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The Complete Rain Taxi Interview with Jonathan Carroll

Jonathan Carroll and Ellen Datlow

by Alan DeNiro and Kelly Everding

Jonathan Carroll is a fabulist of the first order. In twelve novels, as well as in his short fiction, he has created a body of work filled with psychological complexity, lyrical sentences, and outright surrealism, yet one which still provides the reader with the most basic pleasures of page-turning narrative.

Carroll has lived in Vienna, Austria for nearly 30 years, and is something of a literary star in Europe, though audiences in America have been slow to catch on to his fiction. This is perhaps because of a tendency to gloss over what we can't pigeonhole, and Carroll's unique hybrid of the naturalistic and the fantastic is indeed hard to categorize. From his 1980 debut, The Land of Laughs, to his most recent book, White Apples (Tor, $24.95), Carroll's work never preaches (although morality is a major concern) and never feels unrealistic (even in the most bizarre of settings). His characters can be seriously funny or wickedly morbid, but they always are contoured by careful draftsmanship. Most importantly, his books are suffused with wonder—a trope he rescues from cliché by crafting it with a lucid, cogent prose—and animated by an awareness that the narrative impulse itself can still be a powerful way to construct, and illuminate, the unsettled lives of his characters. We caught up with Carroll at the World Fantasy Convention, held this year in Minneapolis, and were fortunate that his editor, Ellen Datlow, could join the discussion.

Rain Taxi: You have lived in Austria for twenty eight years. How does being an expatriate affect your work? Does the different landscape or European sensibility inform your writing?

Jonathan Carroll: I don't like the word expatriate because it sounds like ex-something. Whether you're an ex-American, or ex-Whatever, I think home is where you're most comfortable and I've been comfortable in Vienna so I've stayed there. The one thing that is different is whenever I come to America, I listen to people talk—that's something I never do in Austria. I speak German but I turn it off, so I live a lot in my head, which I think is the most affecting thing of all. Not that I'm thinking great thoughts, but that I spend more time alone, whether it's on a bus or whatever. That has a profound effect on my work.

Ellen Datlow: I've read Jonathan's novels from the start, and they feel very European to me. I'm not sure why, exactly. But it's a different feel. It's the way he writes about places that make them feel different.

JC: I think that's true. I think America's more up-front whereas Europe's more held back. Could I be more specific about that? No. But when I read European novels there's a sensibility of holding your cards back. Whereas in America it's like POW! Not that one is better or worse than the other. It's like a left-hand-hitter or right-hand-hitter. The European is—I don't like to use the word-but it's more reserved.

RT: In terms of your European audience, do they view you as an "American" novelist, and are their cultural connotations or baggage that go along with that?

JC: I'm sort of like a Push-Me-Pull-You to them. The painter Cy Twombly, who lives in Rome, once said, "In America you're allowed to live overseas for a year, but after that you're a snob." And so Americans look at me with a not-so-different kind of skepticism, which is, "Why are you over there for so long? What's wrong with us?" Nothing's wrong with you. Home is where you're most comfortable. I think everybody wants a strange and mysterious answer, but it's as simple as this: I like where I am.

RT: It's hard to generalize about a lot of different markets, but in Austria, how is American literature viewed and how do you fit into that?

JC: I don't. I was telling an editor just two days ago that—have you ever heard of Donna Leone? No? Well, Donna Leone is the most popular American writer in most of Europe. She lives in Venice and writes all these typical mysteries set in Venice. And she sells in the millions. Is she published in America?

ED: I've never heard of her. But that doesn't mean she isn't.

JC: And you read mysteries. So it's very strange. William Wharton, who wrote Birdy, is the most popular American writer in Poland. He sells in the millions.

ED: And you're very popular there too.

JC: Yeah.

ED: Do you have any idea why?

JC: No, and neither do they. But what is interesting to me more so than how they view authors is the different audience. For example in Poland-where I sell a lot of books-all of my readers are 20- to 30-year-old women. In France, my readers are all these snobby academics. In Germany, they're punks. Neil Gaiman is the same way. You can't fit your audience to the place where you are. It makes no sense, and actually it's quite delightful. You would know about that. You're watching the European scene. Why?

ED: I have no idea. I have an anthology called Alien Sex that has been selling like hot cakes in Italy for years. It sold here very well, but it's finally out of print, and in Italy they keep licensing it over and over again. What's going on here?

JC: And if you ask your publisher they say, we don't know—

ED: They have no idea! Well, it does have great illustrations.

JC: It's like this novel The Lovely Bones. Why is it so huge? I don't know and neither does Little, Brown.

ED: It's something in the air.

RT: Ellen, are there any special challenges to editing someone overseas?

ED: With email, no. This is first time in nine years that I've seen Jonathan. But as far as communication, no. I love email. I have a lot of foreign authors in short fiction, and my other novelist author is Paul McAuley, in England. Email has made it extremely easy.

RT: How about culturally?

ED: Not with Jonathan. Paul McAuley sometimes, but Jonathan's work is not esoterically Viennese. Maybe because he is an American, I don't know. But it's not a problem at all. Sometimes I'll want him to describe a little more of the setting-but that's about it.

RT: In a panel yesterday, you said your work has been described in Europe as "hyper fiction." What is meant by this term? And what does hyper fiction offer a reader that more conventional or realist fiction cannot?

JC: The guy who said that is a very famous journalist and essayist in Germany named Maxim Biller, and luckily Maxim likes my stuff. So he said, "You write hyper fiction," and I said, "What do you mean?" and he said, "Go look up the word hyper." And I said, "Come on, Maxim..." and he said, "No, you have to go look up the word hyper." So I looked up the word hyper, and one of the definitions is: a reality beyond three dimensions. And he said, "The interesting thing about your work is you allow things to happen that normally wouldn't, but in the universes you create, it's okay." Very often my work has been compared to Magritte, where eyeballs float and so on, but it's full of familiar things—just in unfamiliar positions, locations.

ED: And I think it's partly because his characters are so believable—anytime I read his novels I believe his characters are real, and I wish they existed. They are so grounded that whatever he does with them, and the magic that comes about, is part of that belief. It's not a problem.

JC: Have you read White Apples? There's a scene where Vincent Ettrich turns around and sees a rat, a 60-pound rat, and it's talking to him. He doesn't go, "Oh wow, there's a talking rat." He just gets scared. Which is what I think we would do. Whereas a horror writer would have it dripping in blood, and a fantasy writer would have him float through the door, my character just gets scared—because that's what a normal person would do. If I saw a big rat I'd get scared and if the rat talked to me, I'd get scared.

ED: I get scared with little rats.

JC: But when it talks to you, it's challenging all the reality that you know. But you know what? You've got to deal with it right now.

RT: Also, in most of your novels, in the opening chapters there aren't any overt fantastic elements. And so it kind of eases the reader...

