Tag Archives: Summer 2016

Paper Girls, Volume 1

papergirlsBrian K. Vaughn & Cliff Chiang
Image Comics ($9.99)

by Amelia Basol

There are a lot of reasons to like Paper Girls, one of the latest outings from the fecund mind of writer Brian K. Vaughn. Foremost among them is the quartet of title characters, middle school girls with paper routes in 1988, when “paper boy” was still the norm in America. Our main protagonist is Erin Tieng, who meets up with fellow paper girls Mac, Tiffany, and KJ for safety in numbers during their wee-hours-after-Halloween-night delivery of “The Cleveland Preserver” (and let that slightly tweaked newspaper name offer a hint of Vaughn’s authorial pizazz). As they simultaneously test and help each other, their interaction becomes the drama behind the drama, with hints of their formative years welling up as the action unfolds.

Along with smart, realistic characterization, Vaughn gives us the pleasure of nostalgia (the action is set in the late ’80s) and a bevy of Science Fiction trappings: time travel, alien races, cosmic storms, and cryptic warnings delivered via surreal visions. Vaughn is no stranger to the yoking of trippy SF and affecting realism—he is the award-winning creator of comics such as Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina, Runaways, and the current space epic Saga—so his juxtaposition of strange doings in a sleepy Cleveland suburb fits the mold, creating yet another petri dish for his fictive experiments. (And, dear reader, if the combination of youthful protagonists, 1980s suburbia, and science fiction reminds you of the TV series Stranger Things, chalk it up to the zeitgeist—who wouldn’t want the world to be rescued by pre-teens on bikes?)

Of course, none of this would matter if the story weren’t expertly written and drawn, but thankfully it is. Vaughn and artist Cliff Chiang pace the work brilliantly, packing a lot of action into the five serial issues gathered in this collection. Vaughn’s knack for dialogue shifts the fast-moving plot through its gears while never succumbing to mere exposition, and Chiang vividly renders everything from a desperate alcoholic mother to a dinosaur steed with a full-fledged believability. (Additional props to colorist Matt Wilson, who puts it all under spooky, pre-dawn, hypnogogic lights.) Suffice to say that a great writer and a great artist are working perfectly in sync here, the required alchemy for a great comic.

Not surprisingly, there remain questions aplenty to propel readers to keep reading. Vaughn’s elevation of an anachronistic iPod into a veritable trope (the iconic apple gets reiterated in images of biblical fruit, Beatles records, etc.) is one of them, tinted perhaps with a hint of risk (will the time travel trope be handled better here than on the ill-fated TV series Lost?), and we’ll likely learn more about our four girl heroes and their strange Midwest town. And then there’s the cliffhanger . . . but I won’t spoil it. Better to acquire and devour Volume 1 of Paper Girls before Volume 2 hits the stands later this year.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

The Ethos of Irony: An Interview with Lee Konstantinou

leekonstantinouby Dylan Hicks

The great lexicographer, grammarian, and wit H. W. Fowler, quoted in Lee Konstantinou’s Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction (Harvard University Press, $39.95), explained that irony required a “double audience” made up of “one party that hearing shall hear & shall not understand & another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware both of that more & of the outsiders’ incomprehension.” Fowler’s definition goes a long way, but considering that the word irony and its adjectival form have taken on manifold, often contested senses in formal and popular usage, one is forgiven for thinking that this highest form of polysemy is itself too polysemous to pin down. Konstantinou sensibly resists the urge to position irony as an all-encompassing condition of our age, but he productively uses it as a vantage point on postwar literature, culture, and counterculture. His approach is characterological. Irony, he holds with others, is a way of being, an ethos, and its recent history is best told through the types who pioneered new ironic worldviews or tried to establish post-ironic ones: the hipster, the punk, the believer, the coolhunter, the occupier. Though the book’s purview extends beyond literature, Konstantinou’s textual focus is on American fiction and criticism, with a few English guests. The book is especially concerned with irony’s political ramifications, and while it doesn’t deny the radicalism of some of its subjects, it disputes mythologies of a pure spirit of ironic opposition eventually co-opted and corrupted by market forces, instead pointing out where countercultural ironists were sometimes, unwittingly or otherwise, allies of their Establishment targets.

Konstantinou, who is also a novelist and editor, teaches at the University of Maryland, College Park. We conducted this interview by email in early May.

Dylan Hicks: Your first characterological study looks at the hipster as analyzed or depicted in key midcentury essays, novels, and stories, including Anatole Broyard’s 1948 essay “A Portrait of the Hipster,” Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Thomas Pynchon’s early work. Retrospectively, we tend to think that hip irony, either of or informed by jazz and the Beats, wasn’t just a foil but a real threat to Wall Street, Madison Avenue, the academy, the whole system that created Marcuse’s one-dimensional man and that would come under growing attack as the 1960s progressed. That’s not entirely wrong, though it’s also true that critiques of conformity, as books such as Barbara Ehrenreich’s The Hearts of Men remind us, came in a steady stream from the mainstream culture of the ’50s and early ’60s. And hipster taste—for Kafka, say, or abstract expressionism—would often overlap with those of modernism’s strait-laced exegetes and proponents, from the little magazines to the CIA. You focus on the hipster as both an adversary and a fellow traveler of Establishment New Critics. The hipster portrayed in Broyard’s essay, you point out, is rather like a literary critic; Ellison’s close study of the New Critics helped shape Invisible Man; and Pynchon’s “Entropy” was published in The Kenyon Review, famous as a New Critical mouthpiece. I hope readers will seek out your book for a detailed analysis of this relationship, but can you briefly describe where you found more affinity than opposition between these groups? What characterizes Pynchon’s “third ethos” of political irony,” a path laid out by one of V.’s minor characters, McClintic Sphere, an alto saxophonist patterned after Ornette Coleman?

coolcharactersLee Konstantinou: We tend to remember the midcentury hipster—the hipster of the 1940s and 1950s—as a type of person who stood athwart the Mainstream. He (and the hipster was usually imagined as a man) hated official culture. He subverted the Squares. Used irony to escape stifling categories and rigid ideologies. Was an enemy of Bureaucracy, the Administered Life, the System, the Man, WASP culture. That’s the heroic story we like to tell, anyway. When explaining why the hipster failed, many reach for what the historian and journalist Thomas Frank calls the “co-optation thesis.” The System defanged the hipster’s bold rebellion. The hipster sold out. And so on.

