Tag Archives: Spring 2014

Alphonse Allais's Captain Cap

Captain Cap, His Adventures, His Ideas, His Drinks
Alphonse Allais
Translated, annotated, introduced, and illustrated by Doug Skinner
Black Scat Books ($26.95)

The Adventures of Captain Cap
Alphonse Allais
Translated, annotated and introduced by Brian Stableford
Black Coat Press ($22.95)

by M. Kasper

captaincapWhat an interesting coincidence! Recently, simultaneously, and unbeknownst to one another, two different translations of a collection of sketches by the heretofore little-translated 19th-century French comic writer Alphonse Allais were published by small publishers, with similar names no less!

Allais (1854-1905) was a key figure in Montmartre’s Belle Époque, a frequenter of cafés and a frequent contributor to journals like Le Chat Noir and Gil Blas. He’s only half-jokingly called the father of Conceptual Art on account of his suite of monochromatic, hilariously captioned prints, entitled “The April Foolish Album,” and his silent musical composition, “Funeral March for a Deaf Man.” Posthumously, Allais has been continually in print in France and acknowledged as one of that country’s great humorists.

The Captain Cap stories originally appeared in magazines and newspapers, and then were collected into a book in 1902. As Brian Stableford says in his introduction, they “hybridize fictional discourse with mini-essays.” Typically, the narrator and his buddy Cap, a Canadian seadog (and “a useful mouthpiece for tall tales and curious inventions,” as Doug Skinner has it in his introduction), meet up at one or another of the many English pubs and American bars that opened in Paris in the 1890s, and they discuss things—Cap’s far-flung exploits, say, or his philosophical or scientific schemes, or recent technological advances—while enjoying cocktails. One neat and unifying feature of the anecdotes is that many include cocktail recipes, in footnotes, so readers can keep up with the principals. In Skinner’s version, the amusing appendix that appeared in the 1902 edition, repeating the recipes along with pithy comments, is translated; Stableford unaccountably drops it.

adventurescapcapBoth editions have genuinely erudite introductions and footnotes, but different approaches emerge: for Skinner (a musician and longtime collaborator with artist Bill Irwin), the heart of the matter is Allais’ avant-garde humor; for Stableford (a mind-bogglingly prolific British author of speculative fiction and translator from French), it’s his scientific and pseudo-scientific imagination. Nevertheless both translators—though they rarely choose exactly the same words, and sometimes one, sometimes the other does a better job with wordplay—manage about equally well in capturing the sprightly, ironic, and self-reflexive style that distinguishes Allais. And there’s added value in both editions: Skinner’s—a more handsomely designed book—tacks on eight extra Cap stories that Allais published elsewhere, plus a selection of historical photos, and lots of really charming, apt, and accomplished illustrations by the translator; Stableford’s includes two dozen non-Cap pieces by Allais on related themes—eighty pages worth!—a nice bonus, especially given how little Allais there’s been in English until now.

Why is Allais suddenly popular here? Well, he was one of the makers of modernism, admired over the decades by both avant-gardists and a wider public, and with short prose (the Cap sketches are only a few pages each) and stylized absurdist humor now widespread in American literary circles, maybe he’s just due for discovery at last. In any case, these two books are welcome.

Click here to purchase Captain Cap at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Adventures of Captain Cap at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

The Seeing I: The Photography of Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier, July 3, 1959, France

Vivian Maier, July 3, 1959, France, from Vivian Maier: Self Portraits

by Susan Buechler

You may have heard of Vivian Maier, and then again, you may not have. A brilliant photographer completely unknown in her lifetime, she made her living as a nanny for well-to-do families in New York and Chicago. From the 1950s to the 1990s, Maier shot approximately one roll of film per day. Her stealthy passion ruled her life, yet she kept her visions hidden, much even in undeveloped film.

Maier’s oeuvre has only taken its place in the field of photography through its chance discovery in 2007, and entirely without her knowledge or choice. Old and isolated, she was in a Chicago hospital when a handful of collectors purchased the contents of her abandoned storage lots and discovered over 100,000 images, along with some audiotapes and home movies. Among the purchasers was John Maloof, a Chicago historian; he tried to locate this reclusive, talented artist he had stumbled upon, but was unable to before she died in 2009. Since then, Maier’s work has been highly acclaimed and shown in museums and galleries around the world, and is the subject of the recent documentary film Finding Vivian Maier.


photo by Vivian Maier from Vivian Maier: Street Photographer

In Vivian Maier, Street Photographer (powerHouse Books, 2011, $39.95), Maloof presents about 100 of Maier’s photographs. All are black and white, and all taken with her trusty Rolleiflex, a choice that set her apart from most photographers who were using the then-more modern 35mm.

While focused on street photography, the book still shows the breadth of Maier’s interests. She creates striking geometric patterns from sunlight and shade and the occasional painterly image of buildings and public spaces. There are mid-range shots showing groups of people in action; these catch a moment and imply the before and after, the mind inevitably reeling out a story. We see social commentary as well as death and disaster—a half decomposed cat on the curb, a smoldering armchair on a sidewalk—but from this selection, she seems most interested in individual people. There are shots of the well dressed and well heeled, of the derelict and deformed, of men at work and children at play. She took pictures of black and white, rich and poor.