JC: ...slowly into the water, exactly. Except for The Wooden Sea. In White Apples too, where three pages in he sees the tattoo on her neck.

ED: But that wasn't as shocking as the dog dying and coming back several times.

JC: Damn dog!

RT: Is that something conscious, this departure in the last two books?

JC: No. I always compare it to walking a frisky dog: you open the door and it goes! In White Apples, for example, I always wanted to open a book in bed, real sexy, but I thought first I have to take a stance. And here's where Ellen comes in. I opened the book with the paragraph that begins "Patience never wants Wonder to enter the house: because Wonder is a wretched guest." But I had it linked to the body of the story as a kind of statement. And Ellen said, No, you can't do that. You have to separate the two. Make your statement and then get into the story. And I thought about that, and I said, okay, let's do that.

RT: The creation and death myths you work with in White Apples build on human desires, strengths, and fallibilities rather than on religious conventions of angels and devils, heaven and hell. What is the impetus for this more secular mythology—for instance the idea of the afterlife as a mosaic?

JC: When I came to the mosaic, I knew I was onto something, and everything else sprang out of that. I found myself going back and changing certain things so that essentially the mosaic became like a hub with everything else radiating out. I wasn't sitting there trying to be philosophical. I just said that's the centerpiece of the story and everything comes out from there. Although some critics have said, "What is this new-age bullshit?" [To Ellen] You said that would happen. She said, Watch out, someone is going to come down on it and say you're the next I'm OK, You're OK. Which is okay. I'll take that. Whatever they say, it's valid.

RT: I found it very moving, and it worked-it sprang organically from the story. Everyone's lives are such an intricate pattern in and of themselves, and their patterns go into the bigger pattern.

JC: Also...did you ever see Blade Runner? One of my favorite lines in the movie is when Rutger Hauer is about to die, and he says to Harrison Ford, "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die." It's such a wonderful, tragic line, it's true. All of the stuff that you have accumulated, all this experience, all these loves, all this coffee, all these dogs...As soon as you die, it's just tossed? I can't imagine that it works like that. I think there's probably some repository of this stuff. And that made a kind of sense for me. You just take this thing that you arrange, and once you're finished arranging it and you die, someone puts it into the mosaic, and the mosaic is made up of ten zillion pieces. That made sense to me.

RT: In The Wooden Sea you use marbles in the same respect.

JC: Not unlike it. But I think one is a step from the other. Because in The Wooden Sea, he says you can throw the marbles up lots of times and come up with different combinations, but in White Apples, Coco says people can't stop moving their pieces around. The two ideas are rubbing up against each other.

RT: You also stand the idea of the vampire on its head in The Marriage of Sticks; the female protagonist discovers she is a sort of vampire whose selfish desires takes the place of blood-sucking. Do you see a desire for the fantastic, fable, myth or fairytale as a way to explain our human shortcomings or strengths?

JC: I think that the images are so old that the gods are telling us something. We trivialize the vampire by putting him in a cape and biting pretty women on the neck, but essentially if you look up the word, a vampire is someone who kills you by taking your life force. Not your blood, not your virginity. Now, in the context of The Marriage of Sticks, this woman—and I see it all time—people are sucking the life force out of others. A bad relationship, a bad job, whatever. And whether they're being sucked or doing the sucking, they go, What's wrong here? What's wrong is this process is going on, but if I call it, vampiric people think I'm talking about Bram Stoker. No, not at all. I'm talking about the way we interact with one another. If more than one in two marriages break up, I'm sure that a lot of that has to do with vampires. On one side or the other. That's what Marriage of Sticks is about, or what I was trying to do.

But you see there's a perfect example. People who either don't know my work or dismiss it will say, Oh, that's a vampire novel. Because it's easy to say that. But it's not a vampire novel. It uses that element. It plugs that into the equation.

ED: I've never heard anyone call you a vampire writer.

JC: I've heard it a lot; I've been dismissed as that. And that's okay, but to me, that's a simplistic way out of things. I think The Marriage of Sticks is the most disliked book I've written.

ED: I thought you were too mean to her.

JC: But she's a decent person. As we're all decent people. But she's a fucking vampire. As we all are. And that's what's so shocking. If she was a bitch, it would be easy to dismiss her. But if she's Ellen, and I say to Ellen, go into that baseball stadium and see all the people you've wronged in your life, it would be horrendous.

RT: What's shocking is that she seems like a very normal, likeable woman, and then she discovers this about herself and realizes, I've been doing this to these people. Many of your characters are imperfect, but they are also eccentric and distinct in their tastes, the secret language they share with each other, and their perspective on the world. How do you go about discovering your characters—where do they come from?

JC: From myself, people I know, dream people... People always say that I'm a snob because I write about glorious, glamorous people. But basically I live in Europe, and the people who I know are editors and artists and filmmakers. I simply write about what I know. Of course, I take a little liberty... In Sleeping in Flames, the film director who gets killed has never forgiven me—the guy that I based the character on. He said, "Why did you kill me?" I said, "It's a book. It's a story." He said, "I know but that was me." So there you go. I always think of it as a mixed salad. You take your own imagination, that's some tomatoes, and you take the people that you know, people that you loved, the people that you hated, and you mix it together. And then the salad dressing that goes on it is your final say. I'm going to put a vinaigrette on top of it and that's what it is. All writers who say they don't use their life experience are liars. Even if they're writing books about penguins, they're using their life experience. I read an interview with John Irving, and he said, No, no I just use my imagination. Nonsense. He's cheating.

What it always boils down to, you write about what bites you. And in this context, I like these people. And yes they're flawed, and yes they're selfish, and yes they're neurotic messes, but who isn't? What's redeeming about them is that they try to get it together, because they realize this stuff is important. That you and me...that something has got to be saved here. And that's one of the things in my books that people both like and dislike. I take real, normal people and put them in these extraordinary situations, working out normal problems. Crazy stuff, but in the crazy stuff they're trying to work out grounded stuff. And that makes people very uncomfortable. It's like you and I are together, and we can't work out our relationship, and then suddenly God says, "Hey you two," and we both go, "Hey, we'd better work this out, because God just interfered."

RT: In your first novel, The Land of Laughs, the hero hunts down his favorite children's story writer with surprising results. In this book you mention many children's books—has children's literature influenced your own work?

JC: I never read children's books. I didn't start reading til I was fifteen. I was a kind of an anti-reader. I purposely did not read because I grew up in this family of achievers, and my way of creating an identity was being a non-achiever. The story I've told a thousand times: The first book I read was because my brother gave me a dollar—it was Of Mice of Men—and when I finished it he said, "Did you like it?" I said, "Yeah, it was really good." He said, "Do you want to read another?" I said, "NO," and I didn't read another book until I was fifteen. People asked me if I ever read The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. I say, NO.

