Tag Archives: Fall 2021

Groundbreaking Black Artists:
June Jordan, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and William Parker

The Essential June Jordan
June Jordan
Edited by Jan Heller Levi and Christoph Keller
Copper Canyon Press ($18)

The Jean-Michel Basquiat Reader
Writings, Interviews, and Critical Responses
Edited by Jordana Moore Saggese
University of California Press ($34.95)

Universal Tonality
The Life and Music of William Parker
Cisco Bradley
Duke University Press ($29.95)

by Patrick James Dunagan

Black art in North America has long been robustly diverse and extremely lively. There is no chance of adequately surveying the many artists at work across its broad landscape. The following consideration, then, of three recent publications concerning three historically distinctive Black artists, offers but a snapshot of the abiding vitality and interconnections across artistic discipline that keep Black art abundant and enthralling.

While appreciation for the work of poet June Jordan (1936-2002) has never ceased, The Essential June Jordan provides renewed testament to the continuing power and relevance of her words to spark fierce defiance and offer abiding insight into complex issues of race, class, and gender. Bassist, composer, and bandleader William Parker (born 1952) has been active in the international improvisation and experimental jazz scene for decades, and Cisco Bradley’s new biography, Universal Tonality, encourages landmark recognition of his tremendous contributions as well as consideration of his spiritually rich personal life. The Jean-Michel Basquiat Reader, impressively edited by Jordana Moore Saggesse, represents an unprecedented gathering of primary sources documenting the conflicting perspectives surrounding the voluminous work and too-short life of visual artist Basquiat (1960-1988).

In this July’s issue of the international music magazine Wire, pianist Matthew Shipp offers a short reflection on New York City in the early 1980s (when he first arrived on the music scene). With his abstinence from heroin use, William Parker was a rare presence among older jazz musicians. Although he never held it against any player so long as it did not interfere with their playing, his own spiritual commitment to “the tone world” always kept him firmly away from drug use. In a nearly throwaway yet enlightening aside, Shipp also mentions spending his earliest years in the city away from the jazz scene and frequenting instead the burgeoning DJ-centered clubs of the era, where he shared the dance floor with none other than Basquiat.

Anecdotal as it may be, Shipp’s commentary demonstrates how closely knit varying art worlds are, especially in a locale like New York. Considering the profusion of references to Black jazz musicians scattered throughout Basquiat’s work, the fact that he and Shipp were frequenting the same clubs just a few years before Shipp shared stages with Parker comes as more of a validation of mutual influence across artistic disciplines than a surprise. In a darker commonality, Basquiat’s long-term girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk recalls how in the NYC club and art scene of the era, “most of us were heroin addicts and drug addicts that stayed up all night and slept all day.” Such behavior led to Basquiat’s tragically early death by way of overabundant drug use; heroin was also the suspected cause of William Parker’s brother Thomas’s death in 1978.

In another twist of perhaps casual yet nevertheless meaningful interdisciplinary connection between these artists, biographer Bradley at one point mentions Parker’s “Poem for June Jordan,” a tune written “for the ‘unsung writer’ who had always had an influence on Parker”; as he wrote in liner notes, “her words were always insightful and very honest and again, filled with compassion.” Just as Basquiat drew inspiration from and paid tribute to jazz musicians—for instance, his works Discography, 1983 and Discography (Two), 1983 list names of well-known figures such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Max Roach, alongside the less famous Sadik Hakim, Curley Russell, John Lewis, and Nelson Boyd—Parker profoundly identified with how Jordan wove language together that reflected both the beauty and tragedy of Black life. The draw he feels towards her insight, honesty, and compassion is easily apparent in lines from any number of her poems:

Consider the Queen

a full/Black/glorious/a purple rose
aroused by the tiger breathin
beside her
a shell with the moanin
of ages inside her
a hungry one feedin the folk
what they need

Consider the Queen.

Heralding the power of Black cultural lineage is a constant across the work of these artists, even as it (of necessity) is accompanied by bitter awareness of how maligned the magnificent and vast contributions of so many have been at the hands of white America. In The Jean-Michel Basquiat Reader, Mallouk testifies how Basquiat continually confronted the matter of his Blackness: “He would play with these Black stereotypes and present himself in the form of threatening Black stereotypes to fuck with people. To be subversive. To make people stare at their own racism in the face.” Franklin Sirmans, meanwhile, describes critics playing up Basquiat’s skin color as a sign of his primitiveness while downplaying any possibility of his background as being culturally rich, “as if to say, ‘never mind that properly French name, this is a Black kid!’” Sirmans quite accurately labels it as a “misguided dependence on stereotype and cultural mythology.”

As Sirmans avows, “the hand was definitely stacked against Basquiat, and he knew it.” Artist and pal of Basquiat Keith Haring describes how “there was very little criticism that actually talked of the works themselves. Rather, the talk was about the circumstances surrounding the success of the work.” In fact, “people were more interested in the phenomena than the art itself.” In a piece that is little more than a litany of derogatory attacks, critic Robert Hughes provides ample evidence of how disparaging the mind-set among critics was, with pronouncements such as “the very nature of Basquiat’s success forced him to repeat himself without a chance of development” and “these were the 1980s. And so he became a star.” Hughes even judges some groundbreaking Basquiat work as “worthless ‘collaborative’ paintings with Warhol” and declares, “His ‘importance’ was merely that of a symptom.”

This handling of Basquiat comes as no surprise to any Black artist. Jordan’s poetry, for instance, encapsulates the ridiculous and horrific reality of being Black in the U.S.A. Like Basquiat, she knows it is up to her to call out and challenge all figures of authority imposing such views, as she does in the 1980 work “Poem about My Rights”:

I am very familiar with the problems of the C.I.A.
and the problems of South Africa and the problems
of Exxon Corporation and the problems of white
America in general and the problems of the teachers
and the preachers and the F.B.I. and the social
workers and my particular Mom and Dad/I am very
familiar with the problems because the problems
turn out to be
I am the history of rape
I am the history of the rejection of who I am
I am the history of the terrorized incarceration of
my self
I am the history of battery assault and limitless
armies against whatever I want to do with my mind
and my body and my soul and
whether it’s about walking out at night
or whether it’s about the love that I feel or
whether it’s about the sanctity of my vagina or
the sanctity of my national boundaries
or the sanctity of my leaders or the sanctity
of each and every desire
that I know from my personal and idiosyncratic
and indisputably single and singular heart
I have been raped
cause I have been wrong the wrong sex the wrong age
the wrong skin the wrong nose the wrong hair the
wrong need the wrong dream the wrong geographic
the wrong sartorial I

Although Jordan is the “poet proper” among this gathering, Parker and Basquiat each prove themselves avidly apt at utilizing language as well. Parker composes his own poems, often including them along with, or in place of, liner notes:

She was carrying the people
Carrying them on her back
Through the deep blue-purple cotton fields
Not eating or sleeping for days
She would take two sometimes three people across the long corridor
This small woman did not know the word enemy
She was carrying the people on her back
The cotton sack on her waist was always filled with sunshine

One day the cracker police
Beat her with clubs and leather straps
They beat her on her legs
Until they groped like Okra
Blood poured from these wounds
Blood mixed with tears of compassion
They beat her until she fell to her knees
But she would not let them win
She stood up
They looked in her eyes
She stood up as thunder gathered
In the left side of the sky
They beat her again
And again and again

And Haring sees his friend Basquiat as “the supreme poet; every gesture symbolic, every action an event,” and comments, “he used words like paint.”

All three of these artists were, to varying extents, lifelong autodidactic learners. Jordan, a Barnard drop-out, was by far the most “officially” educated; both Basquiat and Parker, for different reasons, completed only high school. They never stopped pursuing any knowledge or interest, however, continually punctuating their works with new factual information turned up by way of curiosity and dogged effort. As Jordan serenades in “Something Like A Sonnet for Phyllis Miracle Wheatley”: “Chosen by whimsy but born to surprise / They taught you to read but you learned how to write.” Art collector Bruno Bischofberger notes that Basquiat “was constantly reading something,” and art historian Robert Farris Thompson relates how in an interview, “he told me, ‘I get my facts from books,’” going on to describe his impression of how Basquiat “never ever passively copies; his is always readapting it at the very least for rhythmic phrasing on the page.” Thompson also draws an intriguing comparison with the writer Walter Benjamin, quoting scholar Peter Demetz’s introduction to Benjamin’s Reflections:

Jean-Michel, like Walter Benjamin before him, has the ability to work with “texts” that for most of us would not constitute texts at all. “The ancients may have been ‘reading’ the torn guts of animals, starry skies, dances, runes, and hieroglyphics, and Benjamin, in an age without magic, continues to ‘read’ things, cities, and social institutions as if they were sacred texts.”

Parker’s work, too, strongly “reads” things—the city’s noise and abundance, weather, natural land formations such as mountains and lakes and rivers—as “texts” that few indeed would likely recognize “constitute texts at all.” Given the largely improvisational nature of his music and the free jazz background from which it arises, some listeners may not even recognize it as “music,” for that matter. Yet Parker is one of the foremost practitioners of what is arguably the greatest Black-led American artistic tradition, i.e. jazz, and Universal Tonality casts him in the full light his work deserves. With Parker’s full cooperation, Bradley weaves as complete a tracing of Parker’s ancestral roots as possible, from West Africa to his grandparents in South Carolina and his early years growing up in the Bronx, as well as revealing the humble circumstances Parker’s own family grew in starting in 1988.

