Tag Archives: Spring 2015

Aleister Crowley: The Beast in Berlin

beastinberlinArt, Sex, and Magick in the Weimar Republic
Tobias Churton
Inner Traditions ($29.95)

by Spencer Dew

In this volume exploring Aleister Crowley’s two years in Weimar Berlin, Tobias Churton offers us a glimpse of a society in denial, gnashing at any possible distraction. Keg, thigh, drum, dance, makeup, androgyny: all the usual Weimar quirks are here, but read anew. Half-silks—weekend prostitutes—teeter down the Potsdamer Platz in heels, and transvestites belly up to the bar of the Eldorado club, as we see in a photograph from 1928, though Churton shows us, too, that club’s “transformation into a Nazi headquarters, 1933,” with swastikas clotting up the windows. Meanwhile, Hitler has begun whipping crowds into states of ecstatic fury with a few symbols and some barked incantations. What better place and moment in which to examine that creative and adventurous Briton who proclaimed himself the Great Beast?

In Churton’s view, Crowley is almost an anti-Hitler—as thinker, as willed agent-in-the-world, and, coincidentally, as painter, to which profession he dedicated much of his German time. In this last respect, the author compares Crowley with Otto Dix; as the dictator strips “men of the power to think for themselves” (Crowley’s words; he says also: “There is no room for any star in [Hitler’s] system”), Dix forces “the viewer to face reality even while so many of his characters, drawn from real life, looked the other way.” Churton shows us that gallery owners felt Crowley “had an instinctive grasp of the essences of contemporary German art,” but this isn’t just a case of a thumb on the au courant; rather, he argues, it “had long been Crowley’s own perceptual and expressive apparatus: to see things brutally, so that he might not be led astray by the pied piper of bourgeois narcolepsy.”

Churton is a partisan, to be sure, but he never conceals this. The book, after all, is framed with the explicit goal of “spiritual and artistic enlightenment,” dedicated “to Spiritual Artists of sound and vision everywhere.” Churton’s interest in Crowley’s 1931 Berlin exhibition of paintings, likewise, is personal: “The author would very much like to spearhead a major ‘Porza 2’ exhibition, reassembling as many of Crowley’s Berlin exhibition works as have survived.” So Crowley gets the hagiographic spin, but as the hero of Churton’s tour of a titillating but schizophrenic Berlin, he also gets plenty of space to speak for himself, largely in words drawn from journals and letters. If Churton’s correlation of magick with New Physics or the “national characteristics” of Germans (they “suffer from a surfeit of the rational principle”) can slow things down, Crowley’s contributions almost always add zest. Whether illuminating historical connections (cards between 666 and Aldous Huxley, for instance) or the magus’s aesthetic worldview (“the subject of a picture is merely an excuse for arranging forms and colours”), offering satirical social critique (“It’s against Nature! Howled the germinating Hydra when he/she heard about the new sexual process of reproduction”) or prophetic aphorism (“every phenomenon ought to be an orgasm of its kind”), the Great Beast delivers.

The esoteric is on offer here in two senses. Crowley’s negotiations to claim for himself the role of the Theosophical Society’s “World Teacher” represents the esoteric in the sense of occult adepts, but Churton also indulges in esoteric details of history, making the book feel, at times, padded with undigested data. On the Leipzig Thelema Publishing Company, for instance, we get, first, the shareholders and their respective number of votes and percentages of stock, then the books published with their page numbers and dates. Churton seems to miss certain key references in Crowley’s thought, as well: a discussion of the “I Am” and the “Ineffable Name” must, in the context of a self-described Kabbalistic expert, at least reference the Jewish roots of these notions, while Churton roots them to the New Testament. Likewise, the array of reproductions here imparts the flavor of the Weimar moment, but readers will likely want to see a broader range of Crowley’s own work (Kenneth Anger’s 2002 documentary of a Crowley exhibit in London, “The Man We Want to Hang,” is essential viewing on this front).

The pleasures of the book outweigh such small complaints, however. Moreover, by situating his lionized Crowley in the heart of a moment so blind to dark foreshadowings, Churton responds to ongoing debates about the politics of Crowley and his Thelema religion, albeit from an unabashedly confessional point of view. By Churton we’re shown Crowley at his most audaciously admirable, as in a tremendous (and timely) bit explaining how, as “We are God’s poems . . . begotten in his love-madness,” we do not offend Him but rather provide “Proof that the created is a live and independent Being” when we blaspheme. “Therefore, of all acts, Blasphemy is the most pleasing to God,” Crowley writes. Against such examples of Crowley, Churton reminds us of how history rolled on in the years after Crowley’s bohemian experience of Berlin:

It is conveniently obscured that the Nazis not only persecuted and murdered Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, communists, resistant church leaders, Jehovah’s Witnesses, people with mental illness, children with severe infirmities, Slavs, democrats, and any number of political opponents; they also persecuted, imprisoned, and murdered Freemasons, Anthroposophists, astrologers, magicians, neo-Gnostics, Rosicrucians, and followers of Aleister Crowley.

Weimar and what happens after become, in Churton’s hands, the darkness against which to highlight Crowley with stunning chiaroscuro. The Great Beast here stands as a model of true liberation in contrast to the analgesic divertissement of Weimar nightlife, and the standard bearer of individualism rather than what Churton presents as a triumph not of “will” but of a “collective movement”—one that drove its followers, through propaganda and placation, to acts of dehumanization far more wicked than anything in the writings of a notorious occultist.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography

pioneergirlLaura Ingalls Wilder
Edited by Pamela Smith Hill
South Dakota Historical Society Press ($39.95)

by Wayne Scott

Just tell it in your own words as you would tell about those times if only you could talk to me.
—Rose Wilder Lane, Letter to Laura Ingalls Wilder

My grandmother gave me a copy of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods when I was eight years old. Up to that time, I had read only comic books popular in the 1970s—Archie’s Gang, Nancy and Sluggo, and Peanuts. To her delight, I not only devoured that account of westward expansion, but all eight books in the series—and returned to them repeatedly over the next few years. How could one get enough of the adventures of the restless, courageous father? Or the schoolteacher mother, and the three girls who worked alongside them on their farms—especially Laura, “Half Pint,” the feisty, loyal, middle daughter? Like many American juvenile readers in the last century, I found the Ingalls family’s stalwart approach to each adversity mesmerizing.

In a 1937 lecture, Wilder said, “I realized that I had seen and lived it all—all the successive phases of the frontier, first the frontiersman then the pioneer, then the farmers and the towns. Then I understood that in my own life I represented a whole period of American history.” As an impressionable reader, I did not distinguish between “nonfiction” and “fiction.” The adult Laura Ingalls Wilder was writing a story about the child Laura Ingalls. In my mind, I was reading a factual account of real people in a real time. My grandmother wouldn’t have given me anything else.

But, of course, it wasn’t factual. Not exactly.

Approximately three years before the publication of the first book in the Little House series, Wilder drafted an autobiography called Pioneer Girl, intended for an adult audience. Newly retired at age sixty-three, she wrote her story in pencil on paper tablets. Pioneer Girl is the unvarnished, first-person account of Wilder’s life between ages two and eighteen, before she contemplated the marketability of her story, before she had had exposure to editors and agents, before her daughter, the well-known writer Rose Wilder Lane, helped shape the story for “the big market.” Now, newly issued from the South Dakota Historical Society Press in an annotated edition, is the original autobiography, complete with misspellings and marginalia, on which the cherished series is based.

This heavily researched and fact-checked volume of Wilder’s first draft allows for a dismantling, and re-examination, of this important piece of literary Americana. Ironically, in one of the early attempts to refashion the story for publication, Rose Wilder Lane re-wrote the opening line as “When Grandma was a little girl . . .” This would be the story that Depression-era grandparents passed down to their children, a time capsule that captured something essential about our cultural DNA. The published stories celebrate resilience, rugged stoicism and the ability to surmount adversity with optimism and perseverance. These values were as important to frontier life as they were to the reading public during the Great Depression, when the book first captured the popular imagination.

But the original manuscript called Pioneer Girl reveals omissions and alterations that complicate these values and shed light on the “constructedness” of Americana, privilege, and whiteness. How Wilder would transform her real story to represent a part of American history is a fascinating study in memory, rationalization, novelization, and the re-fashioning of history, as well as literary marketability.