Actually, the time I started reading children's books was when my kid was small, and I would read Goodnight Moon and Curious George. But that's entirely different. You're an adult reading to a kid. I was always very impatient with the kids books that I read. I thought most of it was condescending, including Roald Dahl. People always say Roald Dahl has biting, nasty stuff. The only children's literature that I didn't find condescending was Grimm's Fairytales, because they tell it like it is. The story starts with mom getting her head cut off, and it gets worse. I always liked that. In fact, in Sleeping in Flames, I used one of the Grimm tales-Rumpelstilskin. But no, it had a small effect on me because I didn't read.

RT: Your fictitious children's author, Marshall France, wrote surreal books, one of which was also titled, like your own, The Land of Laughs. Would you ever consider writing any of the works of Marshall France?

JC: People have asked me that, but no I wouldn't. Because the excerpts that I put in the books were hors d'oerves. It's for you to make the meal. I know that if I wrote any of the Marshall France books, I would fail you. And I'm a coward.

ED: You couldn't possibly live up to the expectations.

RT: At times you integrate poetry into your novels—you've quoted John Ashbery and Charles Simic, for example—and in a session yesterday you mentioned John Berryman and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Is poetry important to you and does it trigger some kind of response in your fiction?

JC: Yes. Almost always before I start writing for the day I read some poetry. Because I think that it's like working out. Really good poetry, and I'm not talking about classic poetry, but poetry that appeals to you—I read a lot of Polish poets because they're brilliant, like Szymborksa—is real tight. Like I said yesterday, writers are either putter-inners or taker-outers, and I'm a taker-outer. I want my sentences to be short and sweet and hopefully loaded. And that's what poetry does. So I always read poetry before I write, because I like it and because it teaches me how to write the kind of writing that I want. Every once in a while I put in a poem of my own, like in White Apples. Whether it's good or not, it's certainly inspired by the people that I've read.

RT: Do you like poetry because of the encapsulation, the compression, where the language gets more—

JC: Hashish. You boil it down to its absolute essence. That's why it's stronger and more affecting. The ultimate is haiku. You read a poem and bang! it blows you out of the room. With novels, you write three-hundred-pages and maybe you'll get blown out of the room, but it takes a lot more time. That Basho poem, you know, my house burned down, now I can better see the moon-holy cow! Guys have written seven-hundred-pages trying to say the same thing.

RT: Emily Dickinson wrote that she liked poetry that takes off the top of your head.

JC: That's right. That's it.

RT: What other American poets do you like?

JC: I love Thomas Lux. I love Simic. Sometimes Rexroth and sometimes Diane Levertov, Diane Wakoski. Diane Wakoski was my teacher when I was in graduate school, and she taught me—she's probably one of the best teachers that I ever had—she taught me that you could put poetry in prose and do it right. I took her in graduate school and it really helped me. The greatest compliment to me is when people say your stuff is poetic. I try to make it poetic!

RT: Your novels are poetic in the sense that there are these little fireworks and dissonances that create something sonorous.

JC: Too often, writers either write well or they story-tell well. Very rarely are they working toward the middle, and a lot of the time the guys who write well are considered hands-off, literary writers. I think that they are forgiven a lot. They may have beautiful language or metaphors, but when I read, I want both. I want to read a good book, and that's one of the reasons why I don't read genre fiction, because most of these guys can't write well. They can story-tell well, but they can't write well, and I just get bored. To sit on a page with furiously beautiful language: that entertains you for a while, but after a while, it's like, come on! And if the guy tells a good story only and the characters are like film sets that have a stick behind them, and if you take it away they'll collapse—no, I want both. I want both in what I read. And I'm trying to do it in what I write.

ED: I think in short science fiction, short genre fiction, there is both. I can't judge as many science fiction novels or horror novels.

JC: But a lot of the time in genre, whether it be fantasy, science fiction, mystery, or whatever, these people are opting for the story—and fine! Obviously they have an audience. God bless. But Agatha Christie, for example, is a terrible writer, she's as wooden as they come. Raymond Chandler is a wonderful writer who tells a wonderful story. You can take a page of Chandler and teach it to a creative writing class. You know, irony, pacing, and stuff. That's what makes him more apt to be remembered than Agatha Christie, even though she sold eight zillion copies.

RT: I take it you're not so interested in some of the Austrian writers who are not great storytellers but are brilliant technicians—Thomas Bernhard, Handke...

JC: I know Handke, and he and I have fought forever because I said the best thing he ever did was Wings of Desire, the film with Wim Wenders. There's a story there! I think he's going to win the Nobel Prize, but look at the guys who are remembered, but Cervantes wrote brilliantly and he told a story. Take Salieri. Salieri was the most famous composer of his time and Mozart was a little pipsqueak, but Salieri was in fashion and these guys are in fashion. So the ones who are remembered are the ones who can do both. They can paint wonderfully and they can move you. And moving is usually a thing of story, I think. You're not moved by language. It's cold. I hate to stoop to Dickens, but Dickens could write well and he was a hell of a storyteller. You go back to Dickens. Are you going to go back to Martin Walser? I don't think so. He's a fabulous writer, but you come away from the thing, you have to put gloves on it's so cold.

RT: Is your process different when you write shorter fiction, the stories in The Panic Hand for example?

ED: At least one of those stories became part of a novel.

JC: Yes. Marquez says there are long loves and short loves. I always think of the short story as short love.

ED: The Moose, the Moose... what?

JC: The Moose Church. "The Moose Church" turned into the beginning of Outside the Dog Museum. It's like a sprint versus a marathon. I like to write short stories, but I'm not very good at it.

ED: That's not true.

JC: I do it more to have fun, because I'm usually writing a novel. I studied with Peter Taylor at the University of Virginia. Peter was horrified by what I was doing. If you know his stuff, it's very conservative and Southern: Miss Daisy on the porch sort of thing. I was doing the same thing in my short stories that I was doing in my novels, but it was tighter. To this day when I'm writing a novel I'll say, Fuck that, put it down, and write a short story. And then I go back refreshed to the novel, because I had an affair.

RT: Here in America, you've worked with many different publishers and imprints, which means that your books are often shelved in different places. For example, Sleeping in Flames (Vintage) will be in the literature section, while The Wooden Sea and White Apples (Tor), will be placed in the science fiction section. While your writing gains strength from its very inability to be classified, does this compartmentalization of modern American publishing and bookselling bother you?

JC: What's interesting in this context is that the last two books, published by a genre publisher (Tor), are getting all this literary play. Whereas when I was published with Viking and Doubleday, they were putting them on the fantasy shelf. So it's actually reversed. It's both Tor's marketing and people saying, Okay, we'll drop our conceptions of what Carroll's doing and just read the book for what it is. Which is what I've been asking for all my life. When I was in college, I edited the literary magazine, and on the editorial page, everyone had their student number. Editor, 507671. Art Editor, 302240. That's what I've been asking for all along. Just read the fucking book. Don't put a spaceship on the cover; don't put fangs. In a sense, I just wish it was a white cover that said "White Apples" on it, because you know what—you'll probably be surprised that it's not what you think it is. But Tor has done the best job, overall, of doing that.

