Tag Archives: spring 2024


Alexis Wright
New Directions ($22.95)

by Simon Webster

In the opening pages of Praiseworthy, the latest novel by Australian author Alexis Wright, we meet Cause Man Steel, a raving dreamer performing his anxieties for the “clergy-oriented” people of the titular town. Cause—variously referred to as Widespread, for the breadth of his ideas, and Planet, for their cosmic nature—is a step ahead of the game. These are “cataclysmic times,” he preaches, but Praiseworthy people are survivors with “a sovereign world view.” The choir has heard this one before, but Cause is offering more than survival; he promises the townspeople they will “ride straight through the century on the back of the burning planet” and live to tell the tale.

The catastrophe that sets Cause in motion is a haze “full of broken ancestors breathing . . . virus air.” As the haze settles over Praiseworthy, the townspeople try everything to banish it:  They punch at it, play it Dvořák and Bach, lobby for its Constitutional exclusion. They curse it. They build a giant hologram scarecrow. They appeal to God and to the white government—Hail Marys and a Hail Mary. Resigned to its permanence, they promote it as a tourist attraction.

Eventually, the haze splits, metastasizing in the lungs of Ice Pick, the town’s mayor—a “rhapsodically self-proclaimed king of orators.” Possessed by the haze, Ice becomes “obsessed by whiteness”—his skin, even his eyeballs, turn white, and he covers his body with a “labyrinth of Casper the Ghost tattoos.” Ice warns his constituents that government help (in the form of explosives to blow up the haze) will never arrive if they “do not assimilate and be white,” and—with an eye on the upcoming election—promises to build “the new Praiseworthy into an all-bustling, all-glitter . . . Aboriginal world metropolis.”

But if Ice is a man of words, Cause is a man of action. Knowing that survival has always been an economic question, he looks backwards to look forwards, and decides to bet on donkeys; when global transportation systems collapse, he’ll be there with his carbon-neutral transport conglomerate. But his fleet needs a lodestar, a “Jesus donkey . . . the colour of an Apollo spaceship,” as was revealed to him in a dream. Cause feels called to greatness, like Genghis Khan, and for a few hundred pages, we follow him on his picaresque journey: Don Quixote in search of his ass.

It’s the family, of course, that suffers. Cause’s wife, Dance, has dreams too, and no “desire for being a stand-in for [him] as the social pariah of the community.” Their eldest son, Aboriginal Sovereignty—named for the words Cause most liked saying—is a seventeen-year-old amateur boxer and dancer; Tommyhawk, their youngest at eight, believes that Aboriginal parents are heartless and that all Aboriginal men are pedophiles—and acts accordingly. When his brother falls in love with his promise wife, who is only fifteen, Tommyhawk reports him, and Aboriginal Sovereignty is arrested for raping a minor.

Epic in scope, Praiseworthy is split into ten sections. The second opens with Aboriginal Sovereignty walking into the sea—“flat out disappearing into the mighty shark-infested ocean”—and continues for over a hundred pages as Tommyhawk, hiding nearby in a whale skeleton and eating a bag of chips, impatiently wills his brother on, a harrowing inversion of the story of Cain and Abel. Suicide by drowning is common in Praiseworthy, especially among the kids: “It was like a pied piper thing, somebody’s spirit coming up from the sea at night and talking rubbish to those children.” The sea has become a tomb, and fishermen involuntary “corpse hunters.” Shouldering Ecclesiastical pain, the people of Praiseworthy know that “wave after wave of their eternal tides of grief [will] end up plonking Aboriginal Sovereignty right back in the midst of the breathing heart and soul of the traditional country.”

Alexis Wright is a member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria; she grew up in Cloncurry, a small town in northwestern Queensland about a thousand miles from the capital. She published her first novel in 1997 and in the quarter-century since has written furiously about violence, cruelty, injustice, and hopelessness in a humane, generous, and hopeful manner. As in her other works, church and state loom large in Praiseworthy, and are cast against the permanence of country. There are “sixty thousand lightning bolts in every dry storm,” an allusion to the “sixty thousand year plus cultural history of Aboriginal survival.” At a slight breeze, the churches of Praiseworthy topple “like a line of dominoes.”

In all of Wright’s books, language does power’s bidding. Praiseworthy people use “God words for renovating their Dreamtime cathedrals” and know “being literate in government affirmative action jargon talk” is essential. The colonial “gaol” is retained, and signs outlining the prohibition of liquor, pornography, and pedophiles in Praiseworthy are written in English—a language ignored by the old fishing people. Yet in the face of country, language recedes:

The old men and women eternally searching for the return of Aboriginal Sovereignty were bequeathed to nothingness, other than to a consciousness of interconnectedness where relatives were all life, and further related to ancestral creators, and further related back into deep time, and across all country places of land, sea, and skies.

The impassiveness of country is total. The seagulls “never once landed on any of these signs . . . nor had a single lizard, ant, or any other animal like a snake bothered twisting itself around a government signpost.” A few pages later, thunder roars, and forks of lightening “hit every single one of the signs . . . like a circle of firecrackers lit up on a cake.”

Still, language is persistent, and in Ice Pick, word becomes flesh. “See this piece of paper? That’s me . . . You are looking at the bodily incarnate of this piece of paper. I am the Commonwealth Government of Australia’s forward plan for Praiseworthy.” For Ice, assimilation is the key, and he implores his constituents to leave grief behind and embrace figures, multiplication, economics; follow him into the future and he will “make the ark pure again.” Aboriginal Sovereignty is the ultimate target:

He was being personified by the imagination of the nation-state, the dull dirty lens of Australian folk law. Yep! He was the ethnological story. He fed the hunger. Fattened the mudslinger’s narrative of racial vilification. He was the paedophile savage. You know what happens when you throw enough mud? Hallelujah! . . . The national narrative strengthened at the total cost of billions of dollars to hold back the tide of black justice through a simple illusion of fear, the dreaded uprising of the soul, the spirit of black savages attacking Australian domesticity. Nothingness achieved again, and again. Where was the light? Where was the flame to see the way?

Praiseworthy, a big novel in every sense, ranges from deep in the sea to the “dusty rivers of stars in the Milky Way” as well as across time and “through all the known spatial realities.” There are references to Borges and Calvino, Kafka and Krasznahorkai, as well as to a Waanyi language dictionary, Livy’s History of Rome, the operas of Belshazzar and Offenbach, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Donne and Shakespeare, Greek, Chinese, and Japanese mythologies, pop culture high and low, various oral traditions, and the Bible, again and again. It’s not tidy, and that’s the point—because it contains all of country, the “atmosphere, cosmos, stars, heavens, lands, seas, flora and fauna,” this latest outing from an exemplary Australian writer refutes domesticity and affirms sovereignty unapologetically. 

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2024 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2024

The Private Life of Lord Byron

Antony Peattie
Unbound ($45)

by Allan Vorda

Previous biographies of Lord Byron, including Leslie Marchand’s three-volume set in 1957, have seemingly covered and dissected every inch of the English poet’s fascinating and mythical life, which ended when he was only thirty-six. In the introduction to The Private Life of Lord Byron, Antony Peattie tells us to expect something completely different.

Recent studies of Byron have focused on his bisexuality, but Peattie investigates “two other areas (which may be related to one another): his intermittent eating disorder and his obsession with fatherhood.” Peattie’s unique approach draws on less-studied biographical facts—for example, that Byron suffered from bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa: “Considering his diet, what he ate, what he didn’t eat, when and why, yields insights into Byron’s love life and his intentions in his masterpiece, Don Juan.” Peattie tracks some of the reasons why Byron dieted, including battles with his obese mother, a misshapen foot that required him to walk with a metal plate in his boot, a prescription from a physician for a daily diet of six biscuits and soda water, and his relentless romantic and sexual pursuits. 

Byron’s issues with his father were complicated. He rarely saw Captain “Mad Jack” Byron, who was often at sea; when on land, he was a womanizer and gambler. He left his wife and three-year-old Byron for France to escape creditors before dying at thirty-five. From a young age, Byron began to follow in his father’s footsteps; the same habits landed him similarly in debt. He felt he inherited his father’s traits and that he was “predestined to evil.” Part of this thinking was drilled into him by his mother, whose Scottish Calvinism endorsed “predestination, man’s innate depravity and his hereditary taint.” Byron also learned that his particular heritage included “a long tradition of dissipation, incest, rampant promiscuity, decadence, murder and unbridled debauchery.”

Some of those family prophecies came true; Peattie traces Byron’s wide range of trysts that gained him a kind of infamy. Byron’s first sexual experience was being seduced at age nine by his nanny; at Trinity College a decade later, he became involved with a younger student, John Edleston: “I certainly love him more than any human being, & neither time or Distance have had the least effect on my (in general) changeable Disposition.”

Edleston died at age twenty-two from consumption, and Byron’s sexual conquests quickly escalated. After graduating from Trinity, he did a Grand Tour of Europe, during which he had numerous affairs. Upon his return, he published two cantos of poetry, titled Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which sold out in three days. He was only twenty-four.

