Tag Archives: Winter 2018

Transit Comet Eclipse

Muharem Bazdulj
translated by Nataša Milas
Dalkey Archive Press ($15)

by Seth Rogoff

In Transit Comet Eclipse, we are asked to consider the movement of celestial bodies—Venus as it transits the sun, the dance between sun and moon as they block and shadow each other’s light, the flare of a comet. These astronomical wonders are not probed in depth in the novel, but they create a thematic atmosphere to follow the more mundane movement of characters as they cross borders and travel through frontier lands—as they flame with life and fade into oblivion. The book is short but powerful: It challenges its reader to understand territorial divisions as complex historical phenomena with economic, political and cultural dimensions, and it shows that these divisions matter—a lot. In fact, these divisions and the identities they help create and reinforce could be understood as something like fate, a fate as predictable as the next transit of Venus or total eclipse of the sun.

Transit Comet Eclipse is made up of three parts. The first section, “Transit,” tells the story of a priest from Dubrovnik who is traveling with an English diplomat’s family from Istanbul to St. Petersburg in the middle of the 18th century. The priest is Ruđer Bošković, a real historical figure who straddled the line between Jesuit Catholicism and the culture of the European Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. As a good Enlightenment empiricist, Bošković seeks out information in order to understand the world around him; the novel opens, for example, with the priest grilling a man at the marketplace about how many Turks, Christians, and Jews live in town.

The central action in this part of the novel has to do with the travelers crossing the territory of Moldova. Bošković is shocked by Moldova's otherness, by how close to “known” Europe it is and at the same time how incredibly foreign it appears to him. “From Moldova,” Bošković reflects in his journal, “I carry images of beauty, wasteland, fear, and dream.” With this, Bazdulj gives the reader a taste of the rich tradition of Balkan and European historical fabulists, circling back to the writer of the section’s epigraph, Ivo Andrić.

The “Comet” section abruptly shifts gears to tell the story of Maria Alexandra, a girl from Moldova. Maria is smart, sweet, and incredibly attached to her father. The characterization of her beauty and precocity trigger a nervous anticipation; things will only get worse, one assumes, for this poor girl. She is poor, of course, as is nearly everyone in Moldova. Her father dies. She moves in with her grandmother to finish high school. She starts to smoke, to drink. At a local bar, she meets a man who says his name is Boško (as in Bošković) and that he is in Moldova from Croatia to work as an assistant on a sociological research project. She falls in love with him, and he convinces her to run away with him to Croatia, where she immediately falls into the clutches of the sex trade. To prevent the violence and degradation that await her, she brutally takes her own life.

“Comet” is a gut punch, a window into the absolute worst of humanity. The horror goes well beyond the violence of the sex trade, beyond even Boško’s villainous deceit; it strikes at the micro and macro structures that create the conditions of poverty and desperation and the mechanisms that exploit these conditions. Life on the exploited periphery, the novel implies, is partly a reflection of the “civilized” core.

“Eclipse,” the novel’s third and final section, presents a short bildungsroman of the presumed writer of the novel’s first two parts. It is the story of a would-be author finding his voice and perspective: The Writer searches for a subject to write about, and after a lengthy period of ennui, he finds two topics that captivate him—the life of Ruđer Bošković and the story of a woman caught in the Bosnian sex trade, which he encounters as he accompanies a fellow journalist to a nightclub called the Queen in Bosnia’s Lašva Valley. The relationship between the stories seems at times forced, as when the writer reflects on a sex slave named Olga that he and his colleague encounter at the Queen: “She said she was from St. Petersburg, the Writer remembered, the same Petersburg to which Bošković was headed from Istanbul, the same Petersburg that Bošković never reached, the same Petersburg to which Olga wanted to return, but he was afraid she wouldn’t.” At other moments, however, Bazdulj and translator Nataša Milas achieve a striking beauty, such as their rendering of the Writer’s feverish thoughts while laid up in a French hotel:

During the fever his thoughts were confused as if in a recollection of dreams. The features of Sandi Thom and Kate Melua synced into one—the face of Maria Alexandra. The darkness of the Queen nightclub turned into the darkness of the eclipse. The light of a cigarette thrown from the window was a comet. Everything merged: the Charles and Mystic Rivers with the waters of the Lašva, the mysterious river of his childhood; the transit of trafficked women and the transit of Venus over the Sun; Dubrovnik’s view of the sea of his birth and the image of the sea he sees out his window.

Such moments of creative, disordered epiphany inspire the Writer to begin his story, and he begins precisely as Transit Comet Eclipse comes to an end.

For all of its playfulness, there is a haunting core at the heart of this novel, expressed most poignantly in one entry of the Writer’s journal: “Maria’s problem, however, was not that she was born too late, but too far to the East. Her problem was not that the world was indifferent, but that it was evil.” The novel might be able to merge landscapes and move across frontiers, but divisions and their accompanying hierarchies and exploitations remain firmly fixed on the world’s map as well as in its collective consciousness—with tragic consequences.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2018-2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019


Adam Tavel
University of Evansville Press ($15)

by Dana Wilde

I doubt if the judges who awarded the 2017 Richard Wilbur Book Award to Adam Tavel’s Catafalque were thinking about Edgar Allan Poe at the time, but they might have been. For a couple of reasons.

One is the subject matter: Tavel’s poems cover a large range of personal pain. The collection wends in and out of anecdotes of awkward instants—including a boy’s ambivalent recollections of his grandmother (“My Grandmother’s Chores”), childhood illnesses (“Eazy-E’s Abandoned Letter to His Seven Children from Cedars Sinai Medical Center”), ruminations on literary history (“Cora Taylor’s Letter to Joseph Conrad Following the Death of Her Lover Stephen Crane”), the weird sudden collapse of a classmate (“Faint Assembly”) and other adolescent humiliations—and explicit elegies, many of them marked by religious allusions and the continual presence of death. (A catafalque is a platform for a coffin.) Poe’s subject matter was not autobiographical in the sense we understand it now, but he was preoccupied by weird manifestations of physical and psychic pain, and Tavel makes that preoccupation personal.

Another connection to Poe is that practically every line in this collection is anchored to a fairly heavy rhythmic beat, usually iambic. For example, “At the County Morgue,” in its entirety, reads: “Before they fold the cover back you know.” This is Poe-like subject matter in unmistakable iambic pentameter.

Tavel uses rhythmic choices such as this to effect a declamatory voice, sometimes almost stentorian and often forged from postmodernly peculiar turns of phrase. Take the opening lines of “Jogging Weather”: “Your sonnets heaped atop the dead must end / the turkey buzzards squawk, or so I hear / them say.” These lines are straight-up iambic until “or so I hear”—Tavel has a good ear for when to vary the metronome while maintaining the declamatory tone, in part because he also runs heavy on alliterations and assonances, a sign of what Poe called (in The Rationale of Verse) the music of poetry as distinct from “versification.”

Tavel’s poetry would make a good vehicle to demonstrate Poe’s observation that the rules of prosody are artificial overlays which have little to do with poetry and its effects. Terms such as “iambic” are scansion descriptors first used to analyze ancient Greek and Latin, and by Poe’s time were applied in Procrustean ways to English even though they often inaccurately describe what they’re describing. Tavel’s poems lean so hard on iambic rhythms that they could provide a critic with clear material to show how the American version of high poetic diction does exactly what Poe reveals prosodic analysis doesn’t.

Not that this is a particularly pressing issue any more, because prosodic analysis is by and large a vanished activity in English departments. A thorough, readable study of postwar American prosody has been lacking for decades, but Adam Tavel’s clear insistence on the music of meters forces us to give some thought to the idea that poetry, even amid strong tendencies to speech rhythms, is still an analyzable form of music. It’s a welcome change.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2018-2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Poetry Is Thought As Feeling:
An Interview with Karen Garthe

Photo by Christopher Ludgate

by bart plantenga

While much poetry is soft drink, and some of it wine, very little of it qualifies as cognac. Karen Garthe’s poetry is that ruminating bouquet, a cognitive dissonance of richness in the realm of austerity. Neither minimal nor concrete begin to describe it. Beguiling and with ligaments concealed, the words provoke:

The Striptease of poverty sly peels
jacket                           a side to show         HER GUN WINs

sashays           all the choke

Leaping broad, Nordic chasms, her gift is alchemical, transforming a frugal sparseness into a feast of speculative white space, necessary erasures and pregnant silences between words requiring those leaps of faith that one experiences in the silence between the notes of Miles Davis or Erik Satie.

