Tag Archives: Summer 2024

Stories and Poems of a Class Struggle and One Impossible Step

Stories and Poems of a Class Struggle
Historias y poemas de una lucha de clases
Roque Dalton
Translated by Jack Hirschman and Barbara Paschke
Seven Stories Press ($18.95)

One Impossible Step: Selected Poems
Orides Fontela
Translated by Chris Daniels

Nightboat Books ($17.95)

by Patrick James Dunagan

At first glance, not much connects the work of poets Roque Dalton (1935–1975) from El Salvador and Orides Fontela (1940–1998) from Brazil. Dalton, a committed revolutionary in the armed struggle leading up to his country’s civil war, writes poems in the direct, colloquial expression of everyday people—they are not didactic, yet they do wear their political and social concerns on their sleeves. Fontela’s poems, on the other hand, are far more hermetic; elusive, abstract, and philosophical. And of course, Fontela writes in Portuguese, Dalton in Spanish. Yet the two are contemporaries whose work responds to social conditions during turbulent times. 

Looking at these two disparate poets together—that is, reading them through each other’s lenses—enhances the parameters with which the work of each might be framed. Dalton becomes more philosophical, while Fontela gains in political gravity. Take a short poem by each. Here is one of Fontela’s “Seven Bird Poems”:

We’ll never know
such purity:
bird devouring us
while we sing it.

And this is Dalton’s “Poetic Art 1974”:

Poetry
Forgive me for having helped you understand
you’re not made of words alone.

In each case, the poet addresses their art, Dalton directly and Fontela through the archetypal image of a bird. While Fontela uses the universal “we”—as translator Chris Daniels notes, “Fontela almost never wrote the word ‘eu,’ the subjective form of the Portuguese first-person singular pronoun”—Dalton maintains an intimate “I-Thou” relationship, asking forgiveness for expanding poetry’s knowledge of itself. In both cases, the power of poetry to reach beyond language’s supposed meaning is stressed, albeit from opposing perspectives. Dalton implies the revolutionary context of his poem by including the year in the title, suggesting that poetry has a role to play in a time of cultural unrest and armed struggle, but Fontela also rejects the supposed rarification of poetry—“such purity”—in favor of the more active, even violent, “devouring us” that is within the art form’s transformative power. And while different in tone, both poems extol how poetry can elevate our ability to conceive the world anew.     

Drawing from all of Fontela’s collections of poetry, One Impossible Step represents not only the broadest translation of her corpus into English, but, at only 130 pages, it also operates as a compact overview of her biography and poetics. Daniels (who has also translated Pessoa among other Lusophone authors) ingeniously includes some twenty pages of excerpts from three interviews with Fontela, and Brazilian poet Ricardo Domeneck contributes a succinct afterword that assesses the trajectory of her life and work. Domeneck describes Fontela as

A person who owned no property, who felt neither the need nor the desire for a love relationship, perhaps [she] was uninterested in praising anything but oxygen. Perhaps her poverty led her to abandon adornment and poetic beautification. . . . demonstrat[ing] the linguistic attention of a post-war poet living a historical moment that demanded, in the use of symbols, an awareness of their being signs.

Dalton is much better known to U.S. readers; an earlier edition of this very book, published in the early 1980s under the title Poemas Clandestinos/Clandestine Poems, went through multiple printings. Now released as Stories and Poems of a Class Struggle as the first of a several Dalton translations to be issued over the coming years, it is actually the last, likely unfinished, work of Dalton’s; it comprises five sets of poems by distinct “authors” invented by the poet (though these pseudo-pseudonymous characters are nothing on the scale of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms). It’s unclear quite what Dalton had in mind by casting his voice into different personas, yet perhaps it is more important to draw attention to what these figures have in common: a belief in the necessity of cultural revolution and the use of poetry as a means towards that end. An opening “Declaration of Principles” signed by “the authors” closes by stating that the “enemy poet” (as opposed to the “servant poet” or “clown poet”) must have “a lucid and invincible confidence in the working class” and engage in “direct participation in its struggle.”

Fontela came from the working class, went to school to study philosophy on a scholarship, scraped by as a teacher, then “died in a public hospital in 1998, without a close family, destitute as a poet.” Dalton’s father was an American who financially provided for his education; he traveled internationally, spent time in Cuba honing his belief in communism and guerilla skills, and was tragically murdered in 1975 at the hands of his fellow revolutionaries in El Salvador , a victim of political infighting. Despite the vast differences in their lives, however, both poets created a body of literature hinged upon life—and because of this, these new translations of their work into English are vital.

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Criticism By Translation: An Interview with Peter Valente

by John Wisniewski and Eric Lorberer

One of the exciting things about contemporary literature is how writing, translation, and criticism exist on a continuum, each practice bolstering the others to take the art to new heights. Occasionally, this continuum manifests in a single individual, a polymath of seemingly boundless energy. In the following interview, readers will discover one such individual, Peter Valente; his many publications and activities of the past decade are better described by him below than in any introduction we could write. With each of us curious about different aspects of Valente’s prodigious output, we had many questions, so we thank him for expansively addressing them all.

Rain Taxi: Tell us a bit about your literary background—how did you come to the world of writing?

Peter Valente: I first published poems in those xeroxed, hand-stapled mags that were still coming out in the early ’90s, such as Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy’s wonderful Mirage #4 [Periodical]—they published my first poem in 1994. Later, I published work in literary magazines like Lee Chapman’s First Intensity and Peter O’Leary’s LVNG. I had graduated from Stevens Institute of Technology with a degree in Electrical Engineering and a minor in American Literature in 1992, and I was living in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, working in a bookstore. I attended as many readings as I could at the Poetry Project and elsewhere in New York City—a great way to get a substantial education in poetry.

I also read everything I could get my hands on from the great small press publishers of the day—Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop’s Burning Deck, Lyn Hejinian’s Tuumba Press, Steve Clay’s Granary Books, Annabel Lee’s Vehicle Editions, Geoff Young’s The Figures, and many others. I used Spencer Selby’s list of experimental magazines to find places to send work, and when I sent some pages of artwork to John M. Bennett at Lost & Found Times, he wrote on them and sent me back photocopies to give out for free. These early experiences with publishers taught me so much about community and the possibilities for collaboration, which came full circle for me later when I collaborated on a book with Kevin Killian called Ekstasis (BlazeVox, 2017). Oh, and during this time (the late ’90s), I published my first chapbook, Forge of Words a Forest, with Jensen Daniels, an imprint of Talisman House.

All these experiences were important for a young poet, because they exposed me to multiple poetry scenes throughout the United States and Europe—different ways a poem could exist in the world—as well as to certain trends in poetry at the time. They also led me to correspond with editors and writers I admired—not only Peter O’Leary and Kevin Killian, but also older writers like Gustaf Sobin, William Bronk, and Gerrit Lansing—again, correspondence can be an education in poetry all its own. John Wieners was an especially big influence on me at the time; I carried his Selected Poems, 1958-1984 (Black Sparrow, 1986) everywhere, reading it on trains, buses, park benches, whenever I had a chance. I’ll never replace my worn-out copy since there are so many memories associated it with it. I remember seeing Wieners read with Eleni Sikelianos in the late ‘90s at the old Teachers and Writers Collaborative space on Union Square; I went up to him afterwards and told him I had just picked up Behind the State Capitol, or Cincinnati Pike (Good Gay Poets, 1975) and he said, “Hold on to it, it’ll be valuable someday.” The 1969 Angel Hair edition of his Asylum Poems is also one of my most treasured books. I’m glad there’s growing interest in Wieners’s poetry, with a collected poems edited by Robert Dewhurst and a biography of him in the works.

RT: What about translating—when did that begin?

PV: Well, I didn’t seriously start translating books until 2014, when I realized I was drawn to writers such as Antonin Artaud and Sandro Penna, along with certain voices from the ancient world like Catullus, because their writings in one way or another were centered on an exploration of the body. Filmmaking helped me change my thinking about my writing (which in my late twenties was somewhat abstract) by leading me out to the streets, where I became involved in situations that demanded a dialogue or some form of intervention; when I attempted to extend these practices to writing, the result was an interest in opening up conversations through translation—dialogues with writers who were literary “outcasts” and for whom the sexual body is an important subject. This includes the five Classical Roman poets I translated in Let the Games Begin (Talisman House, 2015) and especially Catullus, who I tackled with Catullus: Versions (Spuyten Duyvil, 2017), as well as the more modern writers I work on.

RT: A perfect way to segue into talking about the Italian poets you’ve translated over the past decade. What led to the creation of A Boy Asleep Under the Sun: Versions of Sandro Penna (Punctum Books, 2014)?