As you say, that’s not an entirely mistaken story. But my book’s first chapter argues for a different (or at least more complicated) view. Hip irony was very much in harmony with certain mainstream political tendencies. The critical knowingness we associate with the hipster resembles the kind of irony celebrated among prominent academics (the New Critics) and anti-Communist liberal intellectuals. Anatole Broyard's "Portrait of the Hipster," published in The Partisan Review in 1948, almost openly affirms the connection between the hipster and the critic; the two figures seem to merge in the essay. What I wanted to show more generally is that hip irony, spontaneity, authenticity, and individual freedom were in many cases simply the very same irony, spontaneity, authenticity, and individual freedom already widely celebrated among (mostly liberal) intellectuals. Indeed, reflecting Kennedy-era optimism, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. approvingly wrote in 1963 in The Politics of Hope that “[s]atire has burst out of the basements of San Francisco and Greenwich Village.” He was right.

Of course, just because they shared common ideas doesn’t mean that liberal intellectual culture and hip culture always saw eye to eye. The two were different social formations and were often at least rhetorically opposed to one another. What I call Pynchon's "third ethos of political irony" was one reaction to that conflict. Pynchon courted mainstream literary success (he wanted to publish in New Critical venues like The Kenyon Review) but he was also attracted to the emerging counterculture. Like many young writers, Pynchon felt the need to choose a side but also wanted to overcome the need to choose. I argue that he invented a new kind of irony—a sort of posthuman irony—that he hoped would overcome these opposed stances. As he wrote in the introduction to his collection of short stories, Slow Learner, he wanted to "sophisticate the Beat spirit." McClintic Sphere is the avatar for this "sophistication" in his 1963 novel, V. My discussion of V. returns to one of the old chestnuts of Pynchon criticism: the idea that Sphere's slogan "Keep cool but care" is the core maxim of Pynchon's first novel. A lot of critics want to read Sphere as warmly sincere, humane, nice, liberal. I try instead to show how Pynchon pushes hip culture toward a posthuman understanding of the human being. In V., the person comes to resemble something like a computer, and cultural/racial difference becomes a program running on that computer. Being an ironist means something like having the ability to program yourself.

DH: The book’s characterological study begins with two countercultural embodiments of irony—the hipster and the punk—then moves to the believer and the coolhunter, who sought or represented a postironic ethos. The method, I should clarify here, isn’t to cast writers to play the characters, but rather to find fictional creations and critical positions that enliven or illuminate the hipster, the punk, et al. That said, while reading your book and looking at the ironist through a characterological lens, I found myself trying to name still more characters who might overlap with notable postwar American ironists or postironists, particularly those more distantly or complicatedly connected to countercultures, wondering if the work and personas of Gore Vidal, Randy Newman, David Letterman, or Amy Sedaris could be placed in a characterological schema. Did you settle on the book’s characters early in writing and researching the book? Did you discard others?

LK: I didn't start with my character-based schema. I was drawn to certain writers: Ralph Ellison, William Gibson, David Foster Wallace. And I began with an intuition that postmodernism (whatever that was) had become something else. So I wanted to tell that story, the story of a transition away from postmodern culture, by tracking the fate of irony. I wanted to use the term “postirony,” which I felt described a growing tendency in American fiction, a tendency I most strongly associated with McSweeney’s (but not only McSweeney’s).

But I found it hard to explain why so many writers cared so intensely about irony—why they fought to overcome it. Then I read a Critical Inquiry article by Amanda Anderson that helped me organize the story I was telling. Anderson argued that pragmatist philosophers use a “characterological” rhetoric when defending their views. So someone like Richard Rorty didn’t just endorse irony; he endorsed the ironist as a type of person, as an ethos one ought to adopt and cultivate. There was a normative component to these arguments. I realized that the authors I was discussing were all doing a version of the same thing. David Foster Wallace’s wasn’t just saying that we should devalue irony; he also wanted us to become believers. Hell, Dave Eggers had started a magazine literally called The Believer. The solution to my organizational problems had been staring me in the face the whole time. Unlike the philosophers Anderson discussed, the literary writers I cared about didn’t just argue for this or that ethos. They promoted or denigrated their recommended attitudes through formal means, invented different experimental forms and genres to prosecute their cases. After I had that insight, it wasn't much of a leap to take those character types as the named objects of my analysis. So I organized each of my chapters around one type.

I should say that the types I am writing about should not be mistaken for empirical people. I’m not doing sociology or subcultural studies. Not doing biographical criticism. So sure, Gore Vidal, David Letterman, etc. have rich and interesting personas. Letterman in particular was often taken as a metonymy for ironic culture. But the figures I was interested in were way slipperier. If you dispute the value of being a hipster, if you’re writing a history of "the" hipster, you're not exactly discussing particular empirical people. While individual people might "be" hipsters, what you're really talking about when talking about the hipster is an idealization (albeit one always materialized in actual lives one way or another). The hipster necessarily appears as but ultimately also necessarily transcends specific people and discourses. Which means that the hipster’s many enemies can often have as much effect on what a hipster is as someone who self-identifies as a hipster. And different groups define what it means to be a hipster differently. So I wanted to find a way to talk about those disputes—to register that the hipster or the punk or whatever was never just one thing—while also recognizing that each of these types couldn’t be anything at all.

A lot of other plausible character types didn't make it into the book. I most regret not writing a chapter on debates about Camp. I also considered writing a chapter on postracial discourse, a chapter on the Cosmopolitan as a figure that aspires to global consciousness, and a chapter on the so-called Kidult (adults who cultivate a childlike sensibility and aesthetic). I also wish I could have written much more on the Bohemian, especially as this figure was imagined in the U.S. from the 1850s to the 1930s. But that might easily have become a whole other book. My manuscript was already 130,000 words long—that is, way too long. So maybe someday I'll write a prequel, although to be frank I’ve grown somewhat sick of my own characterological method at this point. No more character types for me for a while.

DH: In your chapter on punk, which treats the work of William Burroughs and Kathy Acker, you identify a realm of punk fantasy, “positive dystopia,” which you define as “an antihumanist or posthumanist, anti-Utopian genre that imagines human growth as arising not from destruction but precisely in destruction.” New York bohemia of the 1970s (and late ’60s) has provided the milieu for several recent and successful novels, memoirs, and histories. Responses to these books reflect nostalgie de la boue perhaps related to positive dystopia, as well as anger over neoliberalism, gentrification, and other forces that have since made the city prohibitively expensive for marginal artists and provincial dreamers. Have you spotted positive dystopias in texts outside the book’s ken, such as works that imagine a climate-changed future?

