbins is a kind of neo-classicist with respect to poetic form; he would be a New Critic, if he weren't a newer critic. He thinks of "form" as the essential glue bonding lyrics to poetry, and more importantly, writers to readers, poets to crowds. One of the best essays in the volume is a careful analysis, and defense, of the values of rhyme (a formal quality of poetry seemingly—but not really—out-of-fashion for decades). In this vein, he seems part of a generational wave of neo-supra-formalist poets, including A.E. Stallings, Ange Mlinko, and that eminence grise Frederick Seidel (to whom Robbins devotes a very subtle if slightly over-cooked philosophical essay). Thus, he breaks with generations of parochial postmodern exceptionalism focused on theory, conceptual poetry, and other such zoomorphs. By way of erudition and sheer sonic enthusiasm, Robbins partially restores a link with folk music, popular poetry, Renaissance poetics, and various cosmopolitan antiquities beyond.

Equipment for Living's nostalgic affinity for Baudelaire, and mid-20th-century culture generally, also reflects a somewhat less positive stance. There is a repeated characterization of the telos of poetry as "consolation": Philosophical consolation, in poetry's calibrated balance of existential desolation with intelligence (the liberty of insight); emotional consolation, in the powerful but ephemeral pathos of "the music of what happens"; and social consolation, in the sharing of communal works of heavy-metal or folk-rock transcendence.

This emphasis on consolation (rather than construction) seems grounded in a worldview closer to desolate postwar Europe than to any American-style Emersonian optimism. The bleak naturalism of Stevens, or the anti-naturalism of Seidel, is wedded to a plangent "Occupy-Era" sensibility of utopian frustration. In his piece on James Wright, Robbins declares: "Poems are a meager response to a scurvy and disastrous world in which hardly anyone reads them." Fortunately, the vitality of poetry itself often belies the poet's own bleak temperament (see Robbins' own two volumes of verse). And there is always the possibility that the "poetry of reality"—the "music of what happens"—might be the intelligibility of the universe, which poetry per se has only begun to explore.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Beneath the Radar: An Interview with Janet Capron


interviewed by Ben Shields

Until recently, Janet Capron—author of the new book Blue Money (Unnamed Press, $16)—was using her literary talent to write pharmaceutical literature and instructional film scripts for oncologists. By the time she met me for a decadent (but non-alcoholic) dinner several weeks ago, that had all mercifully changed. We dined in the West Village's Caffe Reggio, the last of the bohemian coffee houses in which one may order a single drink and linger for the next four hours without harassment. And that is precisely what we did. As we talked about Janet's life on the street—as a junkie, prostitute, writer, and documentarian of degeneracy—I did not hear a single political cliché for the entire discussion, and instead absorbed one prankish cultural critique after another from Janet's side of the cheese plate. This proud Park Avenue schoolgirl-turned-floozy has chronicled her high bourgeois class suicide in an outrageous debut novel—which, as she discusses below, never lets the burden of actual facts get in the way of what things were really like in 1970s New York. Read on for her remarks on Germaine Greer, Peter Pan, and how her life went from the saddest non-publishing story ever to that of a lecture-touring writer.


Janet Capron: You look a little different than your photo.

Ben Shields: Do I? Maybe in the photo I didn't have a beard. Where did you even see my photo?

JC: Somewhere on the Internet, Ben.

BS: How strange. I'm very unimportant.

JC: That can change in an instant. Stick with me, kid. I've got like ten pages now, having gone all my life as a completely beneath-the-radar person. It doesn't take much.

BS: Well, enough about me. I don't want to start off too academically, but one thing that's missing from your book is your college years. Weren't you at Bennington?

JC: [laughs] I started at Bennington. I would have loved it if I'd really been there. I got kicked out. But this isn't a genuine memoir. I wrote it as a novel, which meant free to access my imagination. I'm a big defender of autobiographical fiction; I don't think there's anything wrong with mixing it up. So, people are saying, oh, you must have felt terrible when Eddie got killed . . . Well, I'm sorry, that didn't happen. I'm more and more regretting having agreed to let it be called a memoir.

BS: Well then, I won't ask at any point, "did this really happen?" That's such a philistine-American journalist question, anyway. The more you stick to strict facts in a story, the more the real emotion behind it vanishes.

JC: It's all a line against imagination. I think imagination is in deep peril. Even when the facts of life are more melodramatic than fiction could ever be, just the act of eliminating the imagination and sticking to memory is deadening no matter what.

BS: That is related to the psychoanalytic practice of free-associating. Not worrying about the logical connections. And once that happens, authentic memories do begin to resurface.

JC: There's no such thing as accurate memory, as far as I'm concerned.

BS: When did you go back to Columbia?

JC: 1982. (After getting my BA, I went onto the Graduate Creative Writing Program at Columbia's School of the Arts, where I began work on what would become Blue Money.)

When I was an undergraduate, you could still be a writing/English major, which meant you could take a lot of writing workshops. It was a split major. So, I was completely immersed in writing even then, and there was this brilliant teacher there, J. R. Humphreys, who was the founder and head of the famous Adult Writing Program. Part of me was running from my previous life in the street and very happy to be back in the citadel, the cloister, the ivory tower. I felt protected. At the same time, that life in the street was still very fresh. So, I wrote this story, it was kind of like—do you know Blue Angel with Marlene Dietrich?

BS: Naturally.

JC: It was a take-off on that. It was about a massage parlor hooker. At the time, I had this crush on my physics professor, whom I ended up getting engaged to, but never mind. At that point, it was a distant crush. He was really cute and nerdy. I cast him as this nerd, because I was trying to imagine the two of us together. In the story, he goes to the massage parlor in the heat of the summer, and falls in love with this really tough little hooker who teaches him a bit about life. Humphreys either knew or somehow figured out that I had actually lived this for real, and he said you've got to mine that material now, or you'll lose it forever. He said we tend to forget our twenties after a while. So that was how I came to write Blue Money, an autobiographical novel about my twenties.

BS: When did you actually write Blue Money in its present form?

JC: The last draft was in 2002.

BS: Why do you think it was a difficult sell?

JC: If I had written about this experience as morose, a mea culpa, I think it would have been published a lot sooner.

BS: I never thought of that. If it had culminated in an anorexia diagnosis, it could have been out ten years ago.

JC: Right.

BS: Near the beginning of the book, you're rejoining the bar scene with your friend Michael, whether or not he's real—

JC: Oh, he's real—

BS: OK, and you're rejoining that scene after having left it to be with a radical feminist group. What kinds of things were you doing with them?

JC: I was very enamored of someone called Robin Morgan, who was a really big force in the feminist movement. She spearheaded the burning of the bras. There was this group, I can't even remember the name of it, of which I was a part. I was living with a guy and we were doing a lot of acid. I was 21 . . . A lot of the women were very butch. These were not lipstick lesbians, OK? And they were all Maoists, which now I'm more sympathetic to than I was then. Then it was quite shocking. I wasn't prepared to handle all of that. I didn't feel at home there, plus as I say in the book (I wrote this to be honest to this experience, not to set myself up as some kind of role model): I was an alcoholic and a drug addict, and a sex addict too. I loved all of that. I was a hedonist. I wasn't a very serious person, really. I tried. I had moments. I was capable, but not of sustaining it. Alcoholism and addiction undermined that.

BS: Nothing can compete with that.

JC: No, nothing.

BS: It sounds like this clash you experienced with the feminists may not have had to do with the fact that you weren't serious enough. Maybe they simply weren't fun enough.

JC: It wasn't about fun, I'll tell you that. It was just six months or something. But I thought it was important to establish that because it was a perspective that I held onto throughout everything.

BS: I heard that Germaine Greer is your model feminist.

JC: Oh yes—and she's more than just a feminist, you know. I'm so glad you're familiar with her.

BS: She was just on the BBC earlier this year discussing agricultural issues! She's so broadly learned.