In 1930, only days after her mother brought the hand-written tablets to her, Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, surreptitiously sent her agent a few hastily typed pages of Pioneer Girl. At that time, the best-selling and internationally well-known author had just built a retirement house for her parents on their property in Missouri. But she had lost significant savings in the stock market crash and was frightened about money. The publishing industry was beginning to feel the ripple effects, and freelance work wasn’t coming at the same steady pace. Debts were mounting.

Though the agent was uninterested, Lane had confidence in the story and her ability to fashion it into something marketable. She worked with her mother on the manuscript for the next two years. Financial pressures, uncertain economic times, an assessment of how a story needed to be transformed for “the big market” each influenced the development of Wilder’s story. Letters exchanged between Wilder and her daughter reveal the tension between the truth of Wilder’s memories and the pressure to make a marketable work. “After all, even though these books must be made fit for children to read, they must also be true to history,” she wrote to her editor daughter. “I have given you a true picture of the times and the place and the people. Please don’t blur it.” The story had to appeal not only to children, but it also had to resonate with the adults, like my grandmother, who would be handing it down to the children they loved.

The Ingalls family was poor, but the published version downplays their economic desperation. In fact, poverty, more than an adventuresome and restless nature, was a potent factor in many of their decisions. When in 1871 Pa chose to uproot his family from Kansas, it was because land parcels cost more than he could afford. A few years later, after locusts destroyed his crop, he had no means to buy food and requested relief supplies from the government, an early form of agrarian welfare. Later, during a cold winter, his daughters stopped attending school because the family couldn’t afford warm clothing. When grasshoppers destroyed another crop in the mid-1870s, real-life Pa gave up. He moved east to be closer to family, a move that the published story omits because it did not fit with the spirit of the westward expansion. (In the novel, Pa takes the family west to Dakota to settle another claim.) By downplaying the economic hardship in Wilder’s fictionalization, she contributes to the mythology of a pioneering spirit motivated by adventure and indefatigable optimism.

My grandmother’s father had died in the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, leaving a wife with four young children. My grandmother’s twin sister died from scarlet fever when she was three. Pictures of my grandmother’s mother from this time show a stoic woman, lips tightly pursed. My grandmother, and many of her generation who endured similarly tragic experiences, would not have much interest in handing down a book that dwells on overwhelming hardship.

The real-life Ingalls family experienced tragedy, yet Wilder minimized both the facts and the emotional reality of their losses. “A touch of tragedy makes the story truer to life,” she told her daughter, “and showing the way we all took it illustrates the spirit of the times and the frontier.” Wilder and Lane argued about how to incorporate her sister Mary’s illness and eventual blindness into the story. Both feared the tone becoming too dark for middle school readers. Wilder said she did not want the story to become “a recital of discouragement and calamities.” Mary’s blindness does make it into the published story, but Mary—stoically, almost beatifically—bears her lot.

Not so with Laura’s brother Freddie. In the published books, Pa heads a family of women. But Wilder had a brother, Charles Frederick “Freddie” Ingalls, who was born when she was eight years old. This episode of the family’s history receives curt attention in the draft autobiography, where Freddie becomes sick and “one awful day he straightened out his little body and was dead.” When the family moves again, Wilder confides in her draft, “We felt so badly to go on and leave Freddie, but in a little while we had to go on to Iowa.” Children died with alarming frequency in the nineteenth century. Their vulnerability was an undeniable fact on the rough frontier with constrained access to physicians. But the trauma of Freddie’s loss does not fit with the series’ tone of optimistic resilience, so he and his passing are omitted from the series.

One of the most deeply troubling revisions involves the family’s relationship with Native Americans, depicted with wariness and fear. In Pioneer Girl, Wilder writes: “Indians often came to the house and asked for anything they liked.” The published works amplify this portrayal of Native Americans as an aggressive intrusion; throughout the series, Indians are depicted as “other,” enemies to hearth and home. In Little House on the Prairie, Wilder wrote about the land the family first settled: “There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much farther than a man could see, and there were no people. Only the Indians lived there.” A full seventeen years after the book’s publication, a reader complained about the dismissive comment, which Wilder admitted was “a stupid blunder of mine.” She changed the wording.

What really happened on the frontier upends the mythology: in 1869 the real-life Ingalls family participated in an illegal movement to settle what Wilder called “Indian Territory,” in southeastern Kansas. Technically “squatters,” they were part of an influx of intruders, many displaced by the American Civil War. The frequent visits from Indians, depicted as threatening and frightening in the published books, were actually commonplace. The White settlers were unwelcome trespassers, but because the Osage were impoverished, they tolerated these incursions as a kind of tenant relationship and felt entitled to take food and tobacco.

When the Ingalls family moved in 1871, fictional Pa rants, “If some blasted politicians in Washington hadn’t sent out word it would be all right to settle here, I’d never have been three miles over the line into Indian Territory.” In fact he was fourteen miles west of the boundary, a nice geographical metaphor for the degree to which Pa and his writer daughter stretched the truth of the family’s intrusion. Their settlement represented an aggressive colonialism that trampled the indigenous people’s right to remain in peace on their own land, an extension of the U.S. government’s betrayals and callous disregard for the treaties they forced upon the tribes. In the published account, Pa tells Laura, “When white settlers come into a country, the Indians have to move on. The government is going to move these Indians farther west, any time now. That’s why we’re here, Laura. White people are going to settle all this country, and we get the best land because we get here first and take our pick.” It was a tidy rationalization.

When I first heard about the impending publication of Pioneer Girl, I was excited to think there was another beat in the finite series, which I’d already read so many times. But this richly annotated volume, superbly edited by Pamela Smith Hill and a team of scholars, is not an addition to the beloved American classics as much as it is a thoughtful and unsettling dismantling.

The multifaceted real lives of the Ingalls family—their wrenching poverty, the enormity of losses they faced on the frontier, and the encroachment upon and displacement of the Native Americans who preceded them—complicate a simplified vision of the western frontier. Pioneer Girl maps the paradox of American identity, which I recognize in my grandmother’s long life and which I know in my own: that our history’s wounds—minimized, compressed, denied in a kind of hardscrabble centrifuge—come from the same source as its creative resilience, its tragic bravado.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Tapping into a Rural Religion: an Interview with Nick McRae

nickmcraeInterviewed by Connor Bjotvedt

In Mountain Redemption (Black Lawrence Press, 2013), which won the Fall 2011 Black River chapbook competition, poet Nick McRae focuses on the role of tradition and the emergence of Christian religions in mountain towns. Elegiac in tone and narrative in structure, the book explores life and death in these mountain communities through the lens of Biblical stories and motifs.

In addition to Mountain Redemption, McRae is the author of The Name Museum (C&R Press, 2014) and the editor of the anthology Gathered: Contemporary Quaker Poets (Sundress Publications, 2013). He earned his MFA in creative writing from The Ohio State University, and is currently a Robert B. Toulouse Doctoral Fellow in English at the University of North Texas.

mountainredemptionConnor Bjotvedt: One of Mountain Redemption’s themes revolves around rural community. I see a type of “rural religion” in the opening poems, centered on the life and death of animals, with humans having a caretaker relationship with the animals that surround them. The people who inhabit the small town setting have also developed their own customs, such as in "Take, Eat," in which the crawdad becomes a kind of communion. Since religion comes back later in the book in a more structured, “church” sense, why does the book begin in the rural community?

Nick McRae: I like the phrase "rural religion"; it definitely feels appropriate to my sense of the book, particularly the first section, as you pointed out, and the third section is almost as strongly tied to that idea, albeit in perhaps a more personal way.

When Diane, my wonderful editor at Black Lawrence Press, asked me for a one-sentence description of the book to send to distributors, I think I used a phrase like "Christian mythos and the legacy of Southern ruralism" or something like that in describing it. Your phrase is probably better, and certainly more concise. But yes, that's something I think about a lot: the myriad ways that symbolism from Christian mythology manifests itself in rural communities. Usually this involves some sort of violent act. You mention the crawdad in "Take, Eat," for instance; there are also many images of dead or dying deer, which is something that stands out in my mind as one of my central connections to violence during childhood. One bit of my standard between-poem banter at readings is that I have no personal antipathy toward deer. I don't, of course, but for some reason it remains a humorous thing to hear someone say.