Garthe’s latest book is The hauntRoad (Spuyten Duyvil, $15). Her other books include The Banjo Clock (University of California Press, 2012) and Frayed escort (Center for Literary Publishing, 2006), winner of the Colorado Prize for Poetry. Her poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Chicago Review, New American Writing, Caliban, Denver Quarterly, Lana Turner, and more.

Although Garthe has devoted much of her meditative solitude to poetry, she has also lived a rambunctious Greenwich Village life. Escaping to New York from a beautiful but constrained Baltimore in the late ’60s to study ballet, she cavorted with the outrageous, the inspired, the sloppy, and the illuminated; a friend to many in the Village folk, jazz, rock, and art scenes, she was baptized in glorious decadence. We start there:

Karen Garthe: I worked in the music business for a number of years managing clubs—the upstairs at Max’s Kansas City, the Other End during Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review—and Patti Smith, who I’d met when we were both book clerks at Scribner’s. And, no, life in Baltimore wasn’t minimal or ascetic . . . Jeez!

bart plantenga: That’s not what I meant. It was about withdrawing from a life of fake frivolity of annoying decorum to the respite-sanctuary of your bedroom—DO NOT ENTER sign on the door—where you can read your defiant books: Dorothy Parker, Thomas Wolfe, Carson McCullers . . .

KG: My parents went to cocktail parties every weekend, or gave a party, or went to dinner dances. They were socialites. They got their names in the Blue Book—even my name was in there for a while. My parents went to so many Christmas parties that my mother had a chart of the outfits she wore where and when, so as not to duplicate the same outfit with the same people. In retrospect, I did have a privileged life, but the Baltimore world was a place that from a very young age I couldn’t wait to get out of. I left when I was 18, right out of high school. I came to New York to study ballet. It was a scandal.

BP: Your own “Piss Factory” [Patti Smith]: “I’m gonna get out of here, I’m gonna get on that train, / I’m gonna go on that train and go to New York City / I’m gonna be somebody . . .”

KG: Yes, but unlike Patti, for me it had not much to do with wanting to “be somebody” in the sense of being famous. I just wanted to live in a world that made sense to me, that would accept me. It’s a very long, complicated and sad story and in many respects, probably not that unusual for a middle-class kid in the suburbs, but Life in Baltimore was hell for me. I was a terribly unhappy person who lived in her room and didn’t come out unless she had to. And I have thought a thousand times about how much my current life—solitude after numerous failed marriages . . .

BP: Or successful divorces!

KG: . . . mirrors how I lived as a child—the end just like the beginning. This past year I was alone so intensely and relentlessly, recovering from chemo treatments for breast cancer. I couldn’t much write or create anything, but I did study, read, listen, watch, think. If it weren’t for feeling so sick most of the time, it was as though I had a residence in a palace or an art colony, I indulged myself so completely.

I can hardly qualify all the things I’ve done here in New York for more than 50 years. When I arrived, New York was a wildly creative artistic place and I’m grateful for that, just like I’m glad I grew up at a time when you could walk out the door in the morning and come back at dinnertime unbeeped, uncalled, unsummoned, unsurveilled, and unobserved.

I had all kinds of jobs working with all kinds of people. I was plenty miserable at them much of the time—and would feel especially sorry for myself when I’d see my musician friends waltzing back from a baseball game when I was coming home from work. Though I worked in the music business for a number of years managing clubs, I did not at all get to live as an artist in the freewheeling way of many friends. I couldn’t live off gigs or the sale of paintings. I had no endowment either, and I had to have a job to pay the rent. But there was a wonderful upside to this—my world was expansive, inclusive. I got to know people from completely different backgrounds than my own, with different goals and purposes, different enjoyments and pleasures in their lives than those of the comparatively cloistered downtown artist keeping company with those in agreement, keeping “to type.”

By comparison, my life was fantastically more diverse and experimental. It was adventurous and I was able to participate in and observe things as various as the mechanism of a waste disposal plant, a smoky room full of blustery Tammany Hall-type commissioners, an iconic diva (a real one, not a brand) in tears in situ, the vulnerability and tenderness of an otherwise brutal master of the universe—able, too, to listen closely to the mother of a homeless family about how many different shelters they’d called home, how they struggled for food. I worked with the powerful, the so-called glamorous, the wretched, the sweet, a few real geniuses, a multitude of regular Jane and John Does and a few outright lunatics . . . . For me, coming to New York was like being a Merchant Marine off to see the world. Back in those days, New York City was every place at once. In order to be a writer (the only thing I really wanted), I believed it was necessary to have broad experience and I did. As subject, the Self was not adequate, could never be enough. At least not my self.

There’s a big difference between working in New York in the ’70s and ’80s, even the ‘90s, and now. Then, individuals, companies, or institutions that had nothing (business-wise) to do with each other nevertheless shared a kind of conscience. There was commonality, a collective spirit. Now, really any kind of quotidian collective/civic spirit is gone. Now, we only cohere (if we cohere) on social media, in crisis and catastrophe. I pretty much attribute this to the demise of the newspaper. Once upon a time everybody—and I mean everybody—picked up a paper on their way to work, whether the Post, the Daily News, the Times . . . something. People on buses and subways read a paper. People read the paper in their offices, they read the paper at breakfast, lunch, or dinner. And they talked about what they read. They argued. They agreed. They fought. They engaged. This endowed even strangers with a kind of intimacy. It meant, too, that they had a sense of The Other, that Otherness was a part of civic life and consciousness. They did not live as much in silos, in “gated communities” of awareness. They knew that they were but one of numerous ingredients in the stew of life. In retrospect, they knew about more than mere conquering (though that happened, too).

BP: The demise of radio did not help. Listening to baseball pouring out of storefronts, or Howard Stern or WFMU or DJ Kool Red Alert . . . Now everyone has their own sound, their own cocoon, and so shared moments like standing in front of a window full of TVs together . . . But what set you to writing? Was it an English teacher who sent you on your merry way?

KG: I started writing poems as soon as I could hold a pencil and knew some words. I was encouraged to write by a teacher, probably. But I think I wanted to write because I loved to read. My first poems were about nature, then they were about love. I worked on the school literary magazine and finally was editor-in-chief. Appointing me editor-in-chief was a ploy by my English teacher to keep me in school because I wanted to drop out, I wanted to run away to New York. I’d confided that to her. She was a young, very hip English teacher and I remember her truly going for broke trying to convince me not to drop out of school but to stay and get my diploma . . . That I may not understand it now (then) but someday I would. She was right. But I was very hard to handle—not in any disciplinary way, but in a soul way. As editor-in chief of the literary magazine I was one of the Top 10 Seniors—the only one on the brink of academic collapse. I was so unhappy. Of course it had to do with my parents, who in their fierce arc up the social ladder seemed to need to thwart me at every turn. When I was older I would just sit in the coffee shop and study people who looked happy to try and figure out how they did it. I tried to learn what they knew. And eventually, I must have gotten it by osmosis because life did get better, it really did.

BP: Your poems deal with the interaction between words, phonemes, and our trust in them to engage in meaningful intercourse. There’s the moment that spark is sent across the silent synapses, the segue of where words with all their meaning and baggage, when left to their own devices, will create meaningful, fascinating new molecules. Your poems have a deceptive austerity. Is there such a thing as austere lavishness? Warm concrete? Like concrete poetry, a slab of concrete that sprouts moss that feeds off the concrete.

KG: There’s a significant amount of “picture making” in my poetry—in the text and in the scored materiality of how the poem appears on the page. That may turn the poem into an object, as well as a language declaration. Poetry is to the conscience, the soul. It’s an art, not a polemic, and keeps company in inspiration, fear, vanity, outrage, anger, arrogance, love—in mystery, beauty, the numinous, the sublime, the preposterous, the hideous, et al. It’s made of words—not guns or roses for that matter—just words. And to me, words assembled in language are everything.

BP: But it’s precisely this presumption of certain words flowing together to become the standard sentence that you seem to question. I think of Dada, and how the way sentences form themselves can be misleading [fake news], catastrophic [declarations of war], personally damaging [bullying]. So many of what we call acceptable sentences (by CEOs, politicians, etc.) display the abuse of that sacred author-word-reader bond.

KG: They’re how we know each other and ourselves in the course of an ordinary day and in extraordinary living. They are what prayers are made of and, along with music, they’re paeans of joy and hope. Notice that hopeless and despair are too abject and muster few words . . . if any at all. Yes, some poems are used as political invective, some rage or sentimentalize, and some limerick ribald and snickering, yes, yes, yes . . .