Even though Parker has recorded dozens of pieces (Bradley includes a complete discography as an appendix) and performed hundreds if not thousands of shows around the world, “he still has many hundreds of compositions that he has never had the opportunity to record or even perform.” This speaks, in part, to the fact that there simply has not been enough funding to preserve and support all the work Black artists have dedicated their lives to producing. Two decades on since her death, The Essential June Jordan signals that her place in the world of poetry as an acknowledged wonder is only now slowly solidifying. Editors Jan Heller Levi and Christoph Keller have avoided chronological ordering, allowing sympathetic themes between poems to guide their gathering. The inclusion of four poems not previously published along with an opening gallery of photographs make for a true celebratory tribute. And if Basquiat’s ultimate fate in the annals of art history remains unknown, it is Saggesse’s Reader to which the future will turn for guidance as she expertly maps out the historical territory.

In “Breath and Precarity,” presented as the inaugural Robert Creeley Lecture in Poetry and Poetics at SUNY Buffalo, poet Nathaniel Mackey asserted, “Blackness is the sign and the symbol of risk, preeminently at risk in a scapegoating, sacrificial world order for which black is the color of precarity itself.” Nowadays Mackey’s sense of “precarity” is ever too easily—even if finally—recognizable. And thirty years ago, Jordan was asking questions that remain far too relevant in our own time:

Tell me something
what you think would happen if
everytime they kill a black boy
then we kill a cop
everytime they kill a black man
then we kill a cop

In its unswerving commitment to bespeaking shared experience of injustice without capitulation to oppressive cultural forces, Black art presents an endless song of renewal. In Basquiat’s deep, expressive use of and reply to Black characterizations and symbols, there lies clear indication of his keen awareness. Parker’s life and music continue to shine forth, indicating a path forward. And in Jordan’s poetry, the beauty and importance of language is most keenly felt. These three are all landmarks in 20th century art, and the publication of books that understand this is long overdue.

Click here to purchase The Essential June Jordan
at your local independent bookstore
Click here to purchase The Jean-Michel Basquiat Reader
at your local independent bookstore
Click here to purchase Universal Tonality
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021

In Concrete

Anne Garréta
Translated by Emma Ramadan
Deep Vellum Publishing ($15.95)

by Jeff Bursey

In Concrete has a simple plot: parents of two precocious children purchase a concrete mixer to restore a hovel in the country inherited by the father from a long-ago acquaintance and, in the course of the renovations, someone ends up encased in concrete. But plot is the least promising feature of Oulipian Anne Garréta’s latest novel to be translated into English. After classifying the book as “a fable, a feminist inversion of a domestic drama,” among other things, translator Emma Ramadan concludes in her Note at the end of the text that In Concrete “is, above all, an exploration of language.” The statement acknowledges that the actuality of the events (which are narrated by Fignole, a “12-year-old” of unspecified gender), is secondary to how they’re told, which is by turns straightforward and outlandish, scatological and impish.

Ramadan’s statements aren’t meant to address all the content of the novel. While language exploration is evident throughout—with twistings like “muddernized” and “may swell begin at the beginning” functioning as approximations of heard expressions, and with neologisms arising in phrases like “monstrous scatastrophe”—there is much more going on. Two aspects stand out: comedy and war.

Garréta has written what is, in part, a slapstick novel. The father, Philippe, is a fixer-upper of engines—a hoarder, to be blunt, of rusted machinery—who regularly electrocutes himself, suffers physical damage, and fails to attend to the finishing touches of jobs. That is detrimental to the restoration of the inherited homestead as well as to his children, Fignole and the younger Angélique, but essential for the comedy. His wiser children are aware of this and try to prevent or fix his mistakes. But for slapstick to be successful it requires a certain dimness in at least one character and Philippe must persist as the prime source of the mishaps.

Other forms of comedic writing occur in tart one-liners. When referring to the hoarding done by cousins of toilet bowls—a family trait or the result of severe historical impoverishment?—Fignole tartly says, “They flatter themselves thinking they can resell everything at a profit. That somewhere the secondhand shitter market is booming.” That’s a fine short line. Garréta is also adept at portraying physical comedy through form, specifically seen when a washboiler filled with liquid concrete drops “like a bomb.” To convey this, the prose is broken not only into shorter paragraphs than usual, but indented further and further, sometimes one word to a line, in a way that forces readers to race across and up and down the page, capturing some of the speed and visual chaos of what’s happening. Fignole (whose name, “like Guignol and his band,” is an allusion to Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who also played with the French language and argot) stops to criticize this layout: “And what about the punkchewation, huh!?” Self-referentiality is key here, and is, if you will, a meta-comedic touch, as is the sentence, “We’re like rats in a lab experiment,” bringing to mind the definition of Oulipians offered by literary critic Raymond Queneau: “rats who must build the labyrinth from which they propose to escape.”

As for war, it’s everywhere. From references to the games children play, through historical markers (Agincourt, the Boer War, the Maginot Line), to the last name of their father, Oberkampf, bestowed on him in a “penal colony where the homeland bred cannon fodder” after he and his family lost each other “during one of those lurid debacles that seem to happen so often throughout History. But we don’t know which debacle . . . There’ve been so many.” There’s nothing inherently funny about war, and as In Concrete comes to a close, the lighthearted top layer slips, the lens moving out from a child’s view to encompass the First and Second World Wars. Readers willing to dive into Garréta’s games with gender, language, and form may find content of a more serious nature underlying the comedic surface.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021

Hex & Howl

Simone Muench and Jackie K. White
Black Lawrence Press ($7.95)

by Lydia Pejovic

In their collaborative chapbook Hex & Howl, Simone Muench and Jackie K. White take a firm stance on feminism and women’s empowerment by detailing suffering, self-care, and rebirth. Muench and White set the pace at a slow crawl, growing from patriarchal representations of women to strong, subversive feminist models, as can be gleaned from the title poem that begins Section I:

You studied the orange girls, cinema
gazes, wounded bodies, and angles
that wolves unbend. I looked through the eyes
of chameleons, the nightmare houses they

inhabited with crystalized skins . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

You and I were told to swallow
our hexed howling, refuse the reptilian

and the mammalian, unless it’s tame

Here, men may look at women’s “wounded” bodies through their male gaze, but women look into each other’s cold-blooded, reptilian eyes. The mention of “hexed howling” evokes a sense of magic intermingled with these animalistic features, making women the one thing men fear: powerful creatures. Women’s powers have lain dormant under the shackles of patriarchy; their magic energy threatens the social order. The narrator argues that women will no longer accept this “gnawing // on our bones by canonized men,” that “we’ll not be suckled or bled / to ghosts again. We’re the heart’s rattle, / razored at our core. Full of sharp.”

This razor-sharp picture of women cuts through the core of the collection as it continues to Section II, which is comprised of self-portrait poems. The idea of a self-portrait is inherently injected with agency; the poems in Section II work towards self-actualization as the narrator writes herself out of patriarchal expectations. The work done to understand one’s place in the world in the self-portrait poems then transitions to the resistance poems of Section III. “Disclosure” claims “that nakedness / you love refigures any space you choose.” The woman’s body is no longer clothed in Section III; she revels in nakedness and the shamelessness of her form. “Queue” takes us back to Section I and reminds us of the “shimmering footage of girls,” footage that was initially seen through the “cinema gaze.” The narrator subverts the expectations of Section I, however: The men don’t control the show anymore. “We know how to let loose on our own / terms, tango or two-step, and in our own time.”

At the close of Hex & Howl, the narrator reaches her “Rebuttal.” In a culmination of assertiveness, she claims that “our tongues will not be bridled / as though miniature ponies put out to pasture. / Nor will our tales be jeered as old-wives’ blather.” The women’s “sound surges through / hex                               into galloping hymn.” The book ends on an uplifting, poignant feeling as hexes and hymns alike echo on the page and women are released from the shackles of patriarchal standards and expectations. Muench and White create a hero’s journey, one that gathers readers and guides them through the battle against oppression. The fight is not easy or comfortable, but it is necessary and worthwhile. After living as demure mammals, “we slip off the human and prowl.” Hex & Howl is a shining example of women’s struggle, a reminder to fight for their voices, even though the path to equality is lined with obstacles.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021

Oh You Robot Saints!

Rebecca Morgan Frank
Carnegie Mellon University Press ($15.95)

by John Bradley

People have long been fascinated by mechanical reproductions of animals and humans. Thomas Edison, for example, created a “mechanical Eve,” a doll that would “talk” using a small phonograph. In her new collection Oh You Robot Saints! Rebecca Morgan Frank offers a poetic response:

Oh, man has made her in his own image
for beauty and service, oh, man has
made her, a more pliable Eve
with no desire of her own.

Frank probes this obsession with creating automatons in depth in this book, with poems on everything from Vaucanson’s “digesting duck” to a Japanese “robot priest.” To her credit, she examines “the ones who make” as well as “the ones who are made.” As Frank states in “The Mechanical Eves,” this desire to create beings in our own image reveals our “longing / to be gods.” This is a particularly masculine desire, Frank notes, as Eve is built “from the ribs / in men’s brains” in order to “make a life / like a woman could.”

Fertility comes up often in these poems, especially in “Ode to the Robobee,” where we see fourteen sonnets devoted to the creation of a robotic bee whose sole deficit is its inability to reproduce. In section xi, we learn how robotics has entered the realm of surgery, that most delicate of tasks of the human hand: “my uterus / is removable by a robotic arm,” Frank states, glibly noting the irony of the sterile robot making a human sterile.

As the collection progresses, Frank begins to see the human body as a kind of machine. In “Self-Operating Machines,” she writes:

Everything is a clock inside, geared
and oiled to sing and turn—the body,

even, no different than that of medieval
mechanical monkeys lining the bridge

While this comparison at first seems humorous, her observation that “We were all once part / of a set of nesting dolls” makes us see human reproduction as mechanistic. There is no robot of any kind in the six sections (not counting the missing part, titled “[Redacted]”) that make up this poem, which deals with missing girls that were friends of the narrator. One of the elegies is for her friend Katie W., who was last seen entering a haunted house. The poem ends:

They never found
the body. But I keep seeing her last turn, her

wide toothy smile, her wave.
Her tiny body, smaller than mine.