LK: The term "positive dystopia" is a pun on the Aldous Huxley’s phrase "negative Utopia" (although the phrase is also associated with Adorno, who gives it a different meaning). I don’t talk much about it in the chapter, but I was implicitly interested in the distinction that the literary critic Fredric Jameson makes between anti-Utopia and dystopia in his book on science fiction Archaeologies of the Future. An anti-Utopia is, on his account, conservative. It sees the desire and pursuit of Utopia as inherently destructive. The problem anti-Utopian authors identify isn't this or that negative political, economic, or social trend. It's the very desire to plan and organize a better society that comes under assault. Dystopias, by contrast, are necessarily Utopian to the degree that they hope we might avert disaster. Dystopias contain within them an at least tacit model of a better world.

I came to think of "positive dystopia" as a political photonegative of dystopia. It is a genre I saw as embodying the logic implicit in the punk slogan “No Future.” This genre is anti-Utopian to the degree that it identifies Utopian (and future-oriented) thought as one of its core opponents. So, for example, Kathy Acker talks about her desire to oppose hippie Utopianism in her fiction, interviews, and essays. To imagine Utopia was, in her view, politically problematic. Writing in a “positive dystopian” mode, Acker (like Burroughs before her) recognizes the present as an incarnated dystopia and then asks, "What now?" The genre’s answer is to imagine a way of slipping away from systems of control and domination. If you could return to the body, escape rationality, accelerate destruction, you might break through to something genuinely new or different or outside those control systems.

These ideas—widely popular ideas—endure in various forms, with different political valences. Neo-Bohemian celebrations of economically blasted zones continue (and continue to facilitate gentrification). The intellectual tendency called "accelerationism" has links to positive dystopia, too. Debates within queer theory about the politics of futurity invoke (and contest) this genre. Even the Occupy Movement was connected to this genre, although as in each of these cases with important differences. As was widely noted at the time, the first book placed in the Zuccotti Park library was Hakim Bey's T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone.

A lot of people are invested in seeing punk as ineradicably anti-capitalist, but my research led me to see it as much more akin to the DIY self-branding ethos that is absolutely dominant today. And Burroughs could not have been more clear: he loved the free market and hated the welfare state (which he warned would lead to Communism). The core ideas of the so-called godfather of punk are often hard to distinguish from the ideas of the founder of the Mont Pelerin Society, Friedrich Hayek. Now, the meaning of this genre is different today than it was in the 1970s. I don’t want to make it seem as if writing in the mode of “positive dystopia” automatically makes you a bedfellow of Milton Friedman. But it does suggest to me that far from being co-opted or destroyed punk, at least one prominent strain within punk, has enjoyed a considerable degree of authentic success.

DH: David Foster Wallace is the principal figure in your discussion of postirony. As his work makes clear, he wasn’t opposed to irony itself, but chafed against its depleted and depleting pervasiveness; if Joe Isuzu was an ironist, what oppositional power could irony still hold? And he saw the ironic disposition as emotionally stunting, an obstacle in his effort to combat loneliness by fostering writer-reader intimacy. Although he was writing against a certain aloof postmodernism, he was also of course extending part of the postmodern project, using metafiction and hyperarticulate self-consciousness to both thwart and restore emotional effects, in the way that stories such as John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse” and Gilbert Sorrentino’s “The Moon in Its Flight” used self-reflexivity to rouse erotic nostalgia from potential exhaustion. Wallace, you write, “attempts to help his reader adopt a stance of nonnaïve noncynicism by means of metafiction. What is paradoxical about this project is the emptiness of the proposed postironic belief. Postironists do not advocate a stance of belief toward any particular aspect of the world, but rather promote a general ethos of belief.” Might it be fair to say that this belief system is unspecified because it’s so broadly humanistic, Romantic, or Judeo-Christian, that it just calls for an unsuppressed faith in love, art, generosity, kindness, and so on?

LK: Well, you have to understand what Wallace thought he was fighting against. He argued that postmodern media and postmodern social relations had eroded our capacity to believe (and by “our” he largely meant highly educated U.S. citizens). The skepticism that postmodernists once directed toward specific hypocrisies had become generalized. And he worried he himself was no less susceptible than anyone else to this reflex. He feared his own fiction was devoid of love, generosity, kindness, etc., so Wallace was drawn to anyone who could neutralize this generalized incredulity.

We find a version of this argument in his 2000 Rolling Stone essay on John McCain. Wallace admits to hating McCain's conservative political views, but he also finds himself admiring that McCain could seem to be anything other than a slick or sleazy politician. That he could mean what he said—or seem to mean what he said—however awful the content of what he said was. I argue that Wallace wanted to rebuild our ability to believe, but he was often less interested in what we believe. How you feel about Wallace's project depends on whether you agree with his diagnosis of postmodern culture. If you don't think irony is a generalized malady, his solution will seem superfluous or unnecessary. If you care about what we believe (not that we believe), you might also find his project strange. (Although if you care about what we believe, you have to presume a well-functioning capacity to believe in the first place.) There’s also the (cynical) possibility that what we believe (or our capacity to believe) matters less than what we do. I found myself struggling with all of these reactions while writing about Wallace’s fiction and essays.

DH: One of the book’s chief interests is in puzzling out postwar irony’s political consequences, particularly the degree to which irony has been a demonstrable agent of political change from the left. On one hand, since irony inheres in postmodernism and critical theory, we can see how its continual questioning and inversion prodded activism and ideological shifts, though, as you write, the modernist account of irony often “presumes that critical knowledge leads to definite action without feeling much need to explain the mechanism by which it might do so.” On the other hand, irony can become the default stance of passive defeat, a carapace for one’s true sentimentality or banality (“Now-a-days,” as Wilde’s Lord Darlington says, “to be intelligible is to be found out”). The ironist might even resist sociopolitical change to preserve the conditions for his or her animus. To further entangle matters, not only does capitalism make everything vulnerable to co-optation, but some countercultural procedures—the punk’s DIY aesthetic, for one—proved readily adaptable to New Economy exploitation: the clever blogger, for instance, becomes the freelance writer remunerated with “exposure,” the bass player with a staple gun and a stack of flyers becomes the guerrilla marketer. Can you gloss how the occupier fits into this history? Is the unexpected success of the Sanders campaign another manifestation of postirony?