Maier excelled at making portraits. A striking example in this collection shows a young, thin man with two pigeons—one settled on his forearm, the other, its wings still flapping, just landing on his fist in which he clutches bird food. Dapperly dressed in pleated pants and white shirt, he looks down intently, his mouth drawn, his brow knit. Best of all, his hair is swept up from his forehead into an elaborate pompadour. The hair and the flashing feathers are of a piece, conflating man and bird: the young man is a bantam cock who struts the streets, challenging anyone to take him on. But there’s an incongruity, too, between his dress and his intent focus on the birds, his desire to connect with the nonhuman, to escape the weary charade that is the human pecking order.

photo by Vivian Maier, from Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows

photo by Vivian Maier, from Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows

With nearly 300 photographs reproduced, the selection in Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows (CityFiles Press, 2012, $60) is much larger, but the onslaught of images is tempered by being arranged into categories (“Snapshots,” “America,” “Beach,” etc.) The added range of images highlights Maier’s openness to the moment, her ability to capture a complete scene: in the Beach section, for example, a posse of teenage girls in bikinis emerges from the waves of Lake Michigan under a vast sky above. Edited by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams, this volume shows that Maier’s vision and technique rose to wherever her camera took her.

Maier’s oeuvre is large, and these two books present just a first serving. Both contain only black and white photographs, but she shot color film in her later years, and movies, too. Some of this color work is on display in Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits (powerhouse, 2013, $50), a subsequent volume edited by Maloof; Maier’s work in the subgenre of self-portraiture is particularly haunting, given the artist’s invisibility during her lifetime. Photography fans are advised to keep their antennae up for new revelations as more of Maier’s treasure trove of images is made public.


vivianmaier_streetphotog-coverClick here to purchase Vivian Maier: Street Photographer at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
vmselfportraits coverClick here to purchase Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
vm-outofshadows coverClick here to purchase Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

Others of My Kind

othersofmykindJames Sallis
Bloomsbury ($24)

by Robert Martin

The newest novel by noir master James Sallis begins with the straightforward propulsion of a typical crime drama. But in the opening of this slim book, we learn in disturbing and exhilarating detail the protagonist’s atypical backstory: Jenny was abducted before she hit double digits and was kept in a box beneath her captor Danny’s bed for years. She escaped, surviving as a feral resident of a shopping mall before getting picked up by the foster system and shuffled through various homes.

Adulthood, for Jenny, comprises a freedom few of her peers could understand. “I wanted desperately, after all those years of absolute dependence, to be on my own. I could almost taste it, like that drop of sweet dew you pull out of honeysuckle, like the metallic taste of Danny’s genitals.” Despite her tumultuous origin, Jenny is a well-adjusted and perspicacious narrator. When she’s cross-examined by a social worker, it’s the bureaucrat made out to be the fascinating character study:

“Adults are supposed to care for children, not take advantage of them.”
“Danny did take care of me. He brought me sundaes. He fed me, he cleaned my box. Took me out when he came home.”
Tears replaced the concern brimming in [the social worker’s] eyes. I had the feeling that habitually they waited back there a long time; and that when they came, they pushed themselves out against her will.

Yet despite the narrator’s clarity of insight, Others of My Kind struggles to keep its elements in line. A child shuttled through the foster system is ample basis for a novel, let alone a young girl who was imprisoned in a box beneath her rapist’s bed, or an adolescent young woman coming of age in a shopping mall while hiding from security guards during business hours. Sallis only glances over this rich terrain, nudging the book instead down the disheveled path of Jenny’s adult life, taking on themes without apparent discrimination.

After a sixty-page muddle of chronology, the scope of the plot has long overshot practical narrative boundaries. In addition to Jenny’s life story, Sallis crams in a portrait of the foster care system, a critique of the 24-hour news cycle, and high-stakes elements like presidential kidnappings and terrorist attacks. Over the course of a mere 120 pages, these elements are a bit more than most readers will be able to chew.

Taken in small doses, though, Sallis’s skill with a sentence renders the book an exceptionally pleasurable read. For instance:

What difference could finding my parents possibly make? I’d always made light of adoptees who, coming to adulthood, insisted upon doing so. So many years have passed. Whatever congruencies and connections once may have obtained are long gone. One might as well seek out Cro-Magnon ancestors.

Jenny ultimately does track down her birth parents—one more narrative layer to an ultra-compressed work—and when she does, Sallis wields a mighty insight into the workings of the world. Quite an accomplishment, considering how little the world he describes has in common with our own.

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

The Circle

thecircle-sDave Eggers
Alfred A. Knopf  •  McSweeney's ($27.95)

by Jason Harris

With the author’s signature flair for plumbing societal ills, Dave Eggers’s latest novel The Circle focuses on Mae Holland, a twenty-four-year-old college graduate recruited to work at the world’s leading Internet technology company, something akin to Google. Readers will think of Google Glass when Mae learns about the “Retinal Interface” Circlers use to communicate. Eggers postulates what the world might look like if such a company dominated the globe with universal membership.

When Mae joins the Circle, she is impressed by its various altruistic programs. Who would oppose putting a bracelet on every child to prevent kidnapping? Why not—instead of a bracelet—a mandatory chip? Or how about cameras throughout the world to monitor not only criminals but oppressive governments? “All that happens must be known” is the motivating mantra for the Circle. As the Circle evolves to gain more control, Mae helps to articulate the company’s goals: “Privacy is Theft”; “Secrets are Lies”; “Sharing is Caring.”