JC: I don't use this term lightly: she's a genius. And my agent is her agent. The Female Eunuch is one of the seminal works of the 20th century.

BS: I agree. And Greer is almost more or less absent from Gender and Women's Studies programs, which is a disaster.

JC: It is a disaster. Because nobody wants to take a look at what's really going on.

BS: Yes, it's a great book. It draws upon the entire Western canon to make an argument about human and female sexuality.

JC: And it's not about "breaking a glass ceiling" [rolls eyes]. Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae is also a book I think about practically every day. Do you know how much feminists hated her?

BS: What do you make of all the recent controversies surrounding Greer's comments on transgender issues?

JC: Do I have to go there? If she's brave enough, I guess I will. My book is all about asking, what is the difference between men and women? We have these very narrow, culturally determined sex roles that have nothing to do with what the real difference is. It's not about high heels, I'll tell you that. That's what the first wave of feminism established, that it's just like being in drag. I don't care what gender. We all know that sexuality is a continuum, and they're acting like it isn't. If we were actually allowed to be a man inside of a woman's body, it could be a sacred thing to be. Like, oh, this should be our priest! This is someone who gets it all.

BS: Speaking of Sexual Personae, there is a line where Paglia says something to the effect of, "how many transsexuals should be seeing shamans instead of surgeons?"

JC: Bingo!

BS: Some gay men also "wish" they were women, without being "transgender," precisely because women are allowed to be in drag at all times! Now, in the Huffington Post blurb for your book, they wrote that Blue Money was a glimpse into a "simpler" New York, before AIDS and gentrification. Do you really think it was that much simpler?

JC: Oh my god, yes, my child. I don't want to patronize you, but in those days, it was so wonderfully innocent compared to now. I'm not saying it was "safe." Now it's "safe," in a lovely 1984 sort of way. I'm being hypocritical, because I love the fact that I can walk around at four in the morning and not be afraid. But I never was afraid, because back then I was so crazed on drugs and alcohol . . . I had a lot of moxie. One thing about my book that is interesting to millennials is that you had hookers living on Sutton Place. And believe me that part is true. No one wanted to live here. The president had said, "New York, drop dead!" It was so great. Everything was so cheap, free, and wild. There was a genuine counterculture, the likes of which I have not seen since. And it spanned many generations. It was all the bohemians that were still left alive, plus all the hippies, plus all the punks, all of us!

BS: The reason I asked was, the life that you recount in the book is far from simple. It made me wonder, when I read that, if it's just a false nostalgia. But you are saying it's not.

JC: I don't think so. Things have gone backwards. For instance, the Black Panthers were still around in those days, and they were idealized. It was an unbelievable intelligentsia leading the way. And they were destroyed. Every last one of them were killed or put into prison, solitary confinement for life. You have to understand, before all that happened, we imagined that we were living in an open society where you could affect change. Now, we're going to have to be much more strategic. It's a lot more sinister now. The press was probably not free then, but compared to now? We don't even know about all the domestic terrorism that's going on in our country, let alone New York. And we have mass incarceration—it affects us, even us, sitting here in our bourgeois bubble. This undermines the entire society.

BS: Let's keep talking about your literary life. What are you reading now?

JC: This great book called As Close As I Can Get to You by Dan Siegler. It's not out yet. His agent is still shopping it around. He asked me for a blurb—my first—and luckily I love the book. The author is a straight man, and through a series of circumstances he gets into drag. And he starts having a little affair with a woman who gets off on it. So, he has to get made up every time he goes to see her. In the three times that they've had sex, she's the only one who gets off. It's sui generis. I thought it was going to be one of these typically millennial stories, which I get impatient with.

BS: What's a typically millennial story?

JC: Well, I don't want to knock anybody, but I'm given books to read that I'm told I'll be interested in because they're by "young feminists," and I'm not interested in them. There are a lot of people getting published who have nothing to say.

BS: At the same time, there is a rise in memoirs.

JC: Don't even mention memoirs to me, because I'll get upset.

BS: Any in particular?

JC: Yes, I'm not naming them. But Dan Siegler's isn't one of them. He starts talking about how it's such a drag, pardon the expression, to have to put your makeup on before you go out. I thought, yeah, a whole lifetime. Weeks and weeks. Not that I don't love to do it at the same time.

BS: Maybe not every morning.

JC: But it's very fun to have it at one's disposal. I can't help but be blonde.

BS: Going blond changed my life entirely.

JC: Doesn't it? I mean you're cute anyway, but now you're blazingly cute! From across a crowded room.

BS: Oh, stop it.

JC: It's true. It's the blonde thing. You're telegraphed. Like, "I want to be perceived as a sex object, thank you very much."

BS: Now one thing that kept coming through to me in this book is, despite all the chaos you have experienced and subjected yourself to in your life, you have read a tremendous amount. I don't mean you merely have a literary style; I mean you actually mention a great deal of literature in the book. Baudelaire, Flaubert, Blake—they're all in Blue Money.

JC: My publisher asked me to take the Shakespeare references out, and I said, no! I can't imagine writing something without putting it in that context. I would feel like I was hyperventilating without that.

BS: I'm the same way. The reason I mention it—I don't do drugs, so I don't know— when you're doing speed and staying up for days, I'm amazed that one of the things you do is read Flowers of Evil out loud.

JC: I did. There's that part where I say I feel guilty about it, reading and reading, because poor people can't do it. I thought it was an unfair thing that I loved books so much and that I had access to this. But I've discovered that the real intelligentsia in my life is almost entirely from the inner city. Which is fascinating to me. There's nothing anti-intellectual about being poor or working class. That was a big revelation.

BS: Is there a book that made you want to become a writer when you were young?

JC: J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, which is a very subversive, weird book. Because it's really about death and about being outside of society. It's really about being marginalized and completely disregarded. At the end of that book, Peter is in a bardo. He doesn't know he's a fairy. He thinks he's still a little boy. So, he flies back to his bedroom window, and there is his mother, who has another little boy in her arms. She says, "oh, dear Anthony." That's when Peter realizes he's not a little boy anymore. He's been replaced. It's the most tragic thing I've ever read. It's worse than Grimm's Fairy Tales.

BS: I'm going to ask a rather provocative question. You've expressed admiration already for working-class intellectualism. In the book, you mention once or twice that you would consciously hide what you called either your Park Avenue or private school "dialect." I was wondering if you ever found yourself wishing that you could have become underclass, or at least a less privileged class. The reason it's provocative is that it contradicts received notions about how one must regard their "privilege."

JC: I think in general the impulse was to commit class suicide. The longer I'm around the clearer that is to me. I desperately wanted to get out. My grandfather was this "champion of the working man"—but I never saw any working people unless it was the doorman, elevator man, or the handyman. That Park Avenue thing I came from is so rarified, so moneyed. I wanted out. In those days, nothing was gentrified. You had Park Avenue, then at 96th—boom! I couldn't go there. I could barely go down Lexington Avenue. So, it was extremely limited.

BS: Of course, that class suicide is what led you to prostitution. In my mind, people pay for prostitution because they want, ostensibly, a sexual encounter divorced from intimacy. But at least a couple times in the book, you give examples of people obviously not doing that. Plus, you write that sex and marriage, sex and true love, remained intimately linked despite your best efforts. How did an extraordinarily high volume of sex for so many years affect how you experience intimacy?

JC: As a student of Germaine Greer—I think I mention this in the book—I thought it was very important that I come while having intercourse. I'm talking about as a cis-gendered heterosexual woman, coming. I had that experience when I was nineteen. I went out with a young Chicano in San Francisco and he just knew how to do it. He understood. I was in pursuit of that. Yet I had all the hang-ups that most women do. I've since written an essay about it. Part of the reason women have such a hard time is, if it takes them a long time, they're embarrassed. It's not an intrinsic part of the reproductive process, so it's just for one's own pleasure that one would come. Therefore, because it's frivolous, unimportant in some way—

BS: Like homosexuality. The female orgasm and homosexuality are not necessary.