BP: I think of Brecht, able to bridge the political and personal, the sinister and the heroic. Or Whitman negotiating the personal through the larger out there. But political poems are often strident, a hammer to the head, a statement of the obvious: “war is bad.” While your poetry is like a poisoned dart to the heart.

KG: Bart, I hope it’s not always poisoned . . .

BP: Poisoned in the sense of providing an antidote to the poison of slack language or propaganda.

KG: Poetry is thought as feeling—given that thought, itself, is a kind of feeling. Real feeling and emotion don’t necessarily gesticulate wildly, throw the dishes, or cry themselves into recognition. Poetry is thought in the service of attention rendered in language.

BP: That describes much of the work in this book very well in just a few words, where I’ve been fumbling hundreds of them together to describe it. I picture you in a biology lab, gazing fixedly into a microscope at a glass slide on which words squiggle into position like amoebas . . . words like “terse” and “sparse” come to mind . . . pointing to some sentimentally edifying high ground.

KG: I hope the poetry offers an expanse for fascination, rumination, recognition, and sometimes sheer beauty. All for (probably not too many) readers who enjoy reading as a kind of work, who don’t want or need spoon feeding and who crave more than data . . . who are wearied of hackneyed poetic structures and the great glittering heft of personality or look-how-smart-I-am cleverness. But “terse” implies withholding and restraint with attitude. Terse is pejorative. I prefer that bare winter tree, the bones of exposure.

BP: Very good. Distillation is spirit separated from chaff. Your words are like Calvados, a drink you inhale as much as imbibe—while most are fine with Miller Lite. But do your poems have a declamatory purpose other than their being? Do you somehow not gain identity, recognition—esteem’s not the right word, but some kind of link that connects you to your words that makes them yours?

KG: I gain satisfaction. I make the poem and there it is! And I can inhabit the poem when I read it. And for some people, my poems are more graspable when read and embodied in the voice. Rarely do I declare myself “a poet,” which is just pretentious and a conversation stopper. I’ll say I write poetry. And to the inevitable “what are your poems about?” I might say, well, they’re about themselves. (But that’s not quite right, is it?) My job as I see it, my true purpose is to pay attention. If my poems are “about themselves” they are also made of keen attention in the world. No cause and effect, no determinism to offer. My writing is my own subjectivity that doesn’t so much deny Self as evince a kind of Self, indeed.

BP: L’art pour l’art, poems divorced from any moral, or utilitarian function?

KG: Some poems have ecstatic elements, and a great many of them flow with loss and love. Some—think of “Presentation Bouquet,” “Striding the Depot,” “Elegy in HR”—are tableaus of our time: the human and the humane subsumed by commerce, a quantitative world of surface in thrall to technology, to spectacle. As well as the object-ness of children, a cultural rejection of the elderly and everything old. They serve a vision that’s mostly grounded and material. They’re not about self (at least about me) in the usual way. Even when I use the first person singular, that first person often isn’t me but an imagined, projected persona. The hauntRoad in particular walks down lots of pain and loss, anger and dismay and doubt. But in the end, it arrives at intimations of faith. The final poem “Uphold. Protect.” implores the beloved to uphold and protect, to wade out and fetch the body. It’s preceded by a line from Shelley’s “Adonais,” his elegy for Keats. Shelley drowned just a few months after Keats died, and, indeed, someone fetched the body. My sick joke!

BP: I was looking at the table of contents; the typography reminds me of walking through Pigalle or Times Square, all the flashing different fonts on signs . . . like you’re taking on the OCD default of a uniform, standard, readable font. Mixing fonts, size, bold and italic makes your words wave, shimmer, tremble—a wild typographical dance.

KG: Wrought fonts and lettering are not protest or demonstrations of being against. They are feeling. Emotion. Typography can indicate different inflections—or even different voices. Within one poem there may be many voices, as in “middled in the Sender,” which has about five different voices. That poem is essentially a performance piece and unless you are a very acute and attentive reader, it would only come alive out loud, performed. When I write a poem, I may at the start have some specific idea or notion in mind. If the poem works, it begins to take on a life of its own and I get to a place where I’m working with it but not on it willfully. I’m not commanding the poem. Writing poems is the best thing I do and I’ve done it my whole life. It sounds dramatic, but I am one of those people who writes to stay alive.

BP: You say that the typography is not AGAINST something but a feeling . . .

KG: Feeling. Not “a” feeling. The italics, too, inject feeling, emphasis. And if you sometimes detect what you’ve called “Nordic emptiness” well, that’s really interesting because the Artic landscape (Glenn Gould’s Idea of North) are an Ur part of my aesthetic; whiteness of ground (the page), the great character of sky (the page). Vastness, endlessness, infinity. As a child, the polar bear (not the cuddly bear) was my psychic companion, my most marvelous imaginary toy.

BP: Yes, I feel the glacial, Nordic, white distances between words in search of each other . . .

KG: I “get” what I read very quickly, so I’m compelled by what slows me down. Most prose puts one foot in front of the other, a step-by-step yawn. These days, a lot of “poetry” is like that, too. It is prose set vertically down the page—taking the shape of a poem with none of the content. I walked here and I walked there, I thought this and I thought that. You can skim this stuff like a tax form or a Walmart receipt. Often you can listen like a therapist. On the other hand, some prose writers’ work is more poetic than the so-called poets. It’s all very hybridized now. I need data, information—but that is not what I want from poetry or any art form. Yes, poetry has its crafty elements. But you shouldn’t see the machinations of craft right off. As for syntax? Syntax is a kind of music, is it not? And some music comes from a far country . . .

BP: Nordic . . . I sometimes grab [my partner] Nina’s copy of a hyped literary novel and am struck by the mere explication, journalistic grooves, a page-turner hitting the right demographic-identity buttons. To presumptuously quote myself from an article on the poetry of Jose Padua: “a world of writing-workshop-tweaked, edited-by-committee, consumer-tested poetry bubbling from the heady realms of over-priced universities that pursue the glib parameters of the meme-framed minds and the contemporary, impatient, flash-fiction-attention-span zeitgeist.”

KG: In the media, there are few writers anymore, though everybody’s “writing.” I recently subscribed for a few weeks to The New Yorker, which I haven’t read in years—just thought I’d check it out because it now has good political journalism. And I remember it once-upon-a-time as a signal publication for quality writing.

BP: Our writing group, the Unbearables, protested twice, mid-90s, at the old New Yorker HQ on 42nd St. We demanded that they “free verse” from the suburban swimming pool doldrums. We thought by invading their offices we could convince them to just once in a while reward the wild ones, publish something out there. But alas . . .

KG: I flip through at the speed of light—like most online stuff. The words are dressed in clothes from The Gap, shorts, T shirt, baseball cap. Sneakers. Generally there’s little presence in the writing, no Voice. The dumb-down is noteworthy. I mean, if language is only as good as the thought behind it, well, then, hmm . . .

I see this everywhere. I see other stuff too, though, because it’s there, and I ferret it out! I just discovered an 80-year-old novelist named Joseph McElroy. His book of short stories called Night Soul fell out of my bookcase when I was looking for something else (how it got there in the first place, I don’t remember). I turned to the last story, “Night Soul,” and stood stock-still in the middle of the room reading until it finished. I was stunned. I was stunned by his richness of spirit and the deep quality of his listening . . . he’s a kind of animist, endowing everything with being. McElroy is in conversation with it all . . . totally inspired.

BP: Maybe it’s a confluence of impressionable youth and absorbing fiction, but I had that with Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, Conrad, Heller, Dostoyevsky, Celine, Günter Grass . . .

KG: Bart, I hope you enjoyed reading The hauntRoad, that it wasn’t a forced march. I know it’s quite different from what you are used to reading, but I don’t think it’s so different from some of the music you listen to.

BP: I did. Challenging, yes. I had the image of two magnets: on one end a magnet attracts opposite poles and on the other, the equal poles push off each other—each head-on pairing of words confronts the very notion +/- of language, phrases, sentences, and the presumptions we have in assembling them. While writing, I listen to SLOW music, music that soothes without sedating—currently gloom jazz such as Bohren & Der Club of Gore, Loscil, Deepchord presents Echospace, Yagya, et al . . . or Miles Davis, the Kind of Blue period, with those pregnant, soaring silences . . . also I never tire of Elevator to the Gallows, the Louis Malle film, but especially Davis’s soundtrack.

KG:. Feeling too much in a gallows already—personally and politically. Sick and sickened by Tiberius and his cabinet of deadly fools.

