by Elisabeth Watson
The single “illustration” in Maureen N. McLane’s 2012 book, My Poets, (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2012) is a reproduction of page 200 from her undergraduate Norton Anthology of English Literature: Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died”, surrounded by a college freshman’s cloud of marginalia, or as McLane calls it, “a series of failed attempts, graspings, and gropings.” The immediate impression that the one “image” makes is very much the same as that which My Poets builds over the course of the book. To revisit the “painstakingly bubble-written marginalia is to revisit not only a prior self but a prior reading self–which for me, as for many whose subjectivities were formed in dialogue with literature, have long been close to identical.” McLane undertakes to interrogate and critique her own voice as it has existed beside those other Voices, and yet to realize, in wonder, that, had it not risen to answer–however wrongheadedly–those other voices, her voice as she knows it would not exist at all.
The memoir-as-reading list is certainly no innovative project. But in reading McLane’s memoir, I began to suspect that the distinction between books that shape a life and writers who shape a life is not an insignificant distinction and one worth preserving. My Poets is defined by being just that and not My Poems. Most of the book’s chapters are devoted to a single poet or group of related poets as seen through the lens of one poet (“My Shelley/ My Romantics”), and each essay is relatively dependent upon the sprawling messiness and transformations that characterize a lifetime of writing poetry (as opposed to any completion sought out in a single poem or even a published collection of poetry). The line between written works and writing lives–McLane’s very much included–is necessarily blurred when one chooses to wrestle with poets’ voices as expressed across years and decades as opposed to the deceptively timeless and more portable form of beloved poem.
Most notable in McLane’s prose style throughout the memoir is her attempt to echo those “voices” she’s discussing in her own writing. This is obviously a risky business: who, for example, has not read an attempt to vetriloquize Gertrude Stein, and who, having done so, ever wants to repeat that experience? But, working through McLane’s project, I came to admire this occasionally embarrassing risk she took, if only because how true such a risk is to her project as a whole: when we find ourselves, over years and lifetimes, bound to specific poets, are we following anything so much as specific voices, even as those voices change? And beyond any objective appreciation or benefits, what does the reading “ear” take in that doesn’t somehow enter the writing “voice?”
I was made to consider what exactly I’ve been clinging to ever since I stumbled across a copy of The Wild Iris as a teenager in the public library, and in the decade since that has never found my nightstand without a changing cast of Louise Glück’s books keeping Iris company. It’s not so much that I want to write “like” Glück, as I want my own writing always to be changed by whatever runs through her voice and her vision. McLane’s willingness to change her voice with the voices she’s evoking might at times be tiresome, but her motivation feels true to the always imperfectly met desire to hear our own voices transformed by the voices we’ve heard and loved.
Those more “purely” poetic projects that interrupt the book’s essays certainly fit into this theme of “voice,” but are, perhaps, the least effective parts of the whole. In particular, the two centos, lines taken both from those poets who have essays dedicated to them in the book and those who do not, are, among other things, confusing because of how obvious they seem–a poem whose voice is composed of the mingling of other voices…but then what? In contrast, the poetic interlude of “My Translated: An Abecedary” is specific enough, and clearly necessary, angle on the theme of the whole as to be effective on both an rhetorical and emotional level. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen the power and ache of translation so perfectly evoked by something so simple, little more than a list of names: “My Dante is Dorothy Sayers, still. / My Mahmoud Darwish is Fady Joudah and also Catherine Cobham and Sinan Antoon. /…My Fredrico Garcia Lorca is a vast field of devotion, including W.S. Merwin, Stephen Spender, and Lysander Kemp.” And on and on.
The story of her life that McLane weaves through her exploration of the poetic voices that have shaped it is fractured and tantalizing. If I could have increased any aspect part of this book, it would have been the author’s own story. But if the tale she tells of herself, refracted through many other voices, is not always compact, its own kind of clarity emerges, always vivid. Most memorable to me, months after I read a preview version of the chapter “My Marianne Moore” in Poetry, was McLane’s winsome whiplash of rhetoric, no matter what her topic, by which she shows mercy toward a thing she has just damned, or, more accurately, toward that which she has just tempted the reader into damning:
“My great vocation was not to feel ambivalent. This was, of course, childish. It bespoke the vain purity of the child. Which I should have honored.”
Or, “Wholehearted, wholehearted! That is all you longed to be. Everything would be sacrificed for that. Not least your marriage. And rightly so. You thought. And still think.”