I never saw her again, never again
stepped into a haunted house.

I now knew what fear was. What it was
to be a girl, to always be at risk of vanishing.

Could Frank be seeing girlhood as a kind of mechanistic construct, a cultural role that will shape girls into socially-approved women—“a more pliable Eve / with no desire of her own”? She leaves the reader to connect the dots.

In the last poem of the book, “Restorations,” Frank makes another leap, connecting automatons to works of art. “Restorations” reminds the reader about various attacks on works of art, including the man who attacked Michelangelo’s Pieta with a hammer. Frank notes: “but we had always hoped our art would be / immortal.” Closing the book on a connection between robotics and great artistry, like the Pieta, is a bold assertion. Yet it traces the human need to create robots back to the root—the creative impulse. Oh You Robot Saints! brings the sensibility of a poet to the world of automatons and produces intriguing poems that help us understand our “quest to be little gods.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021

The Unending Beauty of the Longpoem:
A Conversation with T Thilleman

by Andrew Mossin

The first time I encountered Tod Thilleman was because of a book he’d published through the press he’s been running out of his Brooklyn apartment since the mid-’90s, Spuyten Duyvil. The book was poet Peter O’Leary’s Watchfulness (2001), printed on gorgeous heavy stock with an irresistible cover and irresistible poems to go with the lavish production. I’d made a mental note to add Spuyten Duyvil to a list of small, independent publishers that I’d come to know while in grad school at Temple University, but it wasn't until 2015, when I was looking to publish my third collection of poems, that I actually “met” Tod via email. Shortly after, I became part of the Spuyten Duvyil roster, one that includes a remarkably diverse gathering of contemporary writing in multiple genres, forms, and from a range of aesthetic positions.

Thilleman himself has long stood at the crossroads of innovative poetry that’s emerged from the long and multifarious roots of Donald Allen’s groundbreaking 1960 anthology, The New American Poetry 1945-1960. Spanning San Francisco Renaissance, Black Mountain, New York School, and earlier modernist movements, Thilleman’s poetics and poetry travel multifaceted roads through mysticism, Buddhist teachings, nineteenth century philosophy, cosmology, and anthropology, with stops along the way in Native American religious festivals, Mayan lore, and Dharmic revelation. It’s a powerful mix, carried across more than twenty books of his own writing that push at the borders of our national and communal consciousness. Thilleman’s new book, three markations to ward her figure (MadHat Press, $75) is no exception, a tour de force hybrid project that combines prose, poetry, paintings, and drawings in profoundly heterodox and singular ways. We spoke about it via Zoom in June of 2021.

Andrew Mossin: You grew up in Wisconsin in the wake of Donald Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry. One of the things that really caught me at the end of your memoir, Blasted Tower (Shakespeare & Company, Toad Suck, 2013), is when you talk about Gary Snyder's impact on you (and of course Snyder is one of the central figures in that collection). There’s a really beautiful section in which you talk about first finding Snyder’s work—you were particularly drawn to his 1967 collection The Back Country—and how it affected you and what happened later with a connection that would follow you to the present day. Could you talk a bit about that?

T Thilleman: Probably I was sixteen or seventeen, and I said to my high school teacher, “I'm going to write on Gary Snyder,” and he said, “I've never heard of him.” And I said, “Well, you know, he won the Pulitzer Prize a couple years ago.”

AM: So, this was someone who clearly didn’t know about contemporary poetry.

TT: No, I don't think there was really any poetry background; but he had us read Nikos Kazantzakis’s Saviors of God, which was odd for a literature class. And we later read his The Last Temptation of Christ too. And then this term paper thing was due, and I just hit on the Beats and Snyder as very accessible, literally visiting nature then writing about it. Real quickly, without any interpolation whatsoever. There's some bear shit in the trail and Snyder is there, writing it down. I thought, “Oh, I can do that!” I also liked the way the poems were on the page; the lines are all over the place. And then that got me into Mountains And Rivers Without End. Just the idea of writing, writing, writing, writing over and over and over the same kind of thing—but you travel, you’re on the road and traveling.

AM: This is a good place to ask you a question about your work in the long poem, because that's something that keeps coming up in your work, especially in three markations to ward her figure, which is all about various formations of the long poem. There are some big predecessor works in the long poem that you seem to be alluding to, at least formally—works like Anne Waldman’s The Iovis Trilogy, Theodore Enslin's Ranger I-II and Synthesis, and Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger. How did this latest long poem get started for you?

TT: I started writing iterations of the “longpoem” (that’s the term poet Ron Silliman uses to describe the sort of endless, multi-referential life work I’m engaged in) in the ’90s, and they grew out of just screwing around with letters, moving them around on the page, and then from that, figures emerged. I knew this was to be going on for a very long time, so I thought, “Well, it'd be a creation myth, and I can rewrite creation ad infinitum.” I think if you're going to be doing something for a very long time you have to work into it that you can rewrite it as part of its subject matter—the gestalt of what it's going to mean. And this thinking carries through each of the books collected in three markations to ward her figure, which go (in order) Three Sea Monsters, Three Shadow Inventions, and Three Natures, and each of these longpoems is part of the overarching longpoem that is really unending, a life’s work.

AM: There’s a tremendous amount going on in these books, both individually and gathered together, but if you could walk readers through what you’re doing, that would be really helpful to folks unfamiliar with how you work, and even some of those like me who are.

TT: It's all an extension of an ongoing investigation of image. What is image? What is figure? And, you know, we're talking about history and time and stuff like that. I go back to Duncan’s “Passages” series, which is a longpoem along the lines of Charles Olson’s Maximus or Ezra Pound’s The Cantos. I am also incredibly sensitive to the first numbers of Robert Duncan’s “Structure of Rime” series where the poet “spews images” at some figure who, presumably, presides over the poem. She is a figure of authority but also a source of the poet’s need to create more “images” toward her endlessly reappearing authority.

There's also language itself, which is the harbinger of all this presence/absence play, back and forth. I began to play around with seal scripts, early Chinese “oracle bones,” so these are early scripts. I became interested in the question of how the letters came about and how the figures grew out of all this that we take for granted as communication, aka poetry. In order to get to the actual composition, laying down my thoughts, feelings, whatever I'm encountering, I am at the same time running with visualization from one book to the next. You see the jellyfish exploding from H.D.’s idea of “lower body rising up to the head” and there are also large circular blobs: 0 0 0. And those figures carry into other re-creations of themselves in thought, word, and deed throughout Three Sea Monsters, the first of the three books collected in three markations.

AM: So the intent here is to provide these other stories related to the question of the image?

TT: Stories within images that you're trying to unpack and tell and truck with narration. I think the story, the storyline, is basically that of birth from the womb, while you have three wombs basically: three books, three wombs, and I’m talking about each of them. And the reason I have a copious amount of notes in the first book, that section titled “Notes on the Matter Within Three Sea Monsters,” is to talk about that quote from Duncan’s The H.D. Book, the monsters are everybody “talking” about poetry. And the one figure that's kind of left out is God. The thing on the so-called page, in the crotch of the book, travels up from lower body into the head.

There’s constant talk as well about female form throughout that book, then the next. It starts with the creation of the world—I just riffed on the Egyptian Nut/Nuit sky goddess, which was really there in conversation after conversation with poet j/j hastain, centered on the milk from light and the milk from breasts, back and forth. And then I get into indeterminacy with any and all terms. I would use that story, bringing it up over and over in various sections as it then becomes love professing/confessing; and I end with A Midsummer Night's Dream riffs. Are we just talking about a love story between a man and a woman, trying to communicate through a wall, a chink in the wall, which is another kind of opening? Or are there other ways for us to see into these relations that can sometimes seem imposed on us, when in fact there’s great creative energy attached to movement back and forth across the boundaries of male and female?

And then we have the Buddhist third book in the series, Three Natures. Literally the womb of compassion, shunyata means emptiness in Buddhism. It’s a very cosmic, stellar thing, and if you read, like, the Kalacakratantra, it's mainly related to YOU relating to your subtle body. The Linga Sharira or stars and the time being told in the stars, those constellations. And they were there from the beginning in Three Sea Monsters. And of course, you're going through the beginning once again. You're passing from one world to the next. You’re reenacting the beginning of your own life over and over.

AM: Is Buddhist thinking and conception a central beam of the work or one of just many different, related philosophical concerns here?

TT: I think it became stronger and stronger as I worked through each of these three books. Buddhism was there, I just didn't know a lot about what the terms were, and then I started immersing straight into tantric texts—and that's the whole thing about Buddhism, it's really based on the liturgy, the texts, and you're reading poems that have been left behind, discussing or riffing on major tenets over the last 2,500 years. You're dealing with the poetic aspect of “emptiness” that I have been showing. What is mortality? What is existence? And, turning to the book in which these poems appear, what about the page? How does blankness of the page, that Mallarméan concept that we get from Un Coup de Dés, literally “a throw of the dice,” figure into these questions of image and figure that I was talking about earlier? So, all of this is going on at all points along the way, but it’s not really one thing or idea or philosophy, but a synthesis moving through the poetry into a range of expression that seeks not to limit but to expand our consciousness as readers and thinkers, reading and writing poems together.

AM: Would you say that it's necessary or important for a reader coming into this text and other poetry of yours to have access to some of this background? Or is your work meant to make us work through the language and form as presented to us, to have us take this journey relatively unassisted?