LK: The political significance of irony (and postirony) is complicated. Postmodernism always had different political valences. Scholars like Linda Hutcheon argued that postmodern irony provided the tools to question official stories and dominant ideologies. But, though it could be critical, it was also necessarily, as she put it, "complicitous." Yes, postmodernists criticized the world, but they knew that they could never be pure or stand outside the systems they hated. Other critics described postmodernists as conservatives who glibly discounted history, totality, etc. Conservatives hated postmodernism’s rejection of the canon, moral universals, and traditional authority. One of the most influential responses to this debate came from Jameson. His point was that deciding whether postmodernism is "good" or "bad" totally misses the point. Postmodernism—both the good and the bad—was just a name for the culture of contemporary capitalism. More specifically, it was the name for a moment in the history of capitalism when culture and the economy came together in historically unprecedented ways.

A version of this same struggle has occurred with the effort to renounce or transcend irony—and I tend to reach the same conclusion that Jameson did. As soon as you articulate a particular style or code or countercultural attitude, that code is immediately subject to appropriation and repackaging. The Occupy movement was no less subject to those forces. I document one ugly fight over the Adbusters poster, “The Ballerina and the Bull,” that I think illustrates these tensions or contradictions. And the Bernie Sanders campaign is no less subject to these concerns. If you travel through Vermont, for instance, you find Bernie merchandise everywhere. My favorite: “Feel the Bern” mango habanero jam. My temptation is to say that these fights, at some level, don’t matter very much. What matters isn’t whether your habits, tastes, customs, and practices have been decoded by marketers; what matters is whether your political commitments will help put the marketers out of business. Eat all the Feel the Bern mango habanero jam you want without guilt, so long as you help Bernie (or rather the political tendency he represents) build enough of a popular base to win power. And yet, to the degree that cultural politics (the politics of attitude and character) matter to people, they also matter politically—and must be engaged with. These are, I should say, political questions but also literary and cultural questions. As a cultural and literary critic what I care about is understanding why this cycle of stylistic rebellion-and-reabsorption exists, what has sustained it, how it is changing, what institutional changes might finally be needed to overcome it.

DH: In addition to being a scholar, you’re a novelist and editor. Have you developed systems for balancing this various work? Can you say anything about your current projects?

LK: I'm still learning how to balance these commitments. Every day is a mini-struggle. I'll work on one kind of project (say, academic writing) until I can't stand it anymore. Then I'll switch to editing or non-academic creative work. Then I'll get sick of fiction writing or editing and switch back. So my days often consist of erratic swings back and forth between very different projects. I just finished the second draft of a science fiction novel. I'm also working on a second academic book project called "Rise of the Graphic Novel." It's a project that emerges from my lifelong love of comics. All the "low" culture I grew up with—comics, science fiction, video games—has gone mainstream. I want to figure out how that happened and what it means. One common claim about postmodernism is that it eroded or demolished the discourse of “great” or “autonomous” art. That seems totally wrong to me: we live in an era where more and more forms, media, and genres are being elevated to the status of art. I tend to think of our moment as the age of Mass High Culture. It’s strange.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

Germany: A Science Fiction

germanyasciencefictionLaurence A. Rickels
Anti-Oedipus Press ($19.95)

by Andrew Marzoni

That Bob Arctor—an undercover narcotics agent known to his employers as “Fred” and addicted to Substance-D, a drug referred to by its users as “Death”—begins to hear imaginary radio transmissions of Goethe’s Faust should signal to readers of Philip K. Dick’s 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly that the protagonist is losing his mind, the effects of the drug widening the schizophrenic gap between his two identities: “Was grinsest du mir, hohler Schädel, her?” Why grinnest thou at me, thou hollow skull? Surely, there are thematic parallels in both Dick’s and Goethe’s tragedies about men who sought too much knowledge, but Laurence A. Rickels would have you believe that this mysterious appearance of German Romanticism in postwar California signifies much more.

Though Rickels doesn’t discuss A Scanner Darkly in his latest book, Germany: A Science Fiction (he may have exhausted the subject in 2010’s I Think I Am: Philip K. Dick), Dick is among several Californian science fiction pioneers—Robert Heinlein, Thomas Pynchon, Walt Disney—in whose work Rickels sees the return of the genre’s repressed: Nazism, the Holocaust, and the V-2 rocket. It might not be the case that fascism, genocide, and war were ever absent from sci-fi––or as Rickels prefers, “psy-fi,” roping the work of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Melanie Klein, and D.W. Winnicott in with the genre—nor that Dick, Pynchon, Heinlein, or Disney are cryptofascists (some more than others). Rather, Rickels argues, “Because Nazi Germany appeared so closely associated with specific science fictions as their realization, after WWII the genre had to delete the recent past and begin again with the new Cold War opposition,” eventually becoming “native to the Cold War habitat.” Rickels’s study thus “addresses the syndications of the missing era in the science fiction mainstream, the phantasmagoria of its returns, and the extent of the integration of all the above since some point in the 1980s.”

The unrelentingly dense academese of Rickels’s prose is worth noting if only because it is impossible to ignore. Combining the psychoanalytic vocabulary of Jacques Lacan with the deconstructive methods of Jacques Derrida, Rickels arrives at a deconstruction of psychoanalysis not unlike the “schizoanalysis” of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (Germany: A Science Fiction is published by Anti-Oedipus Press, whose name references Deleuze and Guattari’s landmark 1977 collaboration). At its best, Rickels’s prose is a vehicle of pithy brilliance: comparing Ellie (Jodi Foster) in Robert Zemeckis’s Contact (1997) to Christine in Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera (1910), Rickels writes that the two women “projected a communications network for contact with the other side, which the father’s departure could then carry forward. One young woman’s opera singing career under the missing father’s aegis is another woman’s professional commitment to the exploration of Outer Space.” Rickels is adept at the art of plot-summary-as-psychoanalysis, and he can be quite funny: at one point, he critiques Friedrich Kittler’s critique of Laurence Rickels. But at its worst, Rickels’s prose is infuriatingly obscure, the stuff of graduate student nightmares: “The columbarium of remembrance is instead streamlined for life’s transmission.” One wonders at times if Rickels’s intended audience is perhaps even smaller than what his tiny independent publisher is able to afford.