BP: Tiberius is right. Like him, Trump is a grumpy, reluctant president—I’m not the only one who feels he became president to spite his critics and his presidency is the ultimate revenge porn encouraged in 2015-16 by BFF golf buddy Bill Clinton.

KG: Even more, I feel sickened by what I don’t see, the sneaky, sly and covert destruction of many things—from small shoestring agency to whole forests, the whole fabric. The entire planet should be sleeping with one eye open.

BP: If people had had “one eye open” back in the Reagan era when this Reich cheerleader of trickle-down Propaganda was impressing Americans, Trump might not have been born[e]. Meanwhile, Davis’s Elevator remains cathartic, inspirational—probably the best soundtrack of all time.

KG: I watched Elevator to the Gallows last night. I liked it, of course, though the premise was so grisly. The three main characters, one dead, two alive, all equally selfish and cold. Moreau was very young, 30 I think, just lovely in her mournful way. Such a face. Only Simone Signoret had as much character in her visage. I thought it was curious that Florence (that was the character’s name, right?) walked and walked all over Paris looking for Julien. . . . And Moreau has a funny walk, chin up high and proud, she leads with her stomach, sometimes curiously swaybacked. Her confidence is almost dangerous. She’s dangerous in everything, even love.

BP: Speaking of dangerous, how do friends and family react to your work? I imagine it’s like someone with a very difficult-to-explain profession: Feng Shui consultant, network engineer, biomechanic, Pet Rock consultant . . .

KG: Hahaha!!! Someone once asked me (it was an accusation) who do you write for, who’s your audience? I said I write for the person who enjoys reading my writing—for whoever is interested, whoever wants to keep company. And I get—even from people who care about me (especially from people who care about me!)—reactions that run from dead silence to rage. An anger that may come from people who thought they knew me, but when they read the poems it’s like “who is this . . . who are you?” I mean, I have rather perfected a reasonable attractiveness and do move graciously, even easily, through the world. I enjoy people. Socially, I’m not even slightly difficult, confrontational or contentious . . . though maybe a little edgy at times. So, people who know me in this are thrown off, pissed off. BUT, if you’re interested and my poems resonate, then thank you, dear reader.

BP: “Rage”! I guess they want guidance, which is mostly clichés, presumptions, formulas, famous names. No canoe without a paddle here! They want life preservers, an outboard, GPS, an EMS app, lots of food . . . They don’t understand that poetry can be a GPS for the soul. It’s all distraction for them . . . I am peeved by how popular culture persists in distracting us forever from issues while pretending to inform.

KG: People just want to understand. They don’t want to be made to feel stupid. But yes, we’ve downgraded to a selfie culture with no more sense of the sacred. We’re most miserably cocooned and strait-jacketed in hollow branding. I think even younger people who’ve known no other kind of world but big box stores and the media flatland are in crisis, in a place of nearly excruciating yearning for substance and nutrition. And of fear for the planet they stand on and fear of the powers that be who demonstrate criminal greed and negligence over and over without end . . .

BP: People DO want real-visceral. That’s why concerts are still big. But then some of them can’t let go of their need to Detach, filming endlessly on their phones, when their souls crave this sweaty real Attachment. Caught between visceral need and media addiction . . .

[Karen guides me through Bergdorf Goodman, on a 100%-humidity September day, a walk you might take through the Alcázar of Seville.]

KG: Since EVERYTHING IS GONE in New York City, the only real oases left, the only islands of peacefulness are the department stores . . . Bergdorf’s, Bloomindale’s!!!

BP: Even these bastions are threatened—Lord & Taylor closed—by the ravages of insensible venture capital . . . Read Kevin Bakers “The Death of a Once Great City” published earlier this year in Harper’s.

KG: They smell good. Sometimes they’re even fun. People are helpful and nice. The bookstores, record stores, stationery stores—every other low-key browsy meditative place is gone. Now, I gravitate to the department stores when I need to get off the crazy streets and breathe.

BP: The perfume department was magical. Like a secret bower . . . like a wing of a museum not much visited . . .

KG: For as long as they survive, department stores are a final bastion. And that twinkling jewel of a Guerlain counter at Bergdorf’s is balm in Gilead.

BP: A little island in the storm. I felt like I was in an unpublished J.D. Salinger story.

KG: I think about writers like Tennessee Williams, whose characters were so idiosyncratic, eccentric, fragile, brutal or difficult . . . think about the whole ethic of tolerance for distinct, unique individuals, for respecting, for cherishing their “otherness.” I don’t know what to make of this “shifting paradigm” that to me seems like a whole culture die-off, another extinction. And I write this as I read this headline in The Washington Post: “U.S, militia groups head to border, stirred by Trump’s call to arms.”

BP: In “Elegy in ‘HR’” you write: “the glass bowl sails for help and other gusts of mercy”...

KG: But, Bart, you know the world doesn’t entirely suck! It can’t. It’s dangerous and imperiled and we’ve defaulted our God-given custody. Yet to pull The Dark across it entire is false. If you’re in a difficult spot with yourself, very depressed, angry, in some kind of trouble and empty of any sense of the sacred, indeed you can step into easily available quagmires of rage—whichever rage most suits you—and like quicksand get pulled into the darkest place, into the whirlpool. You can devolve in total fear of Other, you can succumb and lose every iteration of love.

BP: Alan Watts said: “On the one hand there is the real world and on the other . . . a whole system of symbols about that world which we have in our minds. These are very useful symbols, all civilization depends on them, but . . . they have their disadvantages, and the principle disadvantage of symbols is that we confuse them with reality, just as we confuse money with actual wealth, and our names about ourselves—our ideas of ourselves, our images of ourselves—with ourselves.”

KG: It seems to me that there is a prison-self that can be made by the marriage of your own personal misery to the miserable world . . . these days one can become quite righteously eclipsed by depression and rage. But you must remember there’s still plenty of wholesome life out there. People live lives of real love here and now. And young people are so often astonishing . . . like your daughter, Paloma. Most of the young people I meet are extraordinary. They fill me with hope like those kids from that high school in Parkland, Florida. Kids like that might save us all.

Yet also, like Mandelstam said: “The centuries surround me with fire.”

bart plantenga is the author of the novels Beer Mystic, Ocean GroOve, Radio Activity Kills and the wander memoirs Paris Scratch and NY Sin Phoney in Face Flat Minor, among other works. His books Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World & Yodel in HiFi plus the CD Rough Guide to Yodel have created the misunderstanding that he is one of the world’s foremost yodel experts. As a DJ he has produced Wreck This Mess, in NYC, Paris, and Amsterdam since 1986. He lives in Amsterdam.

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Poet and The Circus

Clark Coolidge
Pressed Wafer ($15)

Clark Coolidge
Flow Press ($15)

by Patrick James Dunagan

Clark Coolidge is a powerhouse among poets; over the years his sheer output has been nothing less than monumental, and at seventy-nine years of age shows no signs of stopping. The latest little brick-of-a-book added to the Coolidge canon is Poet, a rip-roaring whale of a poem-series (over 300 pages) riffing off the late David Meltzer’s “When I Was A Poet,” the joyously reflective title poem that takes up a mere eleven pages of Meltzer’s 2011 collection. While Coolidge’s dedicatory note to Poet gives Meltzer the briefest of acknowledgements (“thanks to David”), there’s nothing more really needs be said. Meltzer would love Coolidge’s book and definitely dig the props given to his own poem:

when I was a poet       when I was a portrait
a potentate       a Peterbilt       a porcelain stevedore
a peek at that shack at the end of the peneplain
poet the finisher of everybody’s questions
poet takes a phone break
poet broods getting the point
poet catlike perplexed by doorsills
how many people do you think there are in the world?
add ten poets
poet turn mistakes into alternate takes

Coolidge and Meltzer’s friendship first began back in the 1960s, when Coolidge played drums in Meltzer’s psychedelic would-be pop band The Serpent Power. In more recent years the two poets had on occasion hit the circuit again as a poetry duo, exchanging choruses; at their best, these readings possessed a fascinating improvised structure as nothing appeared planned ahead of time, each poet reaching for their next material according to the nature of what they heard coming from the other as they read. Coolidge is still drumming, now with the free improvisation group Ouroboros, and his poems in part reflect the nature of his playing—a jangly set of lines that leap then abruptly halt before leaping again as assorted references get called forth into the fray.

Much of Poet is Coolidge at his most casual, allowing an abundance of name-dropping (e.g. “Gregory Corso I can hear you laughing”) while also tossing in plenty of references to popular culture, especially when it comes to film: “The apes had all left for another planet / . . . / planet of whatever the hell your talking about.” In all cases, the humor runs rampant, at times with hilarious shades of snarky cynicism, “poems of people who all hate each other.” The poetry world may (hopefully!) never be the same again.