And again: “late twentieth-century boosters who look to poetry to ‘save us,’ as if we could be saved, as if we were designed to be saved, and perhaps we are–”
“Life is surprising like that so is poetry,” she writes. “Most people do not wish to be surprised especially once they have announced their team and bought their team uniforms.” With characteristic playfulness, McLane never undermines the sometimes-devastating stakes of that surprise. But only the return to past difficulties, an act inherent to both autobiography and re-readings of difficult poems, grants access to what surprise has the power to do: “To make visible my presumptions: this is what breakdowns and impasses allowed.” And, one would certainly add, what poetry allows as well.
That Miami is not an easy place for harmony to take effect is correct and another point one could flag him on is that the status one feels one feels one has obtained and who one sees oneself as is for Wolfe the defining factor of America. However late in the game here imperceptibly our characters transcend as the African American police chief goes out on a limb for the Cuban Rookie cop seeing not his race but a fellow man in blue.
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano
Originally published by Editorial Anagrama (Spain) in 1998; translated by Natasha Wimmer and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (USA) in 2007.
Here’s what the critics have to say:
—John Strausbaugh, author of Black Like You and Sissy Nation“CW writes like he put his thumb in the air on some two-lane American highway that used to be an Indian Trail, where he got picked up by God. Like he has come back to the fire in the woods we have gathered around at the end of the world with our loved ones to tell us what he saw.
—Andrew Huebner, author of We Pierce, American By Bloodand East of Bowery
With prose unfurling like cigarette smoke bleeding into that cloud of half-forgotten memories forever shadowing missed opportunities that hangs over a noonday dive somewhere during the twilight of the last blown century, heartbreak rock-n-roll on the radio crackling in exquisite precision between am stations and windswept interstates, Carl Watson daydreams before silent black-and-white televisions in SRO lobbies or as he drinks himself sober in crumbling Chicago tenements. Backwards the Drowned Go Dreaming explodes the bleary-eyed myth of the American road.
—Donald Breckenridge, author of This Young Girl Passing
Carl Watson’s work is desolate poetry. He writes with sharp nostalgia for a past that really wasn’t all that great. It feels like a stay in a down-and-out motel, but right on the other side of the paper-thin wall is transcendence. Watson never lets you forget that even in the most desperate situations, there is humor (even if it’s mostly black) and greatness of the spirit. —Emily XYZ, United States of Poetry
Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel
Awarded the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize
Paperback: 250 pages Publisher: Melville House Publishing (April 2012)
Original Language: Persian Printed in: English
Reviewed by: Donna Honarpisheh
After being arrested in 1974 by the Savak (Shah’s secret police founded and trained by the U.S.), Iranian writer Mahmoud Dowlatabadi asked his interrogators just what crime he had committed. “None,” he recalled them responding, “But everyone we arrest seems to have copies of your novels, so that makes you provocative to revolutionaries.”
The story of The Colonel unfolds after the Iranian revolution of 1979 towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), a time Dowlatabadi describes as being infused with continuous brutality and chaos. Dowlatabadi shows us that the Iranian revolution and revolution in general, is not a linear development and in its course, lives are claimed on many fronts. Dowlatabadi wastes no time in narrating these horrors, in the opening scene, a father is called in the middle of the night to collect the body of his 14-year-old daughter, who has just been executed by the authorities of the country.
By structuring the novel in a way that contains layers of multiplicity, a common theme in Dowlatabadi’s novels, he creates a narrative, with the central voice belonging to the protagonist, the unnamed colonel himself. The character of the colonel is meant to symbolize a former soldier with principles who was meant to serve the interests of his country, only to find himself in an existential frame of mind as corrupt as his enemies. Dowlatabadi uses a choppy narrative that almost feels like he is interrupting himself. By emphasizing the complexity of situations, Dowlatabadi makes clear the subjectivity of human thought. The centrality of the colonel’s innermost thoughts allows for greater understanding of the depth of this character, allowing readers to identify with a man who has murdered his wife.