ED: And getting both audiences. Tor has worked really hard to market it in both directions, and get more readership.

JC: For example, White Apples has been covered in The Nation. The Nation, me? But I mean, big, a page, we love this book. Also Time Out, which is hip, and they don't usually cover science fiction and fantasy. Tor is being successful in dragging the literary crowd kicking and screaming to something which is going to surprise them if they just give it a chance.

ED: I'm always hoping that the bookstores will put them in both places. Jonathan should be in mainstream, science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery...all over the place. The best bookstores will do that.

JC: But the best bookstores don't buy seven copies.

RT: When you read publicly in Europe, what kind of relationship do you have with audiences whose first language might not be English?

JC: Most of the time you don't read in Europe. It takes up too much time in the sense that you read, and then they read the translation—I mean it's like a four-hour reading. I do it sometimes in Germany, and I've done it in France. But for example, when I go to Poland they just do question-and-answer for an hour and a half. They pelt you with questions. I think they would rather do that than a reading because it's more intimate. They can answer the question that's been bothering them rather than hear a section of a book they've already read.

RT: Your work has been translated into many different languages...

JC: The translations can go either way. I was talking to a woman today, a Japanese woman, who said my translations into Japanese are perfect, because she reads me in both. Whereas in German, I've heard that some are good and some are sloppy. Here's a funny translation story. In The Land of Laughs, there's a dog named Petals, a bull terrier. And I thought that was funny, because bull terriers look like pigs, so I named it something the opposite, which was Petals. In German, the translator said it doesn't work because the word for petals in German is "blätter?" and it's not funny. So I said, why don't you call him Mushroom, because in German mushroom is "pilz." In the translation, however, they made a mistake, and his name is "pelz," which means "fur." So they say, "Come here, Fur..." What are you going to do? When I saw it, I just started to laugh. What's the point? And that's in a language that I understand, so you can imagine what it's like in Serbo-Croatian! I had another funny experience recently. When I was in Poland, we were having dinner with a whole bunch of people, and they made a mistake of giving me a Polish copy of White Apples. The first chapter is called "Chocolate-Covered God," but in Polish they translated it into something like "Red and Green Painting." Something completely off—"Purple Porpoise." I said, what do you mean "Purple Porpoise"? And the translator is sitting over there, and he starts to blanche. And he says, well, in Polish the word for chocolate is this and the word for god is that and you can't put them together, so you have to—and I said, let's continue our dinner, let's drop the subject, I don't want to know. Leave it alone. Don't tell, don't ask.

RT: Speaking of Petals, why do dogs figure so prominently in your works, particularly as figures of pathos? They seem to be bridge characters, conduits for fabulism...

JC: ...the letters from there to here. People always ask, what's this dog thing? And I always say, dogs are like minor angels. They love you purely. They forgive you purely. They're happy to see you. You can wake a dog up at three in the morning and say, Hey let's play ball, and they'll say, OKAY! My wife won't do that. My son won't do that. My friends won't do that. Three o'clock in the morning—let's go get pizza! OKAY! We overlook these extraordinary qualities even though we wish they would manifest themselves in people. I always have bull terriers because they're funny and they're ugly. That's what I love about them. They look like little pigs walking around. They kind of sober you up and straighten you out when you're blue or you're angry. You look at this little pal sitting under your feet saying, Hey! Let's go out! And you say, Okay, let's go out. They remind you of reality. All I've done is ratcheted that up a little, so you have magical dogs. I like the idea that we're constantly surrounded by things that are angelic and supernatural—but we put them in this convenient, sort of degraded place because that's easier for us.

RT: Biologists have been looking at dogs, at those qualities as evolutionary traits. The wolves that happened to come closest to the campfire got hooked in—

JC: Right. It reminds me of James Michener's book The Source—there's a wonderful section about the first dog ever to be friendly with man—or that scene in Dances With Wolves where the wolf circles him for days, then takes the food out of his hands. I think there is a wonderful symbiosis between dogs and men, unless you're a monster and mistreat them. You serve each other's needs. I know my dog is a good friend of mine.

RT: One last question. If you could interview yourself, what sort of questions would you ask? In other words, what do people never ask that you think should be addressed in regards to your work?

JC: The only question that nobody ever asks is: What breaks your heart? I think that should be asked of all "artists." What breaks your heart. My answer to that would be something that happened to me recently. I was walking down the street in Vienna, and I saw this incredibly beautiful woman wearing a beige raincoat, and there was this huge dog with muddy paws that jumped up on her, and she was just laughing. And it absolutely broke my heart, because typically you would see her screaming and how dare you and get that animal off me. But she was so cool, and it was so funny and so human, and it was so perfect—that breaks my heart. When you see those moments you realize the potential of both life and your own life. It can be perfect in an imperfect way. Her coat was ruined and the dog was a pain in the ass, but for that moment, it was perfect, and it's not Pamela Anderson walking down the street—it's THIS woman who is much more human in the most fallible of situations taking it absolutely the right way. If that ever happens to me in whatever form I hope I can react with a laugh instead of a howl. So, what breaks your heart?

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2002/2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002/2003


John Olson
Calamari Press ($13)

by Ellen Twadell

John Olson's The Night I Dropped Shakespeare on the Cat is hard to classify, hard to read, and hard to stop thinking about. There are numerous short chapters. There are sparse illustrations by artist Derek White. There are words. Mostly, there are words. Words without context or story, or so it seems.

Is it stream of consciousness? Not quite, because throughout the span of the book Olson emphasizes certain ideas and words. Is it poetry? The density of each page says no, but the attention to individual words demands the reader's attention on the same level poetry does. Is it fiction or memoir? There are compelling short spurts of story in which the author seems to be drawing on personal experience, but these are few and far between in a sea of language. While the pages resemble prose, Olson deliberately arranges sentences that make no grammatical sense. Something else is going on here.

Olson is interested in words. He is interested in how sounds and images represent ideas and things. By the end of the book Olson is more comfortable being explicit with his relationship to language, but the first moment of epiphany—when it becomes evident that he is using the word "jackknife" repeatedly, simply because he likes the word "jackknife"—is the moment the book makes sense. Yet Olson repeats words not at random, but spaces them like gems in a bracelet. He uses words that evoke the visual in a lush way: "Water turquoise and green . . . Water streaked with whorls of delinquent oil." Derek White's complicated composite illustrations, sparse at first and progressively denser towards the middle of the book, punctuate the prose.