TT: Well, there are clues all over the place, very intentionally left and shown and sometimes really isolated on the pages. There's an exercise in the Mahavairocanatantra where you're meditating in the Mandala, the four directions. And you're right in the center and supposed to take these associated vowels letters and colors that you've associated with terms and people and gods and things and take them apart and toss them up and let them land where they land. I actually did that on various pages. And then I re-associated these elements to see how they might appear from a different angle of inspection, a different arrangement. You can see that particularly in a section called “2pēL,” where I’m really working with open form, letting the lines drift down and across the page to catch that spell—or cast one myself! So that when you read the work, you’re integrating your own vision and vision is connected to sound, the elements at work as the lines suggest alternative readings, ways of understanding. No one route, but several.

AM: You do a lot of work with Carl Jung in three markations, especially in the “Notes” . . . What’s the importance of Jung’s work to what you’re doing in these books?

TT: Jung’s The Red Book (also called Liber Novus or The New Book) had just come out in English in 2009 when I started working on this, so it was kind of interesting that there was this whole parallel story he had wherein he immersed himself in the visual. He just did a book of these drawings and he kind of referred to it as, like, his other self. He didn't want to show anybody because they would think he was nuts, that he was trying to formulate his ideas, such as they were, in these stories and drawings, these fantasies and dream projections. They were huge, very big and very colorful, and he just kept at that for a long time, immersing himself in that visuality—completely parallel to what I was trying to do in composing my own text. Jung’s ideas are, in shorthand, not just this visualization, but immersion in general, a very blatant turning away from the so-called “factual” everyday.

Also, I wanted to get a lot of material together and kind of slap it around. And just see what would fall out from that. What does it mean to visualize, what does it mean to have an image in your head, or two; just to see the confluence of all of these ideas about what it means to see. I think you pointed out the one line in there where I was like: “Hey, mankind, why can't you shut up!” We can't use much talk when we’re looking into something—we have to be absorbed in the looking. That’s the ethics of the work, really, in the simplest possible way I can say it: Keep looking. Stop talking.

AM: It’s quite clear for all your work that sex and sexuality, different formations of sexuality, play a vital role. Could you talk a bit about the connections you see between and among these elements of human experience as they’re made apparent in your poetry?

TT: Sex is the primary relation to how you form any thing, whether you’re talking about a drawing or poem or anything like that. It's pure energy and that's really what you draw on, because, you know, in Buddhism there is a sense that the key you get from sitting, when you're practicing meditation, whether you're visualizing it or however you're engaging the Yabyum—father/mother—you're in that primal embrace. You're engaged in quietness, when you go to compose. I never think of sex any differently from that. I mean, when I start to write I get worked up and it just starts to come spilling out.

AM: And the poem becomes a record of that experience, of your experience in getting worked up and having the language spill out, as you say?

TT: No, not so much that the text becomes that, but the text for readers becomes a place of entry to different forms that aren’t just sexual, but phenomenal, pleasure-based. It's a way of engaging elementals. I'm not making any distinction between male and female. Other than that, they are missing entities. I don't want to assign extra roles to them in their mythic identity. They're already mythologized. So, I don’t want to give them a new label. I think when we're talking about sex, and pairing it up with how we're writing, I'm more interested in childbirth in a way, in gestation. In Buddhism there's the garbha, a term of gestation or womb, when you're holding while also impregnated with thought. The outcome of procreation is that new life, new form, and insofar as every myth and every way we talk about creation is about birth, my books are records of that process, that birth process that brings new life into the world.

AM: You’ve been publisher and editor of Spuyten Duyvil since 1992 or thereabouts. And you’re still going strong nearly thirty years later, while so many other presses have had to close for economic and other reasons. How have you managed to keep doing the range and number of books you have each year?

TT: Well, it’s been a struggle at points along the way, to be sure. The last incarnation, which has been over the last, like, five or six years, kind of went belly up and I was trying to avoid bankruptcy, which often happens with publishers, you just lose a lot of money. It's very difficult to sell books, and then you have to warehouse them and there's always a lot of problems that you have and there's just so much money you have to spend on everything. And I was moving at a clip and I had books getting into the chain bookstores and all this kind of stuff, but now things are different, right? I mean chain bookstores aren't as big a deal, so to speak, given the online options. People have made a big deal out of print-on-demand, but it’s just not that big a deal. It’s a way to produce/print/manufacture a book. Not as important as content, as the title list, as WHAT is being published. In other words, I want to keep the title list growing, with new and really good and interesting people. And they keep coming and they ARE out there. Then I want to make the books we publish available as much as I can to whatever book-buying public still exists. And just keep replicating that over and over.

AM: When did you know you wanted to be somebody who made editing and publishing a central element in your life’s work?

TT: We started everything off today by talking about Gary Snyder and all the small press stuff back in the 1950s and ’60s . . . I was acquainted with poetry through small presses from the beginning and I came to understand very early on that this was where the voice of poetry—at least as I understood it—truly emanated from. This was an American voice I heard and saw early on, and this is how you got it out, by publishing it yourself, printing it yourself, doing it in the basement, on your kitchen table, wherever you can and need to. Everybody cites Whitman and all the other people since Whitman who have published their own work, whether as stapled-together sheets or letterpress editions or full books. That’s the dream of community that the small press and its writers invent together. While that history is interesting and useful to know, as an editor and publisher, I'm more interested in building something and basing it on the content, like we take your book now and we show it to people who are interested in it alongside their lives and in this way we can keep people connecting the two together. This is how you keep the voices of your writers out there, bringing them into conversation with each other and with all the forms of the social that we have as part of our world in the twenty-first century.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021

Fugitives of the Heart

William Gay
Livingston Press ($28.95)

by Chris Via

When he died in early 2012, William Gay left behind an attic full of unpublished writing in his Tennessee home. Thankfully, a group of friends culled several novels from this bounty, the last of which is Fugitives of the Heart. Gay’s previous novels—among them The Long Home (MacAdam/Cage, 1999) and Provinces of Night (Doubleday, 2000)—and his numerous short stories situated him most definitively in the Southern Gothic tradition. This final posthumous novel continues to bear the marks of influence from William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and even Cormac McCarthy (with whom Gay enjoyed correspondence), but its most overt homage is to Mark Twain—specifically Huckleberry Finn—painting a darker, more violent Twain than the folksy image we so often associate.

Gay is far from derivative. He spent most of his life perfecting his style, not seeing publication until age fifty-nine. As editor J. M. White says in his postscript: “By the time he got published . . . he had been writing for over thirty years . . . At age twelve, he got a notebook and sharpened a stick and made his own ink out of walnut stain and started writing.” This romantic image of the determined young neophyte also reveals the milieu in which Gay lived all his life: working-class mining towns in the “High Forest” of Lewis County. There, Gay developed his craft outside the classroom and without the assistance of writing circles, so it is a testament to an innate and uncanny ability to spin yarns and adorn sentences that Gay achieved the level of artistry, command of language, and sense of characterization that he did.

Fugitives of the Heart begins with an unforgettable sentence: “Yates’s father’s sole claim to immortality was that he used to cause good car wrecks.” From there unfolds the story of a young boy whose peregrinations and adventures (or misadventures) we follow through the ridges and glens of backwoods Tennessee. This is a place where people are so poor they do not “even possess a shovel to bury the dead”; where if “all you had to sell was the labor of your own body you clustered with these gaunteyed men clutching their lunchbuckets waiting for the work whistle to blow”; where people feel they are “in the waiting room of hell just listening for someone to open the door and call out my name.” Bereft of any person or place to which he can anchor his heart, on the run in the woods, and on the cusp of his “coming of age,” the young, vigorous, and intrepid Yates seems attracted to conflict, prone to accident, and immune to consequence. But his string of capers and narrow evasions are catching up with him.

Gay also shines as a master of atmosphere. From Homeric descriptors like “inkblack sea,” “rainwet stone,” and “whippoorwill dark,” to such Joycean compounds as “sunrimpled” and “dreammist,” to mot juste adjectives like “spurling” and “moiled,” the prose plays a poetic mimesis to the setting. The oppressive Tennessee heat is palpable in passages like “The boy’s face looked flat and unfriendly in the white weight of the sun,” and we find ourselves plunged into Yates’s world through dialect (“It just don’t sound like the way Bible folks ort to talk”) and natural descriptions that assault the senses: “He went under tendrils of honeysuckle and bright orange bells of cow itch through a steady droning of bees into a deep cloistered coolness with a damp reek of peppermint.”

By the end of this gripping novel, the final line amends the suggested immortality and humor of the opening one: “Nothing but the earth endures.” Yet the ephemerality of humanity and its various milieux across history are not without beauty, as the two paragraphs preceding the closing words exemplify in a sweep of prose that perfectly caps this hard-hitting volume. If potential readers are wondering whether there is still newness in the tales of hard-scrabble Southerners, William Gay’s final work in an impressive oeuvre offers a veritable rejoinder with this, a novel that no doubt will leave them gutted and altered.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021

forget thee

Ian Dreiblatt
Ugly Duckling Presse ($18)

by Stephen Whitaker

Poet, translator, and correspondent for The Believer Ian Dreiblatt plumbs the American dystopia in his new collection, forget thee. With equally sharp satire and earnest longing, Dreiblatt’s speakers wander a cultural wasteland so cluttered with inherited ideas, distractions, and intoxicants that all meaning is lost in the waist-high flotsam and jetsam flooding New York, the internet, and the hearts and minds of the people. Dreiblatt samples poetry, music, and academic ephemera as he conjures figures of the ancient world to deconstruct language and synthesize meaning in the white noise of the now.