“Maybe I’d lost my senses, or was it that I’d finally come to them at last? What are one’s senses, anyway?”(23)
The chaos described is not simply that of bloodshed, but of the mind. As literary scholar Hamid Dabashi suggests, the voice of the colonel is often expressed by horrid “hallucinatory implosions.” These introverted and self-absorbed echoes are memories that the protagonist is condemned to remember. Dowlatabadi shows us that the revolution consumed everything, it became everything. A novel deeply rooted in historical context, we are introduced to each revolutionary group: Mujahidin khalq-e Iran (Armed Terrorist group), Tudeh (Iranian Communist Party), Nationalists, and Islamists; each struggling to progress their own competing outcome for the revolution. Problems and differences arise at every layer of the societal sphere, not only between political groups but between family members, where brother and sister, father and daughter, husband and wife, all oppose each other with differing perspectives. The colonel’s family represents a nation both united and divided by differing revolutionary ideologies. The following lines are central to the theme of the narrative and allow us to enter the colonel’s deepest thoughts about the revolution. In the novel, the colonel uses his three sons and two daughters allegorically, as representative of the various ideological strands in the revolutionary upheavals within one nation. Similar to the idealistic ideologies they supported, none of the colonel’s children survive the toll of the revolution.
“I walked a very straight line, my dear children. But none of you cared about the others and you all went charging off in different directions. What’s the matter with you all? You’re all one family, but you bark up different trees! What is it that you are all after, that keeps you so much at each other’s throats? Are you all living on different planets?
No, in fact they were living on the same planet. But each of them reckoned to have found their own answers to life. They showed me respect but, at bottom, they did not believe in me. When it came down to it, they saw me as an officer of the Shah, although they granted that I’d had no part in the crime that was Dhofar. But even that couldn’t prevent them from regarding me as a creature of the old regime.” (28)
Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel is a novel about Iran’s 1979 Revolution and the paths taken by various people in the midst of chaos. The novel was originally written in Persian in the early 1980’s but has recently received Western press due to the 2011 translation by Tom Patterdale. The English version of the book is advertised as being “BANNED IN IRAN.” Considering Dowlatabadi’s immense popularity in Iran, I became skeptical of this statement and did some research. The book is in fact not banned but has undergone a delayed publishing process. The reason for this is unclear. In a New York Time’s interview, Dowlatabadi explains: “I have written things that if you read them they create questions in your head,” but he added: “I did not do it confrontationally, against the state. In fact it’s a good thing for the regime — past, present and future — to have the experience of writers who work within the system. This has to be an established norm or practice in our country: that people who have different opinions can rationally disagree. It shouldn’t be that I want to kill you, I want to confront you or I want to leave.” Dowlatabadi has been offered to have work printed in Persian outside of Iran but he has refused this offer and has said that as an Iranian, his book in Persian was written for Iranians in Iran. To say the book is “banned” is a false statement but to say that it has ruptured our static image of the 1979 Iranian Revolution in unthinkable ways, is completely true.
I read The Colonel as I would any philosophical tale, taking from it a dark meaning that lingers in my mind, over and over again. The fear, betrayal, struggle, and torture described in this novel is not unique to Iran (as much as Western audiences may like to describe it as such). In reading this novel, I advise a mind that is open to the reality of a revolution. The moral of Dowlatabadi’s story is direct: no revolution is clean. The Islamic Revolution is known to be one of the most popular revolutions in history, with its magnitude in followers. However, even with a resulting success for Iranian society and the ultimate downfall of the Shah, no revolution occurs without bloodshed and resistance to change. Lives are sacrificed, the “families” of a nation are divided, and society, must ultimately be rebuilt by its members, hand in hand. The Colonel is a painful read, yet one that is impossible to put down. Dowlatabadi breezes through literary, social, and moral taboos, sparing no one, a similar tactic of any warring revolution.
Victory: The Triumphant Gay RevolutionReviewed by Poonam Srivastava
Linda Hirshman authored a book that she entitled Victory, The Triumphant Gay Revolution, How a Despised Minority Pushed Back, Beat Death, Found Love, and Changed America for Everyone.
Sound too good to be true? It is too good to be true. Hate crimes have gone up every year from 14% in 2004 to 19% in 2009. Where, then, is this beating of death? Just this morning my friend phoned me that a young teen was sitting on the curb of her nice neighborhood with a busted up face. Some boys in his CHURCH didn’t like his perceived faggotry. We certainly cannot declare that we’ve found love, or changed America. To say such a thing in a book that appears to be “on the side of the homosexuals” is more than misleading. It is dangerous.
Victory does raise an important issue. In order for GLBT triumph, American core values of “morality, sanity, and loyalty” have to change. That is something that needs to be said. To say that they have changed is tantamount to abandoning the fight when we most need to stay engaged. Why would anyone do that?