Coolidge’s references, asides, and quick dodges are never too obvious. One page contains a robustly diverse range of figures from the poetry and art world. Few will recognize all these names, though googling will clue the curious in a bit. Still, be aware that to approach an approximate understanding of what associations may have popped into Coolidge’s mind will take more than just cursory screen scrolling:

Max Finstein a corn hen to be dipped
Piet Mondrian the organist
Joe Early’s duet with Don Shirley
David Rattray a weapon against the rain
A salt shaker in the hand of Carol Bergé
Roxie Powell the bug in a duck
Jamie MacInnis funny you should ask
Piero Heliczer compact as the sun
The Punishment of John Wheelwright an Ode
W. D. Snodgrass a dream of pickled horseflesh
Billy Collins a tissue of gummy bears
John Fles the magazine youth
David Salle tear sheet of the mouth
John Koethe a sally

It’s worth noting how among the mostly comic take-downs of more well-known figures there are dashes of what would seem the propping up of a few lesser known, true outsiders who were as yet very much a part of the scene way back when.

As opposed to the untitled entries on each page of Poet, the poems in Coolidge’s other recent volume, The Circus, retain the convention of individual titles. This volume, too, however, is a series composed in sequence from “5VIII02-27XI02” [Aug 5, 2002-Nov 27, 2002] as noted after the final poem. It’s likely not a good idea to read too far into the title. After all, it may just have come from the fact that it’s the title of the first poem:

Cyrus plays a tune to his pipes to the gods
perhaps there will now be ghosts opening the circus
tabletop pies assorted sauces awaiting the animals
their curses their courses the paleness of smaller moons
a binocular version of the circus with no animals
too many persons they may yet leave to butter their teeth
the whole room becomes a drone but less elastic

There’s also a manner in which this book of poems, as might be said of many a book of poems, is a kind of circus itself, full of characters, stunts, animals, and barkers all gathered together between book covers for the enjoyment of the audience (i.e. readers). Or it could just be a commentary on how aptly the circus serves as metaphor for life and poetry, a representation of the world in which language is unleashed sounding out unexpected and bizarre scenes:

Kind of thinking you’ll have to scratch to survive
god knows what I really said to that eggplant
a whirling mass of air or mind
or drive this stake through your everyday scribe
it’s filled with foofy food! a hullabaloo
that’s normal for a poet like Red Rodney
billows with roses stamped out of stink fish
a patrolling problem down among the trollers for stuff
so what do we make? a shelf-life tryst?
bubbles up in the doubleyou column nobody wins
coughs lots though you weigh yourself in water
but what can you expect these days
a loaf split into three pinballs?

Both these books are admittedly much longer than the average collection of poetry. Coolidge’s Selected Poems 1962-1985 (Barrytown/Station Hill Press, 2017) was a revelation. Clocking in at nearly 500 pages, it offers possibly only a quarter of Coolidge’s total output during those years. Yet his massive oeuvre from that period has been magisterially shaved down by editor Larry Fagin (most likely with Coolidge’s assistance); the seemingly heretofore unapproachable behemoth pile of individual works is made utterly accessible. Although some collections are represented by mere snippets, each serves up prime example of Coolidgean perfection—which, it must be said, is by nature decidedly imperfect.

In Now It's Jazz: Kerouac and the Sounds (Living Batch, 1999) Coolidge declares he’s hungering to read ALL that Kerouac wrote, every as-yet unpublished page from the family’s archives. He’s desirous to experience every line Kerouac ever set down upon the page. Writing, much like reading, is an all or nothing endeavor for Coolidge; he’d have you read his books in total. So don’t wait for The Circus and Poet to appear excerpted in his next selected poems—get at them now when they’re fresh and, yes, quite popping.

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Light Wind Light Light

Bin Ramke
Omnidawn ($17.95)

by Cindra Halm

Bin Ramke’s poem “The World Vibrates Variously” offers a microcosmic philosophy in both its sonorous syllables and essayistic unspooling of idea. Here are the closing gestures, having first touched on matter and energy, birdsong and traffic, art and personal perspective:

The story cannot be told in profane language
in a dirty world reflecting itself
in every puddle every sky
bounding and bouncing light back
at us (Observing sea, sky, and stars,
I sought to indicate their plastic function
through a multiplicity of
crossing verticals and horizontals.)

back and below
where the lines converge
as the layers linger
humming along.

The poetic layers Ramke builds create spare rooms, secret passageways, and holographic catacombs, weaving them into a sacred geometry among language’s denotative, connotative, textural, and etymological melodies. Image and metaphor, yes; intellectual rigor and wandering, yes; conversations with personal, literary, scientific, philosophical, and spiritual touchstones, yes. These are poems of the mind and for the mind, investigating and honoring realms of thought and associational activity in process and on the page. (Ramke is known for this; his 2009 New and Selected Poems carries the title Theory of Mind.) Fuller, though, and even more accurate, would be to name his oeuvre a constellation of forcefields which evoke and animate forces. A sensualist, language student, and miner of airs, waters, places, Ramke continues to be one of our most overtly engaged, persistent, transcendent, high-profile contemporary poet of physics and metaphysics, furthering the work of American Moderns such as Stevens, Eliot, and Roethke.

Most poets ponder love and time, life and death, nature and human nature. While this is true of Ramke as well, his relentless questioning into both subjective and objective realities creates “lines and layers” where consciousness meets quantum and cosmic patterns. His true subjects are the edges of things/conditions/insights, and how they nest within each other like Russian dolls and overlap like Venn diagrams. Where the Jungian multiplicity of selves and the mellifluous syllable scintillate, Ramke attends by capturing the moment.

Light Wind Light Light, Ramke’s thirteenth volume, happily continues these key signatures. While the epicenter here, from a poet of a certain age, treats reflection—both in the physical, light-creating-images-through-dimension sense, and in the metaphysical, soul-contemplating-itself sense—it’s too simple to say that this is a book about memory. The title (and was there ever a more gorgeous title?) gives us thematic cues: he leaves out solid earth and rushing waters, as well as light’s more passionate incarnation, fire, to reflect more ethereal forces. The title also morphs into resonant possibilities—noun? verb? adjective? long “i” or short?—and suggests a spectrum of other mutable, multifaceted meanings within the covers.

Fans of the middle-period books may miss the expansive, side-scripted, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink methodology, but Ramke’s digressions and parentheticals still abound: here they’re embedded in the text and also peppered as epigraphs, intersecting voices, and chapter intros, honoring his maximalist mind even within poems that feel more vertical, compact, and direct, arcing back to the style of his earliest books. Socrates shows up, as does Newton, Plato, Ingmar Bergman, Louise Bourgeois, and others. Repeating words and concepts include light, wind, winding, past/passed, beginning/end, boundaries, numbers, morning/mourning, and murmuring. Ramke gives us the flickering movements of existence, the artifacts and contexts of passage, as in “Windfarm Wind”:

We do not see wind we see
what was windblown wind formed.
Birds do die but did live.

The poet-mystic knows the quantum, the cosmic, the strings, the elements, the directions, the snake, and the spider. The poet-mystic knows that the void offers an invitation to create anew, “Isolating Splendor” as one of his titles puts it, in order to “Witness (The Modern Sublime)” as he says in another—in reflection, in melancholy, in contentment, in awe. This poet-mystic knows, and sings as he shows.

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Suicide Club: A Novel About Living

Rachel Heng
Henry Holt and Co. ($35)

by Rachel Hill

U.S.-based Singaporean writer Rachel Heng’s debut novel Suicide Club depicts a near-future dystopia in which optimized healthcare for the privileged few creates a society where the inevitability of death is replaced by the inevitability of living. In this governmentally mandated healthcare paradigm, suicide, as a criminalized expression of “non-life-loving, the antisanct,” becomes the ultimate assertion of agency. With this deployment of suicide as rebellion against a system of enforced health, Heng’s closest literary precursor is probably the 2008 novel Harmony by Japanese speculative writer Project Itoh, in which the societal imperative to maintain maximized conditions of health similarly subordinates individual autonomy to governmental control.

True to the dystopian tradition, each citizen in Suicide Club is assigned a number at birth, based upon the quality and viability of their genes. The genetic basis for quantifying worth and qualifying personhood imposes a two-tier class system striated between the genetically privileged ‘Lifers,’ who live for centuries, and the ‘sub-100’s,’ the rest of us. The privileged class are provided with transhuman augmentations such as “SmartBlood™, DiamondSkin™, and ToughMusc™,” representing a new economy of the body premised upon its division, technological mediation, and privatization into market-derived pieces.