The Circle is an intriguing examination of how the convenience and utility of technology may come to imprison us. Mae’s friends and lovers present different perspectives about what matters most in people’s lives: transparency or privacy. Similarly, the trajectory of Mae’s relationship with her parents helps track her development at the Circle, which becomes ever more intrusive; the notion of “extracurricular activities” turns out to be mandatory rather than elective.

Mae is not particularly reflective about the corporate culture she inhabits; however, Eggers deftly juxtaposes natural and urban scenes to imply that something fundamental is threatened by it. In contrast with the transparency expected at the Circle campus, where employees are locatable through proprietary social networks, Mae enjoys kayaking in the San Francisco Bay and contemplates wildlife “hidden in the dark water, in their black parallel world, and knowing they were there, but not knowing where, or really anything else, felt, at that moment, strangely right.” Similarly, when discovering a bird’s nest on an island, Mae thinks, “Could she lift it, bring it down to her to peek in? Just for a second? She could, couldn’t she, and then put it right back? No. She knew enough to know she couldn’t. If she did, she’d ruin whatever was inside.” These moments highlight the beauty of mystery and privacy in nature that defies the intrusion of constant data collection.

Why is Mae vulnerable to the lure of transparency? Both Eggers and her corporate overlords chose Mae to be the messenger for a thesis of how techno-dystopia could overtake humanity. It’s a disconcerting and compelling thesis, and an engaging novel presented in efficient smooth prose, but one that feels flawed by insufficient character-building and arbitrarily underdeveloped defiance. Nevertheless, as The Circle closes, it looks to be one that would fit well in Dante’s Inferno. Eggers warns us to get outside the lines while there’s still time.

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

Indefinite Detention: A Dog Story

indefinite detention coverMichael Rothenberg
Ekstasis Editions ($24.95)

by Eric Hoffman

Indefinite Detention: A Dog Story, the new book of poems by Michael Rothenberg, is a lament for the indecencies and hypocrisies of 21st-century America. In these poems, Rothenberg finds humanity consistently failing to meet its potential. Take the title poem, which is haunted by both the ancient past and recent history:

Pillars of Adonis, Zarathustra and Hercules
Do-gooders enslaved at the arch

Wall St. bulls on a golden cable hung from a black hole

Rothenberg sits in judgment of humanity’s failed potential, its obsession/possession with the wealthy and powerful. “How many of the 99% aspire to be the 1%?” he asks, but he insists that human freedom is self-evident, that we have curiously developed our own imprisonments and allowed ourselves to become imprisoned. We need only throw the shackles of this indefinite detention off.

Everywhere in these poems, one senses the poet’s need to capture the zeitgeist of the era. In “: The Perfect Art,” Rothenberg writes of

The misrepresentation of juxtapositional occasions
without belonging

The pride, the reinstated
The rejuvenated suburbs of ancient arts

The elegant repressions, the sun and sky

There are moments here of lyric fatality, the poetic urge of chronicler to tell the tale of the tribe. Yet Rothenberg is not always successful. At times, the poems are little more than lists; lacking a radiant node, they buckle under too many legs, as in these admittedly musical lines from “Ode to Tralfamadorian Goose” (a reference to Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five):

Chagall, Poe, Eartha Kitt, Isadora Duncan compose your choir
Painting Matrushkas of Iago, Zhivago, Lolita, Jesus, and Yeltsin’s quadruple
heart bypass

Longer poems are interspersed with shorter poems, and in general the longer ones are more successful. The shorter poems are imagistic, expressionistic, and yet mostly lack a musicality far more apparent in the freewheeling longer poems that make up the bulk of this book.

The dog of the book’s title is an ongoing metaphor for the promise of the human soul, of duty, dedication, and the love and of freedom. Apathy dogs the poet—apathy toward human potential, towards nature, towards animals—as well as disgust at humanity’s bloodthirsty destruction in the expression of war, as in “Poem for Mitko”:

I asked the California badger
on the road back home
Do you find this dream amusing?

There was something vicious and his response
Is the human condition just entertainment?

These are poems that risk insanity, poems that refuse to look away, poems that accept responsibility, poems of utmost sincerity. For the most part the poet’s humanity shines through, rescuing those drab, flat moments that might otherwise seem unremarkable. Then there are moments that strike like lightning, clusters of new particulars.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting

Richard Burton
Prospecta Press ($40)

by Patrick James Dunagan

Meticulously precise, Basil Bunting’s poetry boldly holds forth in its own self-stylized musicality, his phrasing ever spare with little to no readily visible narrative or confessional self-description even when at its most autobiographical. One of the critically anointed early innovators of Modernism, he ranks with the likes of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Hugh MacDiarmid, William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, and Lorine Niedecker—all of whom he not only corresponded with and published alongside, but in many instances enjoyed the friendly company of on more than one occasion.

Born in 1900, Bunting’s literary acclaim and financial well being fluctuated widely throughout his lifetime. As a promising young poet in his twenties and thirties, he was right in the mix of things with Pound and W.B. Yeats nearly from the get-go, palling around in Paris and Rapallo. Gaining recognition from peers and financial support from wealthy patrons only to fade away in terms of any literary regard after the 1940s, he subsequently rose again from near obscurity in the 1960s with support and admiration from younger poets such as Tom Pickard, Allen Ginsberg, and Jonathan Williams. Attention to his work has only further waxed and waned in the years since his death in 1985.