Dreiblatt’s voice balances tenderness and intimacy with satire and wit throughout the volume. Its warmth engenders trust in the narrator-speaker, the unnamed protagonist of this mini-epic, which at times echoes Dante’s Inferno or Homer’s Odyssey. Descending into the underworld, addressing a loved and unnamed you, Dreiblatt is both siren and herald, prophet and harbinger of violence to come—violence that is echoed in the historical quips of the characters with whom the speaker interacts.

In “dunjalûce,” the opening sequence, the speaker unpacks the idea that language is a violent, active oppressor, and as forget thee unfolds, we see how language, words, and meaning are suffused with power: “in turkish saray means palace a word the northern slavs of / russia twisted mockingly to mean shack and the southern / slavs of bosnia borrowed for their capital.” These lines explore how language is subverted to oppress, a colonizing force felt throughout the world. But language is not just employed by forces of political power; when exploited like currency by western corporate culture, it can become devalued as well. As Dreiblatt writes:

when the eclipse finally
comes we’re so fatigued by
public speech that we’re
ready to believe there is
no eclipse, just a conversation
about an eclipse that
we have to be trapped in for
it to have meaning.

In many ways, forget thee is about reclaiming meaning as much as it is about questioning meaning or making meaning (or culture or history or civilization). The speaker explores bubble worlds, worlds that often rub up against other bubble worlds, causing cultural friction: “hey world there’s no definition of violence we all agree on//or can untangle from a more basic idea of what living is.” And the poems continually circle back to the question: how does one make meaning when our culture is flooded with meaning?

To answer this question, Dreiblatt conjures up ancient historical figures and deities, recalling the necromancers of Gulliver’s Travels who conjured ancient minds and personalities to learn from them. In these exchanges, humor arises from the “soundbites” of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, and forgotten gods and goddesses, among others. All the while, Dreiblatt also samples other writers and employs repeating motifs and phrases, which in turn act as a chorus of sorts, harmonizing as the poet ponders the end of civilization. The ideals expressed from history both contrast and harmonize with the now.

In a conversation with the Egyptian sky god Hathor, the speaker exclaims, “I want another kind / of language, I say, houses / have eyes and I don’t / understand how anything / means anything at all—.” Meaning shifts as language changes and evolves, and power often shifts with language. Who understands shifting power better than the old gods, the old tyrants, and the old one percent? Later in forget thee, Thoth, the Egyptian God of wisdom, expresses his horror concerning how knowledge in the age of technological wonders is concealed in writing, an act of wilful ignorance. Writing, in Thoth’s eyes, is a “gift you / didn’t survive.”

And what does Dreiblatt find as he navigates the modern underworld, our dystopian U.S.A.? At the end of forget thee, in “postscripts,” the speaker chooses to be hopeful, looking back to Occupy Wall Street as that hope’s wellspring. Dreiblatt’s poems are ultimately cautiously optimistic about the future, a future where people share their feelings in subway tunnels, free of the oppression of divisive cultural noise:

ever hand you find is
for holding. believe the
news it happened. every
body will help you some
people are very kind.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

see each other
underground and
we’re all just crying
to know how late it is &
that we too are like all
the others.

This is a freedom dependent on community, making community where no community exists. Ultimately, forget thee represents a necessity in a world where meaning shifts depending on socio-economics and geography, where it is inherited and subverted and oppressed, and where language and ideas are weaponized against neighbors and strangers alike.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021

Small, Light, Portable Universes:
An Interview with Richard Powers

photo by Dean D. Dixon

by Allan Vorda

Richard Powers was born in 1957 in Evanston, Illinois, and enrolled at the University of Illinois as a physics major before switching to English as his chosen field. Upon receiving his B.A. and M.A., he moved to Boston where he worked as a computer programmer and a night watchman in a museum, which inspired his first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (William Morrow, 1985). After publishing a second novel he moved to the Netherlands, but eventually returned to the U.S. to teach for many years (first at the University of Illinois, then Stanford University) before moving to the Smoky Mountains, where he now lives in nature as he pursues an ascetic lifestyle of reading and writing. Over the years, he has published thirteen novels, typically taking two to four years to write each one. Among his numerous literary awards, he has won the National Book Award for The Echo Maker (FSG, 2006) and the Pulitzer Prize for The Overstory (W. W. Norton, 2018).

As with each of his novels, his latest book, Bewilderment (Norton, $27.95), explores new territory; in this case, the relationship of a father (Theo) and his troubled nine-year old son (Robin). The son undergoes a metamorphosis after participating in an experimental trial called Decoded Neurofeedback. The father, a university teacher and researcher, works on a project that entails creating imaginary planets to which he gives fictional names. Father and son take approximately a dozen visits to these simulated worlds, yet these Planet Seeker visits, in conjunction with the difficulties Theo encounters as a widower raising a son and the effects of Decoded Neurofeedback on Robin, raise the question of what is real and what is simulated. It is an amazing journey that has in-and-out of this world experiences, but perhaps most importantly, Powers does an incredible job of showing the boundless love that a father has for his son. This interview took place over email in May of 2021.


Allan Vorda: The epigraph for Daniel Keyes’s 1959 novel Flowers for Algernon, taken from Plato, incorporates your title: “Anyone who has common sense will remember the bewilderments of the eye are two of the kinds, and arrive from two causes, either from coming out of the light or going into the light, which is true of the mind’s eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye.” Was Algernon an inspiration for Bewilderment?

Richard Powers: It’s the touchstone intertext for my novel. Keyes wrote the short story the year after my birth, and the novel version appeared when I was nine—the same age as Robin through most of Bewilderment. I read the story in the sixth grade, when I was eleven, and it settled into a permanent place in my imagination as one of those bedrock fables that helps to explain life.

The story itself is mentioned several times in the course of my novel, and on at least two occasions, it serves to further the plot. I even explicitly reference Algernon’s epigraph, from Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” and as you point out, those words serve as one of the sources of my title. But Algernon is also the inspiration for the science fiction invention that serves as the central plot of the entire novel. Daniel Keyes’s story tells of a cognitively challenged man who, through a breakthrough in scientific technique, is granted intelligence far beyond ordinary human limits. A couple of years ago, when I read about a remarkable new technique called decoded neurofeedback, I instantly thought of using it to tell a similar fable. Suppose researchers perfected an empathy machine that could greatly magnify our ability to apprehend the world through our feelings? What might we humans learn to become? Bewilderment turns the Algernon fable on its head. In place of intellect, it deals in emotional intelligence. It tells the story of a little child, going into the light.

AV: Bewilderment is an extraordinary story of the heartfelt relationship between a father and his son. As someone who doesn’t have any children, how were you able to capture the essence of the feelings of Theo and Robin?

RP: Well, I had a lot of experience being a child. And when I grew up, I began to suspect how my father had been a child once, too. I was also an older brother, with too much parental instinct for my own good. I have been an uncle several times over, and I’ve been a surrogate dad to more than one of my friends’ children. I spent many years as a teacher, in constant contact with lives looking for guidance and direction. I’ve watched almost everyone I’ve ever loved struggle with the unsolvable mystery of how to raise another life. So my own life has been more than full of vicarious parenting.

Children can possess enormous amounts of innate emotional intelligence, but adult pragmatism and practicality tend to wear it down. While finishing my previous novel, The Overstory, I read numerous accounts of the toll our growing environmental catastrophe is taking on the young. I kept running across a recent neologism: solastalgia, the emotional anguish caused by an apprehension of the dying planet. It occurred to me that we were raising a generation of troubled kids, born homesick for a place that they never knew. What would it be like to raise a child suffering from such an illness? I’d never seen a parenting story that addressed that question. So I wrote one.

AV: Early on we learn that nine-year Robin has issues with anger. Is his anger due to his mother’s death? Is there a medical term for what is afflicting Robbie?

RP: So much of the book is concerned with the crudeness and insufficiency of our diagnoses, etiologies, and understandings of childhood neurodivergence. Robin’s behavioral differences go way beyond anger issues. He’s an uncanny child, intense and otherworldly, whose peculiarities prevent his successful integration into the social world. When I was a child (possessing many of these qualities myself), many of Robin’s behaviors would have been diagnosed as “abnormal.” Our tolerance for difference has grown in the years since then. But our understanding of the clinical underpinnings of such differences remains limited and primitive.

To lay blame for Robin’s “condition” either on his mother’s death or on some genetic disorder is already to fall into that limited thinking. There are medical terms for Robin, to be sure. But they are almost all crude and pathologizing. As Theo puts it: “I never believed the diagnoses the doctors settled on my son. When a condition gets three different names over as many decades, when it requires two subcategories to account for completely contradictory symptoms, when it goes from nonexistent to the country’s most commonly diagnosed childhood disorder in the course of one generation, when two different physicians want to prescribe three different medications, there’s something wrong.”

We in the States still seem less interested in understanding “challenged” kids than in treating and altering them. Just a couple of days ago, Elon Musk announced on national television that he has Asperger’s Syndrome. That announcement may go a ways toward helping parents understand that neurodivergence is much subtler and more wondrous than they may fear, and not always in need of a “treatment.”

AV: There are several references to birds in Bewilderment. Theo’s late wife, Alyssa, used to go birding with her friend Marty Collier. Her son is named after her favorite bird. Robin shows his dad an owl that lives in a nearby tree. Theo and Robin see three sandhill cranes (which recalls your novel The Echo Maker) flying north, to which Robbie says, “How would we ever know aliens? We can’t even know birds.” Do you have an interest in ornithology?

RP: I have been an avid (if still totally amateur) birder since before I published The Echo Maker. I’m a total autodidact, but I’ve been to some of the greatest birding spots on the continent: The Platte River, Southwest Texas, Cape May. I no longer keep life lists or day counts, which tend to commodify the experience too much for me. I can’t always tell what I’m looking at (especially with warblers, in the spring and fall!). But the thrill never gets old, even in seeing “commoners.” I saw a pair of scarlet tanagers the other day (early in May, in the Smokies) that were so bright I thought for a moment that two bits of orange and red emergency reflective tape had blown up into the trees. When I hear the pileated woodpecker and the barred owl who live right near my house, it’s enough to make it a good day. A good bird sighting can match any artistic pleasure.