Once Byron achieved fame, his affairs were countless. There was Lady Caroline, who stated, famously, that Byron was “mad—bad—and dangerous to know”; his niece Mary Chaworth; his half-sister Augusta Leigh; Annabella Milbanke, whom he married and who bore his only legitimate child; Claire Clairmont, stepsister of Mary Shelley, who bore his daughter; the Italian women Marianna Segati and Margarita Cogni; the nineteen-year-old Countess Teresa Guiccioli; the Maids of Athens (three sisters who were under the age of fifteen); fourteen-year-old Nicolo Giraud, whom Byron hired as an Italian tutor; and many others—and those are just the ones whose names we know. By the time Byron turned thirty, Peattie writes, the poet was “determined to make the most of his time for sex and for writing—the two activities were now closely linked in his mind.” Don Giovanni claimed 640 conquests; Byron is estimated to have had around one thousand sexual encounters.

Byron composed his epic poem Don Juan in Italy from 1819-24. Consisting of seventeen cantos and 1,950 stanzas, the mock epic poem shows Don Juan not as a womanizer, but as a sexual victim. When it was published, it was considered the greatest poem since Milton’s Paradise Lost.

In the final chapter in his life, Byron, wanting to achieve some glory like his hero Napoleon, decided to try to help the Greeks wrest their freedom from the Ottoman Empire. He went to Missolonghi to train some Christian Albanian troops and was ready to go into battle when he became ill. His doctor performed a blood-letting that he claimed “cured Byron’s ‘attack of epilepsy’ by drawing off ‘four pounds of blood’, half the total in his body.” During this time, Byron adhered to his strict diet, which compounded his illness, then decided to train his five hundred soldiers on horseback when he “was ‘caught in a shower.’” Byron came down with a cold and the doctor performed a second blood-letting, but after becoming delirious, Byron died on April 19, 1824 at age thirty-six.

Two congratulations must be given for The Private Life of Lord Byron. The first is to author Antony Peattie for offering such a unique insight into Byron’s life regarding his eating disorder—not to mention delving into numerous other aspects of the poet’s life from Satanism to Shelley, and discussing numerous poems and plays with aplomb. The other goes to British publisher Unbound for making the book such an extravagant and elegant production: Its 586 pages include amazing photographs, paintings, and sketches rendered in extraordinary color, and there is even an old-style ribbon bookmark sewn in. Everything is exquisite about this book.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2024 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2024

Mixtape Poetics: An Interview with Alicia Cook

photo credit Patience Randle

by Gerardo Del Guercio

Alicia Cook is that rare creature in the world of poetry publishing: an author who has had books become bestsellers and poems go viral online. Earlier this year she released the third and final installment to her “mixtape” series, The Music Was Just Getting Good ($16.99), following 2016’s Stuff I’ve Been Feeling Lately and 2020’s Sorry I Haven’t Texted You Back as well as a poetry collection not in the series, I Hope My Voice Doesn’t Skip (2018); all have been published by Andrews McMeel, an industry giant. Her writing is known for how it compassionately takes up themes of trauma and grief, and she is a passionate activist in the battle against the opioid epidemic, writing essays and speaking publicly to shed light on how drug addiction affects the mental health of entire families. Also an aspiring songwriter, Cook holds an MBA from Saint Peter’s University and a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Georgian Court University; she lives with her family in New Jersey.

Gerardo Del Guercio: Let’s start with the basics: What is it that draws you to writing?

Alicia Cook: Writing was always my “safe space.” Even from a young age, it’s how I worked things out—made sense of my head. To this day, it is a way I can control my own narrative in a world built on perceptions and assumptions. It’s a way I can connect to people who may be a few steps behind me and help them feel less alone and more understood.

GDG: Like your first two books, The Music Was Just Getting Good is designed as a cassette mixtape. Tell us more about how and why you use this format. Was there something specific that set it off?

AC: Format-wise, I’ve divided The Music Was Just Getting Good into two parts; “Side A” holds ninety-two poems, titled as “tracks,” and “Side B” holds the “remixes,” which are blackout-poetry versions of those ninety-two poems. And there are other touches to the mixtape theme I lean into as well. I’m trying to create a more immersive experience than just sitting down and reading a book.

In the new collection, I’ve returned to the themes of mental health, hope, and grief. Grief isn’t confined to death alone. We grieve for who we used to be, for moments that never found their way into existence, for the physical places that hold our memories, and most profoundly, for our people—those who’ve departed earth, but also those who walked away and those we had to let go. It’s a profound exploration of the multifaceted nature of loss and transformation.

The poem that put this particular book into motion is the title poem, which I purposely put as the final poem in the book. The title comes from a line in a memorial card poem I wrote for my aunt, who unexpectedly passed away after a brief but brutal cancer diagnosis. But again, I’ve always been very aware that grief is not a linear experience, nor does it have a cure, so The Music Was Just Getting Good tries to examine grief in all its forms, not just death.

GDG: What artists have influenced your writing the most?

AC: From a poetry standpoint, I really respect Mary Oliver, Sylvia Plath, and Poe. They all, especially Plath and Poe, found a simple way to deconstruct the busy mind, and their openness about their own manic behavior struck a chord with me. The book that solidified my decision to pursue writing, though, was The Lovely Bones; my mother, an avid reader, recommended it to me and I can sincerely say it changed my life.

Songwriters that influence how I see and hear words are Leonard Cohen (though he’s both a literary poet and a songwriter), Kacey Musgraves, Amy Winehouse, Bright Eyes, Julia Michaels, Mac Miller, Taylor Swift, Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Jason Isbell, Tom Petty . . . the list goes on. I can talk for hours about music; it has been a lifeline for me.

An artist I always especially admired is Aaliyah—how she fiercely protected her private life and was well ahead of her time. If you listen to her last record from 2001, it holds up; it doesn’t sound dated. I try to emulate that by keeping current references and fads out of my writing so it can still be understood by future readers. You will never see me write “I got into an Uber”; I’ll use the more generic “taxi” or “cab.” Now, that might be a terrible example because Uber might replace taxi and cab in our lexicon entirely, but you see what I mean—I don’t mention pop culture or anything that might be fleeting.

GDG: This is a good segue to talking about your creative process. How does a poem start for you—with an image, a line, a narrative, or in some other way?

AC: An academic once described my work as an “over confessional style,” and I think that is about right. People who read my work know that it is personal; somewhere along the line I learned that the more detailed I get, the more universal it becomes. It’s fun to see how my writing is interpreted by readers.

In terms of starting, there is a poem titled “Springtime in the Cemetery” in my second book, I Hope My Voice Doesn’t Skip; the line that sparked this poem came from my father, who had come to Easter dinner covered in dirt because it had been raining and he still went to plant flowers at the graves of his buried loved ones. He said, “It’s not really Easter until you visit your dead.” I thought that was one of the most poignant things I had ever heard—it became the last line of that poem.

My creative process is something I have tried to explain many times, and each time I fail miserably. But maybe most creative people can’t describe how something “hits” them. It always changes. Sometimes it flows out all at once; other times it will just be an idea, or a line, that I then continue to revisit and build upon until I feel like it’s complete. Since I began writing songs, I have begun to think more in rhyme, and voice memos have become my new best friend these last two years.

GDG: What about the titles? Do you first compose a piece and then title it, or do you come up with the title first?

AC: I always title last, if at all. I like when titles give another dimension, or act as an extension, to the piece. For example, I once titled a poem “What I Wanted to Say That Night in the Shower” that I hope added another level of vulnerability to the poem.

GDG: And to follow up on your mention of songwriting: How is your poetry related to music? 

AC: All my poetry collections are tied to music: each comes with its own playlists. At the end of each poem is a “currently listening to” song listed. To me, there is no difference between a beautifully written song and a gut-wrenching poem. I listen to certain singers for the same reason some people read my work: to feel something. We are all just storytellers.

I was watching A Star is Born, and Bradley Cooper’s character says, “Look, talent comes everywhere, but having something to say and a way to say it so that people listen to it, that’s a whole other bag.” That rang so true to me, I wanted to clap.

As I have grown in my craft, I have paid closer attention to meter, rhyme, cadence, and form. Not every poem benefits from these musical properties, which is a wonderful thing about the fluidity of poetry, but some really do.

GDG: We are nearly a quarter of the way through the 21st century. In your opinion, what is the current state of American poetry?

AC: Some critics may feel that we modern writers have mutilated the sanctity of poetry, but I just don’t agree. With any medium, it’s a mixed bag, but there are many authentic, talented people who came up through social media and have helped breathe new life into the art form. And we are selling books. People are reading them, purchasing physical books, reviewing them, taking photos of them, and connecting with people all over the world who love the same thing: reading. It’s a beautiful community.

GDG: What are your plans for the future?

AC: I hope to continue writing. All I want to do is help people work out how they feel, because as crowded as it is, the world can be a very lonely place. I know what’s it like to feel isolated and excluded. I want to continue to use my platform to advocate for families affected by drug addiction. And I want to keep growing, so though it is bittersweet, I am ready to put the mixtape series to rest and enter the next phase of my career.

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The Cheapest France in Town

Seo Jung Hak
Translated by Megan Sungyoon
World Poetry ($20)

by John Bradley

“The value of this book is, at present, the same as the lowest online-exclusive price for a half box of thirty Shin instant noodles,” deadpans Seo Jung Hak in his introduction to The Cheapest France in Town, a collection of prose poems. Even before reading a single poem, the reader has entered Seo’s world of the absurd. The author gleefully takes apart logic in the thirty-four poems (and a foldout poem) in this subversive bilingual edition.