PV: Penna is not well known in the U.S.; there were only a few translations of his work in English, all hard to find. Pasolini said that despite being a great poet, Penna was “destined to be a poet at the margins, not known, even despised.” The times have certainly changed somewhat—gay poets are more visible now than they’ve ever been—but there is still much more recovery work to be done; so many writers unjustly ignored in their time have poems that deserve a second look. Penna was openly gay and when Pasolini first arrived in Rome in 1950, he sought him out; they became good friends and frequent companions, their bond strengthened by their mutual love for young men (they both loved the ragazzi that prowled the outskirts of Rome). Penna also knew Eugenio Montale, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in 1975, but Montale objected to the homosexual content of Penna’s work, which led to a rift in their friendship. Penna published very little in the ’60s; the last book he approved for publication, The Sleepless Traveler, was published a month after his death in Rome on January 21, 1977. I think Penna’s various silences and refusals to publish were his way of showing that he didn’t care about how his work was received in academic circles. Anyway, when I delved into Penna’s poems I found them to be utterly brilliant, so I knew I had to translate him.

RT: Since you brought up Pasolini, let’s talk about him next; you’ve published translations of his poems in places like Jacket and The Baffler. Will there ever be a book of this work—and what is it like translating such an iconic artist, as compared to poets who are lesser known here in the U.S.?

PV: I don’t presently have plans to publish a book of my Pasolini translations, but I find him continually fascinating. Throughout his life he was an outspoken critic of what he believed was destroying Italy. In the United States, he is largely seen as a civic poet, but I wanted to focus on other kinds of poems. For example, his collection The Hobby of the Sonnet contains a series of love poems that show he was a lyric poet of the highest order. It was an eye-opening experience translating these poems, which have a fascinating backstory: While shooting La Ricotta (1963), Pasolini met the young man who would become his intimate companion for many years, Giovanni (“Ninetto”) Davoli; he was fourteen when he met Pasolini, who had just turned forty.  Soon Ninetto became part of Pasolini’s entourage and began appearing in his films, starting with The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) and culminating with The Arabian Nights (1974). “In me, he found the naturalness of the world he knew growing up,” Ninetto said, and I think that’s true: This was the world that Pasolini saw devastated by the changes Italy was undergoing in the ’60s. During the filming of The Canterbury Tales (1972), however, Ninetto told Pasolini that he intended to marry (which he did, in January 1973), promising that nothing fundamental would change as a result.  But Pasolini was inconsolable. The series of poems he began in the fall of 1971, The Hobby of the Sonnet, charts the series of emotional upheavals Pasolini underwent during this time. After the wedding Pasolini’s anger subsided, and in 1973 he wrote, “seeing that you have retained a little love for me / exclusively, this means everything.” Desire had given way to affection and loyalty. In The Arabian Nights Pasolini cast Ninetto as Aziz, a character he described as “joy, happiness, a living ballet.” Ninetto’s first son was named Pier Paolo. The Hobby of the Sonnet wasn’t published in Italy until after Pasolini’s murder in 1975, and while I and others have published translations of some of the poems, the entire sequence has never been published in English as far as I know.

RT: And finally, you’ve given us Nanni Balestrini’s Blackout (Commune Editions, 2017). How did you discover his work?

PV: I first discovered Balestrini’s poems in the anthology The Promised Land: Italian Poetry After 1975 (Sun & Moon Press, 1999). I had been aware of his novels in English translation published by Verso, but no book of his poetry had yet been translated—so I decided to translate this long poem, which is not only one of Balestrini’s best books but also extremely relevant to our time. Blackout is a requiem for the generation of 1968, whose hopes and ideals were exhausted by the time of the poem’s composition in 1979. The impetus for the poem was the New York City power outage of 1977, which lasted for over twenty-four hours and received widespread media attention because of episodes of violence and looting—but the historical events with which Blackout is concerned (and about which it is critical) span the revolutionary movement in Italy from 1969 to 1979, which involved not only university students but eventually the entire Italian working class, who took part in strikes, demonstrations, and acts of sabotage. Workers fought with fascists and police in Rome, Milan, Turin—and lives were lost amidst the violence.

As a result of mass arrests in 1979, Balestrini was indicted and fled to France; there he began to collect the materials that would eventually become Blackout. He was essentially creating a map to understand the political climate, examining the sequence of historical events whose consequence was repression and asking why no further revolutionary action is possible. In a sense, Blackout faithfully records the end of a world, the extraordinary period of creativity and hope that had characterized the late ’60s and early ’70s. But as much as it is an elegy, Blackout is also a call to action for future generations to counter the ever-present problem of power. We must collapse distinctions which enforce the duality of superior/inferior; we must imaginatively interrupt and redirect the flow of knowledge, moving through fissures and gaps to arrive at a new language and way of perceiving the world. The threat of physical and psychic death is all too real in this unstable political climate.

RT: You also translate from the French; two of your most recent translations are the novel Nicolas Pages (Semiotexte, 2023) by Guillaume Dustan and The Illuminated, or The Precursors of Socialism: Tales and Portraits (Wakefield Press, 2022) by Gerard de Nerval. What can you tell us about these titles?

PV: I translated The Illuminated because I considered it an important book that filled a gap in Nerval studies. Collectively, its narratives of six men show Nerval’s attempt to map an alternative history of the eighteenth century through the eyes of these visionaries. They also show that Nerval’s descents into madness (he suffered from bouts of mental illness throughout his life) were followed by ascents back to reality that resulted in a clearer vision of truth; as he wrote, “Is there not something of reason to be extracted from madness?” And so, Nerval embarked on these portraits, extracting a kind of moral from each of these figures’ confrontation with the abyss opened by “the death of God,” in a century that relegated visionaries to the position of outcasts.

Published in 1999, Nicolas Pages marks a departure from the Sadean preoccupations of Dustan’s previous three novels. It is in essence a love story. The writing is trashy, corporeal, frantic, but also collage-like, encyclopedic, philosophic: Dustan includes articles that he initially wrote for various magazines on the history of “house” music, on the history of homosexual virility since the 1970s, on modes of transmission and repression of SM practices, on the links between literature and sexuality, and on the notion of gay literature. It is a call for gay rights, a vibrant plea for autofiction, a reconciliation with his homosexual identity, a message of hope and energy, and a hymn to life, humanity, love, pleasure, and desire.  Inconstant, insolent, anti-conformist, and provocative, Dustan inaugurates a “gay literature” that is no longer painful or shameful but epicurean and cheerful without lapsing into idealism.

RT: How did The Artaud Variations (Spuyten Duyvil, 2014) come about?

PV: Essentially as an experiment. I had been interested in Artaud ever since I first read his work in college. Much later, I encountered Ezra Pound’s idea of “criticism by translation,” which required “an intense penetration of the author’s sense” and “an exact projection of one’s psychic contents.” I was thinking about these ideas when I wrote The Artaud Variations. I combined my own writing, as a kind of commentary, with my translations of sections from Artaud’s work. Writing this book was an intense and almost overwhelming experience. Sylvère Lotringer (1938-2012), the publisher of Semiotext(e), was one of the first to understand what I was doing, and he kindly wrote a blurb for the book that captures what I was going for: “Peter Valente has done everything that a translator/reader of Artaud shouldn’t do: he crossed the line and merged his own writing with the original. But he did it to such a mind-blowing extreme that Artaud’s voice becomes his own.”

RT:  Since then, you’ve clearly doubled down on your devotion to Artaud, and have released three books from the London-based publisher Infinity Land Press: 2020’s Succubations and Incubations: Selected Letters of Antonin Artaud (1945-1947), co-translated with Cole Heinowitz, and two books in 2023, The New Revelations of Being and Other Mystical Writings and Obliteration of the World: A Guide to the Occult Belief System of Antonin Artaud. Can you give us a quick tour through these titles?

PV: Succubations and Incubations contains a selection of letters (1945-1947) from Artaud’s consummate work, Suppôts et Supplications [Henchmen and Torturings], which provides readers with a vivid, uniquely intimate view of Artaud’s final years. They show Artaud at his most exposed, and perhaps also his most explosive, tragic, sad, even humorous. Commenting on and elaborating key themes from his earlier writing while venturing into new territory, Artaud recounts his torture and violation in asylums, his crucifixion two thousand years ago in Golgotha, his deception by occult initiates and doubles, and his intended journey to Tibet—where, aided by his “daughters of the heart,” he will finally put an end to these “maneuvers of obscene bewitchment.” Artaud also speaks of his plan to create a “body without organs” and extends this idea to the visual arts, where he argues that painting and drawing must wage a ceaseless battle against the limits of representation. There is an unmistakable unity of vision that permeates the letters.

The New Revelations of Being and other Mystical Writings contains texts written by Artaud between 1933-1937, works that explore astrology, alchemy, Eastern philosophies, Christian ritual and magic, the Tarot, and the civilizations of India and Mexico. Artaud’s extensive reading and thinking on metaphysics and religion produced “Notes on Oriental, Greek and Indian Cultures.” Also included are the important essays, “Mexico and Civilization,” “The Eternal Betrayal of the Whites,” “The Life and Death of Satan the Fire” and “The Breath that Returns to God…” But the central text in this volume is The New Revelations of Being. In this work, Artaud is the “Revealed One,” the madman and fool of the Tarot, who possesses secret knowledge which he believes will allow him to enact his apocalyptic vision of a world transformed through destruction.