This type of violence echoes, to me, much of the sacrificial imagery of the Bible: the literal sacrificial lambs of the Old Testament, the figurative sacrificial lamb (Jesus) in the New Testament. There is a way in which the Christian tradition of blessing food before eating it completes a kind of mimicked sacrificial rite, whether that food is the deer or crawdads in these poems or the fruit in "Persimmon," where the violence against the trees requires eating as a kind of atonement for that violence. The danger is that it becomes a justification for violence instead of an atonement for it. Acknowledging that danger, I nonetheless try to honor those traditions as much as I am able to.

CB: As a poet of faith, do you feel that you are narrowing your reader base by including religious motifs and stories in your work?

NM: This kind of concern—whether content that touches on a spiritual tradition might push away readers who are not from nor have any interest in being part of that tradition—is something that we poets think we need to worry about, but I have found that fewer readers than we might expect will reject a poem simply because it touches on religion. It will happen, yes, but I have found it to be somewhat rare.

I had a teacher once who would often say something to the effect of "I don't much go in for the churchy stuff" when confronted with a student poem with religious content, but even he, who voiced reservations right up front, would find things to value in those poems provided they did more than rehash and re-present religious doctrine.

That seems to be the case with the majority of readers. Poems that truly grapple with religion—poems that question it, look at it from new angles, take old ideas apart and rebuild them into something else, something new, something unexpected—those poems tend to feel honest, while for even the most traditional people of faith (I, for one, fall into the considerably nontraditional side of things), poems that deal in unquestioned dogma often feel dishonest, no matter how sincere the belief. There's something about doubt that conveys honesty in ways certainty can never achieve. And most people will give a poem the benefit of the doubt as long as it's an honest poem.

CB: In “Pessimist's Guide to Miracles” you move from a deer, the main animal figure in the earlier poems in the book, to a donkey. This transition comes as the book moves more into the realm of the established religion rather than the folk religion. Is this a tie to the Biblical story of Joseph and Mary?

NM: That's an interesting and perceptive reading of that shift. I didn't have Mary and Joseph's donkey specifically in mind when I wrote the poem, but it does seem to me that, after the lamb (and maybe the serpent and the dove), the donkey is the animal with perhaps the strongest symbolic resonance throughout the Bible and wider Christian culture.

Mary rode a donkey into Bethlehem, as you mentioned. Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem during the Triumphal Entry, just before the Last Supper, which is why Christians celebrate Palm Sunday. The specific donkey that inspired the poem was Balaam's, from the Book of Numbers. His story goes like this: One day, Balaam was riding his donkey down the road when an angel, visible only to the donkey, appears there, intent on killing Balaam. The donkey refuses to approach the angel, but Balaam doesn't know the donkey is saving his life, so he begins to beat the donkey. Suddenly, the donkey is given the power of speech, and it asks Balaam why it's being punished for saving his life. At that moment Balaam, too, sees the angel, and he knows the injustice he has perpetrated.

It's a totally weird story, which is one of the reasons I like it so much, and I think it can be read as a fable; here we humans are, unable to see what is really going on around us, and so in our ignorance we lash out in violence because we don't know what else to do. That is one way in which the donkey in this poem is somewhat like the deer in other poems in the collection; our violence toward these creatures reveals the centrality of violence in how we respond to our world as a whole.

CB: Throughout the book you explore the notion of death; for the majority of the poems, the speaker runs from death and killing because he fears death himself, like in “Thanatophobia on Shinbone Valley Road.” Yet in “St. Nicholas of Lycia, Defender of Orthodoxy, Wonderworker” the speaker, a priest, is told of a murder and he runs to claim the bodies, forsaking the seal of the confessional; he then strips himself of his clothing and plunges his arms into the barrel where the bodies are stored. Does this action suggest there is redemption in death?

NM: I think the priest in "St. Nicholas" doesn't see redemption in death so much as he sees in it the necessity of remembrance. In "Thanatophobia" and the poems like it, the speaker turns away from death because he is afraid of dying, yes, but also because he is unable to deal out death, even for the sake of mercy, the way that he has been taught is good and proper. He resists his complicity in it, just as the priest resists his complicity in the murder of the three little boys. The priest is unwilling to stand by and let the institutions he believes in—the seal of the confessional, the forgiveness that is in the act of confession—act as a shield for the murderous butcher while the butchered children are anonymous and forgotten. He wants to feel their names on his skin, as he puts it, so their death won't be forgotten. Which is sort of the aim of poetry, I think, especially elegy, of which there is much in the collection.

CB: In “Psalm 137,” you take daily life and explore it as almost a ritual, one that has been lost to newer generations. Why did you begin the final section of the book with this poem? It seems to fit more with earlier pieces such as “Mountain Redemption.”

NM: I spent a lot of time in indecision over where to put this poem in the collection. On one level, you're right that it would have fit cleanly into the first section, possibly with "Mountain Redemption" as you suggest. Both poems talk about the mythic dimensions of bygone times and bygone people, so that might have been a good match. However, "Psalm 137" is also an elegy—an elegy for a way of life—and so it also fits at the beginning of section three, just before the series of elegies to my grandfathers.

In the end, I went with that elegiac impulse and used the poem as a bridge from the larger mythologies to the particularities of the men I wanted to elegize. And it was important for me to begin the last section of the book with this poem because it doesn't (at least as I see it) so much call for the old times and old ways to come back as it questions the desire for them to come back—and also whether they were ever real at all, or just mythos.

Psalm 137 in the Bible is an elegy for the Israelites' lost homeland. They have been taken as slaves and forcibly removed by the Babylonians, and their captors, adding insult to injury, ask to be entertained with a song about Zion. To this, the weeping Israelites can only answer "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" So far from home, from what was lost, how could their song have any meaning? I think this poem wants to ask a similar sort of question, something like: How can I sing of this home I have heard of all my life—this way of living and being in the world, where altars and tractors and skinning knives and hymns are the very fabric of reality—when I have only glimpsed the edges of it and when I only half believe in it? Is it a "home I only almost had," as the poem says. A real place, and a bloody place, but a mythic place nonetheless.

CB: The final poem, titled “Apple,” seems to involve both the Biblical motifs as well as the folk religion of the book. You enter the realm of not knowing and remembrance through the memory of the speaker, who wants to bite into the apple and regain the knowledge of its taste, much like the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. He remarks on the fact that it is alone in the field that he has found it in, and that there is no child nearby to taste of it like he did. The speaker decides to bury the apple rather than eat it, and waits for it to grow and to blossom fruit for the next generation. I see this as the final salvation of the mountain towns—a way to unify Biblical and folk religion rather than strictly conform to one or the other. Do you see this poem as a manifesto?

NM: A manifesto? I've never thought of this poem that way, but I like that idea a lot! It would feel good to have the confidence of a manifesto writer (manifestoist? manifestor? Uncle Fester?), though to my mind if the poem is making any kind of statement, it is something much more tentative. But then, to be tentative is just sort of my nature.

This poem, even more than most of my other poems, means different things to me at different times. Right now, thinking of it in the context of your challenging and insightful interview questions, I find myself wanting to read the poem as an exploration of faith and memory. Finding the unlikely apple in the middle of a field, the speaker remembers the painful immediacy of the quince fruit of his childhood. He could eat it and taste the past. He could leave it where he found it and let someone or something else have it. But he can't do that. Instead, he buries it where it can be his and only his, and maybe someday it will sprout and bloom again.

Maybe the apple is like the faith—the powerful, immediate, uncompromising belief in mysteries like God and salvation and ultimate good—that children can experience in a simple and vivid way that most people, once childhood has passed, cannot access in the same way. I think of my faith as something kind of like the apple here: something that is mine and mine only, buried in the black and wormy loam of the physical body, where maybe it will simply die or maybe it will flower. In my mind, that's what faith tends to look like: an in-between state, an uncertainty, a hopeful doubt.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Of Film and Smoke: An Interview with Iain Sinclair

iain sinclair

Interview by Paul McRandle

Few writers trawl their territory the way Iain Sinclair has London—footsore and picking over secret histories, missed encounters, and enigmatic detritus all the way out to the 125-mile ring of the London Orbital. From the occult forensics of his 1970s poems to 2012’s Ghost Milk, his dissident swansong for a city succumbing to the grand projects of a swindling elite, Sinclair picks up the poetic debris and marginal characters sloughed off by England’s capital as it is streamlined to a pure boutique artifact.