The Smokies are covered in suchdense forests that birding here is usually more of a matter of hearing than seeing. While writing Bewilderment, I began studying and learning the songs of the hundreds of birds who come through the area. A bit of musical background has helped in this. I’ve also become a devoted supporter of American Bird Conservancy, which does astonishingly good work, on a very limited budget, to preserve habitat and protect birds—highly recommended for anyone who’d like to perpetuate and extend the joy that birds bring!

AV: Theo creates imaginary planets with different characteristics for his Planet Seeker project. How did you come up with names like Mios, Nithar, and Zenia and the planets’ different features? How do these discussions help bind the father-son relationship?

RP: I took great pleasure in shaping and naming these planets in the hope that these voyages to surreal places would intensify the domestic realism of the rest of the novel. The names of the planets are playful trips in etymology, and I tried to cast a wide linguistic net in naming them. All the names grow out of ancient roots and have some bearing on the allegorical nature of each place. As all good religions understand, the mystery of our ability to know ourselves is also the mystery of language. Childhood consists of struggling to come to terms with a bewildering array of names and words. Every word is another planet.

The voyages that Theo and Robin take to these imaginary places are both a form of shared play as well as an exercise in mutual empathy. For the son, the stories are pure escape and emotional adventure. For the father, they are exercises in the recovery of childhood mystery and his own love for speculative fiction. I am lucky to be pen pals with Kim Stanley Robinson, a towering figure in contemporary American speculative fiction, and I sent him a copy of the book in galleys. He remarked on being taken back to his own early pleasures in the genre of 1950s and 1960s “planetary romances,” a tradition that he dates back to Melville and others’ travel romances to remote islands. He cites Le Guin, Pangborn, Vance, Sturgeon, and Brunner as being great practitioners of the form. These are writers whose influence I have felt with real force—writers touched with wanderlust and desire to travel beyond the constraints of an increasingly domesticated Earth.

Other planets are, of course, always other people, and dreams of travel are filled with the fear of otherness and the desire for unachievable empathy. But Robinson also hit on the jackpot point that all these travels to other planets are meditations on the unbelievable luck and incredible beauty of this one. As he put it to me, any alien father and son out there, dreaming up a place like Earth, would be tempted to laugh away the idea as way too rich and fecund and lucky to be anything but the wildest science fiction.

AV: The discussions Theo has with Robbie get into the Fermi Paradox. Robbie asks Theo how many galaxies there are in the universe and Theo says: “A British team just published a paper saying there might be two trillion.” This is mind-boggling. What are your thoughts about sentient life in the universe? Assuming there is sentient life and contact gets made in the future, doesn’t it make you wonder how we Earthlings would respond, especially since there is so much xenophobia in the world today?

RP: The math for calculating the likelihood of intelligent alien life is so full of gaps and unknowns that it truly is anybody’s guess. The denominator of habitable planets is growing rapidly, and it is already so large that it would seem to make the existence of intelligent aliens almost a certainty. But there are so many possible filters and bottlenecks that we can’t entirely calculate, since we are in the untenable position of reasoning from a single case—our own. Nevertheless, the smart money is leaning toward “Yes.” When I was young, it was almost taboo for serious scientists to talk about the possibility in public. Now, Astrobiology is a respected career. My lay-person’s hunch is that they are almost certainly out there, but at distances so great that we may never detect even indirect evidence and could never hope for direct communication.

As for how Earthlings would respond to any detection of life elsewhere: Now there is the classic SF question! And it has been answered in so many ways. Some writers point out that what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences” tends to gets tempered a bit when people are confronted with a much deeper outside difference. Some (I’m thinking of James Tiptree Jr.) seem to suggest that the desire for alien intimacy is the strongest urge we can feel. Others emphasize how resourceful and infinitely pliant a hatred of everything alien can be. Given human psychology, there may be a connection here!

I can’t pretend to understand humans, and I have no great insight into their profound, primal contradiction. We are xenophobic, yes, and our tribal loyalties can make us hate just about anyone and anything that does not look enough like us. But we are also filled, especially as children, with what E. O. Wilson calls biophilia. Children are born scientists. They also tend toward pantheism, and they can see God crawling all over every inch of the backyard. I want to write stories that can help return us to that state of consciousness, books that can reenchant and “bewilder” people in the etymological sense: to make them a part of wildness again. The chief crisis of humanity is that we see this planet not as a finite, living system but as a bottomless commodity to exploit and an endless terrain to subdue. We desperately need stories that can alter that. The most bewildering fiction is a kind of empathy machine, training us to see our seemingly disparate selves as imbricated in an unfolding, experimental network that is trying to travel everywhere.

AV: There are a number of scenes in Bewilderment that refer to the President, which the reader can assume is Trump, making outrageous decisions. One example is the President’s solution to stop forest fires in California by writing an executive order to cut down two hundred thousand acres of national forest. As a former physics student and an environmentalist who believes in science, what has it been like for you to have watched Trump with his anti-science approach to such things as global warming, conservation, and COVID-19?

RP: The President in Bewilderment isn’t Trump per se, but he is a very close fictional double! He, too, has figured out that in the era of digitally-leveraged politics he can sell fear, anger, hearsay, confusion, persecution, and paranoia much better and spread them much faster than humility, empathy, wonder, and science. The xenophobia, tribalism, and superstition whipped up during the four short years of the Trump administration have stunned and demoralized me. His outright rejection of empirical evidence in favor of wishful thinking destroyed not just the public’s belief in scientifically demonstrated fact, but also demolished anything that looked like a shared trust in any kind of accountable process for determining facts in the absence of consensual belief. The trend of those years was terrible and obvious: evidence has given way to wishful thinking, and ideology has replaced all appeal to empirical data and measurement.

The destruction of national set-aside land over the last four years, the removal of protections to air and water, the reversal of all our hard-won progress on climate change, and the redoubled war on everything that isn’t human tore the heart out of me. But the real tragedy of those years, one that will continue to harm humanity and all the rest of creation for a long time to come, was the massive resurgence of human exceptionalism that Trump fostered simply by preaching a sense of aggrieved entitlement. Trump’s white nationalism and his toxic male paternalism are part of a larger, unbridled gospel of human separation from and domination over everything else alive.

Good scientific practice, with its self-restrained and tentative nature, is helpless in the face of swaggering self-assertion and grandiose privilege. Rational argument, statistics, and an appeal to facts do nothing in such a battle. But stories can sometimes sway a reader’s heart, and the questions of children can sometimes shame adults into seeing themselves. That’s why the story of a child coming into the light seemed to me the perfect antidote to Trump’s America.

AV: There are numerous sentences throughout the novel that just sparkle. One example: “Rising from the leaf duff in a bowl-shaped opening off the path was the most elaborate mushroom I’d ever seen. It mounded up in a cream-colored hemisphere bigger than my two hands. A fluted ribbon of fungus rippled through itself to form a surface as convoluted as an Elizabethan ruff.” Is there a method to this creative architecture? Do you think of some exquisite sentence and write it down to be used later, or does your Muse inspire you when you actually sit down to write?

RP: Thanks for the kind words. I’m grateful to hear that. Of all the elements of writing, I have always been mostly drawn to explorations of style. When I was younger, that sometimes meant striving to create lots of sentence-level effects through diction, register, and elaborate syntax. I often tried to create a style that called attention to itself. As I grew older, I became interested in simplicity and constraint, while still searching for a language that was distinctive and unpredictable. Often this has involved a more passive approach to sentence-making than in the past. Nowadays I like to take the sentences I’m working on out on the trail with me. I don’t attack them with conscious attention, but rather, I let them percolate in the back of my mind as I walk, and I focus my attention on all the life around me in the woods. Before I’ve gone far—usually no more than a mile or two—the solution to the sentence or paragraph that I’ve been puzzling over will present itself to me, almost intact. Of course, the tiny bits of tinkering and adjustment continue when I get home, and those never stop, even after publication, I’m afraid.

AV: While discussing the Trappist planet, Robbie asks: “What about God, Dad?” Theo’s response to his son is, “I mean, God isn’t something you can prove or disprove. But from what I can see, we don’t need any bigger miracle than evolution.” Was there a point in your life that you came to a similar conclusion?

RP: I began falling away from traditional religion when I was a teen. The more I learned about the complexity of life and the shared features of biochemistry and genetics across all living things, the more spiritual power I found in the grand biogenetic synthesis. As Darwin suggested in the famous last lines of The Origin of Species, there is more miracle and greater potential for inspiration in the accreting discoveries of empirical science than there is in the Bronze Age story of a personal God, especially the anthropomorphized one we’ve inherited. If you’re talking about the creation of meaning, nothing is more staggering or meaningful than a sense of what a few self-replicating molecules have been able to manage, shaped by natural selection and the other regulators of evolution.

Religions based on a soul-testing God who is intent on the salvation of separate souls (a God who seems remarkably indifferent to the fate of non-humans, by the way) have proved to be a disaster for the planet. Yet religion is likely to be the only thing strong enough to compel people to rejoin and rehabilitate the living planet. We need a different kind of religion now if we mean to stick around here for much longer. I’m looking for that in all kinds of places, from Taoism to Native American belief in Interbeing. We need the pantheism of children and the sense of awe expressed by the best natural scientists. We need to remember that “religion” derives from deep linguistic roots that mean, literally, “tying back together.”