JC: Exactly. For that reason, women are ashamed and embarrassed and don't even try. They have no expectations of their partner. The partner has no expectation of himself. This is not universally true, but it's true to a large degree. More than you could imagine. Because it's still prevalent, I was interested in understanding my sexuality absolutely stripped of all the conventions and everything that had been imposed on it. One of the ways to get in touch with that was to make oneself a pariah outside of society and in that sense, it was genuinely liberating for me. I no longer had to answer to that nice girl, which is so inhibiting.

BS: So, you learned about sex not through "gender and sexuality studies," but—get this—sex!

JC: Exactly! The capacity that females have. I think it terrifies straight men.

BS: It's probably the reason for 90% of misogyny—men know on some level that women are experiencing something sexually that they never will. On a related note, Norman Mailer believed 90% of anti-black racism was because white people knew subconsciously that somehow blacks are closer to sex.

JC: Well, I think Mailer had a pretty active imagination, but I'll tell you one thing about him. He understood human sexuality better than a lot of people do. He was saying: sex used to be extremely consequential. I grew up in this extremely anomalous time when there were no STDs. There wasn't even herpes! If you got some kind of VD, you took penicillin and that was it. He was saying, throughout history sex has always had enormous consequences. The passion of nature is what he was talking about.

BS: You were having sex in the golden era of birth control and no diseases. Now, whenever you're screwing you're thinking about what you could potentially be catching. And while we're still on Mailer, he also discussed the thrill of the knowledge, the risk, that there may be a conception, negated by the pill.

JC: The pill is an awful thing, it really is. I'm not saying everybody should conceive, but I don't think the pill is good for you.

BS: Hormonally it can be disastrous. A lot of people think it's bizarre what Mailer said, but earlier this year I saw in either the Post or Daily News that there are guys now who, when they have sex, purposely wear a condom designed to break. It's disgusting, but it proves the theory correct.

JC: Of course. Because sex has consequences regardless of whether it's conception or not. We can't compartmentalize it as much as we think we can. I was always in search of passionate sex. Amy Schumer has a great line in her HBO special where she says, "Guys, would you make sure that your partner comes? Do you think that we just want to be a witness to your process?" I keep repeating that because a lot of women do that. It's like the guy says in As Close As I Can Get to You, the book about role reversal I'm reading: "I'm OK with it [not coming]." So funny to hear a guy say it! It's a terrible denial of self on such a basic level.

BS: I once met the porn actress Seka. She recounted how during filming, after the guy would ejaculate, the director would yell, "Cut!" And she would say, "Cut my ass, I haven't finished."

JC: Yes—we've lost that. It's another thing that has backslid since the ’70s.

BS: Who was your worst trick?

JC: I don't remember any of them. It's like working in a haberdashery. I mention in the book I found out that sexual chemistry does triumph over circumstance about as often as it does in ordinary life: rarely. Once in a great while you'd have this physical chemistry for one reason or another. But honestly the others are all interchangeable, transactional. Bing bing bing!

BS: It makes me think of Bowie's best album, Station to Station. He couldn't remember recording it. I think that artistic creation and casual sex are not unrelated.

JC: Oh yeah. I do remember a lot of the women I worked with, though. I'm not trying to romanticize it, but they were really outlaws. Especially those madams. They had decided they were not going to give a damn about what society thought of them. One that I particularly admired had this beautiful little penthouse somewhere around Sutton Place. One of her really close friends was Miles Davis. There was an element of this that was very counterculture. It was exciting, I have to say. You know, they talk about "the male gaze" now, but that works on so many levels. It's not just men. It's all the "nice" people in society.

BS: The "nice" gaze—I love that idea! What are your politics beyond sex?

JC: I am involved with an activist group called African People's Socialist Party. Omali Yeshitela is their leader. He's the most brilliant person I've ever listened to. I discovered him because I saw a flier back in 2008 for a talk he was giving, speaking out against Obama. No black person in the country was doing that then. The first time I went to hear him speak—and this is all a matter of public record—he talked about Obama going up to Martha's Vineyard with all the Wall Street fat-cats where he was vetted and interviewed, and Omali Yeshitela said that was when Obama got the job. This was before the election! He also said that Obama was going to get away with doing more than any white conservative male would ever dare to try and do. So, Chairman Yeshitela has become my leader. It's unbelievable, the integrity he has.

BS: Do you feel that really happened?

JC: The police militarized under whom? Obama. The drone program, wars escalated—and mass incarceration? Mushroomed under Obama. I read Chris Hedges religiously, and Glenn Ford of Black Agenda Report. You must get that. Black Agenda Report doesn't even try and reach the white community, though plenty of white people are reading it. It's so brilliant and cogent. When I need to hear the truth, I go there.

BS: Are you single?

JC: I am. I'm so happy. Once the hormones weren't raging anymore, I felt this enormous relief. All of a sudden, I could do other things. I could go to the museum. It freed me up. I haven't had much luck in love at all. I had a shrink once say to me, "Good and kind aren't even on your list." I think they would be now, but that was true then. Funny, sexy, and brilliant were very high on my list, and good and kind were just whatever.

BS: God, do I relate to all of that. Desire can be wonderful but it can really poison your mind. I've already lost years to all of that.

JC: I know, and you've got a lot of years left. I can remember throwing the I Ching because I wanted things to work out so bad. Obsession—it's just the worst. Proust's Swann's Way is the best book about obsession ever written.

BS: It's even worse if you tend to intellectualize everything. You become obsessed with the obsession. But back to tricking. The PC term for prostitution is now "sex-worker." What do you think—

JC: I hate that. It sounds so corporate. It's like when the waiter comes and says, "Are you still working?" No, I'm eating. I hate it, hate it, hate it. What's wrong with whore? "Sex-worker" is like calling a woman a "lady"—it's a euphemism. I don't think whores want it. This is what I'm for: the decriminalization of prostitution. OK? And let's stop pathologizing every woman who ever chose to be a prostitute. Let's just drop that right now. Nowadays, it's fine to sleep around with guys and get nothing from it. Including satisfaction. In our society, that's fine—god forbid you should get paid for it. Then you still have women divided against themselves, the good girls versus the bad girls. Do you think that doesn't work on women subliminally? Now my experience isn't true of all prostitutes. But my experience is enough to tell me that the received opinion, most of what we are told about prostitution, is a total lie. So, women are really at odds with themselves. I see that as something that has to be dealt with. Not legalization—we don't want government control.

BS: By obsessively campaigning for legalization of certain sexual decisions, it can accidentally shift the mentality to, "we can't accept this until the state does."

JC: Yeah. And then what? People tend to dismiss sex as all very minor and silly. Gore Vidal once said, when they've got you by the short hairs, they've really got you. Originally it was the church that had control over people's sexuality. There's not any sex in movies now, it's just violence. They don't even bother with sex!

BS: I know. One example, perhaps you like this film, but Todd Haynes's lesbian film Carol

JC: Oh, I hated that fucking movie. It's like two polite little lady narcissists that don't even have genitals as far as I can tell. Give me a break! I hated it.

BS: How do you think it would have changed your experience as a prostitute if it had been legal, like in Amsterdam?

JC: I thought the women I saw in the window in Amsterdam were fantastic. But that's a much different government, for one thing. When I was doing it, we all had terrific doctors, we were all very clean, we didn't need the government regulating anything. We kept all our money, didn't pay taxes. We were outlaws. The way it's pathologized now—people think any girl who decides to become a whore is mentally disturbed, unstable, comes from a terrible home, abused. No! That's not true. There are all kinds of reasons. Including grad students at NYU who can't afford tuition.

BS: Edmund White talks about that, how there wasn't this huge gap between hustling and the middle class in the past. Like you'd hire some hooker, and during the pillow talk you'd find out they were a law student.