There are many gaps in the recorded history of Bunting’s adventurous life, which Bunting himself fancily filled in with tales more fictive than factual. It is not an easy task to unwind such a life. Richard Burton’s is the first full-scale biography of Bunting to undertake the task—both Victoria Forde’s The Poetry of Basil Bunting (Bloodaxe) and Keith Alldritt’s The Poet as Spy: The Life and Wild Times of Basil Bunting (Aurum Press) are nowhere near as comprehensive and often less wary of Bunting’s exaggerated boasts. Burton catches his readers up with Bunting’s far roving movements across the globe throughout the last century. He succeeds in tying together the many diverse strands of Bunting’s complicated, often agonizingly contradictory life.

As a young man during World War I, Bunting went to jail rather than fight, claiming Quaker-Pacifist leanings although he was never a Quaker—though he did have Quaker schooling—only later to volunteer for military service during World War II. In between the wars he had his first round of successes as a poet, along with his first marriage to an American, Marian Gray Culver. This marriage resulted in two daughters, Bourtai and Roubada, along with a son Rustam; their names reflect Bunting’s early interest in the Persian epic poem Shahnameh. Bunting would eventually have close relationships with both his daughters as adults but his son tragically passed away at sixteen while at boarding school due to a polio outbreak. After a successful commanding role with Royal Air Force squadrons in the Mediterranean during World War II he found himself in Persia working on behalf of the British government and married a second time to Sima Alladadian, an Iranian of Turkish descent, resulting in two children, son Thomas Faramaz and daughter Sima-Maria.

Burton notes that Bunting’s time in Persia was a markedly high point in terms of the professional esteem in which he was held: “Bunting’s friendship with some of the most important politicians in the region shows that he had been operating at the highest political level throughout the Middle East, not just in Iran.” Bunting’s full role in the politics of the time in that area of the world remains unknowable. After losing or perhaps forfeiting his official government position and beginning to work on behalf of the British press, he relocated with his new wife back to England as the British colonization of Persia was disrupted and his own life put in peril. After a decade of near poverty and merciless labor, proof-reading for newspapers while his eyesight dwindled, he entered the comparative—if still rather ramshackle and lop-sided—fame of poetry, crisscrossing the Atlantic on reading/teaching tours.

Bunting’s life, as with his poetry, resists any easy reading. Bunting well understood this fact, and biographically he was rather determined to keep things murky. However, he felt confident that a readership would discover his poetry. As Burton quotes him in a television interview aired in 1984: “If you have practically no readers, but those readers were people like Yeats and Pound, and Eliot, and Carlos Williams, well, you’re pretty confident some notice will be taken sooner or later.” Of course, he didn’t attempt to ease the challenge any for readers. Burton reports his distaste for allowing any apparent slack in his work to remain in print: “his total output makes a slim volume. It could have been even slimmer; he wished in later life that he had discarded more.” In addition to his own poems, this holds true for the translations (“over-drafts”) he undertook from various classical languages from Latin to Persian (Farsi).

Burton’s biography-writing style has its awkward moments. He often interjects his personal judgments in a confusing manner, and his take on Bunting comes from a decidedly professional biographer’s position, not literary or poetic in the least. He is also rather provincially British in his outlook concerning possible causes behind the rise and fall of Bunting’s literary stock: “if we have to point to one single obstacle to proper recognition of Bunting’s importance in his lifetime, and his near-disappearance since, his auto-regionalisation is the culprit.” Bunting was a devoted Northumbrian—Northumbria is a county of Britain located just below Scotland on the eastern coast of the island—but few international readers are likely affected one way or another by Bunting’s Northumbrian stance. Its only pertinence to his poetry is the effect upon how his ear heard the pronunciation of poems when read aloud. The best source to follow up for more information on this aspect is the poet himself. For that, Bunting’s splendid lectures on poetry are gathered together in Basil Bunting on Poetry (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).

There is no doubt that Burton is devoted to relaying a fair assessment of the poet’s life and work. He announces, “Bunting was a committed Northumbrian and I hope this book will both leave him there and yet liberate him from it.” Yet there is no having two ways about it. Bunting left his work for the world and kept his life for himself. Photographs of Bunting show a gritty glint to his eye and his embittered privacy remains largely undisturbed. It’s rather gratifying that as thorough as Burton’s biography proves itself to be, there’s an endless supply of unknowable quanta he’s unable to bring to further light.

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

Sign You Were Mistaken

signsyouweremistakenSeth Landman
Factory Hollow Press ($15)

by Will Wlizlo

Sign You Were Mistaken begins with a provocation, an impish poem that pokes and prods throughout the rest of the book:

What makes you think
every little thing of you
can be what makes you
everything that lasts forever?

Answering—or the attempt to answer—this inquiry is at the heart of Seth Landman’s collection of slim free verse and brassy prose poems. In just the opening volley, he confronts themes of cognition, perspective, individuality, agency, and posterity, which is a sure sign the answer is complicated.

The speaker of these poems is preoccupied with the boundaries of places both familiar and unfamiliar to him. While one poem might witness him “go atlas / and study the wide world in wonder,” more often than not he can be found “on sofas dreaming of sofas” or otherwise safe within the walls of a comfortable apartment. These poems are domestic, but not for commentary on retiling a bathroom floor or raising children. Rather, their concern is the difficulty in understanding, defining, and securing one’s home in the ever-expanding universe—feathering one’s existential nest.