The genetically poor on the other hand are cast aside to languish in a society which increasingly operates on scales of Lifer centuries, rather than the now subprime three score and ten. Personal health thus becomes the ultimate signifier of power, authority, and status, whilst denying the majority adequate healthcare becomes tantamount to algorithmic eugenics. The pervasiveness of dystopian levels of control meted out through medical procedures enforced on or withheld from different bodies is further visualized through the novel’s leitmotif of transparency.

With Suicide Club’s skyscrapers made entirely of glass, compared to a “great cathedral of empty space,” Heng riffs on the complicated history of glass cities within modernity as a source of both utopian desire and dystopian decline. A particularly pertinent point of reference here is Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian ur-text We (1924), in which transparent architectures literalize governmental panopticon-like oversight. Glass structures are used in Suicide Club as a signifier of perfectibility, endurance, and symmetry, making the bodies they contain literally transparent to society.

Suicide Club’s granular focus on the body is further performed at the level of language, demonstrated through the novel’s distinctive use of chemical and medical nomenclature. Peppered throughout the text are references to “deliberate inducement of cortisol generation,” “optimal circadian rhythm compliance,” and “Salmonella, Campylobacter, Listeria, Shigella.” A microscopic focus on physiological conditions has thus become absorbed into everyday speech and thought processes, materializing how internal bodily processes are made external (and hence transparent), as well as highlighting how external dictates are internalized by individuals.

Coming at a time when economic inequality is increasingly stark, and when public discourse around access to healthcare is gaining more attention, Suicide Club’s focus on the intersections of class, health, and economics is timely and pertinent. Although the novel has a fairly standard “one against the many” plot, it nonetheless succeeds in providing what the best dystopias should: an imaginative rendering of how accelerated contemporary conditions on a future trajectory render the ethical dubiousness of such conditions transparent.

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Zachary Mason
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($26)

by Chris Via

Zachary Mason began his publishing career with a revitalization of Homer’s Odyssey, reserving his proclivities as a computer scientist for his second novel, Void Star, a work of science fiction with nods to William Gibson. Now he returns to revamping classics, this time following the historical trajectory from Greece to Rome with Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Recasting such monolithic literary forebears is a tricky business, but Mason executes his vision with a poise unexpected of someone concerned with distilling matter into data and algorithms. He appears to have no problem suspending the impulse toward scientific exactitude in favor of artistic liberty and poetic flourish.

Culling material from so vast a pantheon, Metamorphica emerges as an Ovidian florilegium of fifty-three brief chapters organized into “septants” that correspond to one of seven predominant gods. Mason explains that he selected the myths he liked and made them his own, just as Ovid did with Hesiod, Homer, Aeschylus, et al. The generous selection includes myths familiar to most readers: Pygmalion and Galatea, Theseus and the Minotaur, Daedalus and Icarus, Narcissus and Echo, Jason and Medea, Orpheus and Eurydice, Phaedra and Minos. Ovid himself is brought into the narrative, though not in the manner of Dante’s Virgil—Mason uses Ovid as a totem for the invocation and epistolary closing of the book.

The epic mode—much in the manner of Ovid’s strongest English translator, Allen Mandelbaum—complements Mason’s strengths as a writer. Homeric epithets like “the wind-troubled night” and the use of anastrophe, as in “a nightmare unending,” punctuate the narrative with a classical verve. Gritty warlike imagery heightens the smallest of moments: “the rain cut pale streaks on my blackened hands.” King Minos rivals the modern Italian poet Leopardi in his existential despair: “I drank too much, but not enough to make life bearable.” Achilles is rendered with shades of Ecclesiastes’ Kohelet; Menelaus, in his afterlife, prefigures Darwin, a figure who could rightly be called the nineteenth-century incarnation of Ovid; Daedalus recalls a Borgesian character at his most aleph-obsessed. Of all the episodes, “Europa” is the crowning achievement of characterization, symbolism, and aesthetic power—its candidacy for extraction and anthology ranks with Moby-Dick’s “The Whiteness of the Whale.”

Metamorphica, like its predecessor, is ultimately a book of changes, and the ancient narrative thus becomes its latest metamorphosis: a prose poem placed into the mouths of its own representative stars. Achilles laments the endless, meaningless procession of people and events, and Daedalus, no doubt speaking as a surrogate for the author, beckons us to consider his revelation that “in the end, there’s only pattern.” Mason’s craft, however, rushes ahead of all rejoinder and galvanizes the revelation with the addendum that pattern itself can be beautiful.

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The Terror of Freedom:
an interview with Robert Kloss

Interviewed by Gavin Pate

Over the past decade Robert Kloss has steadily produced a haunting body of work. From his early chapbook How the Days of Love and Diphtheria, through his novels like The Alligators of Abraham and The Women Who Lived Amongst The Cannibals, Kloss has explored the dark corners of American history and the struggles of individuals against fanaticism and so-called progress. His books are at times anachronistic, at times poetic, and at times surreal, yet in each the reader encounters a singular voice seemingly of another time and detached from the fads of the present.

This fall sees the publication of his hybrid novel, A Light No More, a book that seems to push Kloss even further into his own literary territory. Blurring the lines between poetry and prose, A Light No More puts Kloss’s inventiveness on full display. While the book shares a loose affinity with horror, it transcends genre, and like the many images and photographs contained within it, it slowly infects the reader with its own harrowing vision of the world.

Gavin Pate: William Styron once remarked that “The business of the progression of time seems to me one of the most difficult problems a novelist has to cope with.” Since the progress of time is central to both the thematic and character arcs of your novels, I was wondering, what it is about history, and especially the changes that took place between the 19th and 20th centuries, that has such a hold on your work?

Robert Kloss: I absolutely agree that the progress of time is central, but it’s interesting to me, looking back now, how much that idea has changed for me. With Alligators in particular I was writing less about people than I was about large events, “history,” and that progression. I was really interested in all the little anachronistic qualities of history, or what seem like anachronisms, and how when you look back at the 19th century so much is recognizable in an unexpected way. There’s a dream quality to something as common as a mowing machine or pornography when it’s in this different context.

But the last two books in particular—Cannibals and A Light No More—have become more interior. There is some exterior progression of time and history in Cannibals, but it’s really tightly connected to character. The new book is almost set outside of history. There are a couple markers that let you know that it’s still the late 19th century, but it’s very interior, and very dreamlike.

I wrote Alligators and Revelator over two years and since then the books have come along at a different pace. And I think that’s partly due to how my understanding of time and what that means has developed—it’s forced me to slow down and relearn a lot of how I think. Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams came out while I was writing Cannibals and some of the ways time is discussed in that film really struck me—there’s this idea that cave painters were in conversation with each other, across thousands of years—so I began looking at how different cultures, and physicists, and dementia sufferers, all perceive time. You see some of that in Cannibals, and it’s heavily influenced the new book.

GP: While your stories are rooted in history, they also contain these bizarre fabulist elements, be it alligators, black mountains, giant walls, or all types of “creatures.” In these historical settings, there always seems to be another world creeping in. How do you see these historical events and almost mythical elements in conversation with each other?

RK: I really idealize the way a child looks at the world—there’s a mystery and a strangeness to things. There’s that glow to everything. And there is less of a line between dream and imagination and reality—they bleed into each other constantly. I had a hard time as a child understanding that dinosaurs and humans did not coexist, probably because it’s just much more interesting to think otherwise.

There’s one memory in particular that I think explains things—Reagan’s re-election happened while I was in kindergarten. And I remember the teacher gathered us around to explain how this election was going to happen and who was up for election and all this stuff. Somehow in this wonderful way I came out thinking that the current president was a kind of timeless machine, a computer. And I remember picturing this computer filling a room. I have no idea how that misunderstanding happened—I do however wish I could go back to seeing the world that way.

The older I get, and the deeper I get into my writing and where I want to go with it, the more frustrated I am by my education. I’ve had to spend so many years unlearning how a book works, how a narrative works, and all this other garbage that I was indoctrinated with. There’s this misunderstanding that you need to be more educated or intellectual or whatever to understand or appreciate experimental writing or art films or modern art or whatever the terms are. I think it’s the opposite—or it should be the opposite—the less you know about technique or theory the better. I was really reluctant to allow my publishers to call Alligators a Civil War novel and Revelator a book about Joseph Smith, partly for those reasons. People get hung up on that stuff too much.