Sinclair first came to London in the early 1960s to study film, and the recent book 70x70 (Volcano Publishing) documents a 2013 series of screenings of seventy films, one for each of his seventy years. Not a best-of, these were films that had appeared in his books, each of which possessed “energy, attack, context—but which stood outside the usual registers of excellence.” He and his collaborators designed the series to encourage pilgrimages across London to vanishing venues as a way of reconfigure the city for those willing to take up the challenge.

Following the 70x70 screenings, Sinclair and director Andrew Kötting filmed an eighty-mile walk in the footsteps of the romantic poet John Clare on his flight from incarceration in an insane asylum (the Kickstarter-funded film is soon to be released as By Our Selves). In his harrowing account, Clare sleeps in ditches, eats grass to stave off hunger, talks with ghosts, and remains convinced that on arriving home he’d find his early love Mary Joyce, by then several years dead. Sinclair wound this story together with events from his wife Anna’s childhood in his 2005 book Edge of the Orison: In the Traces of John Clare’s “Journey Out of Essex” (Penguin).

In his most recent book, American Smoke (Faber & Faber, $27), Sinclair returned to the icons of his youth, tracking down the traces of beat writers on both coasts of North America. From Gloucester, Massachusetts—home to Charles Olson, who laid out Sinclair’s method of diving into the local to get to the universal—he moves across country and through time to William Burroughs in Lawrence, Kansas, and Malcolm Lowry sweating out Under the Volcano in his Dollarton, B.C. hideaway. Traumas pile up and careers come unglued, as he evokes an intense, lost era with little nostalgia.

Sinclair spoke with me about these and other works in a recent phone interview from his home in Hackney in the east of London.

Paul McRandle: I’ve been rereading Edge of the Orison and very much enjoying it. Does the film By Our Selves follow the same path in terms of mixing your life, your wife’s experiences, and John Clare’s?

Iain Sinclair: The film is very different. I wanted to do a film of that book from way back; there was some filming done in the beginning and the end by Chris Petit, who’s a longtime collaborator, and also I took photographs of the journey. I had a fantasy of a sort of Werner Herzog-type film, like The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, but nothing ever happened until Andrew Kötting saw a photograph of the straw bear that’s in the book; he became very energized and the film evolved from there. So it’s like the book in the sense that it has numerous elements that work off the myth of the John Clare walk, which is central to the English imagination. It’s also rather like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress—this extraordinary epic journey across the English landscape. But the subsidiary elements are completely different, because Andrew works in a subtext story about his relationship with his daughter Eden, who becomes a sort of Dorothy figure from The Wizard of Oz. And the part of John Clare is played by Toby Jones, a well-known actor who’s virtually silent and who’s actually doing the walk, but is also played by Freddie Jones, his father, who played Clare in 1970 in one of the BBC Omnibus films. He’s all voice and the son is mute and physical—they haunt each other. So there’s things in the film that don’t have any part in the book, but it’s the same style, the same impressions, a collage bringing together all kinds of different strands.

PM: I saw Toby Jones in the trailer and he looks terrific in the role.

IS: Yeah, he’s great. The thing with Toby Jones is the detail. He absorbs the character; he doesn’t do anything except look and feel. The few times he spoke it was quite shocking because it was all internalized. Whereas his father is an actor in that full-on English tradition—you’ll hear his voice in the trailer doing bits from the original film. We’ve subsequently spent time with him and filmed and recorded him. He looks like King Lear. He’s really wonderful and very different from Toby in every way, but the two work extremely well together. Toby was four years old when his father played John Clare and his mother played Patty Clare, and so he was quite confused by this when he saw it as a young lad. It made a huge impression on him. I think he wanted to be involved with the project as a homage to his father, who’s now well into his eighties. Freddie actually appeared when we did a show in Oxford: he gave a reading of “I Am” and was tremendous, I must say.

PM: Clare’s early poems have such gorgeous evocations of the environment and very specific images of bird life, plant life, and so on. And then you get to “Journey Out of Essex,” which is a strikingly desperate and sad prose piece. By contrast your book is lightened up by memories of your life with Anna and Anna’s recollections of her childhood, which are fascinating.

IS: It’s using that original story, which is so short really, as a sort of spine, an inspiration, a way of tapping into memory and particularly into Anna’s relationship with that image and that area. And then those strange parallels: John Clare is from Helpston, which is a nearby village, but he went to the church school in Glinton, where Anna went to school. In fact, her family grave is now about ten yards away from Mary Joyce’s grave. So all of those things were quite uncanny.

PM: Did you find that writing about your own life with Anna was more of a challenge?

IS: I don’t know that you really write about your own life—you make a myth of your own life. You smooth over certain things. Again this goes back to people like Kerouac, a writer using more or less of the facts to articulate a larger structure. Sometimes it bends into extremely exaggerated versions, versions that have barely got any relation with life itself, and other times it seems to be almost a diary-like account. It hovers somewhere between the two.

PM: And Edge of the Orison was written four years after the fact . . .

IS: Yes, unlike “Journey Out of Essex,” which was written straight after Clare had done the walk. It’s almost like an impassioned letter; if he didn’t write it the experience would be gone. And already it’s gone to some extent because he can’t quite remember the names of places or what happened, so his account is like this feverish dream. Whereas my Edge of the Orison is done in cold blood, as it were, sometime later. The diary form of the walk is kept at a distance, but it’s used and then the other forms of research that have gone in can take their place alongside it and put it in context.

PM: Can you talk a little about the kinds of research you do—are you looking at receipts and maps and photographs? It seems like a collage.

IS: Yes, that’s basically what it is. It’s like scavenging an accumulation of detritus around the project, picking up pamphlets and so on during the various journeys. But more, it’s about repeated excursions to a territory. It’s not as if I just did that one walk—I went back and different bits spun off the walk for a long period of time. I went round on the canal narrowboat journey, for example, with Brian Catling and Anna, and looked at the landscape from the water, which was another thing. So all that was research, but then there were books that had to be read and attempts to get into the libraries. Northampton Library was really very friendly and useful, and the main thing was to see the actual original manuscript of “Journey Out of Essex.” Peterborough Library was not very helpful; they were really reluctant to let me see things without endless papers and documentation. Then there was also subsidiary research into Anna’s family, which involved quite a lot of poking around documents, looking at gravestones, and all of those things.

PM: You mention in Edge of the Orison that in Clare’s “Journey Out of Essex” manuscript the lines themselves were long enough to suggest walking.

IS: Yes, it looked like a walked page, because paper was very precious to him. It was expensive, so he tends to write right to the very edge; sentences would explode across the page in enormous excitement and then there’d be black gaps and dashes. The physicality of the actual manuscript was like a living map. I felt it was like projective verse, or Kerouac’s spontaneous prose. There certainly wasn’t room for corrections and tidying things up; it was just a great gush. It was beautiful. It was like an action painting. It’s a tremendous manuscript.

PM: Does By Our Selves continue the critique of grand projects?

IS: No, not really. I think that the John Clare story is itself a critique in lots of ways. The Enclosure Act of 1809 totally changed that landscape and he was completely in thrall to the two great landlords of the area, Burghley House and Milton House—everything was owned by them or by Cambridge colleges. And that sense of oppression and enclosure was huge on him. And now of course it’s seeped into the Epping Forest landscape, down into the lower Lea Valley and London. So there are big parallels for me in that story and I touch on them in the book, but not really in the film because the film gains much more of its momentum from Andrew Kötting’s take, which has to do with performance, physicality, and sense of place, but not with those socio-political concerns that I see as coming off the Clare story. The film is a physical drama of moving the figure across the landscape and tapping into the folk roots of English song and the harshness of life at the time. That’s mainly what Andrew’s interests are and I think that’s what comes over in the film quite strongly. There are accidental clashes with what is going on in the landscape now in terms of implanted wind farms and so on, but there isn’t really a critique in the sense that I try to get into my own work.