For those who believe that the prose poem has been thoroughly explored, many surprises await. One innovation of Seo’s is to offer two versions of the same prose poem: “There’s Nothing Between Us” and “There’s Nothing Between Barns” appear on the same page, the texts almost identical—but wherever the first uses the word “barn,” the second uses “us.” For example, “The scent of lilac seeping into our faces sent the barn up in flames” in the first becomes “The scent of lilac seeped into our face sent us up in flames” in the second. Such a small change, with a tense shift, produces surreal results.

Even more innovative is the foldout poem at the back of the book that makes a small box (or rather two boxes—one in Korean and one in English). Seo’s obsession with boxes, those reliable tools of consumerism, becomes literal here as the reader is given the opportunity to construct their very own paper box adorned with poetry. One box fold reads: “If you order online, / two copies of the / book / with / his awkward smile / will be delivered / in a paper box.” As Seo enjoys satirizing familiar enticements, he is not above subverting even the title of a poem, that sacrosanct entity so vital to the reader; the title “You’re Necessities” plays with “your” and “you’re,” a distinction that bedevils many English speakers.

Not content with subverting prose poem expectations and language conventions, Hak also problematizes punctuation, mainly by violating the proper use of the comma. While the reader may at first believe these odd commas are typos, Megan Sungyoon points out deeper resonances in her translator’s note: “even an element as small as a comma can completely undermine the sentence structure, catapulting us into unfamiliar syntax.” Here are a few examples of those “catapulting” commas: “You become, a tree,” “The highlight, of the conference was mispronouncing a word,” and “Where is, everyone.” One of the poem titles even includes a comma, “Quite,”—aptly demonstrating how nothing is off limits to Seo.

While there are many references to France in this book, Seo appears to be influenced less by the French Surrealists than by a writer from Prague—Franz Kafka. It would not seem out of place if we were told that Joseph K in The Trial had this experience: “When he opened his lunch he saw the word ‘freedom’ written in black beans.” Unlike Kafka, though, Seo focuses not only on the absurdity of the situation, but on language itself. Noticing the dangerous lunch of their fellow office worker, his colleagues come to his rescue: “By the fast and precise chopsticks of the colleagues, the beans disappeared one bean at a time so ‘freedom’ was turned ‘freed’ and then ‘feed’ and then ‘fed’ and then ‘fd’ and then was completely gone.” Once again, Seo uses humor to resolve the conflict: “one of the colleagues farted once as the price of digesting ‘freedom.’”

Given the challenges of translating such a non-conventional poet, Megan Sungyoon deserves much acclaim. Not only does she maintain clarity despite Seo’s odd diction and non-standard punctuation, she also captures his strange and utterly unique playfulness. Who else but Seo would compare writing a poem to “spitting a seed out of your mouth—phut”?

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2024 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2024

Public Abstract

Jane Huffman
The American Poetry Review ($16)

by Erick Verran

Like a Purcell aria, Jane Huffman’s poetry is plaintive, formally numb, and indefatigably self-pitying. Early in Public Abstract, Huffman introduces “my brother death,” the Thanatos to her Hypnos: “Held the broom / Of sleep // Between / My teeth // Until I slept,” she mutters (and readers might note the cover art, Albrecht Dürer’s Pillow Studies).  Recalling the ill lungs with which it begins, this debut collection is by turns caught up short in shallow brushstrokes and morbidly expansive:

I am under-interpreting my symptoms, the doctor says. My interpretation can no longer be trusted. I’m seated in a glass spirometry machine. On one monitor, green lines tick against a dark backdrop. On another, a cursor draws roulettes. It will feel like you’re breathing with your mouth against a brick wall, the doctor says. Air buckles behind my lips. So in love with interpretation, I’m blue in the face from kissing it.

Though koans abound—a goldfish pond, for instance, “Is mostly water / Little gold in it at all / Despite its name”—haibun, which combines narrative prose with haiku, is the main attraction. Haibun was invented in the late 1700s by Bashō during a months-long journey through the Japanese hinterland, as recounted in his travelogue The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Huffman, trapped somewhere between agoraphobia (“with the curl / of my ear to the door”) and invalidism (“Mortified to move / My body through // The world // In the way / That it demands”), keeps to the country of her emotional interior, sketching poems that would fit onto envelope paper.

Like Emily Dickinson, who is echoed here, Huffman is neither straightforward nor deliberately cryptic, but rather mysteriously honest. Dickinson, though, for all her proto-modernity, was never this recursive (“I was / small and dizzying. I was dizzy. I rode / in small and dizzying circles”—here she sounds more like Robert Creeley or John Taggart). Huffman’s wish to thank literally everyone in the book’s end pages—university administrators, a twelfth-century troubadour, the family dogs—is perhaps unconsciously snobbish, while in her more maximalist mode she can slip into scholastic preoccupation, as prose experimenters are wont to do:

In the first translation is a hammering. “Should”—a moral judgment. An oiled object laid bare on a linen bed. “Shouldn’t” tied around the “should” with butcher’s string.

In the second, a yip, a certainty, desperate in its forwardness. “Where could?” as if the possible eluded him. To boot, denied its final mark. The thought falling from “Where could?” like rain from a cloud, a vanishing source.

This has all the verve of a dissertation. The more finished poems, labeled revisions or fragments, are the more successful; and when a “failed” sestina abruptly breaks off, like the fugue Bach died writing, the reader lurches after its absence.

Evincing stylistic kinship with Language poets such as Rae Armantrout, Huffman’s instruction, though cold as doctrine, consistently fascinates for its willingness to teeter at the edge of sense; we find her weeping “into the zenith of a rose,” a kiln is said to be “thinking itself warm.” This is impressive, given that the book ultimately concerns the rippling effects of her sibling’s addiction (much like Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec). In the penultimate section, Huffman’s topical absorption reveals itself to be deceptively extempore. One paragraph hides a sad vocabulary drawn from pregnancy, including tied fallopian tubes, the question of viability, and a metal pail. Another rhymes with drowsy lethargy:

I wrote a play, out cold in urgent care. Heated blankets toweling my sweated hair. When staged, the actress playing Mother held a wicker broom for acts two and three, with which she beat and beat the rug—a heavy tapestry rolled across the deck. It jumped with fleas—a cast of tiny specks that leapt with urgent hunger as she swept. Lucidly, I slept. I always do, when in duress (no escape from the world of the page). So I wondered how I would create the effect on stage — what props and practical effects—and who would clean up the mess?

With their diminutive, hardened fragility, there is something a bit Glass Menagerie about Huffman’s poems; and though Public Abstract also feels cobbled together, it coheres with greater sureness than many first collections of poetry. To avoid the pitfalls of the merely cerebral—intelligence for the hell of it—there’s no denying that the live wire of a poem must be grounded in the truth. But truth, with apologies to Keats (and to Huffman, who quotes from “Ode on a Grecian Urn”), isn’t beauty ipso facto. Without invention, the unadorned horror of what happened, like one might overhear in a waiting room, will be “private as a runny nose” and as interesting. What so often disappoints about artistic suffering is its obviousness, the way it leans on grief at half the craft. Huffman, however, allows hurt to knock everywhere, to come out with things plainly, in this enviably wise debut. The language countermands—“The lie is that today I want to die”—and this gives life its shape.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2024 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2024

Death Prefers the Minor Keys

Sean Thomas Dougherty
BOA Editions ($17)

by Nick Hilbourn

The poems in Sean Thomas Dougherty’s Death Prefers the Minor Keys offer a meditation on life, death, and grieving. Languages undulate through the book, whether braille, Hebrew, or the asemic scribblings of his daughter: “I try to read the secret hieroglyphics. What does this say, I ask our daughter. She says, ‘It is a new language I have invented but it is still teaching me how to read it.’” These languages create a kind of divination to communicate with the world of the dead, as revealed in the collection’s final work, where Dougherty writes: “You are my nation. I only wanted to write poems to save you.”

Each poem seeks a language equipped to transgress the boundaries of the mortal world—especially the strange space that we inhabit with loved ones who have passed. To address that boundary, Dougherty redraws the meanings of intimacy and presence. Absence becomes the highest form of intimacy, or what one poem calls the “true shape of love,” and is able to rupture barriers of time and mortality and redefine human relationships in the process.

Dougherty also reimagines language as a veil through which our dead pass and are subsequently reimagined. In “Fugue Written on Unpaid Medical Bill and the Backs of Old Menus,” the poet transforms into a heron and follows a fish swimming below the water’s surface, trying to “find a language to translate . . . the ripples of the veil. Ginsberg said he wanted to do with language what Cezanne did with paint: to capture light on objects.” Between the transformation into the heron and the identification with its prey, Dougherty moves beyond a discourse on grieving and into a mythos of it, postulating that communication between the two worlds is not only possible but necessary.

Death Prefers the Minor Keys eventually translates this life-death relationship into musical terms: If the living are the major keys in a musical scale, the dead are the minor keys, the notes that construct blues and jazz. Music saturated with the dichotomy of loss and gain, as Dougherty might say, keeps us in touch with the dead. In “The Dead Who Return as Animals,” pets owned by the grieving are incarnated—“what we didn’t spend in this life goes inside them, and then they find their people again, that light guides them”—and absence is a “leash of longing we use to pull them back to us, to fully receive all their unremittent tongue lapping love.” The image of light reoccurs in this poetry’s discourse of divinity as a mucilaginous substance that leaks from objects and people; the grieving self experiences life in an altered and almost ecstatic state of being.