Obliteration of the World contains my own essays exploring the hermetic side of Artaud’s thought, focusing on a series of letters written, late in his life, to André Breton, Georges Braque, Marthe Robert, Anie Besnard, and Collette Thomas. “Artaud’s Sacred Triad” uses the Qabalah and ideas about the Tarot to deepen ideas about Artaud’s sexuality and magick. “Cubism and the Gnostic” presents Artaud’s criticism of Georges Braque, which goes beyond mere aesthetics to question the essence of representation. “Artaud’s Book of the Dead” explores the Tibetan idea of the afterlife and Artaud’s relation to it; for him, the body that has evolved through time and suffered ceaseless persecutions both in life and in the afterlife is the corrupt body born of the spirit of God—thus, God is one of Artaud’s greatest enemies. “The Incestuous Father and His Daughters of the Heart” engages Artaud’s relation to the various women in his life; to these women, Artaud was alternately sympathetic and cruel, manipulative and romantic. The final essay is concerned with Artaud’s travels in Mexico, focusing on the importance to him of the mystical staff of St. Patrick. These essays were the result of years of thinking about Artaud’s work.

RT: As you pointed out, this work focuses on late-period Artaud, to which translator-scholars like Clayton Eshleman and Stephen Barber have also drawn attention. What is it about this phase of Artaud’s life and work that is so challenging?

PV: I remember reading in Clayton Eshleman’s introduction to his translation of Artaud, Watchfiends & Rack Screams: Works From The Final Period (Exact Change, 2004), that “there are two major projects facing future Artaud translators, the 300-page Suppôts et Supplications (Volume XIV) presented in two books, which Artaud considered to be his summational work; and the Cahiers de Rodez (Volume XV-XXI), over two thousand pages, worked at daily throughout Artaud’s recovery period in Rodez. There are also four volumes of notebook material from Artaud’s last two years in Paris.” So that led me to try to tackle thinking about and translating some of this work. Most U.S. readers only know Artaud from Jack Hirschman’s Artaud Anthology (City Lights, 1965) and Susan Sontag’s and Helen Weaver’s Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976) but even that book, though more well-rounded than Hirschman’s, “proposes that Artaud’s importance lies in the pre-Rodez work,” as Eshleman writes.

The later work is challenging: Artaud’s apocalyptic vision for mankind led him on a journey, beginning in Mexico in 1936 and ending, tragically, in Ireland in 1937, with a mental breakdown and silence. After the fateful journey to Ireland, he was placed in a straitjacket and eventually sent to the Rodez asylum. In the late work we see Artaud reconstructing a life that was destroyed. He develops a vast cosmology in which there are demonic entities and an entire panoply of beings that constitute the spirit world, and in which occurs a dramatic fight between these entities and mankind, which Artaud insisted had nothing to do with the spirit. It is a world completely unlike the surrealist and visionary one most U.S. readers associate with Artaud—and it is a cosmology that he ultimately rejects in favor of silence: In 1948, Artaud wrote: “At this moment, I want to destroy my thought and my mind. Above all, thought, mind and consciousness. I do not want to suppose anything, admit anything, enter into anything, discuss anything…”

RT: Do you have any more Artaud projects in the hopper?

PV: Later this year, Infinity Land Press will publish my translation of The True Story of Artaud-Mômo, which contains the complete text of Artaud’s final lecture, given in Paris on the night of January 13, 1947. It was his last public performance, one in which he forcefully ruptured all received and polite notions of performance, lecture, or even theatre–he pushed himself and his viewers past the realm of what could be comfortably absorbed. This work became an important reference point for various post-war intellectuals and artists, such as the Lettrists, the New Realists, the Beat Generation, and the movement of action poetry. What makes the text so riveting and powerful is that unlike in his other writings, Artaud is summing up a lifetime of experiences and pain at the hands of society and doctors—it is the closest thing we have to an autobiography.

RT: As if writing and translating weren’t enough, you also work in visual media. Why did you decide to make films?

PV: It came about by accident. In 2010 I started showing films (from my own collection of DVDs) twice a week at a nursing home in Jersey; although I was writing, I wasn’t publishing books. One night at the home, I met someone who had a Bolex camera and wanted to shoot a film; with no working script, we shot a film over a weekend, Liminal, that was shown at Anthology Film Archives. Later I made my own films, but without any money—I had to use what was readily available. I shot my first few films with a small point-and-shoot Canon camera and a few friends; in my later films, I dispensed with “actors” entirely, using myself or random people on the street when needed. I usually followed my instinct rather than a prepared script—in fact, I’ve never made a film with a script of any kind. I start with an idea and improvise from that, like free jazz musicians such as Cecil Taylor and Derek Bailey. Georges Méliès had to improvise his films during the early age of cinema, and the result was magical: A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Impossible Voyage (1904) hold up even to this day. Improvisation governs almost all aspects of my life, and certainly those that have to do with artistic creation.

RT: You also have published photographic work—tell us about Street Level (Spuyten Duyvil, 2015).

PV: During the summer of 2012, I filmed, alone and with a cheap camera, homeless vets, former drug addicts, and gang members in New Jersey and on the Lower East Side. I was planning to make a documentary to be called Street Level; the film was never completed, but the book of the same name featured stills from the film. Despite considerable risk, I was trying to capture the language and face of despair and anger otherwise silenced in the media. There is, as we all know, an increasing divide between the everyday “normal” life of most Americans and the “extraordinary” life of the privileged, but many of the men and women I filmed live outside these two worlds—and thus they are invisible. But they have something to tell us, and we must listen. They have the possibility, as we all do, of being transformed. This would mean seeing all of us connected, where there are no false dividing lines, no mysterious Others, but a single body of which we are a part, working together and accepting our differences.

RT: Let’s close with some other strands of what you do in the writing world, starting with fiction. Can you speak a bit about your novella “Parthenogenesis”?

PV: “Parthenogenesis” was my attempt at writing a kind of science-fiction novella. It includes subjects like telepathy, cyborg bodies, time travel, pop culture, and class critique; in terms of narrative, I wanted to create a story that is essentially a series of fragments, moving between the past and the present—the impression of a narrative pulsing underneath rather than immediately apparent. That pulse, like a heartbeat, dark and violent but also transformative, drives the narrative toward the possibility of revolution and magic. A character in the book says: “Magic draws from the forbidden…the first magical act is becoming aware that I AM a self…distinct from others who carry the same social role.” In other words, the first act of revolution takes place within. “Parthenogenesis” and “Plague in the Imperial City” were published together as Two Novellas (Spuyten Duyvil, 2017).

RT: Among the plethora of books you’ve recently published are A Credible Utopia: Essays on Selected Films of Werner Schroeter (Punctum, 2022), and a poetry volume you edited, Breathlehem: The Selected Poems of Jim Brodey (Local Knowledge, 2024). Both are, in a sense, homages to artists largely unknown beyond devotees of film and poetry. How did these projects come about?

PV: Regarding the Schroeter book, I attended a retrospective of his films in 2012 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City; I had been aware of his name from having watched some of the so-called New German Cinema, but I was immediately attracted to Schroeter’s films because they seemed so unusual compared to the other German films at the time. I admired their theatricality and almost unhinged emotional quality; they seemed improvised and irreverent. Schroeter was a kind of romantic with both feet in the real world—his films don’t take themselves too seriously, even when dealing with serious subjects like the nature of love and death.

Also, as a filmmaker, I’ve worked in 8mm, 16mm, and digital, so when viewing his films, I asked myself questions like: How did he get that lighting to produce such an image? What kind of film did he use? What kind of camera? I also admired his use of texts from literature, such as the Songs of Maldoror by Lautréamont, which Schroeter used in both The Death of Maria Malibran and a later film, Deux. And I admired the way he used music to comment on a character’s thoughts, or to conflict with what is on the screen; most of my films do not contain dialogue but I made extensive use of different kinds of music, from opera to popular music to jazz. I imagine Schroeter must have been aware of Kenneth Anger’s use of music in his films, the way it comments on the images and adds another dimension to what one is seeing on the screen.  So, I approached Schroeter from the viewpoint of a filmmaker first, and not an academic.

As for Jim Brodey: It’s been thirty years since Hard Press published Heart of the Breath, a collection of Brodey’s poems edited by Clark Coolidge, and all his individual books remain out of print—so I just thought it was time for a Selected Poems to bring his work back into circulation for readers. Breathlehem contains selections from all of Brodey’s work including some poems that only appeared in magazines and were never collected in a book. I also included numerous photos of Brodey, both alone and in the company of other poets. My aim was to document an active and exciting period in the New York poetry world that Jim Brodey was a part of—as well as to serve as a reminder that he was and is one of our best poets.

RT: What are you working on next?