It is admittedly unfair to judge Rickels too harshly for his erudition, as he appears to be on to something here. He provides a convincing history of the Third Reich’s rebirth in California from V-2 inventor Wernher von Braun’s televised collaborations with Disney in the 1950s through Dick’s breakthrough alternate history, The Man in the High Castle (1962), and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). Rickels is not the only writer to identify California as the site of a renaissance in German late modernism: in his 2008 Weimar on the Pacific, Erhard Bahr documents the emigré Los Angeles of Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Fritz Lang, and Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse’s Frankfurt-School-in-exile received a satirical treatment in Joel and Ethan Coen’s recent Hail, Caesar! (2016). In 1975, Lester Bangs began his Creem profile of Kraftwerk by citing the influence of methamphetamine (a German invention) on postwar American counterculture to argue that “the Reich never died, it just reincarnated in American archetypes ground out by holloweyed jerkyfingered mannikins locked into their typewriters and guitars like rhinoceroses copulating.” Adam Curtis’s 2002 study The Century of the Self shows how the public relations industry, that cornerstone of Hollywood, was born from the manipulations of Viennese psychoanalysis by Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays. In books like The Case of California (1991) and Nazi Psychoanalysis (2002), and in academic posts at UC Santa Barbara and the Academy of Fine Arts, Karlsruhe, Rickels has been writing about and living in Germany and California for three decades. His geographic determinism makes it difficult not to read Germany: A Science Fiction as an intellectual autobiography—a summation of his career as a psychoanalyst, a teacher of comparative literature, and a reader of science fiction, arguing frantically and encyclopedically that these diverse fields constitute, in the end, the same thing.

Rickels’s skill as a close reader is what makes Germany: A Science Fiction most compelling, such as when he illustrates the transposed negotiation of Cold War politics by means of both World War II and the American Civil War in deep cuts like Heinlein’s 1964 novel Farnham’s Freehold. But Rickels’s broader arguments about transatlantic exchange are limited by his adherence to psychoanalytic frames of understanding. The echoes of fascism in the Auschwitz-like work camp where the newly “rehabilitated” Arctor finds himself at the end of A Scanner Darkly seem not to require the discourses on mourning and melancholia projected by Rickels in order to be rendered legible.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

Black Movie

blackmovieDanez Smith
Button Poetry / Exploding Pinecone Press ($12)

by Mary Austin Speaker

Danez Smith’s Black Movie is a cinematic tour-de-force that lets poetry vie with film for the honor of which medium can most effectively articulate the experience of Black America. Its cover, designed by Nikki Clark, resembles a Spike Lee movie poster, with a bold color palette, chunky, hand-painted lettering, and an illustration of two red hands in the style of Saul Bass. The book takes an unflinching look at how Black Americans have been portrayed in film, and in doing so posits, initially, film as the ultimate myth-making tool of our era. Using this as its jumping-off point, Smith catalogs, in lyric poems that range from the fragment to the prose poem, how filmic myths exist in tension with the real life of Black Americans—the book’s epigraph from filmmaker John Singleton, director of Boyz in the Hood, makes this point of view clear from the outset: “Because, if I’m honest, people in the white world might be appalled, but in the black world, they’re making myths out of me. And I know that ain’t the life.”

Smith’s filmic catalog begins with a series of poetic riffs on Singleton’s cult classic with titles like “Sleeping Beauty in the Hood,” “A History of Violence in the Hood,” and the memorably metaphoric “The Secret Garden in the Hood (or what happens to dead kids when the dirt does its work),” which poses dead Black teens and tweens as the plant life that rises after their bodies are taken into the ground. Each of these poems inserts tragedy where we expect drama but doesn’t use this technique long enough to wear it out. Instead, Smith shifts gears, providing us with the chapbook’s second act—the book’s most devastating poem, “Short Film,” which offers, episodically, and elegiacally, the short stories of the deaths of Black Americans, all of them shot, unarmed, by fearful white people. The poem is interrupted by a gorgeously written section entitled “who has time for joy?” that feels like the heart of the book, the moment when the fourth wall falls away and the writer speaks directly to us: “reader, what does it / feel like to be safe? white? / / how does it feel / to dance when you’re not / / dancing away the ghost?” Whether the reader is white or Black changes the valence of the poem— she is either being offered one of today’s most provocative questions (what does whiteness feel like?) or she is being offered a moment of empathetic pathos, a question relentlessly shared by the Black community: what does it feel like to feel safe? By placing this section in the center of a poem full of true stories, Smith deftly prepares his reader to receive such stark stanzas as “I have no more / room for grief / / for it is everywhere now” and “prediction: the cop will walk free / the boy will still be dead.” This is the fact that rests most brutally in the maw of Black Movie: the just ending we moviegoers seek is not available to the Black Americans who die at the hands of police, regardless of evidence, videotape, or eyewitness account.

So Smith turns instead to poetry, but wrestles with the circumstantial position of the Black poet as the de facto writer of elegies in the thought-provoking “Politics of Elegy” (“raise your hands if you think I’m a messenger. now this time / if you think I’m a tomb raider”). Smith refuses simply to mourn the dead, however, a few pages later, he instead takes a page from Li’l Wayne and posits alienation as a kind of extraterrestrialism in the prose poem “Dear White America,” which announces,

I’ve left Earth to find a place where my kin can be safe, where black people ain’t but people the same color as the good, wet earth, until that means something & until then I bid you well, I bid you war, I bid you our lives to gamble with no more. I’ve left Earth & I am touching everything you beg your telescopes to show you.

This world’s rules are too white to sustain us, Smith tells us, and yet, art continues to be made, poems are written, joy occurs, despite everything. In “Notes for a Film on Black Joy,” a powerful second-person prose poem, Smith catalogues in the gorgeously intimate vernacular of interior thought-language such tender, private moments as watching his mother dancing “so ungospel you wonder if this is what they mean by sin,” praising the abundance of his grandmother’s meat freezer, and the summer he comes into his own as a gay black man—“boys look at you & go blind—most with rage, some with hunger.” It’s here Smith makes his case for raising the unkillable, beautiful parts of Black life to the mythic status of Boyz in the Hood.

The ultimate poem, “Dinosaurs in the Hood,” skewers every trope of Black cinema while offering a fantasy that lets the heroes and heroines of everyday Black life step into the heroic roles of movies: “I want grandmas on the front porch taking out / raptors with guns they hid in walls & under mattresses. . . . I want Cecily Tyson to make a speech.” But the poem doubles back on itself, painfully aware of the likelihood for a film set in a Black neighborhood to be relegated to the sidelines, ghettoized like much of Black experience. Smith resists such relegation, but his placing it in the poem serves to articulate the double-bind of Black hope: the world is too white to sustain a flourishing Blackness, and yet the Black artist must pit himself against it anyhow, planting seed after seed in the form of new poems, new films, new ideas. I hope, sincerely, that film will someday catch up to Smith’s dream. Until then, we have poetry.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016


kuntaliniTamara Faith Berger
Badlands Unlimited ($12.95)

by Corwin Ericson

Kuntalini, Tamara Faith Berger’s short yoga-based pornographic novel, is published by the Badlands Unlimited New Lover series, an homage to Olympia Press’s Traveller’s Companion books, which were designed to slip transgressive literature past customs inspectors. Having no border to cross, I brought my copy to the community dental clinic. I hoped maybe I’d perk up an otherwise grim stint in the waiting room.