One of the more curious elements of Death Prefers the Minor Keys is the speaker’s place in the lives of others; whether transported into a portrait in the room of a clinically ill patient or absorbed by the “miasma” of a crowd of people around him, joy becomes present when the dead and the living are most comfortable with each other. For example, in “People Ask Me if I Get Tired of Writing About Your Illness,” the poet describes the presence of his dead wife while sitting at a restaurant:

I can feel your eyes as if you are touching me. You are able to eat the asparagus with butter, the sauteed saffron chicken. We speak in the old tongue. As you talk, the couple next to us falls into a daydream of their childhoods. The waiter hears the lullaby of his dead mother. The cooks begin to sing. All my ancestors spoke impossibly difficult languages. Always your hand in the absence of your hand.

In this poem, there is not a linear passage of life to death, but a gradual realization of death’s presence in life. The scene succeeds not because it is surreal, but because it is mundane. One of the charms of Dougherty’s writing is how surreptitiously he ushers readers into such a radical perspective. A repeated phrase in this collection, “there can never be one hundred percent lack of joy,” reiterates his ultimately reconciling message: if the dead are always with us, their joy remains also.

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A Magical Monolith: An Interview with Álvaro Enrigue

photo credit Ahmed Gaber

by Allan Vorda

Álvaro Enrigue was born in Guadalajara, but at an early age, his family moved to Mexico City. His father was a lawyer; his mother, a chemist who was a war refugee from Barcelona. He received a degree in journalism from Universidad Iberoamericano and became editor of various magazines, including Vuelta, which was founded by Octavio Paz. In 1996, when he was twenty-seven, he was awarded the Joaquin Mortiz Prize for his first novel, La muerte de un instalador (Death of an Installation Artist); since then, he has published six novels, three books of short stories, and a volume of essays. Books that have been translated into English include Perpendicular Lives (Dalkey Archive Press, 2008), Hypothermia (Deep Vellum, 2013), and Sudden Death (Riverhead, 2016)—the latter a hilarious tale of a tennis match between the Italian artist Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo.

Pursuing his penchant for writing about the historical past in the most imaginative of ways, Enrigue’s latest novel is You Dreamed of Empires (Riverhead, $28); deftly translated by Natasha Wimmer, the book sets the 1519 meeting of the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés with the Aztec emperor Moctezuma in a captivating dreamscape. We discuss this new book and much more in the interview below.  

Allan Vorda: What was it like growing up in Guadalajara, and how has it and Mexico changed since then?

Álvaro Enrigue: I was born in Guadalajara, but I never lived there. When my mother’s pregnancy was arriving to term, my father, who worked as a lawyer for the local government, got a position in the Ministry of Finances of the Federal Government in Mexico City. As soon as I was born, the family moved to the capital. I am the fourth of four children, and Jorge and Maísa had been jumping from city to city in search of better opportunities since they got married, moving each time with a new kid in the car—a pale blue Rambler that kept working until the 1980s. When I was added to that car, they were masters of moving with kids, so I just lived in Guadalajara for the very few days it took them to register me.

That legendary move to Mexico City with four crazy kids was the last one. They never left and they still live there, in a little house in Coyoacán, two blocks away from the Blue House of the Kahlo family and three from Trotsky’s final address. It was a peculiar moment that left a strong mark on me. The ’70s were the apex of the National Revolutionary Party’s rule, its moment of maximum stability. A country that had been mainly rural and commodity-dependent was entering the spiral of industrialization that has made it the productive powerhouse it is now. The enormity of the oil reserves produced a strong middle class in which I grew up, bored as hell: Mexico City was already enormous, but it was also quiet, provincial, and ugly. No rock and roll for Mexico City kids—it was considered a nefarious imperial occupation strategy. Things changed, and from one night to the next morning, on January 1994, when NAFTA was implemented.

AV: What was your education like, and did your journalism experience help you as a writer of fiction and essays?

ÁE: Both of my parents were from small towns of opposite coasts. Maísa is a war refugee who arrived when she was a girl—my grandfather had escaped a few years before from a French concentration camp and arrived in Mexico thanks to the boats of President Cárdenas, whose memory we will always honor. Maísa grew up on the Gulf Coast, in a small city, back then not very different from Macondo. My father is from a small town perched in the sierras that end in the Pacific Coast. It’s named Autlán and may ring a bell for you because it is where Carlos Santana was born. They loved Mexico City—they both had gone to college there—but I think that they were also, and are still, always a bit terrified of it. It’s a city with the size and the population of a republic, after all. They sent us to Catholic schools that had connections with their hometowns.

I was very unhappy in Catholic school—discipline was brutal and the curriculum absurdly demanding for a kid that cared only for baseball and comic books—but as time passed, I ended up getting some benefits from it. Myself, as my brothers and sister, developed a strong work discipline that has kept us afloat economically. And when I arrived at college, I was already familiar with the great books of the humanist tradition, and rereading is always easier and more enriching than reading for the first time. I knew how to use a library and understood that if you don’t write well, you don’t think well. I think that we survived all right because before the first day of school, every year, my father would put us together in the living room and repeat an admonition: “Never, ever, ever, put yourselves in the situation of being alone in a room with a priest.” My father is Catholic, but he is also a realist.

Catholic school also gave another lifelong gift: I developed a love for soccer that has brought me great joy. We were coastal transplants, a baseball family, but the only thing that really mattered in Catholic school in Mexico City was soccer. For the kids, the teachers, and the priests, all was secondary to the coronation of our teams in the local tournaments. I find it the most welcoming of all sports.

Journalism was never as important to me. I never cared that much for immediate reality, but journalism landed me with decent jobs when I finished college. I’m thankful about it, but by then I already knew that I wanted to be a writer and a professor.

Your first novel, La Muerte de un Instalador (Death of an Installation Artist) won the prestigious Joaquin Mortiz Prize for fiction. Will this novel and your other works currently available only in Spanish ever be translated to English?

ÁE: I don’t know, and I don’t care that much. I’m not sure I would like my old books if I read them. Of course, publishing stuff is always exciting, and the little money I make with the novels is always welcome—now it’s me who has four children. The publishing part of my work is done by incredibly generous and smart people. They know their trade and, if someone asks, I will have to sit down and read the work again before saying yes or no.

What does a typical day of writing entail for you?

ÁE: I write in the mornings—first by hand in specific notebooks, always using the same kind of pens. Every day I use a different ink color because, once I begin to pass that first very messy original to the computer, the different colors feel like a compass. And it gives me a sensation of moving forward: a bunch of pages, a bunch of days. In the early stages of a book, I just write for a few hours a day: in a café, in a library, in a park, but never at home. Most of my last three novels and the essay book I’m working on now have been written between the New York Public Library and the legendary Hungarian Pastry Shop on Amsterdam Ave. I tend to be the stay-at-home parent even when I go twice a week to the university, so my professional days are short and my afternoons with the children are splendid. When I move on to the word processor, I can keep working for an undefined number of hours—the real literary writing happens for me in that stage. But again, it is never eight or ten hours; there are children, errands, cooking; splendid afternoons.

How does the reception of your writing differ between Spanish speaking countries and the U.S.?

ÁE: Reception is a mystery for me. There is the fuss about a book when it comes out, which in the U.S. tends to be enormous because the relations between the publishing industry and the media interested in literature are more intense than in any other place. That’s always impressive for me: I am still the boy from Coyoacán, and it was not in my horoscope that I would be sitting down signing books in a bookstore in San Francisco or Edinburgh, or that a New York Times critic would pay any attention to my work. Then again, twice a year, there are the usually depressing sales reports—except in Germany, which is another mystery. I never sell enough books to pay for the timid advances I get for my manuscripts. Critics in all languages tend to be very generous with my work—something I am not. I feel like an impostor, but I suppose everybody does.

Also: who reads and why? If I knew, I would be a millionaire. And what I find truly moving about my job is the opposite of fame. Once in Jaipur, India, I was having a tea and a cigarette on a beautiful terrace in the fantastic Jaipur Book Festival. I had just gone through the usual and very humiliating experience of not signing many books while next to my table were some literary superstars with enormous lines of people. A young man from Kerala came to the terrace with a pile of my books—in Spanish!—to be signed. He had made an enormous trip from South India so he could have those volumes dedicated. That morning justifies me as a writer: No matter what goes well or wrong in my career, I reached that person.

Hernán Cortés, Moctezuma, and Cuauhtemoc are some of the characters who populate Sudden Death. Were you already thinking then about using them as major characters for You Dreamed of Empires?

ÁE: No, I was not even thinking about using them in Sudden Death when they jumped into that book. I discovered late in the writing process of the novel that the patron of Francisco de Quevedo was married to one of Hernan Cortés’s grandchildren. As I was working with a fellowship of the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library, I could ask for any book I wanted and it would materialize on my desk the next day. I ended up engulfed in the story of the heirs of Cortés and they naturally moved into the story; they were the Mexican connection that the novel was missing.

 What research did you do to write You Dreamed of Empires?