JC: You know, he was a real champion of mine. I met his husband, the writer, Michael Carroll, and I started telling Michael about my book. He kept saying, you should really write Edmund. Finally, I screwed up the courage and sent him 70 pages of the book. That same day, I get this absolutely wonderful response saying he loved the chapters, and he was helping me with my query letter and everything. My book is now in the window at Three Lives Books, and it's on the same shelf as Edmund White's Our Young Man. Every time I see that, I feel like Anne Baxter in All About Eve.

BS: Do you know any young prostitutes?

JC: I know one. She recently got sober. Frankly there's a little bit of a lack of curiosity on my part. I do know that it's changed in ways that are unappealing to me. When I was doing it, there were all these cathouses. It was convivial. We depended on each other. Now it sounds so lonely, comparatively, with these escort services.

BS: We agree on everything.

JC: I've noticed that. Are you Pisces?

BS: No, Aries.

JC: Thank God.

BS: You're averse to Pisces?

JC: No, they're just afflicted. Alcoholics and drug addicts. I'm Libra with a Capricorn Moon.

BS: That can be a really difficult Moon sign. You're prone to convincing yourself that the right way is always the hardest way.

JC: Oh my god. I hate that very notion, and I'm so burdened with it.

BS: I want to end with whether you'd do it now. Not meaning "if you knew what you know now" kind of cliché way, but meaning if you were that age, in today's world, would you do it all?

JC: A woman at a reading asked me, full of judgment, full of confrontation, "Would you let your daughter do this?" So, I said, first of all, my poor hypothetical daughter, who would probably have an alcoholic father too because I tend to mate with my own afflicted kind, would probably end up an alcoholic or drug addict like her parents. That worries me a hell of a lot more than if she were a grad student at NYU and needed to pay the tuition! No big whoop. Big deal. Hell yeah.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

The Art of Topiary

Jan Wagner
Translated by David Keplinger
Milkweed Editions ($18)

by Allison Campbell

It is uncommon for a book's title to summarize its contents as accurately as German poet Jan Wagner's The Art of Topiary. The collection, Wagner's first translated into English, is full of poems that clip the ordinary into precise shape and sound. In Wagner's handling, objects reach their fullness through an examination of their margins. If topiary is the art of trimming into shape, then much of Wagner's poetry in The Art of Topiary can be described as the art of examining the edges. The book collects thresholds.

In his poem "gecko" Wagner marks a lizard "hurrying over the wall: a wandering crack that heals itself from behind." The lizard is defined, in part, by the space it leaves uninhabited. This fragment of the prose poem shows Wagner's concern with the places where one thing ends and another begins. It also reveals how delicately and effectively he employs sound. The perceptible alliteration of wall and wandering is complimented by the repetition of the voiceless, and not as readily detected, H—hurrying, heals, behind.

Because The Art of Topiary is translated, credit for the sonic qualities of the English versions of these poems goes predominantly to American poet David Keplinger. Keplinger writes in his introduction that he prefers the term collaborator to translator and describes the balance between "connotation, form, and literalness" that was achieved through numerous exchanges of drafts between himself and Wagner. Also in the introduction, he makes specific reference to his work on "gecko" saying that translating the poem "involved reproducing the alliteration, assonance, and consonance of Wagner's original." In addition to these more subtle sonic elements, Wagner's poetry employs rhyme. He is the rare contemporary poet who can use and adapt established forms so naturally that they are enjoyed long before detected. Even the highly structured poems in The Art of Topiary sound natural and appear driven as much by sense, by intellectual aim, as by poetic meter. This balance between idea and form is most wonderfully struck in "centaurs' blues:"

we have poisoned all the heroes, taught princes and their heirs,
we have poisoned all the heroes, got drunk and put on airs,
and all was ruined anyway and made unfair.

where does the rider start? where does the steed end?
who can know if he is steed or rider in the end?
something paused—and something galloped, gathering speed.

The poem, a take on traditional sonnet forms, continues with two more rhyming tercets and finishes with a couplet. Because The Art of Topiary has Wagner's German originals on the facing page, one of the joys of reading these translations is the ability to see where Keplinger was able to retain both sound and sense and when he compromised the former for the latter.

An American reader of Wagner need not know that the poet has translated Charles Simic and James Tate into German, but after reading The Art of Topiary Wagner's inclination toward these playful poets of dark sense and David Lynch imagism seems obvious. Like Simic and Tate, Wagner is capable of presenting reality with an accuracy that makes normality uncanny. The chameleon is "hiding in the world," and the dinner napkin has "nothing but the red butterfly / of lipstick inside." It is this mix of obviousness—a chameleon does hide in the world—and original vision—have you ever thought of those lipstick marks as a butterfly?—that give readers of The Art of Topiary the sense of discovery we all want, from life in general and from poetry specifically. When you add Wagner's musicality to his familiarly strange images the poet's place as one of the most celebrated contemporary German poets is eminently understandable.

In the book's title poem, Wagner describes the work of a topiary artist who has disappeared leaving "a gentleman's image as his last great work." Here is the literal image, the shape of a man cut by the man it mimics. Figuratively, the line encourages readers, at least this one, to think about how the images we make, through our seeing and description, in turn make us. Let's hope more of this gentleman's images appear in English, and soon.

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The Disconnected

Oğuz Atay
Translated by Sevin Seydi
Olric Press (£50)

by Jeff Bursey

The first thing to be said about The Disconnected (Tutunamayanlar in its original Turkish) is that it is available in a handsome limited edition, so the curious should contact the publisher quickly at the link noted above if they want a copy. The second thing is that it is considered of great importance in its homeland. In this novel, originally published in 1972, Oğuz Atay (1934-1977) brings together local literary concerns (i.e., the culture and languages of the Republic of Turkey as well as its predecessors), Russian literature (Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov is often cited, as are Chekov and Dostoyevsky), and 20th-century European fiction. Multiple and shifting points of view, time jumps, and the medley of modes, along with the underlying moodiness of the work emanating from its two main figures, Turgut Özben and his dead friend Selim Isık, mark this as a Modernist work.

This is its first translation into English. Translator Sevin Seydi started working on it as the original sheets came out of Atay's typewriter and discussed it with him. What she has produced is a narrative filled with tones—sombre, tender, brooding, puckish, malicious, defeated, constrained, bookish, melancholic—and the flow of feelings reflects how life is experienced rather than resembling a collection of set pieces devised by an author. It is far from a work of realism, for Turgut converses with the shade of Selim (it gives nothing away to say he committed suicide) whenever he thinks about him or encounters him in one of the many pieces of paper in his or someone else's possession. "Ah Selim, you have scattered your life away, left and right! These notebooks are all that remain." It is through apostrophe as a figure of speech—addressing the missing as if present—that the dynamic of their complex friendship is conveyed.

His sleuthing into Selim's past often ramps up Turgut's emotions—anger, grief, and depression, among others. This is tied to what may be a key item of this aspect of the novel: "to understand the meaning of life I need the meaning of death not to remain obscured." The pursuit to uncover the why of Selim's death helps Turgut come to some kind of terms with an inexplicable act while revealing how much he didn't know about his friend. Süleyman Kargı shows Turgut Selim's dreadful unpublished poem, "Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow," which is the subject of a lengthy analysis by Kargı. Here is a brief example of each: "Year nineteen thirty-six: known to but few. / To him, for sure, it's an important date." The explication of these lines tells us Selim's birth year, and that he "weighed five kilos and eight hundred grams exactly when he was born." This figure is regarded with suspicion by Kargı on the grounds that without a midwife or doctor around the weight could not be so accurately gauged unless someone placed the baby on the local butcher's scales. "That Müzeyyen Hanım [Selim's mother], well-known for her cleanliness should consent to this; that in a butcher's shop, among animals hanging from hooks, with flies all around them, Selim, on a cold autumn day, should be placed on a dirty balance, seems a very distant possibility to me." Mythopoeic exhalation and academic wheezing inflate poem and poet in a pastiche by Atay that courts the reader's patience even as it entertains, for few things in literature are as tiresome as ridiculous praise given to a flawed literary work by a thoroughly negligible figure. This section's abundant humour and outlandish conceits save the criticism, and the poem, from descending into sheer whimsy, though it's a close call.