AV: “They share a lot, astronomy and childhood. Both are voyages across huge distances. Both search for facts beyond their grasp.” On one hand, Theo is a scientist who appears to be living in the real world while trying to deal with the reality of being a widower and single parent. On the other hand, he also lives in a simulated world with his imaginary planets. What are the consequences of this duality for the father-son relationship?

RP: My goal in creating Theo Byrne was to make him broadly sympathetic but also wholly ambiguous and questionable. That’s why the book is told in first person. First-person narrators are intrinsically unreliable, to some degree. They perform themselves for the reader, making the equivocal case for themselves even as they explore the limits to their own self-understanding. Theo seems aware of his ample faults, as a scientist, a friend, a husband, and a father, but readers are likely to have deeper insights into him that he himself has not yet been able to reach. That makes him something of a tragic character in the classic sense, I suppose.

And yet, for all his fallibility and the limits of his self-knowledge, I’d like to think that there is something redemptive to him. Philip Roth once said that we really begin to love a person when we see them trying to be game in the face of an impossible situation. As Theo became substantial for me, I couldn’t help but love him. He knows he is thrashing about, that he is ill-equipped for the challenges of his life, especially after the death of his wife, Alyssa. But there is nothing—nothing—that he wouldn’t do to try to protect and care for his son.

AV: To expand on the previous question, when Robbie begins experiments with Decoded Neurofeedback, he becomes so proficient that not only does his anger disappear, but he becomes incredibly intelligent. Do you think the roles of parent and child have been reversed to some extent? If so, to what betterment or detriment for each person?

RP: I suspect that everyone who has ever raised a child has, sooner or later, felt the roles of parent and child reversing. It’s a dirty little secret of myopia known to every child, as well! Mark Twain has a very funny line: “When I was young I thought what a fool my father was. When I became a man I was surprised how much he had caught up in the meantime.” The story of Robin’s accelerated education is an only-slightly-fabulistic exemplar of the uncanny (but not uncommon) moments when parents feel reminded, humbled, or outright schooled by the wisdom of their children.

AV: The Buddhist prayer Aly says to Robbie at bedtime—“May all sentient beings be free from needless suffering”—does not get answered. In fact, each family member experiences “needless suffering,” whether self-inflicted or not. Would you care to comment on the irony of this and the place of praying?

RP: It’s a matter of debate whether Buddhism is theistic. In general, though, prayers in that faith are directed not so much outward as inward, toward a self in need of transformation and interconnection. Aly’s prayer is derived from the Four Immeasurables, and to think on them is less a matter of petition than of practice. “Let me never cause needless suffering to another sentient being.”

The first of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths is “the truth of suffering.” All creatures will suffer, and much of that suffering will be needless. But suffering can be lessened through a change in consciousness. The bedtime refrain that Aly taught Theo and that Theo teaches Robin is an expression of will that needless suffering should not be compounded. It’s a way of strengthening identification with all things and helping to see ourselves in everything that isn’t us. Just to say the words out loud is to start to change the consciousness of a culture that has not always admitted to how much needless suffering it inflicts. Prayer, like fiction at its best, is an empathy machine, a way towards that state of Interbeing where needless suffering diminishes.

AV: Making the analogy to Algernon, Robbie tells Theo that he is “still the same mouse, Dad. I just have help now.” Robbie also says he has “three really smart, funny, and strong guys” walking with him, “Just: like, they’re helping to row the boat or something. My crew.” What should the reader make of these imaginary friends?

RP: I think they should be just as bewildered by the words as Theo is! What’s happening to Robbie at this point is a locked room mystery. In fact, that’s true for the whole book. Theo never really knows what’s going on inside his son’s head. But when Robin starts training in Martin Currier’s empathy machine, Theo’s own capacity for empathy is really put to the test. How much of the improvement in Robin is being caused by the feedback? How much of the perceived benefit is only a matter of cueing? How much is Robin doing by himself, in the novelty of the experience and through the force of his own imagination?

Nabokov, in his great afterword to Lolita, talks about how he drew inspiration for the book from reading “a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature's cage.” We are each trapped inside our own heads, making art and saying sentences that bewilder other people. We will never know what it’s like to be another person, let alone an ape or a bat. No empathy will ever be strong enough to give us anything else but the View from Here.

But here’s the thing: when I read a book by someone from another time and place, maybe even someone who is long since dead, it’s like I have company, a helper in my head—my “crew.” I carry that feeling of having houseguests around with me, even after the act of silent communion and neurofeedback is over. The mystery is not what is in the other locked room. The great mystery is how the View from Here can sometimes become the view from anywhere.

AV: Robbie sees a young climate activist named Inga Alder on TV and, being inspired, decides to do his own protests at the state’s and nation’s capitols. Greta Thunberg, her seeming real-world counterpart, also has Asperger’s, which she claims is a gift. What do you think about Thunberg, who dropped out of school to bring the world’s attention to climate change, and her connection to Robbie?

RP: I’m never comfortable giving away my keys to open any roman à clef, but this one kind of gives away itself! Inga, like Thunberg, declares that her cognitive “challenge” is really her superpower. Robin himself immediately recognizes the affinity, the moment he first sees her and hears her talk on television. He says, “She’s like me, Dad,” and the words make Theo’s skin pucker.

Thunberg is an astonishing and unique spokesperson for a new human consciousness. The need for humans to come back and live here, inside the webs of the living planet, has rarely been more powerfully articulated or advanced. There is no gainsaying her blunt willingness to confront the truth and to challenge our attempts at denial and self-deception. I believe that Thunberg’s skills, her courage, her moral clarity, her powers of persuasion, and the truth of her vision are in no small part a function of her “superpower.” It may well be the neurodivergent who lead the way in the transformation of human culture that we will need in order to preserve and extend this planet’s experiment in self-awareness.

AV: There is a scene where Theo and Robbie are in the backyard at night which Theo recounts: “He propped his head on the pillow of my arm. For a long time, we just looked up at the stars—all the ones we could see and half the ones we couldn’t.” Then Robbie says: “Dad. I feel like I’m waking up. Like I’m inside everything. Look where we are! That tree. This grass!” This scene, which echoes the book cover, shows the love of father and son as they share this wonderful, magical moment in time. Was this scene from your own childhood or something else entirely?

RP: I remember many such moments of “oceanic consciousness” from my own childhood, and I have continued to experience them, although less frequently and intensely, as an adult. But this scene came about from my trying to inhabit Robin’s consciousness as fully as I could. To show him at his zenith, as his ability to experience “Interbeing” reaches its peak, I read a great deal of spiritual and religious writing, especially in the Eastern tradition. The writer Charles Eisenstein was helpful throughout. I also turned to the best examples of “nature visionary” writing, both classic, like John Muir and Aldo Leopold, and contemporary, like Robert MacFarlane and Robin Wall Kimmerer.

AV: In many of your novels you explore various types of consciousness and how individuals think and express themselves. What are your thoughts about humans having implants in the future?

RP: To some extent, Bewilderment is itself wrestling with the question of technologically-mediated consciousness. It does so through the fable of neurofeedback, of course, but, more fundamentally, it dramatizes Theo’s dilemma of whether to medicate his child. Therapeutic drugs have helped countless people function better on this planet, but Theo is reluctant to experiment with them on such a young and still-forming brain. For him, the ways of going wrong in such an experiment outnumber the ways of going right. But more importantly, he isn’t convinced that his struggling child needs to be cured of anything. How much should he try to “correct” his child, simply to conform to contemporary practice in raising children?

These questions of clinical treatment shade off into the increasingly real question of cognitive or emotional enhancement. (Think of the number of students out there taking ADD medication, not to treat a diagnosed condition, but to improve their academic performance.) I have no doubt that humans will get better and better at controlling and mediating mood, emotion, behavior, perception, and cognition through pharmacology and other kinds of neural intervention. But I also know so many kinds of neural interventions—music, love, hiking, poetry, sitting by the river, breathing in a cascade’s negative ions—that I’d rather experiment with.

AV: It seems evident in the recent stages of your writing career that you are very concerned about our environment and the impact humans are having on it. Since moving to the Smoky Mountains, some readers might consider you as a modern-day Thoreau. What are your thoughts about the future of our environment and are there any organizations that concerned citizens should consider supporting?

RP: There are so many! Those that concentrate on the reversal of habitat destruction are especially important to me, as that will be the key to slowing down the mass extinction that we are inflicting on the planet. The organizations Save the Redwoods, Old Growth Forest Network, the National Forest Foundation, and American Forests do good work in this country. I’ve already mentioned American Bird Conservancy, which is one of the most effective and efficient environmental organizations around. Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement is helping to transform Africa. Look for smaller, targeted, lean and efficient organizations that are doing work close to your own heart.

Perhaps even more useful than sending cash to such outfits is committing yourself to hands-on efforts where you live. Rehabilitation begins at home, and to the extent that we are going to reintegrate in a sane way with the living planet, it will be through local efforts to understand and restore what life wants to do nearby. Why not start in your yard? Get rid of invasives, plant native species, give up your desire to control things with chemical inputs, and love what happens when local life comes rushing back in.

AV: Your books never seem to repeat themselves. This allows your readers to examine and reflect on life in ways they ordinarily would not. To paraphrase one of your sentences from Bewilderment, your novels let the reader “wormhole” into a different world, even if all of your novels are not “small, light, portable parallel universes.” If this question is not too impertinent, can you provide an example or two where you might have read a book and decided “I want to write this type of novel”?

RP: That’s not at all impertinent to ask. I do this all the time! In fact, I have spent much of my life like Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” (I really, really wish I could have written that story.) At one time or another, I have wished that I could re-write, verbatim, works by Melville and Byatt and Proust and Pynchon and Stoppard and Mann and LeGuin and Mitchell and Whitehead. The list is long, and a certain kind of emulation-gone-astray has left genetic markers all over my thirteen novels. For Bewilderment, in addition to Flowers For Algernon, I took lots of inspiration from Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker, and so many others.