ÁE: The number of books I have read about Tenochtitlan and its fall is somewhere between ridiculous and oppressive. It’s a lifelong obsession. My parents, small-town folks living in the big city, took us out of town every weekend to have some fresh air. If you live in Mexico City, some of the day trips you can take include visits to archeological sites—there are hundreds of antique complexes you can see without ever repeating.

In 1979, it was discovered that the old citadel of the Temples of Tenochtitlan was still there, and it was excavated and open to the public. I went for the first time with my school, and it just blew my mind. We were the Rome of the Americas, and we were not even aware of it! From then, I have spent my whole life reading about it, never thinking that I would ever have a use for all that knowledge. Little did I know I’d be writing a small critical book about literary production in the years of the transition between Tenochtitlan and Mexico City. I also teach a class about it.

AV: What is your opinion of Moctezuma and Cortés as leaders in real life?

ÁE: Cortés was smarter and more sophisticated than in the novel. And crueler, if you can believe it—he was an infamous, evil man. He was also a very short guy. I took out all the references to his stature in the book because it is not my job to body-shame anyone.

We don’t know much of Moctezuma, except for his physical appearance, described by various Spanish soldiers: strong, tall, with a straight nose and, strangely, curly hair. He was in an enormous crisis in 1519. After expanding the empire for a decade as the most successful tlatoani of Tenochtitlan ever, he made one bad decision after another, including not killing the invaders immediately, which alienated his allies. When Cortés arrived, he knew that the Triple Alliance that controlled the empire from central Mexico was crumbling and used that information to his advantage.

Did Moctezuma in real life consume magic mushrooms like he does in your novel? If so, did this contribute to his becoming an ineffectual leader?

ÁE: Yes and no. Yes, because the religious practices in Mesoamerica involved the consumption of hallucinogenic substances, and before being emperor, Moctezuma was the supreme priest of Tezcatlipoca. But the relationship to drugs of the indigenous people of central Mexico is completely different than ours. It’s heavily ritualized and responds to specific disciplines. It’s not something you do for recreation, or to tolerate the difficulties of life, but to access a different stage in your relationship with the material world.

You depict Moctezuma marrying his sister Atotoztli—did this happen in reality? When Moctezuma was captured it was said he had one hundred children and that fifty of his wives and concubines were pregnant. What do you know about Moctezuma’s wives and children?

ÁE: Atotoztli and Jazmín Caldera, whom I see as the main characters of the novel, are completely fictitious. Moctezuma had many concubines, and they all were princesses from the other altepemealtepetl in the plural—the equivalent of a nationality in old Mexico, something between a republic and a city-state. He had a first wife who ruled next to him, survived him, became an important entrepreneur and political figure in New Spain, and whose children were the royal family.

After the fall of Tenochtitlan all the children were taken to Spain and their descendants became part of the Spanish nobility. Some of Moctezuma’s progeny returned to Mexico where they continue to be a prominent family. For example, the current Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. is a Moctezuma, as is the most important living archeologist of Mexico, Eduardo Matos Moctezuma. When I was a teenager, I was in love with one Moctezuma girl, but she didn’t have any interest in me. There is a legend I like about a Mexican empress who ruled alone just before Moctezuma’s father was named emperor. The legend says that she was named Atototztli. I took her name because I love how it sounds.

You also describe how Caldera puts on a breechcloth—how did you research this topic?

ÁE: A big part of the novel was written during the pandemic, so we had left New York and were living in a tiny house that the Argentinian poet Lilia Zamborain lent to us on Shelter Island. On one of those really slow rainy mornings of the Long Island summer, I found a set of instructions to wear a breechcloth on a fashion site online. Bored as I was, I practiced with the bedsheets. I was very unsuccessful. It was impossible to keep it on for more than a few minutes, but it was not a total loss of time. My appearance was so hilarious that I provided my wife with tons of ammunition to laugh about me for days. It was a period when having something to laugh about was priceless.

AV: When Caldera shaves and cuts his hair, has he already made up his mind to stay in Tenochtitlan. By changing his appearance to assimilate, does he become a different person with a different identity?

ÁE: That’s for the reader to decide, but he sure tries. Caldera is a one hundred per cent imaginary character, but that doesn’t mean that he is an impossible character in the period. Cultural adaptability and open sexualities were more common in the 16th century than in the 19th or early 20th centuries. Many forms of kinship, extinct today, demanded a fluidity unthinkable in modern life: Only very rich and noble people had private beds, most jobs demanded the separation of families for long periods, and the known world was expanding like crazy. Thus, adaptation to change was an essential tool for survival. The historical Gerónimo de Aguilar, Cortés’s translator to Mayan, decided to go European again, as did Álvar Cabeza de Vaca, both after a long period living as Indigenous Americans, but many others never returned and even fought against the occupation of the continent. Gonzalo Guerrero, who was a friend of Aguilar, stayed with his Maya wife and children and died defending his adoptive land dressed up as a Maya warrior.

Your work is highly metafictional; you begin one chapter, “If Jazmín Caldera had existed, if he had crossed the threshold into the throne room of Axayacatl’s Old Houses at almost five in the afternoon on November 8, 1519, he would have seen before him . . .” What went into your decision to inform the reader Caldera is a fictional character in what some might call a historical novel, and what was your main reason for creating him?

ÁE: I don’t think that I write historical fiction at all. In this novel I worked with historical archives to generate literary fiction in the tradition of Latin American literature of the fantastic: Juan Rulfo, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Juan José Arreola, just to name the best of them. And I don’t believe in the need to suspend credibility to read or write fiction—I think that is a 19th-century superstition. Caldera’s function in the novel is to provide a more modern point of view for contrast. He understands that the cost of the imperial expansion of Spain was too high: the original population of the Americas was reduced to ten percent during the first 100 years of occupation. It’s the worst war crime ever, after the annihilation of the Neanderthals, I suppose.

AV: You write: “Jazmín Caldera, who has to be a learned conquistador—like Hernán Cortés or, to a lesser extent, the surgeon Bernal Díaz—for this novel to work, would have admired the geometric design of the citadel.” This authorial intrusion is very interesting. Can you comment on why you used this technique?

ÁE: Contemporary architects leave a register of how buildings were originally when they remodel them. I think that writers can leave registers of how they wrote in the final version of their works.

AV: The paragraph begun with the sentence in the previous question continues as follows:

He would have seen it not as a proliferation of towers, which was how his European contemporaries saw it, but as an emblem or a contemplative vision—which is what it was. From the weighty base to the temples built on top, the structures were architectural variations on descent and ascent; on the passage from the earthly to the aerial. They were like stairways, up which mass was shed on the way to the plane of the gods. Only priests and their sacrificial victims went up these stairs, and to ascend the temple was to lose all earthliness until abandoning oneself in the paroxysm of death. When bodies rolled down the steps it was without their hearts, deadweight.

Juxtaposing beauty and death, this beautiful paragraph serves not only as an example of the quality of your writing, but as a metaphor for the Aztec empire. Why were the Aztecs so brilliant in so many ways (architecture, astrology, etc.), but also immersed in consumptive sacrificial bloodshed?

Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, who directed the excavations of the Main Temple of Tenochtitlan in Mexico City, wrote a beautiful essay about that subject titled Muerte a filo de obsidiana—sadly, it has not been entirely translated into English. As gory as it feels to us, human sacrifice made sense for many cultures—not only in the Americas. The Mexica truly believed that dying on the sacrificial stone was a way of giving life to the world. It was a desirable form of death because it produced the best possible afterlife, and the moment of death itself was softened by ritual and the consumption of hallucinogenics. To die on the battleground in England or Spain was much more horrid, painful, and stupid.

Human sacrifice was a system meant to contend with the anarchy and miseries of war. Battles occurred only in the periods of the year in which the fields didn’t need to be attended and in places where the civil population would not be hurt. There were lunch breaks and resting time during the battles, and the idea was to capture other warriors for sacrifice, not to exterminate the whole population of the enemy city. The spectacle of a sacrifice was horrid for sure, but it limited the casualties of war to the professionals; no matter how many skulls they end up finding in the Huei Tzompantli of Tenochtitlan—the temple in which the heads of the sacrificed were displayed—they will always be fewer than the ones dispersed on the battlefield after any European mid-size conflict.

Just as you contrast Caldera’s perceptions with “how his European contemporaries saw it,” it seems your writing has an anti-European slant. Does this reflect strong feelings among contemporary Mexicans?

ÁE: The occupation of the Americas is still a big issue in Mexico that generates enormous polemics. And what I stated in Sudden Death is real: No one ever visits the tomb of Hernán Cortés in the Iglesia de Jesús in Mexico City—not even by mistake. There are no statues of him or streets with his name. I find that much more reasonable—and less sad—than the way in which Americans have embraced their invaders with no questions, as if to be a second-class European was a desirable destiny. That is disturbingly disrespectful of the wonderful, enormous, rich, and deliriously diverse rock that is our continent.

Spanish conquistadores destroyed the tzompantli (skull racks) five hundred years ago, which is estimated to have been home to forty thousand skulls. You describe the tzompantli as a “formal reflection on the foundations of any system of religious thought: We don’t last.” What a remarkably cogent proposition—can you elaborate?

ÁE: Not really: We don’t last and that’s the problem. It’s an essential flaw in our design.