That is not the only instance of narrative teetering between one mood and another. Each venue Turgut enters in search of his friend—homes, nightclubs, brothels, and bureaucracies—is a foray into the occasionally painful unknown by a character and also an opportunity for Atay to provide lists, transcripts, an 80-page unpunctuated section, mini-biographies, diary entries, the language of commercials—"All along the road our advertisements will keep you company"—and much else, ranging from the elegiac to the satirical. How does one accept this often humourous telling of a story that is replete with Turgut's grief? Are we to laugh or cry or scoff at the whole enterprise? Either you put The Disconnected aside as not enough (or too much) of one thing or another, or you tussle with its competing demands. One of Atay's most significant achievements is making this a book you can't read passively.

In the assumed world of the novel's events, from the first page Turgut finds it hard to tell his wife, Nermin, how inconsolable he is. Apart from the matter of his friend, he recognizes that that he can't discuss a crucial aspect of himself that most readers could identify with:

So am I going into this with the whole of myself, without even protecting 'it'? It, that 'thing', a little bit of himself that no one knew about; difficult to describe, but whose existence was very clear to him. Would he endanger that too? He had never surrendered the whole of Turgut. Never. He had kept it to himself. A 'thing', the value of which was known only to himself. Others too hide many things; even so, they may be left with nothing for themselves. This was different: if told it would have no value; therefore it could not be told. And even if you did give someone the 'thing', they would hardly notice it.

The struggle to keep hidden this mysterious "it"—an ineffable part of each of us scarce capable of definition in a way that would satisfy everyone—and the desire to speak of "it" is one more example of stress in the novel. Such seesawing instills a delicious tension in the reading experience, and it often seems like the perpetual motion behind the entire work.

A further stress, one that is political and historical, surrounds The Disconnected. The novel first appeared one year after the eruption of a bloodless military coup in Turkey that endured for some time. It is impossible to read this work—which brings together socialism and Marxism, European and Russian ideas, personal identity and the sadness of those who feel they don't fit in with their own society—without thinking of Turkey in the light of 2016's failed coup against its authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Selim, the disconnected of the novel, must have had numerous counterparts in real life for the work and its title to resonate so powerfully since it was first published, and as we read Atay now we can hardly remain blind to the disenfranchised, penalized, and arrested in contemporary Turkey.

Above I used the word "possession," and here it has a second important meaning. Everyone who has come into contact with Selim is haunted by him, and also wants to possess him. This is summarized by one member of the college cadre Selim and Turgut were part of when the topic of Selim's other friends comes up: "You went to the lady violinist's concert with this chap [a friend outside their group], didn't you? We would have embarrassed you, wouldn't we? We wouldn't have understood about B major . . . Only we here can be of any use to you." Turgut's encounters with other circles of friends eventually stop making him feel jealous or anxious. "We are not afraid any more . . . to hear what people have to say about Selim." When he reaches Anatolia, Selim's birthplace, he shares a cigarette with a peasant and thinks of his friend: "Was it to be your fate to be so alienated from one who makes his bread from the wheat sown by his own hands?" Fate, or social conditions, upbringing, poor spirits, tragedy; readers will arrive at their own judgments.

There is one last thing to mention about The Disconnected. The opening section, "The Beginning of the End," states the manuscript we are about to read was written by Turgut Özben and sent to an unnamed journalist (presumably Oğuz Atay) for publication. Then the "Publisher's Note" insists the events are "mere products of the imagination." This meta-device might seem to set the novel up as an extended joke, but, instead, amidst the humour The Disconnected is a mature consideration of grief's effects and a work that displays supple literary skill. We are fortunate to have it, finally, in English.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

Ta-Nehisi Coates
One World ($28)

by Chris Barsanti

Until recently, when the true desolation of the early Trump era has started metastasizing in even the most ardent optimist's heart, America had a script to use after a catastrophe. Whether a mass shooting, natural disaster, or police atrocity, each event was termed an opportunity for a "national dialogue" on guns, race, class, climate change, or what have you. Those conversations never happened because there was always another catastrophe, and in any case, the culture had mostly lost interest in the public intellectuals needed to push forward such a conversation. That changed, however, in 2014, when The Atlantic published one of the most talked-about pieces of writing in recent memory, Ta-Nehisi Coates's "The Case for Reparations." Suddenly, the country was having a conversation. And it wasn't an easy one.

When Coates published his first book, 2008's The Beautiful Struggle (Spiegel & Grau), there was no sign of the incisive political essayist he would become. A memoir about growing up in West Baltimore amidst the devastation of the crack wars and in the shadow of his ex-Black Panther father, it was lyrical and powerful, but primarily on a personal level. The larger issues that Coates would later tangle with remained largely on the sidelines. But that same year, Coates started writing for The Atlantic just as it was turning into the country's most important mainstream magazine of ideas. The results, captured in his new collection We Were Eight Years in Power, hit like a thunderclap reminder that white supremacy in America is a thing of the present, not the past.

Coates takes his title from a plaintive 1895 plea from Thomas Miller. One of the few black Representatives elected from the South after the Civil War, Miller was lamenting the painfully brief window of opportunity provided blacks in the old Confederacy before the anti-Reconstruction reactionary backlash. Coates mirrors that time frame with the eight years of the Obama presidency, tracking each year with a key Atlantic essay from that year and a running present-day commentary from Coates on himself during that year both professionally and personally. The result is not just a chronicle of the Obama years but the gestation period of a writer as he morphed from a popular blogger musing on politics, sports, and video games to perhaps America's most salient public intellectual.

The essays range from pinpoint to expansive. The First Year's "This is How We Lost to the White Man" is a portrait of both Bill Cosby's hectoring self-improvement speeches and a critique of bootstrapping harangues of black audiences dating back to Booker T. Washington. The Sixth Year's "The Case for Reparations" single-handedly reopened the previously taboo question of what America owes its black citizens for the centuries of pillage and pain. While Coates' voice develops and strengthens over the course of the book, the style remains much the same: lucid, curious, probing, and prone to a melancholic sense of tragedy. By always giving his essays a sturdy historical foundation, he keeps them from seeming like just a reaction to the newest outrage.

So even his most joyous piece, the Eighth Year's "My President Was Black"—a loose and celebratory take on the legacy of Obama, whose optimism Coates had often found unjustified—is shadowed by the institutionalized racism whose structure Coates spends much of the rest of the book tracing and explaining. The epilogue is "The First White President," an agonized exegesis of the white totalitarian assumptions at the core of the Trump presidency. On page after page, Coates fights the myopia over the "majestic tragedy" of American popular history, which so often ignores basic facts like how "racism was banditry . . . not incidental to America [but] essential to it."

It is too easy to call Coates the modern-day James Baldwin. Baldwin is the more consciously literary—Coates probably doesn't have a Giovanni's Room in him—while Coates hews to the style of a magazine writer looking for a punchy first line, like "Last summer, in Detroit's St. Paul Church of God in Christ, I watched Bill Cosby summon his inner Malcolm X" or "The first I saw Michelle Obama in the flesh, I almost took her for white." Still, Coates' second book, the meditative Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, 2015), was inspired by The Fire Next Time, and both of their writings are oracular in tone and suspicious of easy solutions. When Coates writes that "there are no clean victories for black people, nor, perhaps, for any people," it's hard not to hear Baldwin's mournful moral urgency ringing through.

Coates might not be America's greatest writer. But right now, in the shadow of a resurgent white supremacy, he might be its most important.