AV: On its surface, Bewilderment could be viewed as a straightforward novel about a father and son relationship, a mystery novel, or even touching upon the realms of science fiction. It also seems to have affinity with fabulist writers such as Calvino, Borges, and Barth. Do you welcome such comparisons and would you ever consider writing a science fiction novel?

RP: I have lived my whole literary life, both as a reader and a writer, straddling that gap between psychological realism, on the one hand, and formalist, fabulist, or more “experimental” writing on the other. Ordinarily, people seem to show devotion to one side of this dualism, and abhorrence for the other side. I love them both, and I’ve struggled for a third of a century to find ways of writing books that can triangulate between and combine what Zadie Smith famously called these “two paths for the novel.” So it thrills me that you feel that “a straightforward novel about a father and son relationship” might also owe a debt to Borges, Calvino, and Barth! All three of those writers have had massive influence on me, and I had them all in mind at one time or another as I wrote Bewilderment. I wanted to hybridize modes and aesthetics in a way that showed how porous that species boundary really is.

But in this book, I had other motives for trying to fuse realism with fable, reasons having to do with the subject matter of Bewilderment. The novel, as a form, is one of the most complex and effective empathy machines that humans have yet come up with. It works best when it can excite all kinds of concurrent but sometimes incommensurable parts of the brain. The strange loop of fiction makes it possible for us readers to reflect on our own processes, even while we are immersed in the stream of them. And while reading, we begin to see how much of what we take to be inarguably real is, in fact, the result of fabulous maps and shorthand fables that we ourselves have created. Likewise, the primal fables that the best fiction serves up can come away reflecting the most practical and hard-headed realism.

You ask if I’ve ever considered writing science fiction. As I see it, Bewilderment is itself science fiction, in the purest sense. The entire book takes place on a counterfactual Earth, it invokes a dozen voyages to other planets, and it hinges on a plot involving a level of neural technology that doesn’t yet exist. But the fact that it didn’t feel like science fiction to you pleases me. Not that I’m unhappy with the label of science fiction writer. Galatea 2.2 and Plowing the Dark both used science fiction, and Generosity was a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction. I’m always proud when SF writers like Kim Stanley Robinson and Carter Scholz claim my books as SF. My aim, though, is to absorb the science fiction elements into a texture of plausible realism and to tell a story where facts and fable fuse seamlessly in the reader’s mind.

AV: When I saw you speak at Rice University for a reading of The Overstory, you were gracious enough to let your good friend Tayari Jones speak after you. I thoroughly enjoyed her novel An American Marriage. Are there any other novels by writers that you might suggest?

RP: Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena was one of the most ambitious and achieved debut novels I’ve ever read. I really enjoyed The Alaskan Laundry, by Brendan Jones, who I worked with when I was at Stanford. I was lucky to read Sandro Veronesi’s novel The Hummingbird, which made such a splash in Europe, in an early English galley. It is just now being published here. David Benioff’s City of Thieves was very well done. Anything by the extraordinary writer Colum McCann will provide great rewards.

AV: I cannot put into words how much your writing has brought enjoyment into my life. Since you quoted a Buddhist saying in Bewilderment, I will leave you with another Buddhist saying: “What we think, we become.” Thank you for your sublime novels and for doing this interview.

RP: Thank you for such kind words. Regarding your Buddhist saying, I used a similar quote, by Bernard of Clairvaux, as the refrain in my novel Galatea 2.2: “What we love, we shall come to resemble.” When an idea pops up in two such different cultures and traditions, perhaps there is something to it! I’d also like to hope that what we read and think about, we will come to love.

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Anuja Ghimire
Unsolicited Press ($20)

by Carlos A. Pittella

If you think Anuja Ghimire’s Kathmandu will transport you to Nepal, it will—but it will do so as an interrogation of home and the languages we use to define it, and the journey will be equal parts amazement and awareness. The opening poem recalls the 1991 assassination of Indian politician Rajiv Gandhi from the perspective of a young Nepali speaker:

As my mother bent to tuck me to bed
the night the woman blew up Rajiv,
I searched the pleats of her sari
for the shrapnel of fairy tales

Addressing tragic events in Indo-Nepalese history, the first four pieces in this book show the awakening of a poet when the meaning of home is shattered. Out of the “shrapnel of fairy tales,” the poet seeks to remake home, leaving the country of her birth; the taxi-ride to the airport is “The first flight” titling the fifth poem: “the taxi skidded and bounced, with it, my heart // my mother’s sank with each turbulence.”

Kathmandu soon arrives in the U.S. In “Saffron,” we find the poet dancing, balancing the lightness of exploring a new country with the weight of carrying an ancient culture that goes unnoticed to Western eyes:

I flutter when I dance
and shiver when I drive
my fingers create lotus, deer and Shiva
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
my fingers create the rain
and reach for the milk
when I am not watched,
I make art in Wal-Mart

This poem unearths inner life where xenophobia hides it: in immigrants. Here, poetry has a whole layer of mudras (the hand gestures that tell stories in several Eastern dance traditions). Literally, there is art inside of Wal-Mart, if only we open our eyes to the tales told by the hands doing the shelving.

Later, the speaker is visiting Nepal when the horrifying 2015 earthquake shakes the land, as recounted in the poem “God, five-years-old, saves my life, 2072 B.S.” (another title that functions as a poetic line). B.S. stands for the lunar calendar Bikram Sambat, reminding us that there are multiple ways to tell time. Age, strength, and the very soil become relative: “my daughter announced she was God / as Earth turned into tides.”

One of the last poems questions who owns the language to define “home,” from the very title:

A young woman says “I want to speak English like you”

she wants to hold my foreign words on the precipice of her tongue
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
to unfurl them as a party trick
Howe aar yuuu?

Suddenly the reader spirals in time, witnessing the learning of two alphabets at once: “the circular egg, police stick, monkey’s tail, and demon’s moustache क / that I learned to write dreaming / the broken triangle with a tummy stitch A, A, A that I wake up mumbling.” These woven alphabets form a powerline, electrocuting with questions any xenophobic violence that touches it: when the foreigner sings in your tongue, what does it teach you about yourself? First, your language is not just yours. Ghimire makes it into her home, and a better home for us too.

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Divya Victor
Nightboat Books ($17.95)

by Greg Bem

& you put
the pieces back together on the dining table—to make a map for a country made of vein & sinew with hands pulled clean of wedding bands & raw rice, a map for a country of two.

True to its history, the United States today harbors its latest iterations of anti-immigrant violence. Rhetoric abounds on who is allowed and who is not. Experiences and facts are nullified. Waves of violence and persecution against Asian American communities across the country show up in the news on a near-daily basis. Stories flood the commons, stories of endurance, survival, and defense of identity, and stories of presence, inclusion, and citizenship.

These stories are vital, and in her fifth book, the bleak but necessary CURB, Divya Victor proves herself to be worthy of the challenge of telling them. Building a powerful exposition from both personal reflection and its refraction through the external world—homes, curbs, lawns, and pavement—this collection captures the cultural moment while also relaying the past, never letting up, never forgetting, always connecting us and projecting possibility and repair:

When I read the news
of the shooting, these ears rang
the phone-lines of the dead, called
for the knowing trill, the scatter
of sugar, of a spoon circling
a milk tea for one
on the other side
of the world.

CURB’s poetry concerns South Asian immigrants, centering individuals who have been targeted by acts of violence within the United States since the early ’90s: Balbir Singh Sodhi, murdered in Mesa, Arizona; Navroze Mody, murdered in Jersey City, New Jersey; Srinivas Kuchibhotla, murdered in Olathe, Kansas; and Sunando Sen, murdered in Queens, New York. These four, whose lives were brutally stolen in acts of racist violence, may be the subjects, but they stand for more. They illuminate the stories, collectively, and shine the spotlight on those hypocritical U.S. systems that at once provide liberty and push it away through violence and murder:

lawn of alert marigolds you burn the camphor on the stoop
so our names are spelled in flames

lawn of red dirt at dusk you sprinkle sugar on buttered bread
so our names are buried with yours

Victor’s approach is harrowing, yet tactful. In CURB, she creates a tribute while weaving in personal reflections and elevating the memories of self and other equally. These stories twist between American reality and Indian origin, balancing human presence over otherness. In “Lawn (Arid),” the poet writes of the landscape of Trichy, India, visceral and visible. “Blood/Soil” recalls the Nazi slogan while exploring, in graphic detail, the attack on Sureshbhai Patel in Madison, Alabama, by a white police officer. In the context of violence, oppression, and colonial history, Victor poses questions: How do lives get represented? Who crafts their histories? Where do they become realized, and how are they understood? Like its spiritual predecessor, Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, much of CURB concerns securing a space for questions and conversations.

Perhaps most importantly, CURB bridges the collective trauma that Asian Americans face every day with a very real sense of hope and optimism, and Victor invites us in—all of us—to share the commitment and vigor that results. The book, thus, is an invitation to learn, to support, and to transform:

A mark in the body to remember the work of being a paper
person, with or without papers. A living milestone to mark the
work of being nothing to you.

A mark in the body to remember the day when you leaned close
to someone else who reminded you of someone you once held
close. A stranger who is like family. Kith.

CURB is a literary milestone that may initially feel minimal in structure (its table of contents includes only fourteen items), but when read it extends to the farthest reaches of the heart. Victor channels the suffering and persistence of her subjects, and through a posthumous revisiting at once ritualistic and humanely revisionist, she builds a broader story that both honors them and includes us all.

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