PM: In moving an object across territory, By Our Selves seems related to your 2012 paddle-boat film with Kötting, Swandown.

IS: I think it’s actually moving an object through bifurcated memories; I’m both revisiting the book and revisiting a central journey, because the idea of doing the John Clare walk came from walking around London and thinking, “How do you get out of it?” This circle goes on forever. And suddenly the idea of this escape walk of Clare’s seemed to sit perfectly at the end of one project and lead into the next. So revisiting that in my own memory at the same time as Andrew is making it weird by imposing the figure of the bear, which becomes an avatar of depression and of the landscape . . . The bear emerges from the landscape and accompanies Clare on the journey and finally splits off away from him and goes into Kötting’s own mystique, whereas Clare just disappears into the gravity of the black hole of the Northampton Asylum, which in this film is slightly associated with the presence of Alan Moore, who is a keeper of the legends of Northampton.

sinclair-americansmokePM: Were there any landscapes you walked through for American Smoke that spoke to you in the way that this walk has?

IS: Yes, the landscape of Gloucester, Mass. The presence and the strength of those few traces of Charles Olson were probably the most significant. That’s partly why I opened the book with that. It was the freshest thing in mind because it came right off the back of doing the Swandown project, where we’d been pedaling this plastic swan through the rivers of England. Coming into America to a fishing port in Massachusetts, it was looking pretty depressed; the economic plight was there and the people seemed to take warmth and strength from remembering Charles Olson. There were very definite connections between these projects and that place powerfully registered in my mind even though I’d never been there, but I’d thought so much about it and read so much in the Maximus poems and his letters. This was certainly a gripping place and the area of Dogtown was especially haunted—the glacial moraines, the rocks.

That was the primary landscape. My sense of the Pacific Coast was much more about movement, as we weren’t really in one particular place long enough to register; we were just moving through. Obviously Gary Snyder in the Sierra Nevada made a very big impression, but it was only a few hours and very fleeting. So it didn’t grip me in the same way that any of the landscapes I’m talking about in England do.

PM: Are there places you intend to return to in America?

IS: I wouldn’t imagine returning to many of the places in that book. Obviously I would like to return to Gloucester; I would return happily to San Francisco, I guess. But I’m more interested in Mexico. It’s drier and more arid. I’ve got feelers that I’ve been pursuing, but whether that will happen, I don’t know. The economics of it are quite tricky.

PM: The section on Roberto Bolaño in American Smoke is fascinating.

IS: Yes, I’ve enjoyed his work very much and he’s a sort of absolute presence, if I can say that. His footsteps seem to be just in the next room all the time, hauntingly so. I’m quite interested in further connections there. I seem to be making some kind of relations now in Spain and Chile and places like that, so who knows?

70x70-book-coverPM: When it came to pulling together the 70x70 film series, how did the “anti-pantheon”of film come about?

IS: It was two things really. Because the films were being done specifically, as it were, for my seventieth birthday, what I could use most functionally as markers were books that I’d written. I’ve always referenced film quite a lot in whatever I write, so I tweaked out film titles from the various books until I had a long list, and used that as the basis for this structure—rather than thinking about film on its own, or best films or worst films, or anything else. So essentially it’s a form of autobiography through memory of cinema. I then added in a number of films I’d been logging as projects, so that brought it even further into the form of refracted autobiography.

The anti-pantheon business came from a series of conversations with Chris Petit, because we’d made four films for Channel Four in an earlier period and tried to put forward lots of others since that time. One of the things that he got very interested in was an anti-pantheon—films that were well worth holding in memory and for discussion but which had no place in the established pantheons of cinema. They were never going to be listed as great films or bad films, but they were films that seemed to have a quality that was essentially cinematic, that couldn’t exist in other form. It’s hard to define exactly, but we batted certain titles backwards and forwards and agreed on a list for an anti-pantheon. I guess some of the ones in my seventy films would fit with that and others wouldn’t; this is much more my personal list of films that have accidentally been a part of books that I’ve written.

PM: I was struck that Antonioni’s Il Grido went without an audience.

IS: I know, that was very depressing. I’d been looking at Il Grido when I was writing American Smoke, because of the whole section on Italian cinema. And I just had to look at it again and I thought how strong it was, and how interesting to try and position it in England, so this very hip pizza place agreed to show it in its cinema upstairs. And nobody subscribed to it, so they cancelled the show, which I thought was pretty sad. That said something about the whole process. I’ve done a diary piece for the London Review of Books, sort of summing up, and mentioning that. That was one of the weirder moments.

PM: They seemed to be in such well-chosen venues, too.

IS: Well, that wasn’t down to me, but I thought at least some of them were extraordinarily well-chosen. And it told the other part of the story, which was to do with trying to recapture something that happened in earlier times, which was the adventure of actually getting to the place where the film was shown. You’d make a journey and you’d see this strange film that you may not see again for years, because there were no DVDs. There were no ways of tapping into these things—you either found it being screened or you didn’t, and to do it made you journey all over London. I wanted to get back to that.

PM: Finding your way to a theater is something closer to the dream state than sitting in your bed, staring at a laptop screen.

IS: Yeah—there’s the journey, there’s the architecture of the building itself, there are strange people gathered around you to see it. It’s a whole, real world, social experience, whereas the other thing is entirely in the head.

PM: Did you find yourself reassessing the films you made with Chris Petit—The Cardinal and the Corpse, The Falconer, Asylum, and London Orbital—when they were shown in the series?

IS: I think we did, to some extent, because I haven’t looked at them in some time. And they looked different in various ways. The Cardinal and the Corpse, being the first one and the only one made with an orthodox crew, was mainly interesting just for the sheer amount of stuff that was squeezed into a small space. So many characters who were part of a London of what I call “reforgotten” writers, interesting writers who disappeared from the canon and then returned again. And also the book scouts and runners of the used book trade, people who’d been in that world. It was an astonishing kind of party in a sense, gathering all these people together in that moment. Quite a number of them are dead now and you could never do that again, so it was interesting in that respect more than as a film. Whereas I thought The Falconer was a nice sort of paranoid portrait, using document and fiction and myth and the archive, with a slight, unusual sense of what was happening in the city, too—how London was getting to be filled with cameras all watching you all the time.

I thought Asylum probably looked the best of the films; it was the most realized as a film. But of course it had the subtitle “The Final Commission” and it pretty much was. I know London Orbital came after that, but that was an exactly parallel extension of the book being written at the time. And then that really was it, which is slightly a matter of regret. But it was interesting to dust those things down and take a look at them again, because they’re not readily available.

PM: The character Peter Whitehead in The Falconer is a compelling figure, but he’s somebody I could easily understand wanting to distance yourself from.

IS: He was a kind of monster in a way, but interesting. Initially he wanted this thing to be about him—he’s very narcissistic—and he’d keep producing more and more evidence of a life that was largely in film. There were numerous strange scraps of film about him or things he’d done. The film essentially was not about Peter Whitehead, but it became about him, and then of course it became a kind of psychological breakdown around him. And then it got too close and he repudiated it and didn’t want anything to do with it. The further we got, the more sinister he seemed to become. He was quite keen to step away from that.

PM: I noticed that during the 70x70 series you showed a “remix” of London Orbital. Was that out of a sense of dissatisfaction or an effort to try something new?

IS: London Orbital was shown at the Barbican and we did it with a live reading. We just showed a bit of the film and read live to it, which was, I suppose, to try to get into the mode of how things would get done now. There wouldn’t be the possibility of being commissioned to make the larger scale films, but there’s no reason why some kind of image retrievals would not be presented as live, one-off performances in which you deliver the text rather than encode it into a strip of film. It would be much more like a tent show—do it and move on for next to nothing. So looking at London Orbital now was a way of testing out that possible ground for the future.

PM: As a road movie it’s really quite hypnotic.

IS: Well, it’s endless. It feels like it’s just this infinite loop, it could go on and on in almost any order.

PM: It was also interesting to see Brian Catling’s fantastic novel The Vorrh turn up in 70x70.