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Silence: In the Age of Noise

Erling Kagge
Translated by Becky L. Crook
Pantheon ($20)

by Adrian Glass-Moore

Many of us live under constant attack by noise, a most insidious enemy since it passes itself off as a friend. We are likely to say "it's too quiet" whenever silence wins a brief (and it is always brief) victory over noise. Erling Kagge, a Norwegian adventurer, achieved extreme silence when, in 1993, he walked alone for fifty days in Antarctica to the South Pole. He purposefully discarded the batteries to his radio at the trip's outset, leaving him confidently devoid of any human contact for the duration.

"I was never bored or interrupted," Kagge writes of the experience in Silence: In the Age of Noise. "I was alone with my own thoughts and ideas. The future was no longer relevant. I paid no attention to the past. I was present in my own life." The book could just as aptly be titled Presence, which writer Fran Lebowitz argues persuasively is increasingly rare. If you are in the street and looking down at your phone, then you aren't in the street, she says—you're on your phone. It follows that had Kagge traversed Antarctica while tuned in to the radio, he would have been tuned in to the radio, not in Antarctica.

Thus, we can say that not only did Kagge travel to extreme places, he was there when he did so. This puts Kagge in a unique position to dispense information he gathered which we are unlikely to obtain on our own, since we are neither likely to visit such extreme places nor forego distractions while we are there. Whatever knowledge Kagge possesses he transfers largely by osmosis. He doesn't spell it out for us, opting instead to spread his ideas over thirty-two wide-ranging micro-essays, each no more than a few pages.

Silence is not only found in silence. Kagge found it on top of the Williamsburg Bridge, spanning the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn, which he climbed with a fellow "urban explorer" in 2010. "I heard nothing," Kagge writes. "Below me, the traffic thundered past in four lanes, while the subway pounded rhythmically on its way in and out of the city centre. I was consumed by all that I saw and I shut out all the noise. You cannot wait for it to get quiet." Kagge also found silence, or presence, or beauty—whatever you want to call it—during a trudge through New York City's sewer system. Despite the "ceaseless noise," he writes, there was a "negative beauty—by virtue of all that is not present."

Kagge defines silence broadly as a state of mind, one that can be achieved without moving to Antarctica. But the fact is he did go to Antarctica. There is an urge within many of us to escape the physical din, not simply to tune it out. "It is not enough to withdraw from the mob, not enough to go to another place," wrote Michel de Montaigne. "It is our own self we have to isolate and take back into possession." Yet more than 400 years after Montaigne wrote that, physical displacement retains its allure, including for Kagge, who writes that he once "flew eighteen hours from Oslo to Sri Lanka in order to relax." Aware of the irony, Kagge can't help but report, "It was fabulous."

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Foolish Questions & Other Odd Observations: Early Comics 1909-1919

Rube Goldberg
Sunday Press ($35)

by Jeff Alford

Even before he was celebrated internationally for his zany inventions, Reuben Lucius Goldberg churned out cartoons like a machine. He built his comics around a simple premise, typically a recurring punchline or structural gimmick. His 1912 cartoon I'm The Guy features repeated wordplay, with characters who "put the ale in Yale" and the "con in congress." The 1914 strip Old Man Alf of the Alphabet turns familiar acronyms inside out: in one cartoon, a poker I.O.U. is explained to actually mean "I'm Often Untruthful." Some strips were riddles, with literary titles hidden in silly scenes: "Next station is Ferno," a train conductor announces in one puzzle, while two passengers muse about how a friend named "Bill Dante" lives in town. "What does this awful mess represent?" the cartoon asks.

Between 1907 and 1938, Goldberg created over 100 different cartoons, and while many of them were short-lived, a few proved to have substantial staying power due to their delicate balance of social satire and relatable humor. From 1909 to the mid-1930s, Goldberg penned a single-panel comic called Foolish Questions that repeats the same sarcastically screwball shtick with each new iteration. Every cartoon depicts a person in the middle of particular task, interrupted by an onlooker who asks, stupidly, if they're doing exactly what it looks like they're doing. The interlocutor, naturally, receives a snappy reply. "Feeding the cat, Lemuel?" a man asks, as another man tends to his feline. "No, you herring, I'm biting the horns off a goat." Some can be quite sassy: "Going to school, Sonny?" a man asks as schoolboy tromps by. "No you simp," he replies, "I'm on my way to an undertaking parlor to meet a bunch of live ones."

The formulaic nature of Foolish Questions allows little room for flourish, but Goldberg manages to capture the early 1900s in a vaudevillian shimmer and trades social niceties for some bite. In one cartoon, a major world event is brushed aside: "Oh, has the pole been discovered?" a man asks as another man reads the newspaper, its front page screaming reports of recent arctic exploration. "No, you rummy-this is an account of a dog fight in a frying pan."

Foolish Questions laid the groundwork for the machine drawings that would transform Goldberg into a household name. Goldberg realized through the strip that he could sink into a gag and let that machine run until its wheels fell off. His inventive chain reactions were absurdist, imaginative feats: one, for example, depicts a "Professor Butts" wearing his "Self-Operating Napkin," which connects his soup spoon to a headpiece carrying an alarm clock, a rocket, and an exotic bird, all of which would somehow lead to an automated face-wiping. By the 1920s, Goldberg was everywhere, from syndicated funny pages to progressive art magazines like Tristan Tzara's Dada. Today, his drawings and, more importantly, his influence, can be found in major art museums: much of Dada's mischief and the momentum of Futurism can be chained backwards to Goldberg's pen. Jean Tinguely's kinetic sculptures, for example, owe a mechanized tip of the hat to the cartoonist's pointed dreams of useless complexity.

Sunday Press's Foolish Questions & Other Odd Observations compiles over 250 of Goldberg's cartoons, including his complete Foolish Questions output for the Sunday Chicago Tribune from 1909-1910. To read them all in sequence is somewhere between mind-numbing, soothing, and positively transcendent. The book is beautifully produced, with the subtlest coloring that accentuates Goldberg's brilliant penstrokes and trailblazing lettering. But to have what is loosely the same joke repeated four times a page creates a bizarre new reading experience: the book's elegant presentation suggests there must be some way to unlock these gags and find some cohesive, metatextual glue between them all. Could there be repeated themes to the interchangeable variables of name, action, and put-down? Foolish Questions & Other Odd Observations feels like a riddle in itself, like there must be a code to crack their screwy simplicity.

In the end, we may not need to put the gold in Goldberg; these cartoons make as much sense as "playing auction pinochle with a musk ox", and that's perfectly alright. Left to their wacky inanity, they showcase a writer committing wholly to a simple goof, and that commitment alone boasts a marvelous sort of artistry. Perhaps it is because these gags do not transcend into something larger that makes them so special. While they may risk oversaturation and feel at times repetitive, they hold a remarkable mirror to the wonderful ridiculousness of daily life, reminding us that even when we have nothing to say we find a way to say it, day after day.

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from unincorporated territory [lukao]

Craig Santos Perez
Omnidawn ($17.95)

by Robyn Maree Pickens

Where a banyan tree is adventitious, with its branches and roots growing in a promiscuous tangle, from unincorporated territory [lukao] by Craig Santos Perez is ordered and carefully wrought. Beyond this initial comparison however, Perez deploys the banyan tree as both metaphor and symbol of two interrelated political pairings: colonisation/decolonisation and militarisation/demilitarisation. The book pivots on the tension between these two pairings, and on another dichotomy: birth/death.