GP: I will resist where my brain wants to go here—namely, the horror show of a computerized Reagan running the world for eternity—and instead address your point about narrative indoctrination. You have this great line in Cannibals that I think sums up many of your characters’ struggles, as well as perhaps your larger vision: “the immortal soul not yet subdued by the mortal malaise.” There is something strikingly romantic here, as well as strikingly desperate. How do you take this line?

RK: I don’t remember that line at all! But you’re right, it does sum a lot up. Again, I think it goes back to childhood, and then the tedium of existence sets in. I sometimes say that I’m addicted to inspiration—and for me inspiration is that deeper something that makes this all meaningful and worthwhile, and it’s the thing that life seems designed to murder.

GP: Your books can definitely traffic in murderous urges—and yet, while there seems to be many ways the people in your novels have designed to destroy themselves, there is a kind of transformation of these urges, such as with the Player King’s Rabelaisian troupe, into something artful, if not still brutal. Do you think this destruction of childhood, which you reference, can actually be remedied through such artistic transformations, or is such thinking just a last-gasp effort against the inevitable? And can you say more about inspiration as both victim to and life-line from the tedium of meaninglessness?

RK: I think it depends on the person—some people are built for tedium and thrive in it. Society functions as well as it does because we don’t all malfunction. Capitalism works partly because something about humanity allows itself to be brutalized into a cog, and partly because it allows certain classes extravagant playtime. I tend to think the ability to believe in a god or in supernatural, magical occurrences, is probably a manifestation of the urge to creativity. You need something like that to keep you going.

I love the documentary about David Lynch, The Art Life, and I think that guy has set himself up pretty well. Some people will say well that’s privilege—a rich white man gets to hire people to address all of his real world concerns so that he can spend every moment of his life smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and creating art—and that’s absolutely so. He also had to sacrifice a lot, I think—you have to be an asshole to people to live the art life. Some people don’t have that in them. And some people don’t have the talent or vision to make it pay off. It’s a rare fucking thing. Now maybe David Lynch would say meditation is what saves him, or maybe he would say the tedium of meaningless is a constant opponent for him as well, but from the outside it looks pretty wonderful.

And Cannibals was obviously partly about that—what happens when we remove ourselves from the machine, from society, and just allow ourselves to dream and become the thing we are at our core? I think there’s a terror to that. Some people can’t give themselves fully over. Some people give themselves over to it and become monstrous. Freedom would be terrifying, I think. I feel like animals in the wild have a terrifying existence. Squirrels must live in constant fear of being murdered, but a domesticated squirrel gets bored and lethargic, so who knows.

GP: Images are a crucial part of your books. The artist Matt Kish did the covers and interior artwork on three of your books, and I believe your next book, A Light No More, will be filled with even more images of your own choosing and perhaps creation. How do these visual representations affect your writing, and would you dare say how you might hope they affect your reader?

RK: I have a few different ways of answering this, but I should begin by saying that A Light No More has maybe 100 images—either photographs from the 19th century that I heavily edited or images that I created and edited on my own.

Creatively, working with Matt changed my thinking a lot. He was brought in by J.A. Tyler to do the cover for Alligators after the manuscript was edited, so his art didn’t affect my writing at all—I had no idea there would be art. But it brought me back—again—to childhood. And I think most writers start out trying to draw. Before we have words and language we’re drawing little stories and binding little books with yarn. Most of the stories I wrote until I was 11 were heavily illustrated. So many times I’d just draw the cover, come up with a title, and that would satisfy the urge. But then, you know, something kills that inclination. I decided I wanted to be Stephen King somewhere in the fifth grade so I started writing a novel. You don’t illustrate novels.

But there’s something pure about an illustration. There’s something immediate. It’s closer to the thing than language can get. You understand that as a child. The word “dinosaur” is far less compelling than a drawing of a dinosaur. The word “dinosaur” I think begins killing the beauty of the image.

So working with Kish—on Revelator, Desert Places, and Cannibals—and some other projects—was partly about getting back to that original purpose. And that original way of looking at a project. When you’re a 4-year-old kid you’re just making a book because you love to do it. You don’t give a shit about anything else. There are no rules, no guidelines, no critics, no editors, no sales people, none of the bullshit.

I think that’s where I’m at now. I’m trying to make books, in a very private way, and a very rudimentary way. Other than the writing part, I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m not an artist, I’m not a designer, I’m totally lost—it’s great. A professional would laugh at me, but there’s something pure about it, I think.

This is not answering your question at all, but it might eventually relate to it—I’ve made a point of telling people that this is not a novel. I always come back to Frost’s thing about free verse being akin to playing tennis without a net. I always found that a really dumb thing to say as an argument against free verse.; if you want to play tennis, then yes, absolutely, you need a net, but once you remove the net it becomes a different game, and maybe a more beautiful game. And for a while you’re essentially playing a netless variation of tennis but slowly over time, as you dig deeper into the game, it becomes something entirely different. Maybe that scares some people but that’s where I want to go—something entirely different.

GP: So is this the urge that has led you to self-publish? Did you have frustrations working with presses that go beyond this labeling, or were you just striving for a different kind of artistic experience and control?

RK: It was partly that, and it was partly that I wasn’t wanted. I was willing to make concessions, and I made several, as long as the text itself wasn’t affected. Cannibals was not meant to be self-published—I was very determined to find a publisher and a large audience for that book. The manuscript was more than twice as long as what I published—it was much closer in style and scope to Revelator than what I ended up with—and I thought it would be the one that broke through. I can’t tell you how confident I was in the quality of that manuscript, and I thought—I had such faith in the idea that if a book was good enough it didn’t matter how strange it was, that somebody in publishing would see the merits and take the risk. That was very naive.

That’s all it is. People will throw all sorts of hyperbole into a rejection—how great you are, how great your book is, and how many awards you will win—but what it comes down to is — Listen, clearly the system works for some people. I have friends who have been successful within it; they’ve written and published wonderful books and made nice careers for themselves. My wife works in publishing. But for me it just felt like it was destroying the creative act. So I think the best thing that happened to my writing is that my writing career failed so miserably that I was able to generate enough courage to kill the last of it and make the jump.

And of course the moment I decided that I was just going to do it myself I felt incredibly good. I was terrified that I wouldn’t get enough preorders to print Cannibals, but all the limitations that I’d felt—and a lot of unconscious ones—were gone. Or I was free to throw them off. So now I’d never do otherwise than do this on my own. The freedom is too much. The control. No, it’s everything now.

But I also think the model I’ve been using is too limiting. I’ve been scrounging for enough preorders to pay for publication—my feeling is, foremost, if I can’t generate enough interest to pay for publication then I’m not going to force the issue. From now I’m going to do things a little differently, I think.

GP: Can I ask you a little more about your process and stylistic choices? Can you describe how you come to things like your use of dashes and white space and images? I wonder how much of this occurs in inception, drafting, revising, etc. And when you decide on using, say, the dashes in Cannibals or the images in A Light No More, how might that shape the story as you create it?

RK: My process changes all the time. Partly out of necessity—I’m an adjunct at three different colleges and my schedule is always changing and I’m always commuting or in some different place—and partly out of search for a key that unlocks whatever inspires me. It’s a constant fight, like I’ve said, and it’s so easy to get ground down teaching six courses a semester, shuffling from bus to bus, four hours a day—you fall into the motions, you end up sleepwalking. What worked on one book suddenly is drudgery, but you don’t realize it yet. There’s just this inkling that you were happier, or the act felt more alive, at an earlier time. So I have a million little devices, and when those fail, I have to invent new ones. And what works, works, and I trust it until it doesn’t work anymore.

So the dashes came out of that process. I was writing A Light No More while I edited Revelator for publication—and it looked a lot like that book for a while—dialogue, scenes, indentation, second person. For maybe a year and a half, two years, I was just generating language. I would feel enthusiastic for a day or a week and then it’d just feel dead. Things started feeling different about the time I realized that even if Cannibals were published, A Light No More would need to be self-published. I’d found that I couldn’t work at my laptop anymore—I was writing notes in longhand and then typing the notes into paragraphs, and expanding the paragraphs into pages, and all the things that one does when writing a novel. After a certain point I realized the notes I was writing—fragments, poetic phrases, glimpses of things, dashes—opened all these other possibilities, ways of looking at time and character and language.

So I’m not sure any of this is clear or interesting, but what I’m getting at is everything is the writing process—and in my mind it’s all about searching for the thing and shaping it until the moment comes when it feels like it’s close enough to wrap up. For this particular book that process was partly about generating ideas and content, and partly about devouring and destroying that content. I probably wrote 100,000 words for A Light No More and what I’m publishing is around 7,000 words. What ends up being the book is completely different from a manuscript I had less than a year ago.