AV: In 2015, archaeologists uncovered a new section of the Tower of Human Skulls; it now has over six hundred. What can you tell us about the tzompantli? Have you seen it?

ÁE: I saw it. Raul Barrera, the chief archeologist of Mexico City, took me there in what could be the best day of my life. I had been trying to reach him for a long time without success and in the end I sent him, hopelessly, the manuscript I was finishing correcting. He answered on August 11, 2021—the date is unforgettable because it was two days ahead of the 500th anniversary of the Fall of Tenochtitlan. He said: “I read your novel; you have some of the buildings placed wrongly. The politicians are not letting us work with the damned commemoration of the five centuries. Why don’t you come to Tenochtitlan tomorrow?” It was as if he had a pass for a time travel train.

And he does. Under all those beautiful baroque palaces of downtown Mexico City, there is now a system of iron pillars, and they are slowly bringing out the city of Moctezuma in the underground: the buildings, the streets, the temples. It’s so impressive. I think that some of the underground halls are open for visitors now.

Barrera’s main contribution to Mexica Archeology is the discovery of the tzompantli, which they will be excavating for a long time. When we got there, we were standing on the balcony from which the tourists would see it. He got excited talking about it and said: “That’s what we will let the people see, but come with me,” and we jumped into an actual street of Tenochtitlan. “Take off your shoes,” he said, “and follow me.” I walked through a street of Tenochtitlan, one that may have supported the golden sandals of Moctezuma, and I got to stand in front of the columns of skulls that you can see only in pictures. Of course, I had to rewrite many chunks of the novel; again, we don’t last.

Switching gears, you convey a fable of sorts about the ant when Tlilpotonqui (the mayor of Tenochtitlan) is talking to Cuauhtemoc (the general) and Atotoxtli (the sister-wife-princess of Moctezuma) about who made a call to arms without his knowing about it; you write : “The general and the princess shrugged, but their manner somehow suggested it wasn’t a display of ignorance, but a plea for him to understand something unsaid.” Is the ant a metaphor for something unsaid?

ÁE: The story of the ant characterizes Tlilpotonqui as a person who doesn’t give a shit about the mythology taught at school. We tend to think about people from the past as fanatic believers in silly stories. It’s one of the many ways of infantilizing Indigenous American civilizations: They believed in weird gods, so they were providentially defeated by Europeans who believed in the One True God. But of course, mythology is a literary form, a series of narrations whose function is to give a common background to a society: I can read and reread with enormous pleasure the Gospels or the Book of Job and understand their social importance and wisdom without believing in their divine origin. Tlilpotonqui, however, doesn’t even remember the story of the ant; for him it is just a children’s story. By the end of the book, Moctezuma (the better strategist, no matter how distracted, depressed, or high he is) teaches him an important lesson: it doesn’t matter if the ant story is real or not, what matters is that its power as a metaphor is enormous.

Your depiction of the Nahua translator Malinalli is riveting. Cortés makes Malinalli live with him as his concubine so he can have her at the ready to translate, yet while she can understand what the conquistadors are saying, she translates only what is in her best interest. A fascinating and tough woman, she is even able to keep her dislike of the uncouth Cortés to herself. Can you elaborate on her as both a fictional and historical figure? I have read elsewhere that some Mexicans consider her a traitor.

ÁE: The interpretation of the figure of Malinalli as a traitor has lost a lot of gas in the last forty or fifty years, thanks primarily to female historians—some working in Mexico, others in universities elsewhere. When Malinalli was forcibly united to the party of Hernán Cortés, there was not such a thing as them and us. There was not even a word for “Indigenous people”; they were all in the Cem-Anahuac—the continent, the world—and that was it. It was the Europeans who began to see themselves as different than the people of the Americas, and that happened decades later. The Nahuatl word for local people, which means “us from here,” didn’t appear until the end of the 16th century.

And Malinalli, of course, could not know that these strange pink guys with guns and horses would eventually produce the worst genocide in history; they were just a small band of eccentrics in the enormous tapestry of a very populated world. She was a destitute princess who saw a chance to regain her power, and she did, not knowing the cost the people of the Americas would pay for it.

It’s important to state that I am not saying anything new. I worked with the ideas and research of many others to try to recreate this enigmatic character that has been fascinating and elusive to me for years.

A hallmark of your literary style is that you frequently have multiple characters digressing in alternating paragraphs. Are there difficulties in trying to write like this?
You have no idea how much I work to produce simultaneity in my books without using the word “meanwhile.” I don’t use it because the reality doesn’t work that way. There are no meanwhiles in life; there is only this simultaneous action that we try to capture with language. It’s like quotation marks, which I see as a lazy solution that ruins the sensation of fluidity that conversations have. They are painfully artificial.

In your telling, Moctezuma could have killed Cortés and his men, but he wanted to learn more about the animals he calls “deer without antlers”—horses. If this is true, why didn’t Moctezuma attack when he could have?

ÁE: It’s the idea that sustains the novel, but I don’t know. The nations from the Americas that adopted the horse survived well into the 19th century. In You Dream of Empires, the historical mystery of why Moctezuma let the Spaniards get all the way to the city—and form associations with groups that resented the rule of Tenochtitlan—is addressed by the fact that he sees the military potential of horses (which admittedly makes it even less of a good idea to let them into the city). But that thing of the “deer without antlers,” which Moctezuma says with irony in the novel, is a lie designed to portray the people of the Americas as children. When the Spaniards arrived at what is today Veracruz, horses had been already killed and their dead bodies studied by Mayas and Totonacs, so the Mexica knew perfectly well that they were a different animal. The Nahua word “cahuayo,” which comes from the Spanish “caballo,” was used all the way up to the Spanish-Mexican war; it was the Spaniards who later spoke about the antlers thing, never the indigenous people.

AV: Horses were later critical for Cortés in the Battle of Otumba. This is a battle most U.S. citizens do not know about, but didn’t it change the course of Mexican history?

It changed the course of world history. It changed even the weather; so many people were killed or died of the plague in the Americas after the battle of Otumba that the planet became considerably colder.

You know the story, but I will retell it for your readers. After an eight-month stay in Mexico City in which no one really knows what happened, the Castilians are defeated, humiliated, and expelled from Tenochtitlan. They are not chased because the new emperor must be crowned. Cortés wanders in the fields at the northeast of Mexico City, near Teotihuacan, and sends messengers to the Tlaxcaltecas asking for the restoration of their past alliance. While he is waiting for an answer, an army that is small but more than enough to terminate his adventure finds him outside the town of Otumba. The Mexica troops are led by the cihuacóatl of Tenochtitlan—the mayor, more or less—because the new emperor was not feeling well. As Cortés and his troops had been living in Mexico City, they knew the mayor. When they see him on top of a hill directing the combat, they run to chase him with horses and kill him. The Mexica leave the field to reorganize, and they send a messenger to the capital with the bad news of the killing of the cihuacóatl. The messenger returns with even worse news—the emperor has died from smallpox. The empire is headless: It is without both the tlatoani and his second in command. The warriors disband and the Castilians can now make it to Tlaxcala. There is a chance to take the previously undefeated Tenochtitlan—and they take it.

The fall of the capital of the Mexica implies the beginning of colonization as we know it, but it also implies the beginning of a massive movement of bodies from one continent to the other. African slaves worked for longer hours than indigenous ones; they didn’t have a territory to defend once they were transplanted, so revolts were less frequent; and, just like the Europeans, they were able to resist smallpox.

And the Fall of Tenochtitlan finally opens for Europe a fast and safe way to Asia through the China Galleon, which connects Acapulco and Manila. The world finally becomes round, and the economy, global.

What has to be the most mind-blowing aspect of the novel occurs when Moctezuma is high on mushrooms as he enters the temple of Huitzilopochtli, where human sacrifices occur:

I love this room, said Moctezuma, you can’t imagine how I miss being a priest. Where there were splotches of blood, he saw sprays of flowers. The withered fingers of the hands of the great warriors sacrificed during the year’s festivals swayed pleasingly like the branches of a small tree to the beat of some music he couldn’t place, though in a possible future we would have recognized it. It was T. Rex’s “Monolith.”
    The priest was also up to his ears in whatever he had taken to carry out his temple duties, so he bent his magic powers of hearing to the music and caught the sexy crooning of Marc Bolan. He smiled. That’s good stuff, he said. Moctezuma swung his hips to the beat. It’s nothing I’ve ever heard before, he replied, but I like it.

And then we get this freaky description where the priest “carefully lifted the clay basin in which the blood of doves sacrificed that afternoon had yet to coagulate—their decapitated bodies sensually dancing to ‘Monolith.’”

To transition like this from 1519 to 1971 is almost like having the reader on mushrooms—it’s totally unexpected. Why and how did you create this amazing passage?    

ÁE: I love how you describe it. The novel has the structure of a Greek comedy, with unity of time, place, and action, four acts, and everything. But it should also feel like an afternoon mushroom trip—the real time you take reading the novel is more or less the same time in which the story develops.

I was very careful in trying to reproduce the way reality gets amplified when a natural, gentle hallucinogenic hits your brain. It’s the same world of everyday, but there are little disruptions, curious and intense, that eventually produce a world that looks wider but nevertheless sustains to the logic of life.