I put Kuntalini under my thigh as I got drilled. On my left, the technician’s breasts briefly rested on my shoulder as she spread my cheeks with her lavender-purple nitrile glove-clad fingers. On my right, the masked dentist injected Novocain into the inside of my lip with a six-inch stainless steel syringe, saying, “I’m going to rough up the rim of your cavity.”

I hate the dentist, and my plan to eroticize the experience with Kuntalini was a failure. I also hate yoga classes. I’ve been to the dentist hundreds of times. I’ve only ever been to one yoga class, and I hated it for all the same reasons I hate the dentist. But at least at the dentist nobody makes you lie on the floor and stretch your lips. At the dentist, they just want to know if you’re numb yet.

Yoo-hoo, Kuntalini’s concupiscent young protagonist, is not numb. She sure as hell feels it. She finds yoga class fantastically arousing. A third eye or a cosmic portal or something opens up in her anus thanks to her instructor’s firm guidance, fingers, and tongue, and this propels her on a sex-touristic romp as her mind and organs expand and the universe becomes infinitely fuckable.

Yoo-hoo, still stunned from yogic ass humping, makes her loutish boyfriend late for brunch at an outdoor cafe with his death metal bandmates. In a haze of shame, lust, and pot smoke, she slips under the table to blow one of them. In subsequent chapters she reels in holy ecstasy from a brothel on fire to a cave inhabited by a yogi sex wizard who smells like fish.

I learned much of what I know about yoga from this very book, so I would be delighted to discover that it is based in fact, and that the orgasmic, spiritualized journey Yoo-hoo stumbles upon is an attainable goal, like getting your black belt. Fictitious as it may be, Berger’s prose is exuberant and gushy and knowing; it’s playful with the self-serious Namaste-speak that makes the mat-posturers so insufferable, yet it seems genuine in its appreciation for ecstatic transformation. “All I was, was ass.” That’s a good mantra, right?

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

Firewood and Ashes & Geis

firewoodandashesFirewood and Ashes: New and Selected Poems
Ben Howard
Salmon Poetry / DuFour Editions ($24)

Caitríona O'Reilly
Wake Forest University Press ($13.95)

by M. G. Stephens

Ben Howard writes a flawless blank verse, which he often hinges onto a narrative structure in an almost novelistic way. His iambics are as thorough and stately as anyone’s on the planet. His 1997 book Midcentury, represented in this new and selected collection, typifies both his measure and his gift for telling a story. Though from Iowa, Howard is obsessed with Ireland; his connection to that land is through his sensibility as much as his scholarship. Howard is also author of the essay collection The Pressed Melodeon: Essays on Modern Irish Writing (1996), which contains some of the most insightful writings on such authors as John Montague, John McGahern, Patrick Kavanagh, and Derek Mahon.

Midcentury is not a corny, sentimental Irish tale; the sequence begins with a poem entitled “The Word from Dublin, 1944,” a poem set during World War II, when Ireland had declared its neutrality throughout the worldwide conflict. Here is how it starts:

I can’t begin to say what brought me here,
Unless it be the Irish predilections
For whiskey and horses, both of which entail
A certain risk and a less-than-certain gain.
To be a middle-aged American
In Dublin in the middle of a war,
Of which we’re hearing more or less than nothing,
And that in fragments, bits of veracity—
A mutilated bulletin, a headline—
Is to see one’s lot reflected in the stories
That come to us distorted, if at all:
Stories of heroism, sacrifice,
Or, more often, utter devastation.

Howard goes on to write that he knows “next to nothing” about Irish horses, and regarding Irish whiskey, he says that it “soothes the brains it hastens to dismantle.” This persona has a voice freighted with mystery akin to a narrator in a novel by John Le Carre or Graham Greene. The voice is soft and quiet, sophisticated but full of subtle judgments, which the narrator calls moralysis, and he admits being inclined to it:

Which causes Iowans to see the world
As more coherent than it really is
And gamely to construct a moral dream
Where black is black, and a promise is a promise?

Whereas Ben Howard is an American poet and scholar with a deep interest in Ireland, Caitríona O’Reilly is an Irish poet and scholar with a deep interest in America. Her doctorate from Trinity College in Dublin assessed such poets as Emily Dickinson, H.D., and Sylvia Path, all of whose rhythms and images inhabit shadow worlds throughout these excellent poems. Consider her poem “An Idea of Iowa”:

Who in their bleakest hour has not considered Iowa?
We live in a place where everything leans in

as if to confide in us, and learn, too late, it is a trick:
the frieze, the whole entablature must topple,

as the drunk on the bus, in the course of his life story,
anoints us with cidery spittle, as the ash

from a thousand fag-end sunsets settles on us.
But Iowa.

Iowa is different, according to O’Reilly; it is yellow for as far as the eye can see, yellow “as the cere of the bald eagle / hanging with locked wings on thermals. / Iowa is rising.” But Geis shows more than a poet pining for a place she’s never been. This is a collection of lyrical sensibility, an intellectual and emotional exploration, an archeology (a field the poet studied as an undergraduate at Trinity) into the various layers of Irish culture and civilization. Like Seamus Heaney’s early poems, O’Reilly’s work mines not just the possibilities but the philosophical underpinnings of a people and their place in the world. These are smart poems, and yet they wear their smartness as one might wear a loose garment, making their utterances elegant and even charming, but always full of probing questions—the scholar’s pursuits. Certainly Caitríona O’Reilly is a smart poet, a well-educated one, but more importantly, a lyrical intelligence informs her erudition.