IS: That’s a pretty amazing story. That book, it was impossible to get anybody to even look at it. Then Alan Moore wrote a forward that was hugely encouraging and in minutes people offered to publish it. Now it’s even got a big American publisher. I think they certainly will bring him over to promote it.

PM: Your work can’t be read without encountering the work of other writers, other filmmakers, painters, and so on, opening up the pleasure of new discoveries. And that seems to have been your technique from almost the very start.

IS: Yeah, I guess so. I think it’s a standard, old modernist technique, isn’t it? You’re full of echoes of other writers; everything is assembled from that starting point. The relation with other writers becomes a sort of detective story, picking influences and suggesting that books lead into other books lead into other books infinitely.

PM: A while back you gave your archive to the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas . . .

IS: Well, I didn’t give it, I sold it! It was kind of a life-saving thing. It wasn’t huge Ian McEwan-type money, but it was something. All my early stuff is down there now. I don’t think it’s all been sorted yet. It probably was a huge task to do so, but it was quite a useful exercise for me and I did go over there and look at some things and gave a few talks at university.

PM: And you didn’t feel that you had excavated part of your life and sealed it off?

IS: I felt a relief to make a little bit of space by that stuff going out, but I was slightly uneasy about the fact of it finishing up in Austin, Texas. The people who come and talk to me about things and want to look into various aspects of what I’ve done are really here in England. And if there had been somewhere convenient to do it here, it would have probably felt more right. But on the other hand, it’s so bizarre and exotic to have it there that I do find it interesting.

PM: It seems that the occult themes that appeared in books such as Lud Heat and White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings have subsided a bit—the imagery of the ley lines and so on haven’t been as apparent.

IS: Lud Heat, Suicide Bridge, and White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings related to periods of my life when I was working as a gardener or whatever in that landscape, so relatively I was disempowered. I had no voice in the way things were. I was quite interested in strange systems of belief and also in the Earth Mysteries, the ley lines and all of those things. This sat very nicely with how London was at that point. And then being a second-hand book dealer after that, I would be reading all kinds of obscure things, very weird and eccentric stuff, and that fed into what I was writing.

But after the late ’80s, when I was writing more mainstream things, I guess the shift became that the political was then occulted—there was a sense that that was the power and it was a different thing. In a sense that discourse maybe had to be stepped down a bit, because it would have made things unreadable. Not that I’m trying to smooth things out to be popular, but I’m dealing with editors. And I’ve certainly not lost interest in those more abstruse areas. I’ve published through smaller presses, like Swedenborg House hereabouts, collaborations with Brian Catling. Those things are still there.

PM: What are you working on now?

IS: Well, one of the nice things about this place is that it’s old, it’s got all of these traces, and they’re infinitely provocative. I’m just about to start doing something along those lines with the Gower Coast in South Wales, which is a very ancient, carboniferous limestone with caves that have the oldest traces of Ice Age man and things, which is not a territory I’ve done anything about for years. But I grew up not too far away and am just starting to use that in a different way. So it’s really going back more into that kind of writing you mentioned before, the earlier Lud Heat era. Mind you, it won’t be the same but I’ll try and touch that spirit.

Click here to purchase American Smoke at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate

thischangeseverythingNaomi Klein
Simon & Schuster ($30)

by Eliza Murphy

The heat is on. If not the hottest year ever recorded, 2014 sizzled to one of the hottest in the past decade, the result of global warming trends that scientists attribute to human activity. How economic lust and a broken political system have precipitated this climate catastrophe is at the heart of Naomi Klein’s latest book, This Changes Everything.

Klein traces the world’s ecological crisis back to the Industrial Revolution, when coal burning ushered in a new phenomenon: the introduction of gases to the earth’s atmosphere with a potential to turn the planet into a hothouse. Add the burning of oil and gas and the energy-intensive process of extracting fossil fuels, and we’ve got a formula for disaster.

This broken system treats the planet and its inhabitants as if they were disposable and infinitely replenishable, but Klein makes it clear that life on the planet can no longer bear doing business as usual. Her call acts like bellows on smoldering coals of citizen action, a historically successful means of bringing about social change.

Since the industry will stop at nothing to get at the remaining oil and gas deep underground, citizens around the world must stop at nothing to prevent that from happening. Citizens must insist on renewable sources of energy and a more equitable distribution of money. Polluting corporations must be held accountable by paying for the damage they’ve caused.

Klein’s investigation reveals the uncomfortable necessity of reining in our insatiable appetite for the pleasures and conveniences made possible by the remains of liquefied dinosaur bones, sucked from beneath the earth’s crust using increasingly destructive and toxic technology. However, as vital as our individual choices might be for curtailing greenhouse gas emissions, Klein argues that uniting against social and environmental injustice is more urgent. She builds a steady and convincing case that to do otherwise will likely make life on Earth unbearable.

From the start, the book flabbergasts the reader with non-stop what-the-#*%! moments. Klein exposes high-profile environmental groups like the Environmental Defense Fund and The Nature Conservancy, whose leaders reap riches through a free market intent on gutting regulations essential for environmental protection. Bedding the enemy led to public endorsements by these same organizations for misguided cap-and-trade policies that have only led to further carbon emissions, which is in itself a dangerous trend. It also led to the creation of sacrifice zones around the world. Indigenous people are now treated like criminals for entering forests "owned" by gas and oil companies in unconscionable land grabs.

It comes as less of a surprise that a handful of billionaires like Richard Branson, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet continue to profit from dirty industries while spinning public images as saviors. Klein deflates their green-washed promises, exposing them as hollow. Her profiles demonstrate "that seeing the risks climate change poses to financial markets in the long term may not be enough to curtail the temptation to profit from planet destabilization in the short-term." Adding insult to injury, she reveals that these scoundrels are getting even richer by selling disaster insurance.

Perhaps the chapter "Dimming The Sun," devoted to the most cockamamie hair-brained scheme ever given credence by a scientific community that ought to know better, is most outrageous. Observing “disheveled scientists discussing a parasol for the planet," Klein echoes other international stakeholders in challenging the morality of the methods geo-engineers are plotting for "the exploration of radical interventions into the earth's climate system as a response to global warming."

Even though many of these geeks study volcanoes in an attempt to mimic their earth-cooling effects in an effort to devise similar, manmade planetary air conditioners, the schemes sound utterly preposterous and out of synch with natural history. Solar radiation management, the fix of the moment, is an especially risky endeavor. It entails hosing sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to block out the sun. Not only would this grand experiment interrupt the solar radiation necessary for renewable energy, it would inevitably cause catastrophic drought and make blue skies a relic. This is hubris of the highest order.

In a rare moment of self-disclosure, Klein links her own experience with fertility difficulties to the horrific after-effects of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This chapter touches on the heart of the issue as she describes the difficulties of marine species to reproduce successfully after exposure to the spilled oil and the toxic dispersants used to “clean” up the mess; she calls the tragic animal losses an aquatic miscarriage. Her reports from the Gulf serve as a reminder of what’s at stake: all of the wondrous inhabitants of the planet are imperiled, from squiggling aquatic species unable to survive beyond the larval state to the playful dolphins whose diet depends on them reaching maturity.

There is nothing simplistic about the remedy Klein recommends. It will take a colossal commitment of people from vastly different backgrounds to overcome their subjective differences and fight against uncomfortable objective realities. We all live on a planet choking on life-threatening gaseous effluents that are a direct result of international trade agreements that consistently trump environmental regulations.

Klein urges readers to join forces to ensure that all of Earth’s inhabitants have the chance not only to survive, but also to regenerate. She shows that we must fight for renewable energy, for a just worldwide economic system, and for fossil fuels to stay in the ground as if our lives depend on it—because they do.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom

Elaine Scarry
W. W. Norton & Co. ($35)

by Robert M Keefe

There is a plan in place, if not for you. Snuggled into the spine at the upper tip of the Blue Ridge Mountain chain, the heavy hammer of the U.S. military has constructed a Pleiades of operational complexes and underground bunkers. They lie in wait to ensure the continuity of the U.S. government in case of nuclear war. Yet, even in their immense size (one holds three-story buildings and a lake large enough for water-skiing), what small percentage of the population could they shelter? All three governmental branches? The Pentagon or some battalions? Even if the maximum number of federal lawmakers could escape there in safety, whom exactly would they govern?