The recurring interior/outside dichotomy foregrounds the tension and allure of the unexplored world, the lands beyond the walls of familiar experience. Lines like “Massachusetts stretches out / in the night but I can’t see it / do that, which is called scale” accentuate the smallness of the human body and mind, as well as the curiosity that nevertheless encourages exploration of the big unknown. They are both exuberant in their daring and unapologetic in their repose.

While travelling between realms, Landman by extension also comments on the relationship between one’s introspection and the environment of other ideas from which self-reflection separates itself: “When it feels terrible in the interior, maps call the outside into view. I pour over them for hours, never leaving my kitchen. Finally, I am unfamiliar with my own house.” This, too, is a kind of fraught domesticity, albeit an intellectual one. One imagines Landman lounging on the plush furniture of his consciousness, wrapping himself in a threadbare emotional bathrobe, coveting his neighbor’s well-manicured moral lawn. How much of one’s place in existence is purely psychological? he seems to ask. And what does it mean for a home to be intangible?

If there is one glaring omission from this collection, it is its lack of a social aspect. For all his excursions out of the house, Landman rarely shoots the breeze with his neighbor, so to speak. The reader learns little about the other individuals residing in their own apartments-in-the-universe, the strangers who’ve populated the galaxy of ideas—and how other private and public lives interact with the speaker’s.

By juxtaposing a house and its surrounding universe to symbolize individual experience and the extent of possible experience, Landman calls attention to the inauthenticity of comparison. “It’s dawn and dawn can be / a ship,” he writes, implicitly suggesting dawn can also be an antique chandelier. Or a longing. Or—why not?—a spiritual awakening. If a symbol functions as a sign for interpretive guidance, then perhaps this collection’s title is a rejection or reconsideration of symbolism’s utility.

Thus, Landman employs challenging syntax in some of these poems to avoid watering down complex ideas with symbolism and figurative language. By liberally appending the word “the” before idiosyncratic feelings, circumstances, and relationships, he transforms nuance to “simple” nouns. Phrases like “the here I am, hours early, as always,” “the I am thinking about the suits of travelers,” “the were I mine and tender,” “the that you are my sister / and you entertain me in my strangeness,” and “the is it, what is it, what” are evocative, but certainly defy an easy read. The last example in particular gets at Landman’s poetic vision: the “what” (or, better, “the what”) of his poems is an unruly collection of experiences—gathered, but not necessarily connected; overwhelming, but not necessarily overbearing; telling, but not necessarily narrative. This list-crafting technique makes for a difficult yet differently honest attempt to classify, clarify, and interpret both interior and exterior phenomena.

Upon revisiting the collection’s introductory poem, it’s possible to judge whether Landman has answered his own vexing question. Bearing in mind his ongoing examination of “the what” of human experience, his response might simply be a reiteration of the opening poem, except with one major difference: the question mark would be replaced by a full stop.

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

Poetry of the Revolution: An interview with Martin Puchner

martinpuchnerby Louis Bourgeois

This interview came about by way of an error: I was in the throes of researching rants, poems, and manifestos for a show I was organizing, and I ordered Martin Puchner's Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestos, and the Avant-Gardes (Princeton University Press, 2005, $31.95) thinking it was an anthology of manifestos from the 19th and 20th centuries. It was not that, but rather an intensive analysis of the political and art manifestos from that era (The Communist Manifesto being the Mother of them all). The book entranced me, especially for its discussion of the sheer proliferation of manifesto writing from this time. There were so many manifestos being written, published, and distributed across Europe (and even America eventually), and the form was taken quite seriously by governments and individuals alike, that one gets the sense, at least briefly, that this indulgence of manifestos facilitated the wars and revolutions of the time. Perhaps more to the point, the manifesto proved to be the ideal conduit for projecting violent aphorisms for a culture that was headed down a linear path of destruction.

Martin Puchner is the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of Drama and of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University. Besides Poetry of the Revolution, his other books include The Drama of Ideas: Platonic Provocations in Theater and Philosophy (Oxford, 2010) and Stage Fright: Modernism, Anti-Theatricality, and Drama (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002). He is the general editor of the Norton Anthology of World Literature, third edition (2012) as well as of numerous scholarly volumes and sourcebooks. He also writes on literature, drama, and politics for the London Review of Books, Raritan, Bookforum, and other publications.

Louis Bourgeois is the Executive Director of VOX PRESS, a 501 (c)(3) arts organization based in Oxford, Mississippi. His memoir, The Gar Diaries, was recently re-published by the U.K. publisher, The Other Publishing Company. His Collected Works is due out by Xenos Press in 2016. Bourgeois is also the founder and director of the Prison Writes Initiative, a writing program set-up for Mississippi inmates.

Louis Bourgeois: I want to start with two blatant questions so the reader will know where we are from the very beginning. First, what exactly is meant by the term “avant-garde” and secondly, what compelled you to write a whole book on manifestoes?