These are beautiful poems, full of imagery and intention that makes a reader pause and think. From the first poem, “Ovum,” we are introduced to an almost classic Irish sensibility in which words and their origins are not just background, but also the foreground to the poem: “the meat / of the word made orotund and Latinate.” She writes: “It’s like putting your mouth to the smooth / breast of the ocarina, from oca, the goose, / hooting out its fledgling notes.” I am reminded of the opening beat of Dubliners in which the words “paralysis,” “gnomon,” and “simony” become important to the young narrator of “The Sisters.” The Irish are nothing if not great caressers of words—stroking them, lingering over their surfaces, but also going back to the ninth-century scholarly monks, lovers of etymologies. Caitríona O’Reilly is just such a poet.

geisGeis is an Irish word, meaning a supernatural taboo or injunction on behavior. It is a word that resonates throughout this collection. It is suggestive of the forbidden, and yet these poems are austere, even regal, so that it is not the light of these poems, but rather the shadows they cast which are ultimately most intriguing. It is that afterglow of the geis, its residue, which lingers, not so much a song as the last echo of a song. These poems, especially the title poem, are about the rupture of the bifurcated self, of the poles of the human spirit in dramatic tension with each other. There is even a poem entitled “Blue Poles,” named after a famous Jackson Pollock painting, in which O’Reilly writes that “there was nothing left to do”

but plant blue poles among the spindrift and iron filings
and step, clutching your brass chronometer,
clean off the deck and into the sky
where a lens rose to meet you like a terrifying eye.

Irish poetry had a Renaissance forty years ago, mainly with male poets from the North (Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, and Paul Muldoon, to name a few). But what is happening today is something different entirely. Ireland has come up with a congress of women poets who represent the collective consciousness of the Irish people (Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Eavan Boland, Medbh McGuckian, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, and Sinéad Morrissey, among others). Caitríona O’Reilly is one of the most important voices in that new Irish renaissance. Hers is a complex, lyrical, archeological, resonating, probing voice, one that is as intellectually restless as any wandering Celt in the Irish past, either mythical or historical. This is a most important book whose urgency is confidently erudite, quietly fierce, and lyrically determined.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

My Escapee

myescapeeCorinna Vallianatos
University of Massachusetts Press ($24.95)

by Shane Joaquin Jimenez

Is escape possible? This is the central question in Corinna Vallianatos’s debut collection, My Escapee, a winner of the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction. These are stories constellated around women: elderly, young, married, widowed, sick, alienated. While these women appear on the surface to be considerably different, they are bound together by a common desire for escape—from the world of men, from personal limitations, from life itself. Thoreau famously said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” but Vallianatos asks whether escape is something that women can genuinely accomplish, or whether it merely numbers in a long list of thwarted desires.

We cannot discuss escape without first talking about the other side. Negative freedom, freedom from, means liberation from the various systems of control that bind us—from state power to the cultural forces that hold sway over our social lives. In these stories, the most pervasive system of control is the male gaze, which, in feminist film theory, is the tendency for the camera to assume a male perspective in framing women, reducing them to visually appealing objects. In My Escapee, this perspective becomes an active, living force, smothering the interior lives of our protagonists.

We discover this at maximum effect in the inspired story “Sink Home,” whose main character, Mira, is unhappily married to an aloof doctor who has long since lost interest in her. Frustrated, she escapes into an affair with Hugh, a civil rights lawyer who hates injustice in the abstract but can’t register the emotions of those around him. By arranging Mira between these two men, Vallianatos shows how she sees her life purely in relation to them, how she has become a void to be filled:

She struggles past a growing frustration, a white feeling that threatens to eclipse what she’s trying to say. She’s not a doctor-in-training, not a lawyer, not pleased with herself, not confident, not full of verve and vigor, not on fire, not at peace. She’s not sure of what she is, and this uncertainty feels to her like possibility, like space.

Mira fills this space with men, particularly Hugh. She senses distasteful controlling tendencies in him—he prefers to drive her around so he can be in “control of comings and goings”—but her resistances are overcome by the aggressive confidence with which he applies his gaze to her. She wants him to drive, she finds, “because she likes the feeling of him shepherding her places, as if she’s an arrangement of flowers that he’s delivering.” This kind of escape is not a pathway to freedom: when Mira internalizes the paradigms of the phallocracy instead of escaping their pressures, she becomes simply a passenger through her own life. When she discovers, with no great displeasure, that “she likes being corrected by him because he puts his arm around her when he does so,” the male gaze has become her own gaze, directed upon herself. James Brown may be famous for singing “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” but it was a woman, after all, who wrote the lyrics.

At a crucial moment in the story, though, Mira gathers her two lovers together and declares, “I have something both of you want.” Is she accepting her position as a sexual object or using it as leverage to reclaim control? Is she embracing the male gaze or subverting it? The circularity of these questions betrays our desire for the forward momentum of a traditional narrative, where characters learn lessons from their actions and are forever changed by them. Vallianatos acknowledges our desire, but, in the end, stifles it, as if to say that our journeys are ultimately determined by such defeated hopes.

Elsewhere, Vallianatos shows that the system we seek to escape from is sometimes life itself. “Living a long time solves only one of life’s mysteries,” muses Ginny, the octogenarian narrator of the book’s title story, “and that is what it is like to be very old.” Stuck in assisted-living hell, she is haunted by the memory of her lifelong lover, Margaret:

When we were young, Margaret and I flew in a small airplane over the red mountains of Afghanistan. She had red hair then, too. It sprang rowdily from her leather helmet. We didn’t need men, we had our permeable selves. The humped mountains were as intimate as a tangled blanket on a bed. I knew that if the plane were to sputter and sink I would accept it, the softness below us made it possible, even tempting.

The inverse of negative freedom is the freedom to, the state where one is empowered to engage freely in the world and choose one’s own life path. Ginny and Margaret centered their lives not on approval from men but on the wild form of escape called wanderlust; Ginny has successfully escaped social systems of control, but is now struck down by age, senility, mortality. So she chooses further flight into the void: she chooses self-destruction. Positive freedom is not necessarily the power to choose life; it’s simply the power to choose one way or the other. It is to be one’s own master, unrestrained both socially and internally, and be able to live free or to die.

In Ginny, Vallianatos shows us a character whose desire for flight is so strong she is willing to accept destruction, the softness below, as a means of escape. This is a kind of freedom that’s impossible for many of the characters in My Escapee, who have to content themselves with the simple freedom to not be enslaved. But Ginny finds a way toward true independence, where one possesses the free will to choose fully for oneself, be it life or death, the stars or the void.