PV: I’m currently editing a series of texts on the filmmaker Harry Smith. My experience in film had led me to working as a proofreader and general editor and I also helped to get photos for the reissue of Paola Igiori’s American Magus: Harry Smith (originally published by Inandout Press, 1996) that Semiotexte published in 2022. While working on that book, I came into contact with many people who knew him, and this resulted in my putting together a collection of texts, photographs, letters, and even an unpublished document by Harry. The book is going to be published by Inner Traditions in 2025. I’ll also have a new book of reviews and essays in 2025 from Punctum Books; that will include essays on John Wieners, Jack Spicer, and David Wojnarowicz, as well as on John Ruskin and Gavin Douglas’ translation of the Aeneid. The book will also include reviews of books by Will Alexander, Bernadette Mayer, and Cookie Mueller. After that, who knows?

photo from Street Level

Click below to purchase these books through Bookshop and support your local independent bookstore:

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

American Gothic: Gordon Parks and Ella Watson

Edited by Philip Brookman and Casey Riley
Steidl/The Gordon Parks Foundation/Minneapolis Institute of Art ($65)

by Chris Barsanti

Like many great collaborations, the iconic partnership of Gordon Parks and Ella Watson was an accident. In 1942, only a couple of years after the Kansas-born and Minnesota-seasoned Parks had left the Twin Cities, he started a photography fellowship with the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Washington, D.C. In his autobiography A Choice of Weapons, Parks described talking to FSA head Roy Stryker about the challenges of “using my camera effectively against intolerance.” Stryker, whose agency was tasked with fighting poverty and had already hired the likes of Walter Evans and Dorothea Lange to visualize the devastation wrought by the Great Depression, had some advice for Parks: Pointing to a Black “charwoman” mopping the hallway, Stryker said, “See what she has to say about life and things. You might find her interesting.” Parks spent four months with Watson at her work and home. The result is one of the most visually striking and quietly charged photo series of the twentieth century.

American Gothic: Gordon Parks and Ella Watson, the catalog to an exhibition of the same name at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, lays out what Parks found. In the museum show, the roughly sixty images are presented in four different categories (“Care,” “Community,” “Faith,” and “Labor”); these distinctions aren’t used in the catalog but regardless, the portraits comprise a very specific slice of life. Watson, a teenage mother whose husband was killed just before the birth of their second child, was raising two grandchildren on her own when she met Parks. A slim, upright woman with a narrow face and watchful eyes, Watson has a stoic quality in these images that suggests timelessness and stubborn dignity.

Parks’s best work is marked by his empathy. No matter how many portraits he made or awards he received, the artist who once earned his keep by playing piano in a Minneapolis brothel maintained a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God connection to his subjects. That bond is clear in American Gothic, which is less a high-flying artist’s hierarchical view of a laborer than it is a wordless conversation between two Black government workers in an environment where each had to continually prove their worth.

Parks might have been expected to bring to this series the lightning-in-a-bottle quality that characterizes his best street photography—but with Watson, he takes his time. She is carefully framed in every shot, often lit as well as the women in his fashion work. The compositions are not dashed-off but complex and layered, especially in those pictures which document the church that Watson, who was very religious, attended.

Not surprisingly, the keynote image is the iconic and initially controversial photograph that gives the exhibition and catalog their title. Multiple images show Watson sweeping the FSA hallways and offices, a poised figure in a white dress with her head down—whether from shyness, focus on her work, or both—getting on with things in a darkened institution where she was likely rarely noticed. In “Ella Watson Sweeping,” Parks seems to have placed a lamp on the floor behind a desk, creating a pool of upward-casting light that throws dramatic shadows. Watson looks heroic and unbowed yet human to a fault, without the distancing of attempted iconography.  

“American Gothic” itself remains a wonder. In what could be considered our nation’s Mona Lisa, Watson looks just off to the side of the camera with a steady, just shy of exhausted look. There is an upside-down broom in one hand, a mop visible to the right, and behind her an American flag, casting its complicated aura of high ideals and promises unkept over everything. Taken just twelve years after Grant Wood’s instantly famous Flemish-inspired painting of two similarly stoic Midwestern farmers, Parks’s photograph is similarly open-ended—it grabs the eye but doesn’t insist; you are compelled to look but are not sure what you see. Despite this ambiguity, Parks’s juxtaposition of Watson in front of the flag, with its unspoken critique of a government fighting authoritarianism abroad and maintaining inequality at home, was something of a bombshell: “You’ve got the right idea, but you’re going to get us all fired!” Stryker supposedly told Parks.

Interestingly, there is little in the exhibition that specifically addresses the class and racial disparities Parks found in Washington, D.C. (though one picture of two Black children playing with a white doll seems to prefigure his infamous “Doll Test” photo taken five years later). Although he grew up attending segregated schools, Parks was still shocked by just how institutionalized Jim Crow bigotry was in our nation’s capital, where he could not shop for clothes or get lunch where he chose because he was Black. Did he and Watson talk about this? Did they have to?

Tellingly, the book’s spine and cover credit the work to “Gordon Parks and Ella Watson.” He had the camera and the eye that produced these photographs. But her life, and everything that constituted it, was her own.

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The Garden Against Time

In Search of a Common Paradise

Olivia Laing
W. W. Norton & Company ($27.99)

by Sarah Moorhouse

Writing and gardening have often been linked. We might think of the word “anthology,” which literally means—like the Latin word florilegium—a gathering of flowers. Both terms refer to collections of excerpts or extracts, an activity that was popular among readers during the Renaissance. Olivia Laing’s new book, The Garden Against Time, brings this historic practice to mind; a memoir-cum-history of gardening, it presents curating a space for plants as a creative process, one just as involved with the imagination as writing can be.

Examining numerous thinkers enthralled by gardens and gardening and forming a collection of ideas like an array of plants, Laing’s book is, as she declares, “a garden opened and spilling over.” Gardens, for her, are a site of radical possibility; her Instagram bio labels her as a “writer/gardener,” and this dual identity, which saw Laing drop out of an English Literature degree in her early twenties to train as an herbalist, is tied up with her environmentalism and fierce social conscience. As a child, Laing attended a convent school with a garden that provided her with a “sense of absolute, unquestioning belonging,” and through each subsequent garden she has tended, she has been attempting to recover and cultivate this feeling.

The Garden Against Time begins in 2020 when, after “a surge of good fortune,” Laing purchased and began to restore a walled garden in Suffolk. By laying down roots in its soil and watching green shoots spring up, she found hope amidst constant anxiety about the coronavirus pandemic and wider environmental disaster. While she claims that she “never saw the garden as a place to escape reality,” Laing rejoiced in how “the outside world receded” as she replaced doom-scrolling on her phone with weeding and sowing.

In some ways the book is an extended meditation on how this has always been the paradox of gardens; Laing argues that green spaces reflect the times they were created in, from the Garden of Eden and the grounds owned by eighteenth-century slave traders to the imaginative oasis that artist Derek Jarman cultivated while dying from AIDS in the late 1980s. That she attends to these sometimes troubled histories should be no surprise, for each of her previous books has expressed a thrumming dissatisfaction with the political status quo: for example, Laing’s 2018 novel Crudo is set against the backdrop of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election campaign, while her 2020 essay collection Funny Weather considers ways art can address social injustice. In this new volume, Laing describes how gardening became a “solace” and even a “compulsion” at a time when it felt that “everything I wanted to say sounded exactly like the sort of thing a person like me would say, a stupid liberal.”

Laing does occasionally veer close to sounding trite when waxing lyrical about gardens. When she declares that “the garden I chose had walls, but like every garden it was interconnected, wide open to the world,” the reader might struggle to take this at face value; Laing has experimented with rejecting private property (she spent part of her twenties living in a protest camp), but it’s hard to read the same degree of radical nonconformism into her embrace of gardening—one of the most conventional middle-class pursuits. Moreover, her garden is no cabbage-patch; in 2022, the British magazine House and Garden ran a feature on “Olivia Laing’s dream Suffolk home,” showcasing Laing’s resplendent property. When read alongside that article, Laing’s gushing descriptions of blooming hyacinths and hooded lilacs can’t help but seem a bit bourgeois.

Mostly, however, The Garden Against Time does not shy away from gardening’s association with class. Most notable is the tale of Iris Origo, an elegant landowner who used the gardens of her Tuscan villa to shelter refugees during World War II. Origo’s estate was transformed from a place that represented exclusivity to a site of protection and communal belonging, though eventually, both house and garden were requisitioned by the Germans. Upon the Allied victory, Origo’s garden was left “full of shell holes and trenches” and “covered in a foul litter of broken objects,” yet Origo noted after returning home that “there is still jasmine on the wall”; its classism shattered, the garden had become a site of both destruction and hope.

Laing’s own garden also offers her the context to explore a running drama between opposing forces. Engaged in a continuous battle against weeds, Laing is initially attached to the idea that her garden paradise cannot contain any destructive elements, declaring, “Eden was my intention.” Midway through the project, however, she changes tack: If she is to upend the paradigm whereby gardens denote exclusivity and escapism, then she cannot shut out pernicious elements, be they weeds, world events, or—increasingly—the impact of climate change, which manifests as droughts and extreme heat.