Martin Puchner:
Originally, “avant-garde” is a military term. It means the most advanced corps of an army, the part that is ahead of the main corps, the opposite of the rear guard, which guards the back. Over the course of the 19th century, this term wanders into the art world, where it acquires a second meaning: a group of artists that is ahead of everyone else. The military provenance lingers on in the often aggressive demeanor of these advanced artists. Like their military counterparts, they see themselves as the most daring members of their group, the ones who are paving the way for everyone else. This etymology raises an obvious question: why would the art world in the later 19th century think that way? To be sure, there had always been artists who violated accepted artistic conventions and who wanted to establish new ones. But to think of the entire art world this way, that there was a rear guard, a main corps, and an avant-garde, that was new.

I’ve always been both fascinated and bothered by manifestos. Fascinated, because there was this sudden explosion of manifestos in the early 20th century, and bothered (but also thrilled) by their aggressive demeanor, their often facile claims, and their shrill tone. I decided to write a book about them when I realized that this new genre was a perfect way of capturing the art world of the late-19th and 20th century, the art world of the avant-garde. That was the main reason. The second, related reason was that the great theme of 20th century art was its relation to politics. A lot of ink had been spilled on that topic. The manifesto seemed like a tangible way of addressing this question because manifestos bridged the divide between art and politics. It allowed me to observe how politics influenced art and vice versa without having to make very general claims about all art being either entirely political or not political at all.

LB: Modernist writers such as Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound seem to adopt the form of the manifesto quite reluctantly—they seem to approach it with disgust. What is it about the manifesto that revolted these angelic modernists?

MP: Ah, nicely put. Yes, Anglo-American artists were more reluctant with respect to manifestos for various reasons. First, they had always had a complicated relation to the Continent, and manifestos were very much a product of the Continent, especially France, Italy, and Germany. So there was always the question: to what extent do we want to adopt this Continental fashion? The second reason was the immense success of manifestos. Suddenly, they were everywhere and it became more difficult to compete in that environment—to have your manifesto stand out and be heard. One reaction was to reject manifestos entirely and try to do something new. The other reaction was to adapt manifestos, to come up with new ways of writing manifestos. Many Anglo-American writers opted for the former. Lewis and Pound opted for the latter, not exactly rejecting manifestos, but coming up with their own ways of writing them and incorporating them into their work.

LB: Yet in your book you refer to Pound and his cohort as the “rear guard,” rather than “the avant-garde.”

MP: The main reason I do so was Pound’s ambivalence with respect to Continental avant-gardes, which I think you hint at in your previous question. Pound was confronted with all these radical experiments on the Continent that were making their way across the channel, for example in the form of an attempt to create a London branch of Italian Futurism. Pound and his associates felt threatened by this invasion and found themselves fending off these attempts. The way they did this was by adopting some of the avant-garde strategies and techniques, including manifestos, but also by redirecting these radical energies back into more traditional, if experimental, art making. I should clarify that by rear-guard I do not mean they were artistically conservative or traditionalist; they were seen in England as quite radical in comparison with Edwardian art. But with respect to the Continent, they found themselves in a position of slowing things down and redirecting radical energies. Since the artistic “avant-garde,” in keeping with the military metaphor, thinks of itself as being ahead, the most radical, this term didn’t seem to fit. So I chose, by analogy, the term “rear-guard.”

poetryofrevLB: In Poetry of the Revolution, you write at length about the dual history of the manifesto. I was intrigued by this brief passage: “It is, however, on this double history of the political manifesto and the art manifesto, on the assumption that the history of the art manifesto in the twentieth century must be written as part and parcel of a history of socialism, that my methodology is based.” How do these two histories play off of each other and how do they both tie into the greater abstraction of the word Socialism?

MP: I had identified this interesting object, the genre of the manifesto, with its political history and its sudden move into the art world. So I spent a lot of time thinking about the political orientation of the manifesto. Was it a politically neutral genre, equally used by the right and the left? At first blush this seemed to be the case, since there always existed right-wing manifestos, both in the political world and in the art world. But the more I thought about it, the more it became clear that the manifesto was not politically neutral. It was part of a history of leftist revolt, in part because of the overwhelming influence of The Communist Manifesto on the whole genre. There were manifestos before The Communist Manifesto, but The Communist Manifesto really changed everything. So I found that the history of leftist revolt was in a sense embedded in the genre of the manifesto. It would have been wrong to treat the manifesto as a neutral genre and to study it in a purely literary, formal fashion. What was interesting was precisely the way it was bound up with political, and especially the history of socialism. For socialism, The Communist Manifesto was a foundational text, but one that had to be carefully updated from time to time. So socialism in this sense means the different official socialist organizations, from the Second International to the Third International to the Fourth International. Official Socialism, so to speak. At the same time, the history of socialism is a history of splinter groups, all with their own manifestos, so a study of manifestos needed to be part of that history as well.

LB: In the chapter “Fascism and Revolution,” you write: “There existed a conduit for the manifesto to move from politics to art: the notion of the avant-garde.” But I wanted to know if you could talk about the opposite direction, art moving toward the political. After all, is that not the very transmogrification we see in the post-war works of Ezra Pound?

MP: Yes, good point. Since manifestos existed in both art and politics, they lend themselves to studying the move from the one to the other, and vice versa. In other words, if you want to observe how an artist seeks to break into politics, look at how he or she uses manifestos. Marinetti is a perfect example. First, he uses a political genre, the manifesto, and introduces it into art: Futurism is born. This is the move from politics to art. But you are absolutely right that there is a move in the opposite direction as well, and interestingly, Marinetti is a good example of that as well. So he has used the manifesto to politicize art. But in a second step, he wants to move this newly politicized art (Futurism) back into politics. How so? He starts to form a political wing of Futurism and does so by writing political manifestos. Now he aestheticizes politics. (Mussolini didn’t let him get away with it, however, and basically told him to stick to art and leave politics alone).