Vallianatos hopscotches between narrative devices—in “Shelter” she transforms a new bride into a colorful, deflating balloon—but she’s most poetic when she works with disconnection as a theme and not a structural device. For the most part, her stories have a light touch. At just 165 pages, including acknowledgments, My Escapee is a spare, precise book, vividly imagined with sparkly language, and it leaves us asking questions of both the world and ourselves long after turning the last page. Let us return to our central question: Is escape possible? Perhaps the beginnings of an answer can be found in the title of the book, considering the intimacy of the possessive pronoun “my” and the word choice of “escapee,” with all its connotations of captivity and disappearance, pursuit and longing, but also the most desirable of all things: freedom.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

You Are A Complete Disappointment: A Triumphant Memoir of Failed Expectations

youareacompletedisappointmentMike Edison
Sterling Publishing ($17.95)

by Bridget Simpson

The title of Mike Edison's newest memoir, You Are A Complete Disappointment: A Triumphant Memoir of Failed Expectations, is taken from some of the last words his father ever said to him; the very last, moments later, being "I can't believe someone as smart as you likes professional wrestling!" Because it is framed as a comedic memoir, at first glance a reader might expect You Are A Complete Disappointment to be little more than a roast of a mean, old, Jewish father. However, Edison's book unfolds into a heart-wrenching narrative of the author’s journey to make peace with his childhood, forgive his father, and find worth within himself.

Edison's resume includes a stint as a porn novelist, a European tour with his punk-rock band, and an earlier memoir entitled I Have Fun Everywhere I Go—all jobs which further fueled his father's ire. This eclectic history bolsters Edison’s humor, while simultaneously adding to his credibility. In frank prose, he admits to those details of his first memoir which were edited or embellished in one of many attempts to win his father's approval. With Edison now uninhibited by the paternal pressure that defined much of his existence up until this point, his readers become privy to the intimate details of the therapy sessions that helped him come to terms with the contents of this book.

Edison admits that in many ways, You Are a Complete Disappointment was created for personal catharsis, but the result extends beyond himself. As he noted when the book began to take form, "The more I tell the story, the more I realize that there are a lot of fathers out there who somehow along the way were stripped of their kindness and their compassion for their children . . . I remember hearing about one guy who started a war in Iraq to impress his old man." Though Edison may be sure that his own father would not be happy with his latest endeavor, his candor and honesty will no doubt connect with many readers who also feel doomed to fail their fathers. Edison's own demonstration of the long, difficult, but sometimes humorous road toward compassion will pave the way for others to follow in his footsteps.

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Real Artists Have Day Jobs (And Other Awesome Things They Don’t Teach You in School)

realartistshavedayjobsSara Benincasa
William Morrow ($14.99)

by Christian Corpora

Sara Benincasa is the eccentric, fearlessly honest aunt you didn’t know you needed. She has published three books, including a coming-of-age story about a middle school trip to Washington, DC, a comedic retelling of The Great Gatsby, and a painfully funny memoir detailing life with mental illness, Agorafabulous!. Her newest book, Real Artists Have Day Jobs (And Other Awesome Things They Don’t Teach You in School) will appeal to readers seeking humor, advice, companionship, or all of the above. She fills fifty-two chapters—“one for each week in the year, if you so desire”—with life advice as told through deeply personal narratives.

Benincasa has amassed an eclectic hodgepodge of life experiences. From teaching high school math to developing and pitching television shows to coping with depression and anxiety, she never shies away from revealing both broad and intimate details about herself. Benincasa makes herself bare for the benefit of others learning the freedom of self-acceptance. She describes her project as “a book of advice and ideas inspired by my thirty-five years of flaws, fuckups, failures, and occasional good choices.” Her self-deprecating humor is a delight to read as she draws the reader into a deeper place of self-reflection.

The title of the book also serves as that of the opening chapter, which Benincasa uses to encourage creators of all types—writers, painters, designers, musicians—to embrace their creative identity. While the title positions this collection as aimed at fellow artists, Benincasa’s advice applies to readers who pursue creativity on any scale; almost any type of reader will benefit from the challenge it provokes to own one’s identity.

What makes Real Artists Have Day Jobs such a welcome addition to the humor/memoir/lifestyle genre—a genre dominated by household names such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Mindy Kaling—is Benincasa’s relative obscurity. The reader doesn’t associate glitz and glamor with her name, and neither does she. Benincasa is truly someone who lives her own advice and wants us to as well, and she provides enjoyment and heartfelt encouragement with every turn of the page.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016


ventriloquyAthena Kildegaard
Tinderbox Editions ($15)

by Heidi Czerwiec

Ventriloquy unites the expansive outlook of poet Athena Kildegaard with the recent expansion of Minnesota’s Tinderbox Poetry Journal into a new press, Tinderbox Editions. The five sections of this rich collection expand from the garden to saints, divination, and ultimately to the universe. By engaging with the garden and metaphysical concerns, Kildegaard evokes Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, in which the poet-gardener-speaker also throws her voice. But where Glück’s project, while powerful, feels tightly controlled and more intellectual, Kildegaard’s is more surreally messy—her saints are “Contrary and Futile” and her divinations start and end by pointing to the things of this world.

In the eight-line portraits of the first section, “Garden of Tongues, Garden of Eyes,” Kildegaard’s speaker takes a close look at various flowers, as in “The Clematis”:

Hush, hush, they whisper at dusk
then furl themselves tight as virgins.
The summer nights are too short
for turpitude, but the clematis
take no chance.

“The Saint of Whimsy” snatches at things—“nutcracker with a sky-blue cape and a bear head, / . . . / gingko leaves forceps two piano keys white and black”—and laughs at the collectors who follow her around, while “The Grass Saint” is depressed “because she knew bison / reduced to bar décor.”

The poems of the “Divination” section list various means by which the speaker tries and fails to explain her world. “It’s the sky . . . ceiling of the world,” the speaker of “By Fable” says: “Her throat tickles with failure. The sky / is falling. She’s hoarse as shucked corn.” But while concerned with intrusions of the numinous, this Cassandra’s divinations are linked to the female body’s experiences: the desires and fears of puberty, motherhood, and age. In “By Ice” she holds her dying mother’s hand, tries “to keep her mother tethered/ to this world” by reminding her of

the fur-lined glove her mother
dropped and, the next morning, found,
the sky clear, the glove frozen to gravel.

In the last section, “Still Life with Universe,” ekphrastic prose poems telescope between the micro- and macrocosmic to interrogate the nature of still-lifes themselves—their tension between stasis and story, their illusion of permanence. “Still Life with Passenger Pigeons” asserts “There’s a story here: cracked pepper spilled across the table . . . a galaxy, a startled flock, a Braille riddle.” And the ending of “Still Life with Giorgio Morandi’s Easel” could be a portrait of this entire poetry collection: “A silent arsenal of everyday objects, bristling and flat-bottomed.”

Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016