About the intrusion of Marc Bolan in the novel, I don’t know—the writing process is way coarser than I would like to accept. I was writing the visit to the temple and, to take a rest—I suffer from back pains that define everything in my life—I played the A side of T-Rex’s Electric Warrior. It’s something I do: listen to a few songs walking around to make sure I don’t stay in the same posture for too long. When “Monolith” began, it was obvious to me that there were connections between the invincible glam of Marc Bolan and the figure of Moctezuma: the feathers, the exposed shaved chest, the wavy hair. And the song is named “Monolith,” which echoes the “Sun Monolith” (the most famous Mexica piece of art) and the monolith that brings war to the world in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It felt fun so I just dropped the song in the scene, and it worked all right.

It seems another song that would fit into this passage would be Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer,” which was banned in Spain. The song is so slow that it would fit seamlessly with a stoned-out Moctezuma, plus Young’s lyric “I still can’t remember when / Or how I lost my way” would seem to fit the mental state of Moctezuma as you depict him for most of the novel, at least until the end, as one who has lost contact with reality.  

ÁE: Novels belong to their readers and not their authors, but I would dispute the idea of Moctezuma losing contact with reality in the novel. It may look like that as you see him getting higher and higher as the story progresses, but at the end you see that he always knew exactly what was going on, that he was high because he was reaching out to his gods in order to have their complicity to do what he had to do—as I wish he had done in reality.

This colludes with yet another mind-blowing passage later in the same paragraph: “It took Moctezuma a while to bring it into focus because it came from very far away. When it was finally sharp and clear, it made no sense to him: It was me writing this novel in a yard on Shelter Island. Uh, he said, strange, and he was seized by laughter.” This mixing of fiction and reality via authorial intrusion is a technique that postmodern writers such as John Fowles have used to great effect. What are your thoughts about authorial intrusion?

ÁE: Well, it’s a tradition older than that, as old as novels themselves: The first character you see in Don Quixote is not don Quixote, but Cervantes finishing Don Quixote at his desk. Now, the reference is more focused in You Dream of Empires; it’s a timid tribute to Jorge Luis Borges that is there to make clear that the novel is not historical, but fantastic. When the main character of “The Aleph,” who is named Borges, finally gets to see the miraculous spot that contains everything in a simultaneous way, he sees the whole world and its whole history, including himself looking at the aleph and the reader who is reading about him looking at it. A lovely meditation: All literature is in everything we write, good or bad.

The novel has a surprising end with a revisionist twist, one that makes me wonder what would have happened if Cortés had lost the Battle of Otumba and there hadn’t been a New Spain. Can you envision how different Mexico would be today if Cortés had not conquered Mexico? And what are the positive and negative aspects of the Spanish conquest of Mexico?

ÁE: The Americas were not prepared for the invasion, and the plague was already there when the battle of Otumba happened. King Carlos would soon see the treasure that Hernán Cortés had already shipped to Europe, so a second, or third, or fifth wave of Spaniards would have eventually taken over Tenochtitlan. By the end of the 16th century there were more Africans than indigenous people in Mexico City because of the devastation left by smallpox.

In history, the worst ones tend to win, no matter what national foundational myths are later invented. Just look around and see what the British and their descendants did to this beautiful country—it’s an environmental, political, and aesthetic catastrophe. We have our pathetic middle-class goodies, but we live in a horrendous, unbearably unequal world. And the same can be said about all of Latin America and the Caribbean.

But, if things had been different, maybe the wondrous floating city of Tenochtitlan would have stayed as it was, because the Mexica, weakened by years of suffering the plague of smallpox, would have not been able to resist as long as they did—until the last warrior was killed and the last building destroyed. Just remember what Bernal Díaz del Castillo said about the first time they saw it from the highlands. The lake, the cities around it, with their fortifications and temples full of color, and, in the center, Tenochtitlan floating, an intensely green, self-sustainable city, so vast and so delirious that they could not compare it with towns they had seen, but only with ones they had read about in chivalric romances like Amadis de Gaula.

 Thank you for answering these questions. Your writing is magical.

ÁE: And your questions brilliant. Thank you.

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All Tomorrow's Train Rides

Matthew M. Monte
Sixteen Rivers Press ($18)

by Lee Rossi

Yes, you hear an echo—the Velvet Underground playing “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” their great anthem to indulgence and dissolution. But though it offers less indulgence and more longing, less dissolution and more selflessness, All Tomorrow’s Train Rides—the second book by San Francisco writer Matthew M. Monte—is also great in its own unpredictable way.

A thoughtful, educated writer with associate’s degrees in insomnia, shoplifting, and alcoholism, Monte evidences a fascination with the work of other writers, figures as varied as Gary Snyder, Pierre Reverdy, and Miguel de Cervantes. In “Then I Read Wisława Szymborska” he reports on purchasing one of her books in Paris—at Shakespeare and Co. of course—and retreating to “the silent piano room”:

Where with you, I
Must say I
Feel only

A love poem, isn’t it? Conversely, we find him hating on Jacques Derrida: “Form and Function Letter” mimics William Carlos Williams’s famous “This Is Just To Say,” except that Monte’s apology, which is more j’accuse than je t’aime, is directed at the fabulously indecipherable French philosopher. “This is just to say,” the poet begins, that he doesn’t “mind these synonyms / and metaphors and analogies,” but that he “very much mind[s] the meanings of these tightropes / between conventions, this / high-wire act we call language.” Language is perilous, the poet seems to admit, but “these lines save us / from drowning in your / soup of same.”

Clarity, precision—these are language’s gifts, and we abandon them at our peril. Consider Section V of the title poem, a sequence whose sections are spread throughout the book, in which Monte engages in dialogue with that consummate realist from the pages of Cervantes, Sancho Panza—transformed for the occasion into a Caltrain conductor. Who are these people on the train, Sancho wants to know, who “earn their keep from neither arms nor letters”? And the poet tells him: “the ore is silicon, a fool’s gold for sure. They create other minds from it. So that we don’t need to remember.” “No memory?” exclaims Sancho incredulously, issuing the poet “a private smile” for all the 400-thread-count cotton dress shirts: “Sancho knows / Clothes don’t make the man / Sees the suits for what they are / Variations on the fig leaf.”  

Culture, he insists, is a charade, a theatre of the absurd.

Reality is what Monte wants, in all its clarity and precision—even when what it reveals is harsh or cruel:

Where the utility men
Cut back pine and manzanita
          near the old quarry
They left behind a ragged cross-section of knotted wood
          in the boot-print trail dust
That resisted the motoring blade and its bite

Monte’s passion for the real takes him into unexpected places. Many of these poems come with notes and annotations, some which are straightforward, and others which read like prose poems. Commenting on Don Quixote’s famous discourse on arms and letters, the poet references the GPS coordinates where Quixote spoke, and adds that “the windmills . . . / are spread along a / hill overlooking the Manchegan / plains, offering an excellent view of / things as they are, which are even / easier to see through the pages of / Don Quixote than the bullet train’s / blurring windowscape.” Once again, language and literature lead us closer to reality than our technological culture.

Latitude-longitude designations appear throughout the book, adding a dash of typographic esprít, but there are also other typographical flourishes—long strings of periods enclosed in brackets, for example. As a reader, I’m not sure how to receive these extra-literary excrescences; are they a sendup of erasure, a musical interpolation signaling rests, or a just a new-fangled jokiness? I suspect one can read them all three ways. But without a doubt, All Tomorrow’s Train Rides is a variorum of image and epithet where time and again we encounter this poet’s extraordinary verbal facility. Another poem in sequence, “[Latitude],” “[Longitude],” “[Degrees],” etc., is a list poem offering scores of subjects which contemporary poems do (and in some cases shouldn’t) embrace. Or consider these lines from “Three Sketches from Insomnia”:

              That used-car salesman, memory,
never tells the true mileage or how
pumping the brakes never stops the night
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

            With histories like these, who needs enemies

For a writer who seems consumed with knowing exactly where he is, these lines signal a refreshing skepsis vis-à-vis the possibility of knowledge. It’s there, Monte suggests, but only if your search is dedicated and uncontaminated by self-will. I hear that sort of injunction in these lines from “Reconsider a Meadow”:

But it is states of not-mind
that reconsider a meadow
day after subtle day

above the snowy track and
shallow thaws in sheltered valleys.

Similarly, in “Write Livelihood,” he issues a slight re-formulation of the Buddhist imperative:

You read and say
how many things crystallized in your mind
and we know life found in found words is without parallel.
And though the world is not without its darkness
there is not
so much regret.

What do we find “in found words”? In All Tomorrow’s Train Rides, we find compassion, forgiveness, attention, and insight. We should be so fortunate in everything we read.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2024 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2024

Wonder About The

Matthew Cooperman
Middle Creek Publishing ($18)

by Joe Safdie

A reader of Matthew Cooperman’s latest collection, Wonder About The, might “wonder about” its seemingly fragmented title. Ostensibly a portrait of the expansive biodiversity that can be found on the banks of the Cache la Poudre River in Colorado, Matthew Cooperman’s Wonder About The also explores fracking, the distance between culture and nature, and the peculiar problems of poems devoted to ecology and the environment. On that last subject, Forrest Gander poses some useful questions in his 2008 essay titled “What Is Eco Poetry”:

Aside from issues of theme and reference, how might syntax, line break, or the shape of the poem on the page express an ecological ethics? If our perceptual experience is mostly palimpsestic or endlessly juxtaposed and fragmented; if events rarely have discreet beginnings or endings but only layers, duration, and transitions; if natural processes are already altered by and responsive to human observation, how does poetry register the complex interdependency that draws us into a dialogue with the world?