This brings Laing to the most important idea in the book: that in attempting to make things better, “we need to start from our contaminated present and not some future position of undiluted purity.” We can’t wait for fossil fuels to become obsolete before we address climate change in earnest, nor can we give up on being kind to one another during times of entrenched political divisions. Laing arrives at a criticism of Eden, blaming this archetypal garden for propagating an ideal of purity that is incompatible with sustainability, and explaining that “the fantasy of perpetual abundance” is Eden’s “more sinister legacy”:

So many of our most ecologically deleterious behaviours are to do with refusing impermanence and decay, insisting on summer all the time. . . . To accept the presence of death in the garden is . . . to refuse an illusion of perpetual productivity . . . an illusion purchased at a heavy, soon unpayable cost.

Laing arrived at this realization during a drought in the summer of 2022, when it became clear that to water her plants, she would need to “disregard the consequences, the rivers that were drying up by the day.” Her garden, she saw, exists within the “contaminated present” and like everything we use, its materials have a hidden cost. By accepting “death in the garden,” however, Laing begins to formulate an alternative approach founded on a cyclical notion of time, whereby death is not the end point but is instead involved in various processes of renewal. Intriguingly, this echoes the case she makes for art as a mode of “resistance and repair” in Funny Weather.

But what might a garden founded on “resistance and repair” look like? Laing offers a clue in her descriptions of London after World War II, when wildflowers and plants sprang up from the city’s rubble. A public garden emerged that was beautiful for its incongruity as well as for the sense of shared possibility it represented, with the ruined city “mantled in gold and imperial purple, the ripe smell of buddleia mixing with the sourness of brick dust and mould on the air.” Laing sees this as a metaphor for other types of flourishing in post-war Britain, suggesting that through “housing, education, the welfare state . . . there was a brief vision of the nation as a collective garden, in which everyone could partake of the fruit.”

This is lofty stuff, but Laing’s enthusiasm for her subject is infectious, and she is convincing in her assertion that exposure to nature’s beauty is a right, not an indulgence. “Each garden run along these wilder, richer lines,” she urges us to recognize, “participates in a great network . . . sustaining and supporting life.” Laing gives these words weight by showing what happens when our contact with nature is taken away, suggesting that the Romantic poet John Clare’s descent into madness was exacerbated by his removal from the green spaces he so loved. During his confinement at Northampton General Lunatic Asylum between 1841 and his death in 1864, Clare would write on scraps of paper such messages as “where flowers are, God is, and I am free.” Laing, too, believes that freedom can be found in a garden.

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Brotherless Night

V. V. Ganeshananthan
Random House ($18)

by Ann Klefstad

V. V. Ganeshananthan’s 2023 novel Brotherless Night, a product of long and careful research and an amazing feat of empathic imagination at once, is now out in paperback, and has won both the Carol Shields Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction on its journey. The book is narrated by Sashikala Kulenthiren, a young girl living in the Tamil community of Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka. Sashi is driven to become a doctor like her grandfather, and is a serious and formidable student, pushing through initial failure and continuing despite the gradual crumbling of her community under the stresses of conflict. The successive losses of her four brothers, however, form the frame of the story.

In response to violent repression of Tamils (who are Hindu) by the Sri Lankan government (who represent the majority Sinhalese Buddhists), a number of Tamil militant groups form, including the Tamil Tigers. The past cruelties of the Sinhalese government gradually come to light through the screen of a happy family’s life; these events arise in the narrative like the smoke of distant fires, until the flames come to engulf the story entirely.

K, a neighbor boy, becomes Sashi’s most resonant attachment, neither a lover nor merely a friend. His anonymity throughout the book—he is always only K—feels like a reinforcement of the distance that ideology creates, as he becomes central to the Tigers’ struggle and recruits a reluctant Sashi to work at a field hospital. In a sign of foreboding, her first patient is one of her brothers; gradually all circumstances of life in Jaffna are enmeshed in the struggle, and violence and death are the price of refusal to participate.

Sashi is never a true believer but rather a faithful observer, clear-eyed and dispassionate in her account, even though heartrending losses mount. The Tigers are young men she knows; they are also killers of her teacher, of loved ones. Yet the government officials who have created the climate of violence are also people known to her, while Sinhalese neighbors help Sashi and her mother escape death at the hands of government soldiers. Nothing is black and white except the tragedies of violence.

Anjali Premachandran, Sashi’s teacher at her medical school, becomes a key figure in the novel; a researcher and reporter of events, she is drawn from an actual person, also a professor of anatomy at the medical school in Jaffna. Rajani Thiranagama was one of the authors of The Broken Palmyra, an account of the Sri Lankan civil war written by four Tamil professors comprising the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna). They took on the mission of documenting human rights violations during the war no matter who committed them, developing research techniques that prioritized fact over passion. Ganeshanathan remarked in a January 2023 essay in LitHub, “Through reading their work, I came to believe that meaningful representation required self-critique. They wrote especially movingly and analytically about how the Tigers, a fascist movement, had arisen from Tamil society.”

Thiranagama was killed because of her truth-telling, but despite its roots in a harrowing and complicated real-world struggle, Brotherless Night does not over-explain but instead lets events simply unfold. Ganeshananthan’s prose, in fact, continually suggests the refusal of real life to conform itself to a Procrustean bed of ideologies. A scene in which a woman who had been raped by soldiers detonates a suicide bomb in a government office offers a brutal example: “The first small, potent blast caught her and the man together, and with her right arm gone and his left leg severed beneath the knee, they looked like one person, dancing. Her hair fell out of its pins into his open mouth.”

Having lived with the history of her country’s nearly three-decade civil war, Ganeshanathan has first experienced and then created a realm in which facile judgments are impossible. Brotherless Night is a testament to the relentless need for understanding tragedy through story.

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Arguing for a Better World

How Philosophy Can Help Us Fight for Social Justice

Arianne Shahvisi
Penguin Books ($20)

by Josh Steinbauer

Arianne Shahvisi is a Kurdish British professor of philosophy, and many of the essays in her new book Arguing For a Better World began as reflections on questions from her students. With extraordinary curiosity and conversational ease, she lays out her arguments in response. Shahvisi is not aiming to be objective or apolitical here: “I have tried to make my reasoning clear enough that those who disagree with me will at least see where we part ways.”

Early chapters like “Can You Be Racist to a White Person?” arrive where any progressive writer would, but with a noteworthy eloquence: “History breaks the symmetry between two otherwise comparable acts.” From there, the ethical inspections grow in complexity. In “Is It Sexist to Say ‘Men Are Trash?’” Shahvisi’s response is “When someone says ‘men are trash’ they connect sexual harassment to masculinity. That’s not an act of hate, it’s an act of illumination.” She takes the torch to the very concept of masculinity when she writes, “Toxic masculinity also implies the existence of a ‘healthy’ masculinity, when such a thing seems unlikely or even contradictory. Gender is itself a system of division and hierarchy. Finding ways to make it more palatable misses the deeper moral issues.”

Shahvisi layers a lot of historical research into her arguments. In a chapter about cancel culture, she makes a pit stop in the ancient city state of Athens, where every winter, residents could write the name of someone who’d caused offense onto a broken piece of clay pot. These shards were tallied, and the most disliked person was exiled for ten years. History shows us that even early forms of canceling were not about censorship, but rather “a powerful tool for discouraging assholery.”

The intersection of the personal and political is Shahvisi’s wheelhouse, and she engages it from an array of unlikely angles. In a chapter about individual responsibility within unjust systems, Shahvisi starts with a passage from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath about banks being monsters that men made but can’t control. She funnels that into a story about backyard bickering with her father over disposable plastic, and then pivots to U.K. medical devices produced using child labor in Pakistan. It’s all over the map (as issues related to globalization tend to be), but, like any skillful storyteller, Shahvisi is setting the stage.

When it comes to discussing environmental responsibility, the professor serves up Kant’s Categorical Imperative on the world’s dinner plate. Currently, about half the world’s land mass is used for agriculture. If the rest of the world ate like the average person from India, agriculture would only take up 22%. For the average U.K. resident’s diet, we’d need 95%. For the rest of the world to eat like an American—273 pounds of meat per year—we would need 137% of the world’s land mass for agriculture. This impossibility is the teachable moment of Kant’s universalizability principle: Americans cannot morally consume this much more than their share of the world’s resources.

Shahvisi is critical of capitalist solutions to global woes. When the market sees our desire for eco-friendly options, it cashes in with a retail markup; this sells a clear conscience to those who can afford it while pricing out the masses, functionally sidelining any meaningful solution. She eviscerates the hemming and hawing we do now over our personal carbon footprints, tracing it back to the oil company BP paying the ad agency Ogilvy & Mather to market the idea that individuals (rather than fossil fuel companies) should determine their own climate impact. When fossil fuel websites promote consumer carbon calculators, our society is simply gamifying a Choose Your Own Carbon Dystopia. It’s an update to the playbook that the plastics industry used decades ago to promote flimsy recycling programs as a way of shifting the cost and blame for environmental consequences onto consumers.