Like the branches and roots of a banyan tree Perez constructs a dense weave of themes that are bolstered by formal (linguistic, stylistic, typographic) techniques, a method he recounts in "ginen understory (i tinituhon)":

i taotaomo'na : the spirits of before also dwell within the space
of i trunkun nunu : the giant banyan tree, whose aerial roots fall
from branches, intertwine, fuse, and root // as time passes, new
trunks form until a single tree becomes an archipelago

Perez rarely uses language for singular meaning: "archipelago," for example, refers to the Mariana Archipelago of Micronesia in the western Pacific, and to the project of Chamorro self-sovereignty. Chamorro are the indigenous people of Guåhan (Guam) and the Mariana Archipelago. (Perez is Chamorro but grew up in San Francisco from the age of fifteen; he currently teaches at the University of Hawai'i.) In the above passage, "i trunkun nunu : the giant banyan tree" symbolises the project of remaking Guåhan into a place where "i taotaomo'na : the spirits of before" can once again dwell. The proliferation of the banyan tree into an archipelago is a metaphor of Chamorro self-sovereignty. As such the project necessarily invokes colonisation/decolonisation, militarisation/demilitarisation, and birth/death.

from unincorporated territory [lukao] is anti-colonial, as the title makes clear. Guåhan is an unincorporated territory of the United States. This designation entitles Guamanians to American citizenship but not the right to vote. Their island is used primarily as a military base for the U.S army. It is from this colonised, militarised position that Perez situates his anti-colonial/anti-militarisation suite of work. from unincorporated territory [lukao] is preceded by 2008's from unincorporated territory [hacha], 2010's from unincorporated territory [saina], and 2014's from unincorporated territory [guma']. Each collection is a branch, an aerial root of a giant banyan tree on its way to becoming an archipelago of self-sovereignty.

[lukao] means procession, a thematic that enables Perez to encompass Chamorro creation stories of Guåhan's origins; reflections on the chain of nations who have colonised Guåhan (Spain, Japan, U.S); his own familial history; religious rites; and the birth of his daughter Kaikainali'i (addressed as "[neni]"). These themes are distributed throughout the four main sections of from unincorporated territory [lukao] under five titles (one of which has five subtitles). This distribution enables variant iterations and repetitions of words, phrases, and typographic strategies such as: double forward and backward slash (\\ //); square brackets ([you] refers to Brandy Nālani, Perez' wife); faded type (for extinct birds); strikethrough text (for banned Chamorro birthing practices); italicised text (English translation of Chamorro words); colon with a space on either side, as in "i trunkun nunu : the giant banyan tree" (perhaps to give equal weight to the two languages); ~~~ as separatory devices, and # to indicate both digital saturation and recent (and on-going) political movements such as #blacklivesmatter.

This list, although fairly comprehensive, shines only small shafts of light onto a dazzlingly complex architecture that supports intricate, multilingual, multi-register layers of meaning. The use of the double forward and backward slash at the beginning and end of phrases (in some poems), for example, is not a typographical conceit, but perhaps instantiates kåntan chamorrita, a Chamorro practice:

. . . \\ they stood in circles and chanted rhymed
verses back and forth // [we] call this communal poetic form
kåntan chamorrita (which translates as to sing both forwards and
backwards
)

There are many paths that sing forwards and backwards throughout this collection, but a good one to follow as it braids is lukao : procession. The first appearance of lukao occurs on the contents page with three untranslated Chamorro words held between tildes:

~
hånom håga' hånom
~

Although not a Chamorro speaker, I take the phrase to mean: water daughter water. Hånom : water occurs multiple times throughout the collection, and one close translation of håga' suggests daughter, which is fitting given that the birth of Perez' daughter Kaikainali'i is central to from unincorporated territory [lukao]. Kaikainali'i's imminent arrival is captured in the unspaced closing sequence from "ginen understory (i tinituhon)":

should[we]go
tothehospital
lukao:procession

From birth, lukao leads the reader to Perez's grandmother, and the missionary strategy of the Spanish who colonised Guåhan in the mid-sixteenth century:

. . . // grandma lights votive candles,
dusts the wooden crucifix, and kisses her lisayu : rosary :
procession of prayers \\

This religious mandate and the impact it had on indigenous ritual practices is subsequently narrated in the second iteration of "ginen organic acts":

the spanish brought their god and bible, suppressed the story
of fu'una and puntan, and forbade the procession
to laso fu'a in humåtak bay

Fu'una is the first mother of Guåhan creation stories, and Puntan, the first father (Fu'una's brother). Laso fu'a names the creation point in Humåtak Bay where life began. The sacral procession to laso fu'a is made banal in the ersatz Liberation Day parade each July 21 when Guåhan "celebrates" their "liberation" from the Japanese by the Americans in 1944:

. . . The patriotic procession takes place on Marine
Corps Drive, our main highway

From civic banality, lukao cycles back to a recuperation and reconstitution of the original procession to the creation point in the third iteration of "ginen organic acts":

on that day in 2014, the cultural groups our
islands are sacred and hinasso* revived the lukao fuha, the annual
procession to humåtak bay in honour of fu'una and puntan \\
silenced for centuries //

{*the name of another group, which "translates as imagination, thought, memory, or reflection"}

In the fourth and final iteration of ginen organic acts, lukao returns to Perez's daughter Kaikainali'I ([neni]):

[neni]

walks to her, opens her arms // grandma kisses her cheek,
breathes deep her baby scent \\ lukao between four generations

With the theme of lukao : procession, Perez weaves together the birth of Guåhan and his daughter, missionisation, religion, and the revival of ritual procession practices; through these manifestations Perez in turn encompasses Guåhan's historical and current colonisation and Chamorro resistance through reinvigorated ritual. The entire collection flourishes on this hinge of past and present: balancing loss with renewal, grief and anger with humor and touches of lyrical beauty. from unincorporated territory [lukao] holds the bitter (faded out calls of extinct birds) and the sweet (new life), as in the closing sequence from the fourth and last iteration of "ginen island of no birdsong":

i believe in the resurgence
of our bodies because
[we] are the seeds
ginen {from}* the last hayun lågu {native fire tree}
waiting to be rooted
into kantan chamorrita {to sing forwards and backwards},
waiting to be raised
once more into lukao {procession}

"kaaa-ah o asaina kaaa-ah o aniti"
"kshh-skshh-skshh-kroo-ee o asaina
kroo-ee kroo-ee o aniti"

{* = translation added}

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Attributed to the Harrow Painter

Nick Twemlow
University of Iowa Press ($18)

by Stephanie Burt

If you started writing, or reading, contemporary poetry in the 1990s, you may remember how disconnected from practical matters so many poets (mostly white ones) seemed; you may remember how many then—urgent questions about art and language and style spoke almost entirely (so it seemed then) to art and language and style. And if you've read what counted as contemporary poetry in the late 1960s, or the 1930s, you may already know what happens when once-detached poets get woke; how self-important, or shallow, the results can be. Poets write what they need to write, when they are acting as poets, whether or not it reacts to the news; poets, as Auden put it, seek "the clear expression of mixed feelings." Yet some of those feelings—especially in these rough times—can be "holy crap, I've been privileged! What have I missed?"; "Why do I keep writing poetry, when the world is on fire? Isn't it selfish, or pointless?" You may also ask (if you have kids) "How can my poems help my kids?"

All those feelings energize Nick Twemlow's disarming new book, Attributed to the Harrow Painter, which feels almost—but not quite—like a palinode, a taking back, of the more recondite, more evasive work that he and other members of his cohort were writing, and publishing, ten and fifteen years ago. It is, not by coincidence, also a book of autobiography, a book about parenthood (especially fatherhood), a book about realizing what you have inherited (like it or not); how you can inherit privilege and damage, shame and pride, at once; and what to do when you realize that your old conceptions of style no longer work for you.

For those questions, Twemlow has found a cadence that pursues disillusion, frustration, anticlimax, the sense that he and his past have let him down. He writes almost entirely in long demotic sentences broken up into choppy free verse, exactly right for flat questions like this: "Tell me / How your / Radical formalism / Saves lives / Exactly?" Or like this: "What do you need / To be reminded of your / Obsolescence? I can/ Go on, but do you need / Me to?" Such short lines, rich in anticlimax, dribble down the page for most of the book. What were the 1990s, for Twemlow? Answer: "We didn't just live / In a bubble, we built / The fucker breath by breath . . . We were students of something / Complicit / As two plugs of dirt."