Who knows how the next book will happen. Or what it will look like. It all has to emerge organically.

GP: So I can assume your use of the second person “you” in your work also emerged organically? It sure seems to fly in the face of that indoctrinated wisdom of MFA programs and listicle rules for writers.

RK: It really just felt like the thing to do at one point. It feels right. A Light No More uses second and first person pretty interchangeably, because that felt natural. The second person—like the dashes—don’t have any single purpose or meaning or intention. My understanding of the second person has changed and deepened a lot over the seven years I’ve been using it, as my understanding of these dashes has developed.

Now what I want to explore is my tendency to switch tenses, which is another rule that most everyone follows. I switch tenses constantly as I write—within paragraphs, sentences—and maybe there’s something there. I know I let a few go in A Light No More because keeping them in seemed meaningful.

GP: Thanks so much for your time, Robert. As a final question, can you talk about how film has informed your writing? You mentioned Herzog and Lynch earlier, and there are places in your work, especially some of the impressionistic parts or the way you handle transitions, where I detect a debt to film. What better way to end an interview with a novelist than by asking about cinema?

RK: Film is pretty much the ideal medium, I think. I’ve felt that way for most of my life. Most movies are absolutely terrible, and the film industry is even more corrupt and bankrupt than the book industry, but the art form itself is ideal. So I’m always trying to figure out how to achieve what this or that filmmaker achieves, or to affect the reader the way a film affects the audience. And it’s doomed to fail, of course, because the mediums are different, the languages are totally different. A beautiful film is usually the thing that inspires me most and also leaves me the most despondent. The best inspiration is usually completely devastating.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2018-2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

For Other Ghosts

Donald Quist
Awst Press ($17.50)

by Nick Hilbourn

Donald Quist’s For Other Ghosts follows a path traced by his award-winning nonfiction collection Harbors: narrative as a map and its trajectory as a layered rather than a linear move. Present are the disciplined narrative control, the intelligent caprice that holds onto the handlebars by its fingertips while flying down a hillside. More than his previous works though, this book emphasizes the contemplative over the confrontational. These stories investigate the proposition that linear mobility takes for granted: we are inclusive bodies moving to locations that seem to have nothing better to do than wait for us. In rebuttal, Quist’s stories suggest that the location, the person, and the event occur in each moment—that we live in a lineage of shadows rather than straight lines.

The discipline displays itself most furtively in the “false flags” Quist throws up, repeated techniques that distract from the true mechanism at work. He places these throughout his stories as gestures more than clues; the idea that answers would be so easy is part of the answer. For example, in “Takeaway,” Jason and Nahm, a married couple, meet their in-laws at a restaurant in Bangkok. The couple’s differing racial and economic backgrounds serve as a surface vehicle for the narrative, and are emphasized by a political protest taking place outside (the crowd’s chant “No vote” repeats onto a tense silence at the dinner table). These things seem like simple domestic angst, the exterior complementing the interior, but the real “takeaway” occurs during what seems like an insignificant moment of characterization: “During those long hours she [Nahm] would stare down at one of the cracks in the grimy sidewalk and count the number of expensive shoes that passed over, or she’d look up at the tangled thicket of telephone wires running above her head and imagine where each line finished and began.” The “telephone wires” appear later in the story during a flashback to one of Jason and Nahm’s earliest meetings: “Outside the building near the revolving doors, Nahm seemed preoccupied with the telephone wires above. . . . Jason asked what she saw, and she replied openly, ‘I’m thinking about the messages going over my head. I’m trying to imagine the senders and receivers.’” The gesture of looking for something invisible to explain the visible occurs multiple times in Quist’s collection; it’s the ethereal infrastructure that carries true valence.

Quist’s writing operates on an ethical assumption in the essential goodness of people—a metaphysical query that is never resolved but also never dismissed. His characters live within hopeless circumstances, yet they continue. They are not Camus’ Sisyphus though; this is not a noble tragedy. The end is never written because no one can determine the nature of what they’re facing. Are they resolvable problems or existential mysteries? At each story’s denouement, the verdict is still out. For example, in “A Selfish Invention,” DaYana, an MFA student, follows Philip Dawkins, a drunken visiting writer at her program, to his apartment where she listens to him mourn over his disappearance into the phantasm of his own reputation:

“I’m vanishing, but when I try to sit down and write about it I bore myself.”
“Maybe you should try writing for other ghosts.”
DaYana closes the door behind her as she leaves.

The conversation ends there, but the messages in the telephone wires have no beginning or end. Ghosts have no coattails and shadows no lineage. Although chasing a specter seems like a fruitless endeavor, Quist’s characters engage with the ineffable, attempt to re-understand what the “individual” means in relation to it. Does one become a ghost in the process of chasing a ghost? How much of ourselves are built on the foundation of ghosts?

In the final story in the collection, “The Ghosts of Takahiro Okyo,” Yamamoto, the chief of park rangers in Japan’s Suicide Forest, is charged with the unenviable task of collecting the dead. One of his rangers, Daisuke, contemplates the irresolvable atmosphere of a location that is forced to absorb the conceits of thousands: “Hundreds of confessions, the secrets kept by the undergrowth, were rooted in the soil and traveled the lengths of Japan like telephone wires.” (His contemplation becomes ever more eerie when compared to Nahm’s similar reverie as she gazes skyward at Bangkok’s electrical lines.) Chief Yamamoto, meanwhile, is haunted by the disappearance of a coworker, Takahiro, whose uncanny knack for finding the dead has earned him the nickname “god of death.” Quist’s narrative moves between the three rangers, but nothing is resolved by this shifting perspective. If anything, the story seems to fold further into a growing mise en abyme, until the beginning and end are indiscernible.

Taken as a whole, Quist’s stories are inclusive entities that only lightly touch on each other. On the surface, the organization seems ill-suited, the stories awkward in juxtaposition, but they are all connected. The connection is in the feeling created by his unique noir style, one that embraces a genuine sincerity in narrative exposition. It’s a style that acts as a kind of tone, a cadence that connects his characters variegated storylines: an ethereal geography of sound moving over an uncrossable crevasse separating singular entities staring at each other across a yawning depth.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2018-2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Exclusions & Limitations

Jennifer O’Grady
MadHat Press ($19.95)

by Eileen Murphy

Does your life feel safe? Perhaps it shouldn’t. “Our lives are not conceived with warrantees,” warns the speaker in Jennifer O’Grady’s tell-it-like-it-is second poetry collection Exclusions & Limitations. Suitably, this advice is found in a poem about the speaker’s own wedding ceremony, “where vows are made, [and] fates will be altered.” Later, in the poem “End of Summer,” the speaker notices that the sweet gum branch hanging over the walk “now seems a weight about to plummet / precisely on the spot where my child digs.” Exclusions & Limitations exposes the risky business of being a parent, of experiencing love, of being alive.

O’Grady’s poems about motherhood and infertility are the show stoppers of this collection, especially the ekphrastic poems about paintings of the Annunciation, created by John Collier, Fra Angelico, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Tissot. According to these poems, both Mary, Jesus’s mother, and the angel, messenger of God, appear in each of the Annunciation paintings, but each painter has a different interpretation of this event and of the personalities of the participants. For example, in “Annunciation,” the speaker describes the angel in Fra Angelico’s fresco as someone

who casts no shadow, who will never be anyone’s
lover or mother, smiles as one
forever unencumbered

Whereas in “The Annunciation According to John Collier” we hear that

the angel
is film-star handsome,
more a gift than bearing a gift

The character of Mary is revealed to be complex as well; the paintings, as deconstructed by O’Grady, tell us what a mixed blessing the Annunciation is from Mary’s viewpoint. In “The Annunciation According to Tissot” the “urgent message” of the Annunciation is frankly depicted as “one that will spoil her life.” “The Annunciation According to Henry Ossawa” explains this perspective even further:

She will always be
at a disadvantage, needing proof
needing pain to make everything
clear, and even the life
already growing inside her
is unbelievable, until it nearly
tears her apart.

Indeed, motherhood and domestic life are not necessarily safe, and O’Grady’s poems about these topics are not safe, either. This collection successfully takes risks in both form and content. The poems’ highly relatable themes, atmospheric details, and clear language draw us in as readers, carrying us along on their thought trails. Compassionate, elegant, edgy, and intelligent, these poems are deeply moving.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2018-2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019