The author is pragmatic about how far individual responsibility will take us. Avoiding plastic grocery bags and straws is not going to save the planet: “A single drinking straw is, in fact, a literal drop in the ocean compared with, say, the 705,000 tons of plastic dumped in the sea every year by the fishing industry.” Global dilemmas require international government coordination. Shahvisi holds room for individual impact, but Arguing for a Better World illustrates that our choices are constrained by economic forces and our desires are manipulated by advertising, all without any sense of consequence.

Shahvisi does suggest some novel solutions. For example, she asks, what would it look like if the same level of scrutiny we apply to cigarettes was applied to other products? In the same way that health warnings are a mandatory portion of tobacco packaging, what if we learned, for example, that this pair of shoes or that pair of jeans was produced in a sweatshop where child workers are running machines on 11-hour shifts for less than their country’s minimum wage? It’s hard to say how much justice individual consumers might achieve this way, but the success of tobacco regulation is hard to ignore.

Essays about how to be in our present-day unjust world abound, but the guidance Shahvisi offers in Arguing for a Better World is a refreshing amalgam of progressive politics and professorial pondering. She reminds us that mistakes are unavoidable, and that our moral and political arguments require as much compassion as reason. As she states, “we are all fallible and unfinished, and need to be offered conditions under which learning is possible.”

Art courtesy of the reviewer, one in a series of renditions of writers alongside their words featured on his Instagram (@joshsteinbauer).

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Walk the Darkness Down

Daniel Magariel
Bloomsbury ($27.99)

by Jonathan Fletcher

Daniel Magariel’s latest novel, Walk the Darkness Down, immerses readers into the troubled marriage of Les, a commercial fisherman, and Marlene, a frustrated homemaker. Marlene and Les have endured the worst tragedy conceivable—the death of a child—and though they remained together, their relationship (less a marriage than the inevitable conclusion of a long past romance) is as turbulent as the seas to which Les escapes in an effort to avoid the difficult conversation he and Marlene have needed to have for years.

With observations as insightful as they are sonically pleasing (“Sex has become primitive to him, violent, as grisly as a knifing”), Magariel never strays into the didactic, and the dialogue is equally crisp and effective:

I’m not moving down there. The crew needs me. I have a responsibility to them.
And what about to me?
They’re family.
Family?
Family.

Magariel also judiciously treats readers to purposeful, understated insights. At the end of the first chapter, Marlene clumsily fights Les, only to end up face down on the street in front of their apartment:

For a moment she believes he might somehow conjure Angie by uttering her name, which he’s refused to do for two years now. For a moment, turning her eyes to the top of the stairs, to all the light pouring out of their apartment, she stakes her life on the doorway not being empty.    

A story about two people whose life together has been mostly a life apart, Walk the Darkness Down relies on scenes in which such apartness is not only felt but explicit. Marlene finds an unusual hobby of sorts in befriending local sex workers from The Villas, a defunct motel that since essentially serves as a brothel, and taking them home to care for them: “She never entered the motel, never even pulled up to the lobby, and never brought home the same woman twice.” The arrangement is generally reciprocal: “On nights like these Marlene sees herself as a kind of archaeologist, exhuming the lives of others. As Marlene works, the woman she picked up an hour ago is remade into a girl.” Though Marlene’s “hobby” may not be entirely altruistic, her motives are sympathetic: In helping care for the sex workers, Marlene can feel she is symbolically saving her and Les’s late daughter Angie. Yet when Marlene is alone, this indirect salvation is not enough—it will take more than good deeds to heal. It will also take the understanding and involvement of Marlene’s detached husband—a reality not lost on Marlene as she cuddles one of the women at the end of the second chapter.

Magariel’s settings are equally important in establishing the distance between Marlene and Les. Eschewing lengthy and elaborate descriptions of the coastal town in which the couple lives and life at sea, Magariel instead treats the reader to dynamic and symbolically loaded sequences. At one point, Les looks out on the Atlantic Ocean from the trawler he’s stationed on, taking in the unfathomable scale and size of the sea and the life within it:

Out here bait balls the size of football fields appear from nowhere, the water surface suddenly sparkling with tens of thousands of glinting fish. Biblical weather arrives in full portent. On clear days, when the faint curve of the planet is the only delineation of sky and sea, thoughts warp toward the terrors of myth. Les might imagine a skyscraper tsunami lifting out of the horizon. Or in the inscrutable white of fog, the waters haunted and the hazy sun a second moon, the boat might steam into the open mouth of an awakened leviathan.

At times the environment in Walk the Darkness Down is reported or implicit within the plot. Josie, the latest sex worker taken in by Marlene, shares a news story about horseshoe crabs spawning early in the area, a moving echo of her own urgent situation:

They came up out of the ocean, laying their eggs way before they were supposed to, Josie says. But the awful thing is that the sand was too cold to bury them. So they just left them there. Bill [Josie’s pimp] calls it the tooth and claw, same with the birds, times when the human shine rubs away and the world becomes just a giant thing eating itself, one town at time, one species, one industry, one mother—she pauses—one child.

Besides obviously reflecting Marlene’s and Les’s loss, Josie’s reportage also serves as a tonal contrast to Les’s scene of contemplation on the trawler. Though foreshadowing impending danger, such a scene also suggests the possibility of hope—a possibility only achievable through cooperation and forgiveness. Magariel’s novel doesn’t shy away from sad, even tragic, truths, but also gives the reader a more positive reality to contemplate.

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Wifedom: Mrs. Orwell's Invisible Life

Anna Funder
Knopf ($32)

by C.T. Wolf

George Orwell’s contributions are many—though he did not achieve them alone. As with many men, it was the women in his life that made his success possible. Eileen O’Shaughnessy, who was married to the writer from 1936 until her death at age thirty-nine in 1945, did just that, even as it shrank her own horizons. What did it mean to be Orwell’s wife? Anna Funder’s new book unpicks this inquiry with precision, dexterity, and charm. Wifedom is not a biography, but instead an incisive investigation into “wifedom” and what it meant for Eileen, a poet with chronic illness, to inhabit the role of “Mrs. Orwell” until her dying day.

Eileen had what in her time was called uterine tumors, which caused vaginal bleeding, anemia, and crushing fatigue. Despite this, she was often the sole breadwinner for the couple, working full time outside the home so George could focus on his writing. She also was his typist, editor, and collaborator, using her poetic sensibility and humanist insight to help push George’s writing to new heights. Friends were in awe of his 1945 novel Animal Farm, both for its gemlike quality and in the departure it represented from his prior work. That was Eileen’s deft influence, as Funder lays out—one among many that have been carefully erased from the record of George’s life.

How were Eileen’s contributions made invisible, and by whom? Funder creates a hybrid narrative that craftily builds a multifactorial story. She lays out archival material, critically appraising letters and firsthand accounts of the couple by their friends and acquaintances, documents written both contemporaneously and later. At the core of the archival record are six letters written by Eileen to her best friend, Norah Symes Myles, discovered in 2005.

Funder looks closely at the ways language is used to erase women from historical records; she inspects Orwell’s own writing as well as the work of his biographers and overlays events that happened in the couple’s life with how those events are written about. For example, both Eileen and George went to Spain in the late 1930s to fight in the resistance, yet Eileen is entirely omitted from George’s account. Similarly, in Orwell’s first book Down and Out in Paris in London, his chronicle of living and working among the poor, he left out the wealthy aunt in Paris who offered him respite from his fieldwork. And pointing to the pernicious use of passive voice, Funder argues that many of Orwell’s biographers surgically erased Eileen as an active subject in George’s life.

In Wifedom, Funder brings some of the history to vivid life via speculation. She sees this not as writing fiction, however, but rather like “directing an actor on set.” Putting archival events mise en scène—the clinks of tea cups, the pangs of uterine cramps—allows the reader to become more intimately immersed in the world occupied by George and Eileen and to bear witness to the peculiar dynamic of their relationship. And in yet another writerly layer, Funder tells her own story of working through the project and what it has meant to her as a writer, wife, mother, and Orwell fan herself, wrestling with the complexities of gender, agency, and love as they relate to the craft:

As a writer, the unseen work of a great writer’s wife fascinates me, as I say – out of envy. I would like a wife like Eileen, I think, and then I realise that to think like a writer is to think like a man. It is to look from his perspective at what he needed and see how he got it. But as a woman and a wife her life terrifies me. I see in it a life-and-death struggle between maintaining her self, and the self-sacrifice and self-effacement so lauded of women in patriarchy, which are among the base mechanisms by which our work and time are stolen. What did she give and what did it cost her? I find this question so chilling, coming out of twenty years of intense life-and-home-making, that I prefer to think it does not apply to me.

Grappling with this personal tension, Funder’s reflexivity helps breathe contemporary life and immediacy into the book.