Few poets so clearly committed, emotionally, to poetry have dwelt for so long on the dubious value of their own poetry, and Twemlow—whose poems do run long, like shaggy dog jokes—strives to convey the feeling that he is wasting his life: "These lyrics offer nothing, / Stolen & begged for, / They relieve / No one as they relive / The traumas . . . of my past, / Which I've grafted / Onto you." Twemlow sometimes prints the same kind of language as prose: "Why depict spiders skittering All over our dreams I didn't mean I didn't always Love my mother her Name is Robyn same As my wife." (No, Rain Taxi hasn't left out the virgules: that's how it looks in the book.) The Robyn who married Twemlow is Robyn Schiff, whose most recent book of poetry, A Woman of Property, pursues some of the questions that Twemlow asks—is poetry worth it? is art self-indulgent? what can we do for our kids, in these parlous years?—She and her husband have moved in opposite directions, he towards apparent mess and spontaneity, she towards the involuted and nearly Baroque.

Both address art history, too. The titular Harrow painter is one of those "people" art historians make up—nothing about him, beyond his work, is known. That work—ancient Greek vase paintings of beautiful boys—is regarded as minor, or inconsequential, as Twemlow fears or believes our poetry will be. "Classical Greece," like "civilization," like "poetry," promised a lot more than it can deliver now:

The great poem
Is chiseled rock.
The great poem
Rages with
White fire.
. . . . . . . . . . .
The great poem
Steals rolls
Of toilet paper
Every chance it gets.

"The great poem," we learn, might be no better, and no better for the young, than a tennis coach given to inappropriate touching: "I'm an artist, he told me." No wonder Twemlow's attention to visual art comes about almost reluctantly; there's more here about his teen and post-teen years, his smoke-filled hangouts with Kira, George, Andy, which might not be that different from poetry workshops, or urbane launch parties, with writers whose names you might know:

Poetry is super duper,
In a loop, say it with me.
I'm fine with all this
Pretend stuff
About how my friends are
My only real audience
Except didn't some of us
At least have slightly bigger
Ambition?

The word "slightly" hurts. So does Twemlow's admission, "Most of the poets / I've met felt ashamed": ashamed either of making their art merely personal (what the scholar Gillian White calls "lyric shame"), or of unrealistic, revolutionary vanguardist ambitions (radical critiques of capitalist language, comprehensible only to friends). They might be ashamed of their present lives, having settled in an English department rather than organizing Gulf Coast flood relief, and they might remain ashamed of their past, of the sexual trauma or class trauma or whatever trauma made them think creative writing would save them.

Attributed to the Harrow Painter talks back not just to White's idea of shame but to Ben Lerner's recent argument (in The Hatred of Poetry) that we look down on actual poems, and their authors, because no real poem can cash the checks that "poetry," that lofty concept, writes. Why does Twemlow use verse, if he's lost belief both in the old ambitions of verse (to be lyrical, to last forever, to save our souls) and in the new ones (to make us all modern, to attack cliché, to bring revolution)? One answer fits the kind of verse he chose: verse is the medium of introspection, of turning and turning back on oneself, of stopping yourself short as often as you go on. Twemlow's long poems (and they are long: "Burnett's Mound" lasts twenty-one pages) also partake of the offhand ongoingness familiar from book-length post-Beat works like Ariana Reines's Coeur de Leon and Bernadette Mayer's Midwinter Day: the verse fits not condensed conclusions but helpless impressions, reluctant notions, and unwanted, disorienting memories, as when Twemlow recalls being "So high coming / Back to [a high school] class one day, / Investing myself back into / My chair," and then, of course, laughing.

Is poetry just another fidget spinner, a way "To distract myself / From the need to / Distract myself"? Is there any point in "Conveying how just being / Just feels" when "My latest concern / Is our son"? Twemlow throws shade on the value of poetry, and and on the value of your time, if you keep reading him, but there is one source of value he never doubts: his and Schiff's son Sacha (named in the book). What kind of poetry can make the world more valuable, or safer, or more fun, for Sacha? If such a poetry exists, can Twemlow write it?

Maybe not—who knows?—but, having given up on older defenses of poetry, Twemlow can try. The title poem tells a sad, disturbing story, one whose ending I won't give up; the poem, and the story, ultimately suggest poetry, like the other arts, exists not because it can save us, but because some of us can't help but make it, and can't help but want it, or want more of it:

Sometimes,
You read the wrong thing
At the wrong time
& poof! There it goes
All getting under your skin
For life!

Twemlow once worked reading commercial screenplays—anti-poetry, as it were; proposals for spectacles; he "learned to hate / Reading anything / That was for sale." Poetry might even sell—it might get you a job—but it's still a kind of resistance to practicality, to spectacle, to being told what to do, or doing what sells. So is toking up and skipping class, but poetry stays interesting for longer, at least when you're an adult. Poetry won't answer your scariest questions, but it can certainly help you ask them; poetry also—because it can be very short or very long; because its lines give writers a way to stop, or reverse, or restart, our sense of time; because it lets you listen to yourself—can help you address your own past; you might even find out what, if any, of your prior thoughts, of what you once thought you had to say, rings true.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

The World to Come

Jim Shepard
Vintage ($16)

by Ray Barker

1987's holiday film Planes, Trains, and Automobiles has nothing on Jim Shepard's recent short story collection, The World to Come. Nearly all manner of transport is explored: ship ("HMS Terror"), train ("Positive Train Control"), horse-and-buggy ("The World to Come"), and even hot air balloon ("The Ocean of Air"). Readers familiar with Shepard's previous short story collections would expect this; the title story from an earlier collection, Love and Hydrogen, depicts forbidden love aboard the doomed Hindenburg, after all. That story, and the majority of the ten here, are quintessential Shepard, mining historical events to illuminate human emotions.

As in his previous work, the primary sources Shepard consulted in the course of his research form the backbone of the bulk of his stories. (The list of those sources, offered in the books acknowledgments, could serve as its own experimental short story.) And as before, Shepard's tales are most effective when framed by a particular historical context. One can easily see this, for example, in The World to Come's opening story, "Safety Tips for Living Alone." In it, tragic and true events are filtered through the private lives of a handful of the husbands and wives affected by the collapse of a radar tower in Texas, 1961. The collapse of "Texas Tower no. 4 became one of the Air Force's most unlikely achievements and most lethal peacetime disasters, marooning nineteen wives including Ellie Phelan, Betty Bakke, Edna Kovarick, and Jeannette Laino in their own little stewpots of grief and recrimination." Shepard walks the reader through actual events with grace, offering both an instructive history lesson and a profound exploration of how regular lives are affected by national accidents.

Less successful is "Intimacy," an unintentionally ironic title as it is the least intimate story in the collection. Detailing the before, during, and after of a hurricane hitting sections of Australia, along with its devastating effects on three characters, the accumulation of details just pile up, with no broader significance. It almost reads like someone doing a sub-par imitation of Shepard.

When he's on, however, Shepard excels at creating authentic voices, regardless of the character. Journal entries form the narrative for "HMS Terror," where real-life Navy Captain and arctic explorer John Franklin's "lost expedition" is described by fictional crew member, Lieutenant Edward Little, from 1845 to 1848. As the unfortunate expedition progresses, the thoughtful entries slowly reveal a new tragedy each day:

Two more died in the night and when we set off in the morning two others, when it came time to pull, were unable to tighten their traces. We haul until everything goes black before our eyes. We sink to our chests in ponds of meltwater a quarter-mile across. My feet at days' end are yellow and wooden and swollen, and the toenails sugarcoat with frost while I inspect them. The soles have started to peel off.

As the horror unfolds (records indicate the crew eventually resorted to cannibalism to survive, at least temporarily), the narrator reflects on his still-felt romantic failures with a former classmate, and his personal failures are contrasted with the epic one. These entries, and Shepard's "historical fiction" in general, are not a dry telling of events, but rather evocative re-imaginings of a history that is told precisely and personally.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
indiebound
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

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