The Swiss, for one, don't see things the same way. They have built a shelter system based on three assumptions: 1) war's primary victims are civilians; 2) a sturdy shelter system can save people; and, perhaps most importantly, 3) democracies must guarantee an equality of survival. At present, Switzerland has enough shelter space for 114% of its population.

The stark contrast of these two emergency plans—not in vague “democratic” rhetoric, but with working boots on the ground policy of who will be saved and who puts together the plan—is the hard nut to be cracked in Elaine Scarry's new book, Thermonuclear Monarchy. In it she argues that since the dawn of the nuclear age, the U.S. has stumbled away from its democratic ideals into those more monarchic, a term she uses “not merely as an expression of disapproval but as a literal designation of the form of government that results when constitutional arrangements (the just distribution of authority and risk) are dismantled.”

Scarry further argues that the Constitution provides for just distribution of military authority. The Second Amendment, so often viewed in terms of private and free ownership of guns, came into being "primarily as a way of dispersing military power across the entire population.” We may no longer live in a society where a phalanx of farmers will grab their muskets and in a minute's time be fending off foreign invaders, yet under the Second Amendment, we as citizens are the fighters in war. By taking up arms we agree to engage in injuring power (as well as the risk of being injured in return).

In a nuclear scenario, only a small group of people control the injuring power. With so few fingers on the buttons, such power is not disbursed; there is little dialogue or chance to show dissent. And this is important, because a refusal to take up weapons is to clog the system, to impede war's forward march. This possibility is the very genius of the U. S. Constitution: the right to bear arms is also the right not to. Here, Scarry argues, nuclear war is simply unconstitutional.

Since her first book, The Body in Pain (Oxford University Press, 1985), Scarry has charted brave new territory—sometimes heady and abstract—exploring criminal action by states and individuals. Yet in this hefty book she is aiming at a more general readership, putting aside much of her previous philosophical abstraction. Any random thirty pages still elicits an  "I've never thought about that in such a way” response; she has a brilliant mind and true moral compass.

Impressively, Scarry is committing her vibrant intellectual energy to something very difficult, something that has failed at the UN and at international courts of justice: she wishes to dismantle the nuclear regime of the U.S. Perhaps more importantly, she seeks to encourage the will of U.S. citizens to change the plans in place, asking us to reach back to an argument set forth by Alexander Hamilton in 1787:  "It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015


seascape_fancyGIANTHeimrad Bäcker
translated by Patrick Greaney
Ugly Duckling Presse ($18)

by Rebecca Hart Olander

The spare white cover of Seascape, with its gray letterpress-font title, recalls the bleached-out, wide expanse of the sea. There is something slightly menacing about this oppressive whiteness that blots out almost all else; the effect of looking at it is similar to the way one is blinded temporarily after looking at the sun. It’s polar though, not warm, and it’s lonely. The sense of emptiness is heightened upon seeing that this volume is categorized as a “transcription” and is part eleven in a series called “Lost Literature.” These details conjure a journal from a shipwreck, once lost at sea, now found.

The opening page terms the book a “War log,” providing a context for the primary feeling of foreboding. The pages go on in sparse detail, as a ship’s log must, covering conditions and locations with clipped language, military time, and navigational codes. What is “transcribed” is a Nazi U-boat log from one twenty-four hour period at sea, the sameness of the entries providing a sense of the repetitiveness of a day amidst the elements, both before and again after the ship comes into contact with a lifeboat from a downed Norwegian tanker, and therefore other humans. The log possesses an elliptical quality; time cycles around to where it started, implying no ultimate progress was made. The lifeboat passengers are not rescued; their sighting and the ensuing interaction barely cause a ripple in the advance of the U-boat.

Seascape is one multi-paged concrete poem, and to place this poem into the “vessel” of a book is to frame it differently than its original form. However, the form is an ideal fit for the function here. The book is produced on “Reich” paper, according to the colophon, a subversion of the product for a renewed purpose. The letterpress type is well chosen for the medium and the message, lending an historic touch, and more importantly, searing each letter into the page. At the same time, the gray print makes the words an echo of language, so that the text is boldly anchored on the page but also conjures whispered voices leaking from the past. The light gray lines of language evoke old telegrams in their concision and mixture of letters and numbers. Each entry sits on its own page, like a boat alone in the sea, a physical representation of loneliness, and of being lost. The pages that contain logs about the conditions resemble Japanese poems, compact three-to-five-line reports of “broken clouds,” “rough sea,” and “poor visibility.” These pages juxtaposed with the log about the lifeboat illustrate a contrast between poetry and prose; the natural world is shown in poetry, while the human world is portrayed as prosaic.

The lifeboat passengers probably didn’t survive for long beyond their contact with the U-boat, as the log reports that, “Boat and crew were in a state that, in view of the prevailing weather, offered hardly any prospects of rescue.” In the end, though, they survive through the log itself. Their “survival” on the page keeps them from drowning in a sea of anonymity, and this lack of rescue in real time rescues them eventually in our memory, as palimpsests of survivors. These three men in the lifeboat made their mark, salvaged from their wreck and obstinately washing up in our collective reckoning with the bracken of the Nazi regime’s aftermath. At the end of Seascape, it is noted that this document was part of the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg in 1949. Without this information, the document would still carry the weight of history; this fact tells us how it was used, but the encounter between lifeboat and U-boat remains either way.

This found poem is a multi-layered exercise in translation, rendering in English what is located in tribunal documents as taken from a German nautical log during the Nazi regime. The translator Patrick Greaney is listed as an after note, with credit for the “transcription” given to Austrian poet Heimrad Bäcker, who appropriated this material, and other remnants of Nazism and the Shoah, as concrete poetry. Leaving the explanation of Greaney and Bäcker’s roles until the end allows the work to come first, unfurling for the viewer wave by wave. The log’s chilling entries submerge us in the cold truth of history. It is worth noting that Bäcker has a personal history with the Holocaust, having participated in the Nazi Youth movement. Turning evidence of this atrocity into objects of concrete poetry can be a dangerous business. One reading could be that interpreting history as art makes it possible to fetishize the contents, creating relics from ruins. However, the fact that the text is found poetry that approximates the original source excuses it in part from such accusation. We are forced to see the words less divorced from their making than they would have been in the trial transcripts Bäcker discovered. Within those transcripts, the log’s language is surrounded by commentary; here, we view the log surrounded by white space, rather than explication or excuses. Furthermore, Bäcker’s work can be seen as a corrective or at least critical look at the history that bore him. He is constructing a joint tale, putting his name on the transcription to share in its devastating authorship. When we hold the book, this physical fragment of the Holocaust, we too are made complicit.

An “After Writing” insert, written by Charles Bernstein, comes tucked into a flap in the book’s back cover, placed inside the text like a message in a bottle. The piece remains an addition to a preexisting document, kept physically separate from the text, coexisting but not blending with the transcription itself. The outer layer of the insert reverses the book’s type to white letters upon a dark gray background. The color scheme switch implies a story being reclaimed and retold, the ghostly type allowing the silenced voices of the dead to be heard. Bernstein tells us that “After Writing” is a literal translation of nachschrift, which is what Greaney translated to “transcription” on the cover of Seascape, and what Bäcker called two of his other concrete poems in the series he originally published.

In his first line, Bernstein plays on Theodor Adorno’s claims for post-WWII poetry by stating, “To write prose after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Throughout Bernstein’s commentary, he refuses to call Seascape a poem. As he draws to a close, however, he offers that to “write poetry after the Second War is to accept that barbarism is before us, staring us in the face.” So, prose is barbaric, but poetry is an acceptance of this barbarism, or perhaps a confrontation of it. Bernstein’s final point is that Bäcker’s nachschrift, or after writing, “feels for the ground of a post-Enlightenment, aftermodern poetry, as a blind person feels for another’s face.” Poetry gropes about, feeling for bearings and ballast, not barbaric itself, but a response to the world’s barbarism. Bernstein is also linking the layers of text to one another here, calling his own insert “After Writing” and connecting it to what Bäcker did in compiling “linguistic shards [that] confront, without summarizing or representing, the Systematic Extermination of the European Jews.” Bernstein, too, is groping for humanity.