What exactly are pictures doing in this sea of text? Even if they don't feed a narrative they participate in an idea of language. Olson evokes the visual with words because written words are visual creatures. Letters or characters have their own shapes. They can evoke images in the mind and bring about a burst of sensory recognition with one sense alone. Words and pictures are more closely related than both writers and artists perhaps admit.

Olson is also interested in the way words look on the page, or sound to the ear. He has a collection of double-letter words: jackknife, bubble, Mississippi, sweet. He has a few words that he repeats for their own sake, because they're words he likes, or finds interesting, or they mean something to him: crustacean, gravity, knot, creamy. At some moments, he becomes explicit: "Is any of this making sense? It is nutty to make an art out of language. Language and art are accelerated by creaminess. You know this."

Perhaps the point is that words mean something, and for many people words are very personal. They have associations that are unique. They can exist without narration or context. It is possible that we are not looking at just words, but Olson's love letter to them.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006-2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006-2007

WHAT DID I DO LAST NIGHT?: A Drunkard's Tale

Tom Sykes
Rodale Books ($22.95)

by Matthew Schneeman

In What Did I Do Last Night?, Tom Sykes recounts a classic tale of a rise and fall and rise again. Though a basic plot synopsis would lead you to think the story somewhat simple—man beats alcoholism—it is far from the truth. The originality that brings this memoir to life stems from humorous and blindingly realistic narratives that map out all the dos and don'ts of drinking. Do: Become a reviewer of New York City nightlife, all expenses paid. Don't: Sleep in a gutter while waiting for a seedy bar to open.

The book follows a chronological timeline, from Tom Sykes's first beer in a pub to the moment he decided never to drink again. We follow Sykes as he gets drunk at school, works at a strawberry field, and drinks beers with a man slaughterer. This takes us through the greater part of England, thus giving a tour of one of the most proficient drinking cultures in the world. We then head to New York where Sykes gets a perfect/disastrous job as the New York Post's nightlife reviewer. The vivid binge drinking descriptions breach the paradox of clearly portraying nights that were muddled by alcohol, weed, and coke.

Showing the pros and cons of the popular drugs of the time, Sykes displays ecstasy's beauty and danger, pot's enhancements and laziness, coke's festiveness and addiction, and alcohol's grand party and strangling grip on one's life. The end of the book feels like a close escape from a disturbing potentiality. Sykes has the uncanny ability to make the reader feel like a drinking pal during the good times and afraid for him as he deteriorates; we empathize and are still aghast when he says things like "I can't say the proudest moment of my life was frantically trying to sniff a few grains in the hospital bathroom before I went in to see Alice, Floyd, and their new daughter."

Sykes is a great raconteur, and he recalls many unbelievable stories that invigorate the reader—though whenever he tells a less remarkable story, the reader feels unsatisfied. Amazing or dull, however, collectively the stories leave us with a well-rounded version of Tom Sykes. What Did I Do Last Night? takes the reader into a life of indulgences and redemption. We feel the highs, the lows, the buzzes, and the hangovers in stunning detail and see the world through the bloodshot eyes of a drunkard.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006-2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006-2007

SAILOR ON SNOWSHOES: Tracking Jack London's Northern Trail

Dick North
Harbour Publishing ($19.95)

by Ryder W. Miller

In Sailor on Snowshoes, Canadian journalist and northern historian Dick North takes the reader on an expedition to The North to follow the travails of Jack London during the year he spent searching for gold in the Klondike. London, then a scrappy 21-year-old sailor and adventurer from California, joined the Klondike Gold Rush from August 1897 to July 1898, but he only returned to California with a few dollars' worth of gold dust. However, as North relays, The North had a profound influence on London and inspired some of his most famous work. As London said of his journey after he returned to the Bay Area, "I found myself. There nobody talks. Everybody thinks. You get your true perspective. I got mine." London quickly became famous around the world for evoking the experiences and harshness of The North in such blockbusters as The Call of the WildWhite Fang and "To Build a Fire."

Much of the book is taken up with North's travelogue of his personal expedition to search for London's cabin in the Klondike, though he makes references to London's life as well as the stories and books that were inspired by this wild and dangerous country. (London's cabin has since been found—an extensive investigation proved its authenticity—and was transplanted to Oakland, California.) London did not write much about the cabin, but he leave his mark on a wood panel: "Jack London, miner, author, Jan 27, 1898." Later removed, it was returned upon the cabin's discovery and found to fit in place.

North evokes the harsh setting for London's disappointing but inspiring adventure through personal reflection and quotes from London, embellished by stark black and white historical photographs. "We walked on. The darkness now enveloped us like a black shroud," North recounts. "The eerie howl of a timber wolf suddenly broke the silence and reverberated through the lonely forest. Then another sounded and still another. It was scary but better to hear them than suffer the incredible 'white silence' of the northern wilderness."

Sailor on Snowshoes certainly adds to the lore concerning Jack London, but it is lessened by not addressing, despite the clue in the title, that London was also considered "The Melville of the Pacific." London was more successful writing about The North, but he also wrote many adventures on oceanic themes. As this book shows, writers do not always wind up being remembered for everything they would like, but rather by how others find them.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006-2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006-2007

BLACKSTOCK'S COLLECTIONS: The Drawings of an Artistic Savant

Gregory L. Blackstock
Princeton Architectural Press ($19.95)

by Eliza Murphy

A painstakingly rendered murder of crows line up on the cover of Blackstock's Collections—the extremely endangered Hawaiian crow, Iraqi pied crow, and the carrion crow stand in profile alongside others in the tidy rows that characterize Gregory Blackstock's artistic oeuvre. The back cover features similarly astonishing shoes executed with precision in his inimitable style. His compositions consist of rows of objects labeled with neat, capitalized identifying words, sometimes accompanied by information about the objects.

An artistic savant who earned his living as a pot washer until his retirement, Blackstock is a self-taught illustrator; most of the time, he only has to look at an object once before drawing it accurately, in pencil, on paper, then finishing each drawing in black markers, graphite and colored pencils. His ability to space his subjects in an even fashion on a single page, sometimes several sheets glued or taped together, is remarkable. During an interview at his studio home recently, he said he has no need for a straight edge or a ruler, but he does use an eraser: "I have to do it to make it perfect."

In this book, a veritable encyclopedia of the ordinary, Blackstock arranges the chapters by groups of objects, such as "our famous birds," "the noisemakers," and "the last but not least." When something intrigues Blackstock, his fascination is thorough, whether the object be as commonplace as balls or as exotic as "Nature's Insect Death Traps," which includes text that explains, in his matter-of-fact language, "the bladderwort— an aquatic carnivore with pouches to engulf and eat up tiny creatures after they swim inside the doors for food."