One aspect missing from Wifedom is attention to Eileen’s experience of disability. In one of her last letters to George, Eileen debated the cost of her upcoming surgery, confessing to him: “what worries me . . . is that I really don’t think I’m worth the money.” Perhaps she was just wanting comfort and reassurance from George (who was off in Europe leaving Eileen to handle, among other things, the adoption of their son). Or perhaps her feelings of guilt and shame for needing an expensive operation were a manifestation of internalized sexism and ableism. Regardless, Eileen’s health concerns were treated as hers and hers alone, while George’s tuberculosis was a family affair: Eileen enlisted her brother (a renowned thoracic surgeon) to ensure George received first-rate care, and the couple carted off to Morocco so George’s lungs could enjoy a dry winter; later, Eileen endured grueling, long train trips (after working all day) to visit him in a sanitarium, while she too was suffering from a disabling medical condition. Looking at Eileen’s life with an intersectional lens—how both sexism and disability worked to close in the horizons of her life —could have strengthened this already stellar book.

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Fanatic Diptych: Laura Henriksen and Courtney Bush in Conversation

 . 

We, Laura Henriksen and Courtney Bush, are fanatics. Being fangirls is central to our practice as poets and as people, and since we happen to be rabid fans of one another, we are excited to have this occasion to discuss our new books.  Here we talk about the world we want, the one we believe is possible, and how elements of that world can be built in poems.

In her debut collection Laura’s Desires (Nightboat Books, $17.95), Laura Henriksen forges her way toward a liberation of desire in two long, essayistic poems that joyously “show their work,” carefully unfolding thought, memory, and something like expert testimony. She consults a chorus of voices from literature and pop culture as well as family and friends, braiding their insights into the poems and breaking them down with her own.

Courtney Bush’s second collection, I Love Information (Milkweed Editions, $16), winner of the 2022 National Poetry Series, contains poems that run language along the strange border between belief and learning, drawing from her experience working as a preschool teacher witnessing and mirroring the way children build and unbuild the world in their imagination and in their rapidly expanding access to language.

In an ideal world, our books would have their own conversation that we could listen in on, but until we write books powerful enough to do that, we get to talk to each other about them. Our interview takes the form of a diptych, following the form of Laura’s book, placing Control alongside Divine Messages.

Control


CB:
I see Laura’s Desires as a massive, intricate Medieval diptych. On one panel, you have dreams. On the other, movies, or really, one movie: Variety by Bette Gordon. They’re both painted with the same hand, the same vocabulary. And the panels are not panels, of course, but long, essayistic poems that use the movie and the dream to explore, among so many other things, the poet’s relationship to desire. One common denominator dreams and movies share is the limited relationship we can have with them as the viewer. We have no conscious control of their narrative progression, their images, their intention. 

LH: I’m so glad you brought up control, because one way I want to branch off immediately is by asking you to talk about destiny. I feel like we are both very concerned with whether fate is real, whether or not “everything happens for a reason.” What difference does that make for you?  

CB: I say in my poems all the time, “fate is real.” My “fate is real” thing comes from this time in my life when I felt confident that life was total chaos, total disorder. I was very young. But then I had this realization that if the disorder were truly total, it would include something as structural and ordered as fate, somewhere, if only by accident. I remember talking to a poet friend about it back then and he commented if fate weren’t real, at least sometimes, the 19th-century novel wouldn’t exist. No one would make that up if it didn’t exist. An outlandish thing to say—about as outlandish as “fate is real”—but something that feels true. I think of “fate” as a narrative structure, something made of language. I don’t think of it much outside of language, but by recognizing language’s capacity to articulate order, there is a realness to it.

In “Laura’s Desires” (the poem) you write:

                              I grew up
a believer, splashing around in the pool
of God’s omnipotent omnibenevolence,
singing about the font of blessings,
asking it to bind my heart, secure
in the warmed and softened
predetermination of “God has a plan
for your life.” I gave up this belief . . .

You go on to describe the end of that belief in God’s power and benevolence. You write a beautiful scene involving a questionable sighting of a mysterious horse on Fulton Street during which that belief falls away. What’s left isn’t the freedom I might’ve expected, but a feeling of further entrapment in a situation that did not have to be this way. There are real stakes here, this question of whether or not there is a reason for everything. Can you talk about that also?

LH: First I want to go back real quick and say thank you for describing my book as an intricate Medieval diptych. I was so excited to get to ask you about fate, because I’ve been so moved by your investigation of it, that I breezed right past the fact that you described my book in exactly the way I have thought of it.

I had the strong feeling in reading your books, first Every Book Is About The Same Thing (Newest York Arts Press, 2022) and then I Love Information, that I wished I had read them a long time ago, before I wrote Laura’s Desires—like I wish I had them next to me the night of the mysterious horse, for many reasons, one of them being the blessing of your revelation that inside of perfect chaos there must also be fate, a fate that isn’t exactly secular but also isn’t exactly divine.

All believers sooner or later must face this question—if God is all good, all powerful, and all knowing, how can the world be so bad? Some people hold those contradictions, some people can’t. I couldn’t, and it was such an existential problem for me, losing through God’s absence also the possibility of any sense of order, because when you’ve come to rely on “everything happens for a reason” as the only available response to suffering, then suddenly you are left speechless in pain’s wake. It returns us to the question of control we started with, and as is often the case with control, it becomes a question of cruelty or indifference.

When I’m thinking about how it did not have to be this way, what I mean is that this was not inevitable—there is no logical necessity requiring that some people feast and some people starve, literally, that this happens because of structures that were invented and that only continue because they are violently enforced. Part of what is empowering about this knowledge is that it demonstrates that it will not always be this way, and part of what is devastating is that it requires confronting the reality that it is this way for a reason, even if that reason isn’t “God’s plan” but the requirements of settler colonization as a global curse.

So the stakes are, yes, absolutely, extremely high. Because if the “reason” doesn’t emanate from some untouchable realm of Heaven, but is instead from, for example, the fucking White House, then we are not powerless against it, not at all. We are in fact responsible for it, and as such we have a responsibility to remake it. I don’t mean to be so vague by saying “it” here, I mean all systems of oppression and injustice—I mean Palestine will be free, and when Palestine is free, we will be free too.

CB: Your book is called Laura’s Desires. You are Laura. I know the title serendipitously comes from within the cinematic universe of Variety, but I admire the way your book about personal desire is so communal. Desire in this book is filtered through the voices of many other artists and thinkers. It makes me remember we are all here learning from each other, making work for each other. In “Dream, Dream, Dream,” the meditation on dreaming and dreaming’s relation to conscious desire always starts by looking outward. Each new part of the poem turns toward what some other work of art says about dreams and moves inward from there. The first five sections, for example, stem from the ideas of your bad babysitter, Selena, Frank Ocean, and Oscar Wilde. Can you tell me about that gesture, what it did for the language and the thinking?

LH: Oh, it made it so much more possible! I find writing and thinking just so hard, not remotely relaxing, and as such, I feel like I’m always looking for engines for poems, any possible source of energy to sustain them beyond my own totally unreliable creativity. (I wonder if this is relatable to you, because I get the impression that you are just constantly writing and making things, which delights me.) With “Dream Dream Dream,” the engine was a list of dream pieces I kept adding to; I would just fill it in as I went along. I love writing prompts, and I love taking workshops—ideally I would do all my writing sitting next to other people who are also writing and use their beauty of focus to bolster my own—so writing in this way where every section touches something else offered me a version of that social, communal force.

What engines do you find or make for your poems? I think often about your vision of a poem that can think, which to me seems like the ultimate poem-engine in terms of offering some kind of spark that allows for a poem to continue endlessly—not to get religious again, but sort of in that prayer-without-ceasing style.

CB:  The engine gets started easily. Sometimes a phrase pops into my head from seemingly nowhere, and if it sounds like it belongs to the same constellation of some things I’ve been thinking about, the poem starts, and then, yes, I try to get the poem to think, which I think means to follow itself and lead itself. I have always loved the prayer-without-ceasing concept, without ever being religious, because of how it reminds me of thought. Thinking never stops. I write long poems, maximalist maybe, and I have a much harder time stopping them than keeping them moving. I like the idea that there is no structural obligation to end a sentence, and I think of poems that way too: Within the language, there’s nothing saying stop. If the poem thinks, it doesn’t have to stop. We are the ones who stop. 

I want to know about the process of writing your 100-page poem about a single movie. It feels like an exercise in handing over the reins, a way of giving up some control of the poem to a pre-existing narrative. How much did you know or envision about the poem before you started writing it? How many times have you seen the movie? How many times had you seen it before you started writing the poem? What was the research like? Tell me everything.

LH: Totally! I mean, I have this trick I’ve always loved to employ (sort of in the style of your brilliant device of writing poems named “Katelyn” when you don’t have a title), which is to suddenly summarize the plot of a movie in the middle of a poem. You can just do that whenever you want to, and it will improve your poem, it’s so fun. I am someone who is completely enchanted by narrative, but, to this point at least, I have demonstrated no facility at actually crafting a story. That hasn’t really been a problem, though, because there are already so many stories. I don’t need to make a new one. 