Marinetti is a more clear-cut case of both moves, but Pound can be seen from this perspective as well. In an often confusing way, his political opinions, including his strange theories of economics, debt, and usury, spill into his art, and vice versa.

LB: Did Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto give rise to Italian Fascism, or did it serve as a cultural mirror reflecting what was historically inevitable?

MP: No, Marinetti’s manifestos did not give rise to Italian Fascism. I would rather say that they accompany it. Most Italian Fascists emerged from a particular strand of socialism, from which they split at the outbreak of WWI, becoming hyper-nationalist, pro-war, etc. This is true of both Mussolini and Marinetti. So I would say the same conditions gave rise to Fascism and Futurism. Marinetti wanted to turn Futurism into the artistic wing of Fascism, but Mussolini kept him at arm’s length. In other words, both emerged from the same milieu, but moved in different directions, with some limited overlap.

LB: You write at length about the similar overlap of, and differences between, war and revolution. Can you summarize your notion here?

MP: Wow, a big topic to summarize, but I’ll try. The main distinction between war and revolution is that war is an event that takes place between nations or empires or other political units, while revolution is an event within a political unit. In this sense, revolution is more akin to a civil war, which also is a violent event within a political entity. This is why I said a revolution could be described as a particular kind of war. But not all civil wars are revolutions. The U.S. civil war, for example, was not. So a revolution is a civil war that aims at the violent overthrow of a ruling class, and not just a ruling class, but an entire political system. This, in any case, is our modern notion of revolution.

The term “revolution” has undergone a complete shift. It used to mean a continuous cyclical movement, for example the revolution of the stars around the sun. But in the 18th century, it acquired our current meaning, the sudden overthrow of an existing order. On the face of it, this is almost the opposite meaning, not a cyclical, continuous movement, but a sudden change. Why this shift in meaning? One reason was that the makers of the French Revolution, the most paradigmatic revolution, didn’t think they were introducing sudden change. Rather, they thought they were restoring an old order, that they were going back to a time when things had been better. Marx talks about this in his work The 18th Brumaire. They thought they were returning to the past, revolving back. But as we know, what they actually did was something completely new.

LB: What are some of the connections between Fascism and Socialism—I’m referring specifically to your section “ Revolution to War.” Perhaps quite a few readers do not realize that Mussolini started off as a “socialist.” What type of socialist was he? What did socialism mean in Italy at that time?

MP: Yes, most Italian Fascists were socialists, including Mussolini. The big turning point was World War I. The official party line of the Second International was an anti-war stance. Quite a number of Italian Socialists could not stomach this stance in the war-enthusiastic summer of 1914, and therefore broke with the Second International. This happened in many European countries, not just in Italy. But especially in Italy, Fascism has deep roots in Socialism. This also explains why Fascism to some extent continued to speak of itself as “revolutionary” even though it comes to oppose the left violently. Even the “socialism” in “German National Socialism” was not merely rhetoric at the beginning.

LB: What strikes me the most from reading Poetry of the Revolution is the sheer proliferation of the manifesto throughout Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I was of course aware of the manifesto as an important genre, but was not aware of its mass appeal. At times, you even seem to suggest the manifesto itself enacted the World Wars!

MP: Yes, this is what struck me, also: the proliferation of manifestos. I think it is rare that a new genre takes over so quickly. It’s important to remember, however, that many manifestos remained quite obscure. Even The Communist Manifesto didn’t develop mass appeal until the 1880s and ’90s, fifty years after it was written. This is the case even more so with most artistic manifestos. Some of these manifestos were widely known, especially the futurist ones since Marinetti was a great PR man. But many, many remained niche products. This posed an interesting challenge for me. Manifestos, their sheer proliferation, clearly captured something crucial about this time. At the same time, I needed to be careful not to fall for their own exalted rhetoric. Manifestos exaggerate above all their own influence and importance. In other words, many manifestos, perhaps all manifestos, failed—at least by their own extreme standards. After all, they all wanted to change the world, and it is difficult to change the world. Marx knew this better than anyone, when he wrote in the opening lines of The 18th Brumaire: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances.” Many manifestos ran up against this truth and wanted to make history as they pleased. So I needed to find a way of talking about the failure of individual manifestos. I did so by making a distinction between performative manifestos and theatrical ones. Many manifestos ended up being merely “theatrical,” without the force needed to actually change the world. At the same time, I found that while many—most—individual manifestos failed, as a genre they did change the world. Not by directly causing wars or revolutions, but by articulating ideas, capturing a mood, in a particular way. Having said this, The Communist Manifesto is certainly one of those texts that actually had an effect.

LB: What would you say is the “New Poetry of the Revolution,” as it attempts to hide itself in the 21st century? I’ve looked everywhere and don’t even see a glimpse of it, anywhere.

MP: The closer my history of manifestos came to the present, the fuzzier the picture became, unsurprisingly so, I suppose. The present is always confusing and we lack the historical distance to view it clearly. One thing seemed quite clear, however: our present moment is very different from the revolutionary frenzy of the first half of the 20th century. And this is mirrored in the decline of manifestos, as one would expect.