Sometimes that fascination inspires him to go places, and Blackstock catalogues his travels in his brief biography at the beginning. But pursuing his art seriously does not preclude his inclusion of humor, nor playfulness. In "The Noisemakers," he gathers together "UFO & old flying saucer helicopters," chainsaws, giant outboard race engines, Roman candles, and a cartoon-like face with a bubble filled with what appear as conventional signs for expletives, with the description: "loud filthy-mouth offender, the overemotional dirt bag."

Blackstock's innate inquisitiveness propels him to catalog and order a chaotic world filled with stuff, none of it too mundane to escape his notice. The foreword by Dr. Darold A. Treffert, a savant syndrome expert, offers a brief but incisive explanation of the condition. Treffert's sensitive understanding of this rare disorder makes it impossible to discount or pathologize Blackstock's drive to create. "Savant skills are as much a force as they are a gift. . . . these are more than frivolous compulsive outpourings. They are the language of the savant."

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006-2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006-2007


Anna Moschovakis
Turtle Point Press ($16.95)

by Jason Ranon Uri Rotstein

The title of Anna Moschovakis's debut collection is cause enough to stop and consider. I Have Not Been Able to Get Through to Everyone may stand as one of poetry's best book titles of 2006. It immediately ushers in a poet of sharp irony, humble yet hazardous of limitations. Moschovakis is a poet not to be taken lightly and one not easy to digest. While she seems dispossessing, she gustily describes herself as a poet whose "biographer listens at the window." The thought must be sentimental folly, for Moschovakis's poetry does not demand us merely to listen to her poetry but to take a stand.

I Have Not Been Able to Get Through to Everyone is a book with no small agenda. The poems are a series of long sequences that can at times barely maintain a word to a line. In these poems, Moschovakis questions authority— especially the authority that language portends— and performs a sort of grammatology, renovating and questioning the many associations that naturally seem to inhere. The first poem of the collection concludes with these words, mapping her territory:

I don't remember my grammar
rules. I don't think English is very good
for a certain kind of inventioning. I gather
some readers don't like being
confronted with the language in every word.
I want to be a word. I would be abstract
with an inscrutable ending.

As one can see already from this first venture, her method is not psychological or interior but resolutely philosophical—she wants her poetry, and poetry in general, to ask "epistemological questions." She even imagines herself stalking around in the "Platonic cave." As she says, in the sequence of poems entitled "Preparations," where she seems to state an individual ars poetica, "Because Plato felt modern that day / he adopted ironic distance."

Leaving irony aside, the sequence "The Match," is a six-day journey in poetry ostensibly recorded at the rate of "one-poem per day," an exercise that does produce some standout verse. As in "Day 4":

Abstinence can actually alter your desires
or make them disappear.
The person you wanted to consume
becomes something you wear around your neck
or taste gingerly on your knees
leave enough for everyone

Where many of Moschovakis's poems talk at you, this poem conveys a distinct and shocking mood. This is the best of what the poet has to offer. Most of the time, she finds herself narrowly trying to skirt cliché, a challenge that seems troublesome for her to bear: "A view of sunlight filtering through trees can seem corny or kitsch." Still, her odd comparisons and catalogue of coincidences can at times be compelling, and her method produces an interesting first venture in speculative poetry, one that holds real promise for the future.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006-2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006-2007


Malena Mörling
University of Pittsburgh Press ($14)

by Miguel Murphy

"No ideas but in things" William Carlos Williams famously wrote in 1944; Malena Mörling's work is a contemporary echo of Williams' philosophy of the localized image, one set in relation to theoretical physics and quantum theory. In Mörling's hands, the poetry of the local becomes a way to record, preserve, and witness experience at the quantum level, as it travels wavelike, radioed into space. Theoretical physics, which proposes that any imagined possibility will at some point in time be true, is the underlying framework of this book. Mörling's poems work on one level as artifact, investigating the images of daily sights and moments. As such, Astoria is the manual to this world's experience, traveling at the speed of light, or memory.

In the opening lines of her book, "If there is another world, / I think you can take a cab there," Mörling rejects otherworldliness, heavensoul, or life-after-death, since these are ideas that cannot be explored by experience. In "131st Street" she writes more directly: "I have never wanted to visit / outer space— // Though I have often thought / about how it never ends." Just as the light we see in the night sky may be that of stars that no longer exist, Mörling's work considers our own light, the experience of this place in time, sent out into the universe to unnameable ends. We are, instead, beings who "continue / in the weightless seesaw of the light / through a few more intersections / where people inside their cars / pass you by in space / and where you pass by them." What is left of us is the evidence of our wearing our place in time. "What will we become?" she asks in "Becoming A Coat," "Besides coats, besides shoes / that will continue to walk / a while longer / upon the earth."

Mörling's language is deceptively accessible. She is a master of imagery and the pacing of her lines is ultimately subversive, lulling by their movement from the familiar paraphernalia of the physical realm into a joyful nihilism. In "Seeing High Above" the poet's belief in "things" is clearly pronounced. Seeing "a scrap of paper" floating in the "blustery library / of the air" the speaker immediately knows "it is a message— // A message / that there is no message." Again in "In the Yellow Head of a Tulip" Mörling offers a catalogue of found objects that feel amazing by their arrangement alone:

an iron next to a nail-clipper next to a can of soup
next to a starling's feather
in the silence inside of stone
in tea in music in desire in butter in torture
in space that flings itself out in the universe
in every direction at once without end
that could be you
that could be me
that could be nothing.

Place for Mörling is both inheritance and anchor. If there is nothingness— if there is only particle and atomic half-life on the other side of experience, then beauty is both an accident and a byproduct of the marriage of space and the absence of a greater purpose, greater meaning. But the reward of this work is that it insists that the image of this place at this time is itself wondrous. In this book, Mörling recounts one beautiful accident of experience after another:

It's amazing
we're not
more amazed.
The world
is here
but then it's gone
like a wave
traveling toward
other waves.

Mörling's work resists easy versions of belief that provide a safe way to speak about the human spirit, though her work succeeds in being joyful, and never despairs. Spiritualism amounts to playfulness in language, an awe for the connectedness of human experiences— themselves as free as the particles as of light, or breath.

In "No Precise Location" she writes, "Our bodies / are lying here now / on this bed / in the dark / of a house on the earth— / A house as much in space / as the farthest star / in the galaxy of Andromeda." Nihilism is never dark in Mörling's work, but demands that we consider this too-swift miracle of being. This world, and all the characters of experience who inhabit it, is the only thing we know for sure, and Mörling's poetry quietly considers it in the context of theoretical time, in which space is the dilemma of our wonder.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006-2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006-2007


Landis Everson
Graywolf Press ($15)

by Adam Fieled

Landis Everson is a visionary poet. But that doesn't mean he leaves earthly desires, pleasures, fears and pains untouched—they are, in fact the basis for his visions. For Everson, the daily world allows the poet to receive insights that, mixing innocence and experience, might be called "divine." The paradox of innocence and experience comes to terms with sensuality, love, and loss in Everson's poems. They are directed, much as Blake's poems were, by a recognition that the small matters of our lives can have a numinous quality.