I had actually only seen Variety one time before I began writing the poem, and I watched it one more time, very slowly, while writing it, and then once more before I started editing it. But really, the movie is so vibrant and present that it just immediately copies itself in its entirety onto your brain, so you can just rewatch it whenever you want to. It offered this incredible poem-engine, because whenever I didn’t know how to go on, I would just go back to summarizing the story of the movie, and it’s so capacious that summarizing even one moment would open up a million portals, and I didn’t have to do anything but tumble through them and try to offer some traces of what that tumbling felt like, and what it taught me.

As for research, I did more than I’d ever done for anything! I read the notes from the Barnard conference where Variety screened, and I read so many interviews and reviews, both from that early ‘80s moment and from the intervening decades. I have spent a lot of my life in the East Village, but I never really thought I would write such an East Village poem, because it’s so heavy with different meanings to different people. I think it was only through doing this research that it was possible for me to really talk about what it’s like to live here.

You describe this moment where an interlocutor says that when they read your poems, they have the feeling that everything in them really happened, that it’s all true. It’s not until that moment, according to the poem, that it occurs to you that it would be possible to include things that didn’t happen. I feel so interested in the ways you are a storyteller. Part of the profound pleasure I experience in reading your work is very close to the pleasure I experience in reading novels, but you remain perhaps resistant to invention or fabrication. I wonder if you could talk a bit about the relationship between telling stories and telling the truth. “Telling” is such a central part of your work as I experience, as in “I want to tell you what a sword is.”

CB: I do think of my poems as being written about my actual life or “the truth,” but at the same time, there are moments that I haven’t lived but that are still “true.” I am thinking now, for example, about these two lines in the book—one is “I illustrated a book on horse surgery with my closest friend,” and one is something like “I painted Merritt Parkway.” The first is a biographical detail about Hilma af Klint, whose show I saw when I wrote these poems. And Willem deKooning painted “Merritt Parkway.” Now, those things didn’t happen to me, but I read about them, and incorporated them into my consciousness, and they are lodged in there, and they are important to me as bits of language, as bits of maybe a more impersonal truth, one that is polyvocal at times, because we incorporate each other’s fragments, and so I like to tell those things as part of the truth, which is more complicated than just “what happened to me.” My life includes lots of other information that has nothing to do with me, is unaware of my existence, and I love that.

Divine Messages


LH:
I am extremely fascinated by your relationship to language, which seems simultaneously skeptical, or fully aware of language’s limitations (“We are not made alive to sentences alone”), and also ecstatic-religious (“I received a revelation, I will have no other worry”). In reading your poems, which I would describe as visionary, I find myself thinking of the relationship between the message and the messenger, and the ways in which a poem is possibly both at once. It’s like the poem is both the angel and what the angel says, and the poet is the lucky or unlucky mortal who has to deal with the news. Although in phrasing it that way, I think I’m misstating how active the poet’s role is as receiver, when really what I’m hoping you’ll talk to me about is something like animating force—the animating force of language itself, of language organized into poems, of the poet organizing, of the poet and reader both being reorganized by the poem.

CB: I never thought about language as something with its own properties until I took a class called “Nonsense” with the playwright Mac Wellman. We talked about Wittgenstein’s ideas about language. I remember this idea that you don’t learn a language; you learn how to use it—that language is a set of strange tools that one learns to use by watching others play with the tools and by playing with them on one’s own. That idea made language seem both more simple and much more mystical to me. It certainly reorganized my understanding of humans’s relationship to it. Before, I thought language came from us, that it was ours. But now I see it as something independent, complex beyond our imagination, with which we form relationships by experimenting with it. In that same course, we learned how difficult it was to write “nonsense” by attempting to do it. The reading mind almost refuses not to organize language into some kind of sense. And if it’s that hard to process language in a way that would not incite “sense,” it must be extremely functional. There was/is also the popular idea of language being a failure. So many poems are like, “Oh woe is me, if only language could express my feeling, my idea!” But it’s like, no, language works great—that’s not a language issue, that’s on you, babe.

LH: Totally! It’s not language that’s failing us, but rather the incredible pressure we are under as beings in language to simplify complexity by organizing meaning too quickly, relying on too many assumptions—this need to make sense of things, to complete stories instead of letting them remain unresolved and mysterious. I think poetry does a lot to counter that tendency, to invite a different kind of clarity. Speaking of storytelling and failure, did you grow up religious?

CB: I didn’t grow up religious, but I was surrounded by the trappings of Catholicism. My grandparents were very Catholic and so was the community I was raised in as a young child. Catholic fishermen of Slavic descent. They had weird Catholic stuff going on that most Catholics I meet don’t even know about. My mom, for example, was vowed to the Virgin Mary for seven years because she had severe asthma. This meant that she was signed over as the property of the Virgin Mary to be healed. The priest and my grandparents negotiated a term of seven years, so she could only wear baby blue and white for seven years. She was like one of those twins from The Shining, but all alone. I was always interested in the lore. Saint Anthony would help you find things. What, why? Saints should have better things to do.

I want to ask you about devotion as it relates to the composition of your book. The two long poems are unrelenting in their project. They do not fragment, self-negate, or veer from their course. Both poems make their aims clear to the reader. I felt that the voice was one of dedication, responsibility. Does that ring true for you as the writer? Like there was something you were driving toward, and if so, is that a kind of faith?

LH: What a strange and radiant being your mom is! I love this story of her as the solitary Shining twin. I also love the moment in I Love Information where she uses a loaf of bread and some mismatched M&Ms to make a bunny to celebrate Easter with you and her recently dead boyfriend’s sons. Full mystical, wow.

Yes, that absolutely has the ring of truth for me. I have all these devotional tendencies I need to put somewhere, and so into the poems they go—and also into a transcendental belief in friendship, which I think is another thing our poems have in common. The only way I could continue writing these poems, the only way that I could keep driving towards what I wanted to drive towards, was to tell myself that I could keep them secret if I wanted to. Any clarity or transparency that is achieved was possible because I assured myself that if it needed to be a private clarity, I was the one who would get to make that decision. I could enter the portal and not tell anyone what I found.

But then, once I accumulated all this language, the temptation to test it is irresistible—I wanted to open it up and see if it can transmit to others something like what it transmitted to me. So the reader becomes more and more present as the poems go on, because it becomes more and more clear that the comfort of secrecy was only ever a tool, and gradually it is replaced by a different faith in something else—not the comfort of secrecy but the vulnerability of pursuing questions and desires in public.

CB: I love that so much. To return to the subject of skepticism, which I think falls squarely into discussions of the divine, I don’t find in your poem a skepticism of language or what the poet wants to do with it. In fact, you say, “I know that’s not why I write, or / I don’t think so, I’m just trying / to think some things through . . .” I love how unbothered this comes across. What the poet is skeptical about, though, is memory. The poems classify memory as something close to fantasy, and they are again unbothered by whether the memory is “true.” But the poem is wonderfully full of memories. Can you tell me about how memories, untrustworthy as they are in this poem, are also useful?

LH: This helps me return to your first question about dreams and movies as narrative devices to which we as viewers, if we want to have a good time, can only submit. We get to abdicate our sense of control and just be transported by the force of the movie, the dream, which is extremely sexy. And memories are not completely unlike that, because our control over them is far from unrestricted—we have the experiences we have, we have the memories we have, which are versions of our experiences, and then we have to negotiate and collaborate with them, in all of their complex and painful untrustworthiness, if they’re going to teach us anything worth writing about.

I’ve been using the word “portal,” which is a concept you helped me to understand—that the importance of portals (which are often memories) is not where they take you, but the possibility that you could stay inside them forever, in this in-between state. I’m interested in the relationship between the portal and the message, where it isn’t necessarily about the safe delivery of the message, but the place between departure and arrival. I find this quite transformative, and I wonder if you could speak more to this idea of life inside the portal, and any connections you perceive between the portal and the message.

CB: I first started thinking of the portal while reading In Search of Lost Time. I mean, that’s what all those hundreds of pages are about. There are all the famous “madeleine” moments where the narrator is transported by a sense memory through time and then picks up the story from a different place. My favorite instance of it is in the last book, where the narrator is an old man, and he rolls his ankle in the Guermantes’ driveway, and the rolling of the ankle sends him back to a place we realize is the moment when the narrator started writing the books, conceived of the project itself. It’s insane, and maybe that’s a misunderstanding of what happened, but it’s my understanding, and it was a “holy shit” moment for me as a reader. So I just thought it would be cool to spend any amount of time and produce any amount of language in that space between the two realities, but I don’t know. I hate to say it, but I don’t think it’s possible to do anything in there, or at the very least it’s not something you can force your way into. It’s unlocked by a kind of fatal sense memory, an unavoidable loop, which is why it’s so fun and maddening for me to imagine. You can’t do anything there, and you can’t get there on purpose. But the desire, of course, is what matters, and where the language you do end up with comes from. 

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