At the same time, I have been struck by the fact that manifestos continue to be written even today, albeit more hesitantly so. Especially in the art world. There is a yearning for manifestos, and different cultural institutions—galleries, journals—commission manifestos or encourage artists to write them. Something similar is happening in politics. There was a debate among the people involved in Occupy! whether to write a manifesto. No manifesto of this movement was written, but attempts were made in this direction, for example by N+1. So, again, a sense that manifestos can’t quite be written as they used to, that our time is different, but at the same time a grappling with this difference, and at times a yearning for manifestos, or something like manifestos. This defines the present moment from the point of view of manifestos for me.

LB: I was hoping you could clarify the positions of the later avant-garde groups, the Situationists, the Lettrists, and the Imagists Bauhaus. I once did a full-blown interview with a friend, in French, with die-in-the-wool Lettrist Roland Sabatier, and still have no idea what Lettrism was attempting to achieve.

MP: That must have been quite an experience. Today, Lettrism is mostly seen as a precursor to Situationism, although it was less explicitly political. One of the striking features of Situationism was the suspicion of art, and a critique of the avant-gardes of the early 20th century, including Surrealism, as somehow not radical enough. Lettrism is a link, I would say, between this earlier avant-garde and Situationism. I think you have no idea what Lettrism was attempting to achieve because they themselves had no idea what they were attempting to achieve. With a movement like this, it’s much less about a clear program or goals, than about a certain provocative attitude, a sensibility that tried to reconnect to the pre-World War II world of avant-garde art, the Dada-ist provocations of the Cabaret Voltaire, for example. The problem was that the world after World War II was a very different one, which is why Lettrism never really found a place for itself. It took another fifteen years until these wannabe avant-gardists found a way of articulating an avant-garde for post-war Europe.

LB: How does the notion of “counter cinema” play into your dissertation on the manifesto?

MP: The place where my project intersected with radical cinema was in the person of Guy Debord. I had known Debord for Society of the Spectacle, a critique of the image, an attempt to update a Marxist critique to the age of new media, especially advertisement, cinema, and television. But interestingly, Debord did not reject all image-making. Rather, he developed a way of using the image against the image, a kind of self-critical image. This led him actually to create a film version of Society of the Spectacle, a collage of media images overlaid with extracts from his manifesto. It is a kind of confrontation of manifesto and cinema. Of course, Debord was not the only one to create this kind of kind of counter cinema. The much better known figure was Godard, which is why Debord hated Godard. But the basic move, as I would describe it, is this: in a world saturated by images, what can a critical use of cinema be?

LB: And to come full circle: what is the avant-garde now in the 21st century?

MP: We are going through a media revolution even more extreme than that of the 20th century. I would say that an avant-garde for the 21st century would have to develop ways of using our own new media in critical, innovative, provocative ways. It would also have to be part of a political analysis of our moment, and translate that analysis into a new set of attitudes and ambitions. If that sounds vague, I suppose it has to be. Predicting the future is a fool’s errand. The history of manifestos is proof of that.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail

threescenariosKelly Luce
A Strange Object (14.95)

by Ashley Wiley

In her first collection of short stories, Kelly Luce explores, relationships, love, and death within the unique world of Japan. Her characters, Japanese and gaijin (Japanese slang for foreigner), all struggle to deal with life where tradition is slowly being pushed aside. These various viewpoints of the native and foreigner, the familiar and unfamiliar, offer well rounded stories on topics about the world’s mysteries.

Luce uses a mix of characters—a man who can hear voices, a wife who only knows how to cook gyoza, a little girl who grows a tail—and she can set a scene in just a few words, giving even the unfamiliar reader a picture of Japan that they can relate to. A Japanese festival in the story “Wisher” comes alive with just a few beautifully written sentences:

Friday, the festival’s final night, Nao joined the crowd, wearing a yukata of orange and green. The light of colored lanterns was reflected in the river in the castle moat. A late-rising persimmon moon dragged across the sky as if it, too, sought to slow down the night.

Women play a significant role in Luce’s stories; although her female characters are often at the whim of men, nature, and their emotions, the author doesn’t portray them as weak. Rather, they take control of their lives in simple ways that speak volumes. In “Pioneers,” for example, Yumi-ko prepares the dough for gyoza in the late hours of the night, but the process becomes the shap-ing of something more:

Getting the dough right took time, and she added the water drop by drop—make it too wet and the insides fell out. Her mother had told her once that the dough should feel like an earlobe. She poked and rolled and kneaded with her fingertips, palms, the backs of her hands. Sometimes she imagined it was an ear she was creating, part of an incomplete sculpture.

The title story, “Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail,” is situated in the mid-dle of the book, a nice break from the death that marks many of the preceding tales. This story takes a different form than the rest, with each scenario marked off by a roman numeral. In the second of these vignettes, Hana has just recovered from the chicken pox; she “clings to her mother, whimpering, worried that getting too close to a hideous, wrinkly grandma will make her ugly and old, too.” Luce creates the sincere and funny story of a child coming to under-stand, if only incorrectly, the idea of contagion.

Luce doesn’t always give the reader answers, keeping with the mysterious essence of the book, but this is a strength. This collection of stories is definitely worth reading.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014