The visionary quality of Everson's poems is complemented and magnified by an easy formal elegance, a sparing approach to language that leaves room for subtle ornamentation. In "Famine," Everson has a dream-vision of deer entering his dark bedroom:

The moon through the window throws cold light
Upon their curved backs, making a forest
Of crossed antler shadows on sheets
That until now have been flawless and starved.

Everson, allowing us entry to a specific moment by writing in the present tense, crafts a song of innocence tempered by hard-won experience. Deer, representing nature in its most unmediated form, inspire Everson's vision of innocence led away from famine. The famine being effaced seems to be a spiritual state of being or consciousness—it could be bitterness born of experience, the "cold light" of the moon, or a sense of seclusion—and with the end of famine, the rebirth of innocence, complexity creeps in and flaws appear. Human salvation is messy and equivocal, whether salvation takes the form of a vision or a poem; Everson takes account of this messiness, in such a way that it would be hard to miss or ignore. The wisdom of experience cannot be forgotten, even when innocent joy returns.

Everson is a poet with a substantial history. A witness of the Berkeley Renaissance, he was romantically linked with Jack Spicer, and had ties to Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser. The connection to Duncan is especially apparent, as they are both poets of transcendence, ethereality and, paradoxically, domesticity. It is at home that we find the greatest intimacy, and Everson is a poet of intimacies completed; as he writes in "Closet," "I see / the stars right through the back / of your head." Closet, in this context, can mean a space for storing articles or a space for denying one's sexuality. Everson lets the ambiguity linger in the air, but his own affect is visible and brimful—the closet is clearly not for him. In Everything Preserved, Everson has crafted a voice that blends the best parts of innocence and experience. His poems feel like acts of generosity, and the mythology built into them by the poet's history add to their already formidable aura. It is a joy to find a Blakean sensibility still alive and kicking.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006-2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006-2007


Barbara Jane Reyes
Tinfish ($13)

by Craig Perez

do you know what it is to witness an unraveling?

Barbara Jane Reyes's second book, Poeta en San Francisco, explores the translatable and untranslatable collisions of writing self and culture. We immediately become bound to the "lack of apology for what [the poems are] bound to do," which is, as the book's trinity-like structure suggests, to "orient," "disorient," and "re-orient." Throughout this work, we confront the crisis (or the "state of emergency," as Reyes puts it) of "no single, adequate translation" for writing personal and cultural experiences; these poems, however, create a momentary "cove to escape the flux."

Poeta inscribes and re-inscribes the voices of San Francisco and the physical characteristics of the city itself. San Francisco functions figuratively as the book's main trope and as actual landscape:

en esta ciudad, where homeless 'nam vets
wave old glory and pots for spare change;
she grows weary of the daily routine:


and especially:

Reyes reads the city through its interpersonal and historical violence against Asians in general, and Filipinos particularly. She doesn't suppress difficult histories or the voices that these histories have suppressed; instead, she allows an innocent conception of the city to be haunted by its ghosts:

north of market's upscale shopping mecca's center you can't miss the huge female personification of victory riding an erext 97-foot granite phallus to commemorate commodore dewey's victory over the spanish armada in manila bay on may 1, 1898 this monument dedicated by gun totin' fist shakin' rough rider teddy on may 14, 1903 to end a splendid little war to begin what is known as a small insurrection

Where "El Camino Real" ends, Reyes actively re-invents the city, scripting the Filipino presence in San Francisco's textual memory. Poeta's San Francisco is what Mary Louise Pratt, in Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Tranculturation (Routledge, 1992), defines as a "contact zone":

The space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict. . . . By using the term 'contact,' I aim to foreground the interactive, improvisational dimensions of colonial encounters so easily ignored or suppressed by diffusionist accounts of conquest and domination. A 'contact' perspective emphasizes how subjects are constituted in and by their relations to each other . . . in terms of copresence, interaction, interlocking understandings and practices.

Reyes's account of culture foregrounds the co-presence of different cultures and the interlocking histories of these cultures. The subject of Poeta, its I, is constituted and re-constituted through its relation to the other. Throughout Poeta, we witness the intersecting trajectories of body, self, culture and city:

we are penned in this narrow strip of land,
sutured by train tracks and high voltage wire,
where these piss and dank stankin alleys
embrace and tear us from our vigilance—
without so much as a sustainable gospel.

in our collisions, we learn to make new:
from our lacerated and fractured selves,
appendages resembling tails, horns.
and, siempre, wings to capture breath.

Reyes proposes that we fashion ourselves and histories within the "contact zone" of our collisions to develop a "sustainable gospel," a communal act of remembrance and invention. In a space where "the pure products of America go crazy" (a line William Carlos Williams wrote in "To Elsie" is quoted inPoeta), Reyes employs a lacerated lyric and de-centralized perspective to wing its fractured narratives.

Poeta also descends from a "poethnographic" tradition that includes Federico Garcia Lorca's Poet in New York, Aime Cesaire's Notebooks of a Return to the Native Land, Jean Toomer's Cane, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee, just to name a few. James Clifford's description of postcolonial, postmodern ethnography in The Predicament of Culture: 20th Century Ethnography, Literature and Art (Harvard University Press, 1988), further echoes Reyes's project:

A modern 'ethnography' of conjunctures, constantly moving between cultures . . . is perpetually displaced, both regionally focused and broadly comparative, a form both of dwelling and of travel in a world where the two experiences are less and less distinct . . . Ethnography, a hybrid activity, thus appears as writing, as collecting, as modernist collage, as imperial power, as subversive critique . . . a way of understanding and getting around in a diverse world that, since the sixteenth century, has become cartographically unified. One of the principal functions of ethnography is 'orientation' . . . But in the twentieth century ethnography reflects new 'spatial practices' (De Certeau, 1984), new forms of dwelling and circulating.

With textual formations continually moving through moments of displacement and disjuncture, Poeta is deeply concerned with "orientation" and the creation of new "spatial practices" in navigating a diverse world. This collection serves as both a poetry volume and ethnographic notebook, recording new multiperspectival cartographies derived from the "contact zone." At one point, Reyes asks: "wanna peek into my notebook? There may be clues hidden in it: instructions for viewing subjective catastrophe. rules of derivation." Learning the rules of derivation will help us understand Reyes's methodology: She leads, draws, and receives from a source. She procures an effect from causes, means, conclusions and opinions from evidence. She traces origin or descent, as in grammar or genealogy. She deduces one function from another according to laws of differentiation and of integration.