One feels after poring over Bäcker, Greaney, and then Bernstein that Seascape is the amalgamation of many readings of the original log. There is a story behind the few words here that speaks to a larger war, and, indeed, to the nature of humanity. Yet, story is not most important here. Instead, object becomes paramount, and the way Seascape is assembled provides a perfect union of shape and purpose; it offers the desolation of the open ocean, dredges up the consequences of Nazism, and honors the lives of those lost in World War II. The book is a manifestation of the lonely, vast, cold, bleak world with humanity cast as a mere blip on the radar. In fact, this is not a book that is read so much as it is held and examined. We are made to slow down and consider the events, much more so than if we had read them in the trial records. We are, in effect, plunged in—to the lifeboat, to the U-boat, to the war, to the trial, to what it means to have to look and remember.

Are we left cold after holding such a record? If so, only appropriately so. The fact of the survival of the record, the message unfurled from cold waves, does provide hope. Each new page suggests a healing as we turn from the vast emptiness implied by the front cover, enter the open sea noted through the pages, and arrive at the retelling in the “After Writing.” As much as history stands still as having happened, it also breathes through our reexamination and holding accountable of the past.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Reckless Lovely

reckless lovelyMartha Silano
Saturnalia Books ($15)

by Janet McCann

Martha Silano’s fourth collection Reckless Lovely is a rapid trip that seems to start in the middle of a breath. Its first poem plunges right into the middle of the Big Bang, which is presented as the product of a mad chef:

begins with a dash of giant impact, a sprinkling
of moonlets, pinch of heavy bombardment.

Sift in crusty iron sulfide, fricasseed stromatolites,
one level teaspoon cyanobacteria. Slowly dribble

ammonia, methane, hydrogen; drop a dollop
of ocean.

So the Big Bang is a recipe, and creation is represented as cuisine—who is this chef, though? The speaker, the goddess? This explosion introduces us to a markedly female world characterized by a fast-moving stream of images and ideas, giving an impression of uncontrollable life burgeoning. There is a great deal of science in the poems, but redefined in women’s terms, often having to do with cooking and birth imagery. And the poems never slow down, not even by the last line of the book; they yank the reader along in their tide. No chance to ponder an image or metaphor—you are already in the next one.

With their high energy and their tendency to pile up ideas, concepts, and details, these are not easy poems—ciliegene, stromatolites, Siphusactum gregarium, collembolan, Megatherium, placoderm, and bits of Italian appear in the first three pages of poetry. Yet the poems are not unclear. The sense of the proliferation of things sweeps knowns and unknowns into the same current. The music of the language helps provide unity within poems, and often signals the epiphany or the emotional high point, as it does in “Constellation”:

What’s the weight
of Cygnus? How long

‘til my castles topple, sing
a crash of high-stakes half-

notes? O hydra, O heron, O howling
hound not howling—the whole dang lot

of tinsel and ills, lilt of every living cell.

The alliteration, assonance, and other echoings add up to an intense climax that seems to be both celebration and mourning. The poems crackle with humor, too—the same style of piling up images produces a smile, if not downright laughter, in “Mystery of the Bra,” which begins with a brassiere incident and then jumps into bra history:

Bra not showing its face, bra with a history like that 600-year-old
breast bag stuffed between floorboards in an Austrian castle,

raggedy sack of linen and lace that had lifted white-sand mountains,
milk chocolate double scoops. With sexy boost this land-less

landmass, this dollop-y desert dessert unloosed, shouting
she should never have got with that guy—never that bush,

those boys, that sequined sapphire dress, never this plunge-maker
plunging from a cherry red Camaro, bereft of what lifted its lace.

Toward the end of this collection, the poems seem to suggest a quirky, exploratory metaphysics; if there is a God around it is a process God or even a God process. Silano often writes about religious subjects—her titles include “Saint Catherine of Siena,” “God in Utah,” and “What Falls from Trucks, from the Lips of Saviors.” Of course, writing about religious topics is not religious writing, and some of these poems are clearly satirical, but they also question, evaluate, and approach the spiritual. Perhaps the clearest of these is “Saint Catherine of Siena,” which explores the strange and drastic contradictions of Catherine’s life:

Short and frail. Sweet curmudgeon. Hairshirt clad. Bed of thorns.
When forced to eat, stuck a goose feather down her throat
till she puked. Willingly kept down only her daily communion wafer,

though for her friends she whomped up loaves of focaccia, contucci,
panforte, prayed for miraculous multiplicities—truffled funghi
pork loin alla romana. Made an empty barrel gush Chianti, but her drink

of choice? Pus from the putrefactions, sores

The poem gives a rapid-fire investigation of what Christianity offers and what gets in the way of accepting it, and then turns to a speaker’s childhood friend who apparently is trying to convert her, pointing out

the irrelevance of my pantyhose-with-a-run attempts at reasoning
out God—suggests Pascal’s Gambit. But I’m already betting, I tell my friend,

though I’m not, keep dissing Him, about which dissing He shared with his
mystical, monastic wife: this is that sin which is never forgiven, now or ever. Infinite mercy
with a louse-sized caveat: surrender to be victorious; reject sin, befriend

the trespasser, be in the world but not of it, endless paradoxical paradise

The interest in spiritual experience threads through the last poems in the collection, though the speaker seems to find true transcendence in nature, particularly nature revealed through science. Yet the uncoverings always seem to point to deeper mystery, as if under all the surfaces lurks the mystery of life itself. “Ode to Mystery” concludes:

Mystery of nematodes bravely clinging as they take

their snaky ride not unlike a tunneled, caustic waterslide—
circular, orificial. Who really deserves the shiny trophy:

we, who launch our dinghies into the roaring unknown,
or the barnacles hunkering down for their twice-daily

drought? Language is spiffy, but lo the hocus-pocus
of pheromones, crickets and cockroaches emitting

lickable seductions. That anything lives at all, that fog
rolls in and out, that milk spurts from the teat, that laughter

erupts when the child reads buc-a-BAC, buc-a-BAC,
and the boy in the story tucks his chicken into bed.

Proliferation and story weld together in this celebration of becoming. Silano’s work has already won many prizes and awards, and Reckless Lovely will be certain to win her more acclaim.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Post Subject: A Fable

postsubjectOliver de la Paz
University of Akron Press ($14.95)

by John Bradley

“Dear Empire,” opens each of this book’s ninety-five epistolary prose poems. This is followed with a declarative sentence beginning “This is” or “These are,” yet questions soon swarm the reader. Just who is being addressed here? And why?

The letters quickly establish a fallen-empire setting. “These are your ashes,” begins the first letter. “A fine dust clouds our skies,” it continues, evidence that the empire is crumbling before our eyes. In this world, there no longer appears to be an emperor to address. “Come back from where you dwell,” the letter-writer asks. The ruins and the language used to describe them evoke various possibilities as to who once ruled here.

At times the addressed figure sounds Biblical, as in “Every animal of this desert is yours” and “the floods as you had commanded.” At other times the addressee sounds secular: “you, fractured arm of the republics we knew” and “your prisoners were shot in the morning.” Yet at other times, it sounds as if a lover is invoked: “Your hands are beautiful.” Or could all these letters ultimately be about language: “We are not beyond your jurisdiction”? Uncertainty drives this book, and Oliver de la Paz brilliantly maintains this ambiguity throughout.

The reader encounters many emblematic figures in this “post-subject” world. There are volcanos, jellyfish, scribes, stevedores, dissenters, witnesses, even revelers, “running through streets with their arms full of streamers,” as if celebrating the collapse of the empire. Yet the presence of “the artist,” unlike the other figures, begins to feel precious, too laden with archetypal meaning: “Therefore the artist takes her brush and paints the cliffs in a way that expresses their joy.” Unlike the other figures, the artist too easily can be seen as an allegorical force for creativity.

Despite this cliché, de la Paz has created a world that consistently intrigues. Each time we believe we recognize the setting and have unlocked the mystery at the heart of the letters, the language unravels our certainty. Though the book sounds grimly post-apocalyptic—“there is no food” and “the machines are at our gate”—the overall effect of Post Subject: A Fable is wonder.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015