The “interdependency” Gander mentions is very much a concern of Wonder About The; from the beginning, it’s clear that this book doesn’t offer any sort of lazy propaganda. In the first poem, “Thesis,” lines such as “It rolls on as sugar beet, sweet in its labor and sweat in its weight” show Cooperman paying attention to the sounds of his words as well as to the indomitable river. In this expansive vision, humans aren’t separate from their environment, but are charged with the task of striking a balance between how things appear and how we, in turn, are located within the appearance—or as Cooperman puts it in “Another River in Spring” in lines that well represent the exchanges between inner and outer life throughout the book: “what marks the site of your sight // who walks through the door of a river.”

One major concern of ecopoetry is, as critic Nassrullah Mambrol writes, “how the human is situated within its habitat, specifically where (or whether) borders exist between body and world, human and other, space and place.” The peculiar art of perceiving the environment is often a subject of Wonder About The, whether it’s acknowledging that a farmer’s “bright Deere” is “a part of / the field’s design” or the urgent command, presented in progressively larger type, to “look up / look up / look up.” Eyes, in fact, are mentioned often, from “the sense record” being visited “upon our eyes / our ears” to a hard-earned vision of a waterfowl:

my winter eye
unlayers all frost
anneals what distance

rank glorious muck
rot palimpsesting rye
the duck
the living eye

Cooperman’s eye is sensitive enough also to register the fact that “the number of active oil and gas wells in Colorado almost doubled from 22,228 in 2000 to 43,354 in 2010” while explaining what’s really at stake:

frack is a word to obtain a thing
gas body or oil body
by liquefaction     say water     various solvents
an exchange body     replacement earth
toxic metonomy the force of
forces     engineers     making a new earth writing

In these contexts, the collection’s fragmented title might signal that such unnatural phenomena—“benzene earth man / now embowered with / salt and sand”—challenge traditional grammar’s ability to comprehend or explain them, though it also heeds the dreamier nature of observation, given its provenance from a poem by Theodore Enslin (which Cooperman uses as a section epigraph): “wonder about the / dream a dream’s about wonder will be.”

In his magisterial 2004 study A New Theory for American Poetry, Angus Fletcher posited that “environmental sensitivity demands its own new genre of poetry” and argued that environment poems “are not about the environment, whether natural or social, they are environments.” The inclusion of stunning color photographs of various places the book chronicles, most taken by Cooperman himself, makes it clear that Wonder About The not only adds to those environments, but breaks new ground.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2024 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2024

The Never End

The Other Orwell, the Cold War, the CIA, MI6, and the Origin of Animal Farm

John Reed
Palgrave Macmillan ($119.99)

by Zoe Berkovitz

“Orwell has come to an end,” John Reed tells us. He’s earned a say in the matter: His newest book, The Never End, collects twenty years of essays, long form pieces, and interviews that parse the complicated history and legacy of George Orwell’s 1945 novella Animal Farm.

Orwell’s classic allegory has been a syllabus staple for decades, but its popularity in schools, Reed points out, “is not by chance.” Having made a literary case that “revolution is doomed to fail,” Animal Farm became the “greatest success” of the Information Research Department of the British Foreign Office (eventually to become MI6) and soon became a player in the CIA’s “cultural ‘Cold War’” with Russia, “the terminology of which was Orwell’s own coinage.”

Reed maintains that Orwell would have pushed back against readings of Animal Farm as broadly anti-revolutionary; in his refutations to similar interpretations of 1984, Orwell implied that his message was more anti-Stalinist than anything else. “Regardless,” Reed writes, “Orwell died, and the CIA and British Secret Service proceeded unimpeded, and the bargain sealed, alas, was a Faustian one … The Animal Farm of the CIA doesn’t apply to just the Russian revolution; it’s a parable, a ‘timeless’ parable, a ‘universal’ parable, about the dangers of systemic change.” Translations, global distribution, and film and television adaptations, funded by the IRD and CIA (and its Congress for Cultural Freedom, which deeply influenced “the course of US art and literature in the twentieth century”), spread the story of Napoleon, Old Major, and Snowball across much of the world. Talk about culture war: Reed calls Animal Farm “an educational missile aimed at any healthy impulse toward reform.”

Orwell died in 1950, just two years after Animal Farm was published, and his death at forty-six left a mine of questions for critics like Reed to consider—in part because propagandistic uses of Orwell’s writing began while Orwell was still alive and to some extent with his cooperation. Orwell produced enemies lists with the names of 135 “fellow travelers” for the IRD; “replete with vindictive inclusions,” the lists were part of ”a long and active exchange” with Orwell’s friend Celia Kirwan, an employee at the IRD (and a woman to whom he once proposed). Some of these names are still classified today—“one can surmise sensitive or embarrassing contents.”

As far as we know, the lists didn’t have serious consequences, but to Reed, that isn’t enough to let Orwell off the hook: “you took aim, but you might have missed.” In his diaries, Orwell wrote, “All propaganda is lies, even when one is telling the truth. I don’t think this matters, so long as one knows what one is doing, and why.” Reed’s response: “A discerning understanding of propaganda begets accountability.” He has retorts for each kind of Orwell protector, including those who argue times were different: “Isn’t surviving historical context the challenge of literature? None of the 11-year-olds reading Animal Farm are reading it in historical context.”

Certain sections of The Never End focus on Reed’s research about the origins of Animal Farm. Orwell lifted the premise (and quite a bit more) from a Russian short story called “Animal Riot,” written around 1880 by the Russian historian Nikolai Kostomarov—however, his story of farm rebellion, as opposed to Orwell’s, ended in successful overthrow of the humans. Same beats, same referent, different agenda. Reed’s 2015 essay for Harper’s Magazine about the Animal Farm-“Animal Riot” connections comprises this book’s third chapter; in it, Reed makes an impeccable case. Reed also had “Animal Riot” translated into English, and that text is included in this volume. Yet for all the research that went into the Harper’s piece, the response defied his predictions: “It was news, but not heartbreak.” (An interesting aside to the Kostomarov plagiarism thread is that in his original preface to Animal Farm, Orwell does explain how he got the idea for the book—but the story he tells there is “a rehash of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s instigating event in Crime and Punishment.”)

The “Animal Riot” analysis is where Reed’s own fiction enters the conversation. During the weeks following 9/11, Reed wrote his novel Snowball’s Chance (Roof Books, 2002), an unofficial sequel in which Snowball, Animal Farm’s Trotskyish pig, returns to the farm and introduces capitalism to the animals in post-Soviet fashion; the fallout satirically mirrors the U.S. War on Terror. Reed’s novel came under legal threat from Orwell’s estate for copyright infringement, but U.S. parody law protected it. (It was also criticized publicly by Christopher Hitchens, who called Reed a ”Bin Ladenist.”) Revisiting Snowball’s Chance allows Reed to include a few critical essays about contemporary culture and politics that offer a break from Orwell studies without deviating too much off topic.

As The Never End covers twenty years of work, we get a variety of tones. In a 2011 essay originally published in The Rumpus, the invective hits a peak:          

Popular entertainment is a helpless, writhing, mega-maggot of selfish desire … Culture-at-large presumes that writing is torture, art is suffering, and artists are monstrous … in the service of denigrating creative living and creative thinking, which is the single alternative to a life of stultifying obedience.

By the time of the writing of The Never End, at least as regards Orwell, Reed’s mood is a little different. The Cold War is long over, and with it, the “paradigm” that helped Animal Farm proliferate. Reed points out that the nature of our warfare, both material and cultural, has changed, as has the nature of national borders; when Orwell’s fiction is applied to U.S.-China tensions, for example, “the corollaries are curiously hollow.” Reed argues that our newly assigned foe is not a Cold War-esque antagonist but a protracted symbol of “the America of the erstwhile confrontation … that is as absent as its imagined nemesis.”

Of course, Orwell’s work is a trove of such imperfect comparisons, and there is plenty more to be discovered that can shake up the picture, although “the tasks are infinite, and decrease in impact and importance into infinite pointlessness.” And if someone is to continue the project? Reed knows better than to be expectant: “People no longer doubt, and quite possibly don’t care, that George was the author of such toxic hypocrisy. Does that say as much about ourselves as it does about Orwell? It’s so easy to sympathize: he sold his soul.” At this point, Orwell’s reputation is unlikely to change, because the reasons he is admired sustain themselves:

Why are we still fond of Orwell? Maybe it’s that he was such a genuinely sincere propagandist. Maybe, where we once loved him despite the compact he made with the devil, we are now denizens of so broken an epoch that we love him because of it.

Conducted out of love or not, further research into Orwell the man will probably only go so far toward altering attitudes toward Orwell the symbol. For those interested in both, though, The Never End is essential, even as it asserts its own expiration. Reed writes in the final pages: “He is everywhere and nowhere to the degree that there is no Orwell—only a cascading attrition of citations, half-lies, and history receded, gone on the horizon.” A dim prognosis, but, in the spirit of George, a truthful one.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2024| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2024