Reyes's contact perspective produces a "contact aesthetic," as various languages (English, Tagalog, Spanish, and an ancient script of the Philippines called Baybayin) interact with numerous formal experiments employed towards "the absurdity of navigation." For example, Poeta moves from unpunctuated prose ("do not dip your hands into fish sauce fermented shrimp paste vessels do not grimace tasting salty wetness do not forget to clean up your own mess here no frills leaving gratuity is customary mark of manners") to the epistolary ("dear love, / remember the bamboo tiger cages in those goddamn movies. and napalm, sinister rain, deathly tangerine vapor veiling the islands, for simulation's nothing like the real thing. the real thing. the real thing"); from confessional ("Forgive me father, for here have I faltered. / It has been thirty years and counting, / the process of my acculturation.") to urban-slam ("unsavory districts for kicky dining amongst lush and plush urbanoids, kooky and kitschy, freewheeling trendoids for even the moneyed sport funk-to-grunge artsy attire"); from notes on Asiaphiles ("1. A non-Asian male who prefers Asian women. . . . / 2. A white western male with a pathological, sexual obsession with Asians and their cultures. / 3. A non-Asian person, most often a white male, with yellow fever.") to outright storytelling:

one day she will build a temple from detritus, dust of your crumbling empires' edicts; its walls will hold with blood and spittle, brackish water and sun-dried grasses. within these walls she will inscribe her own terms of worship, upon every pillar and column, glyphs resembling earth and ocean. once she had no sharpened stone, no reason for stone, for once the wind bore her words upon its entire wingspan. Carved into bamboo, banana leaf, her river poems, her birdsong.

Reyes's ruptured fieldwork rubric resists objectivism in favor of "new forms of dwelling and circulating." The methods of seeing and writing culture d(e)rive the narrative through the diverse contact zones of the city and the resulting "subjective catastrophe." In this "state of emergency" where no grand narrative can adequately translate culture, Reyes offers us a shifting narrative that adjusts to variable moments of seeing.

Besides being a "poethnographic" project, Poeta en San Francisco is also a prayer. Writing from within one of the many cultures of U.S. imperialism, Reyes expresses an urgent plea in her native tongues in which "breath is word is spirit":

pray for us sinners         ipanalangin n'yo kamin makasalanan
now and at the hour      ngayon at kung
of our death                      kami ay mamamatay


Although Reyes offers a prayer for her community, she doesn't speak for her community; instead she speaks honestly, intimately, and lyrically within and through her community. In this sense, writing culture becomes "constit(ch)utive" of poetry and prayer.

Turning to the final stanza of Williams's "To Elsie," we read: "No one / to witness / and adjust, no one to drive the car." Through Poeta en San Francisco, Reyes re-imagines the single car as variable narrative vehicles; in addition, she re-imagines the "no one" (the "no single, adequate translation") not as an absence, but as an opportunity to navigate these vehicles through a new, sustainable perspective: "The blank space on your map, that's where I was born. . . . Can you appreciate the neither here nor there of it all?" Reyes shows us that the blank space on our maps are not blank at all, but open. It is their openness that we must appreciate and redraw in order to navigate the blinding lightness of the "neither here nor there." Poeta performs this adjustment at every textual moment, and we are present to witness her unraveling prayer:

she whispers desert trees, thorn-ridged, trickling yellow candles; roots
spilling snakes' blood
virgin of ribboned silk; virgin of gold filigree
one day's walk westward, a crucifix of fisherman's dinghy dimensions
washes ashore
virgin adorned in robe of shark embryo and coconut husk
she fingers mollusks, wraps herself in sea vines
virgin of ocean voyage peril
she wills herself born
virgin of naming and renaming places inbetween

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006-2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006-2007


Alicia Yànez Cossìo
Translated by Amalia Gladhart
University of Texas Press ($19.95)

by Kristin Thiel

Alicia Yànez Cossìo's 1985 novel, recently translated into English, is recounted breathlessly, as though time or circumstance might soon prevent it from being told. Some sentences are short or list-like, moving the reader quickly through details, as in the description of a town fair: "There are platters of guinea pig bathed in peanut sauce that look like drowned mice. There are potatoes in their jackets . . . There are baskets of steaming hominy." Other sentences stretch into paragraphs, winding their way through setting, character, and commentary, as with the novel's opening line:

Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop, striking showers of sparks against the rocks carved by the water of the rivers whose terrifying currents carry whole settlements to the Oriente, over the round stones like hard rolls, like the bread eaten by the sweat of one's brow, the bread that is burnt at the oven door, stones that have been placed one by one by the calloused hands of the Indians, gallops Magdalena Benavides, and she thinks that the day will come when people from far away, who are the ones who discover foreign lands, will be amazed and come to see with their own eyes the hand-laid cobblestones of the town's streets and its long roads.

This narrative style fits well with the novel, which is all about talk and the urgency to convey one's own version of events.

There are two families in the book's Andean town: the Benavideses and the Pandos. The Benavideses are conservative, religious, and the caretakers of the town's prized icon, the Potbellied Virgin. They are also blonds, being of both indigenous and European descent, and they see this as physical proof of their superiority and right to govern the town. The Pandos are dark-haired mestizos, who used to own the land, but who were dispossessed years before when the Benavideses manipulated legal documents to take control. The plot turns on the Pando family trying to regain power from the Benavides family. Yànez Cossìo also weaves in a couple "misfit" characters, such as a Benavides woman who wants to escape small-town life and a Pando who avoids everyone to publish his subversive newspaper.

Much of the novel pokes fun at the Benavides family. Sometimes the jokes speak to serious issues; for example, in such an isolated and impoverished town, the Benavides' Sisterhood of the Bead on the Gown of the Potbellied Virgin keeps its icon "radiant in her white gown embroidered with gold threads and baroque pearls; with her crown of one hundred and thirty-six diamonds and eighteen emeralds as big as cymbals and her scepter of solid gold that she can't hold up which they have had to tie to a post." Sometimes the humor is lighter. The town has cycled through numerous priests in quick succession because no one can stand working under the neurotic rule of Doña Carmen Benavides, the head of the Sisterhood. She develops an anxious tic in her left eye trying to get one to officiate the Jubilee of the Potbellied Virgin, which makes people nervous that she's flirting with them. Eventually, in a move that is more comedic than threatening, she kidnaps two missionaries who are passing through town and forces them to lead the celebration.

The end, for both the novel and the Sisterhood, brings into full view a third player, the military, another oppressive and absurd force. Whereas the Pandos and the Benavides both speak partially in local proverbs, indicated in italics throughout the novel and demonstrating each group's place in the community, the military men do not. With their entry into the book, they begin to bear some of the ridicule the Benavides once faced mostly alone.

Much about Ecuador's history, attitudes toward race, and play between religion and the military has been addressed in this slim novel—and in the translator's excellent nine-page introduction. But in the end, as in life, everything hinges only on which of history's storytellers was heard.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006-2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006-2007