The book does give someone without any background in homosexual history an overview. However, for those completely in the dark, the 348 pages of glib-sounding account of homosexuality appear as mainly an urban, male, phenomena. Where are the dykes, the trans, the poor, the rural, and the blacks, the hispanics, the asians? Also there is a class bias in this book. The successful people Hirshman focuses on always move to the right and just want inclusion and their piece of gentrification. They drop the concerns of the marginalized. The drop the concerns of organized labor, or the anti-war movements, or public services. They change from wanting to change America to having a place at the table and a slice of the pie. Then again focus is often on the political arenas.
Victory is a muddled book. Hirshman’s sentences are unclear and hard to read. Victory’s voice does not sound authentic. At times the tone is of a cheeky novella:
“Level, intense gaze and cleft chin: it’s understandable that his early years as a card-carrying Communist involved as much rolling in the hay as remembering the Hay-market. After comrad Will Greer, Harry had a fling with a Brazilian FBI stooge and spent months in the arms of a seventeen-year-old jail bait.”
“Frank Kameny was, he says, innocently taking a piss at the San Francisco bus station bathroom when the guy next to him made a pass. Maybe so. Of course, Kameny, a little over thirty, tall and thin with dark eyebrows over blue eyes, wasn’t someone you’d throw out of bed either. the two cops watching the men’s room through a ventilation grill that summer day in 1956 arrested him.”
I found myself wondering who the author was trying to impress with this stereotypical camp cadence, this Will and Grace sitcom ambience to the work. On page 22, for example, Hirshman tells us that:
“…a record number of men were arrested for disorderly conduct, often a code for homosexual behavior,, in DC after the war, rising from two a day in the late forties to a thousand a year by the fifties.”
That seems ominous, until you do the math: 1000 divided by 365 is 2.7 per day. More importantly, the fifties is the period of McCarthyism. In light of the math and the context the jump is not so extraordinary after all.
Victory is a dangerous book. It is getting a lot of positive press in this election year because it lends credibility to the Democratic party spin that it is a pro-gay and that is reason enough to support them even as there is no real muscle to their rhetoric; nor any real condemnation or attack on Defense of Marriage Act.
Before the introductory chapter opens there is a typically flippantly titled section, “Touched By a Fairy”, wherein Arthur Evans “opened his arms and pulled me into a big hug. Still holding me, he explained the sudden onslaught of affection for a heterosexual woman he’d just met a few hours before. ‘You can do this, Linda,” he said. “Tell them our story.” That little bit says more than the entire book on just how wrong this book is. How can we in 2012 assume that a straight woman, one who wonders at the sudden onslaught of affection she interprets in a hug, tell the story of cultures where a hug is perhaps merely a hug. Her predispositions as a straight white woman do color the focus as well as the interpretations in this book.
The fact that there is such a media love affair with this book, or how wonderful that a straight women can like the gays so, says more about where the LGBT revolution is than Victory’s claims. Where is the changing of America for Everyone? Is this inclusion in the military, the industries of marriage and divorce, the stamp of approval from the DSMII,I a supporting of difference? Does this book claim an understanding that there is a moral certitude now to be had outside of the nuclear family, indeed outside of moral certitude? Indeed Victory reads more as a tale of the straight world “wrenching” gay people towards straight moral certitude and inclusion in the mainstream. Gay liberation, is celebrated in this book everywhere where it has let go of an agenda, rather than pushed back, everywhere it played ball with politicos and capitalists.
Take for instance Hirshman’s understanding of the Mattachines, one that queers may not share: “The Mattachines had not come together because they shared common beliefs in the inevitability of the dictatorship of the proletariat or some such thing; their commonality was their same-sex attraction and practices.” “The Mattachine convention also introduced the practice that was to bedevil gay organizations for decades: governance by charisma.” (WHAT?)
In speaking of marriage: “The epidemic of coming out that the real epidemic (AIDS) engendered brought many people with otherwise conventional desires to the movement. They wanted to wear uniforms and carry orange blossoms.”
This book seems to epitomize the contemporary American dilemma: America accepts the blacks, as long as they are mainstream blacks, like Bill Cosby; lesbians, as long as they don’t look too butch, like Ellen Degeneres. Victory claims that the Gay Revolution changed America. But the book that does not conclude with America’s understanding that love can be non – procreative; that family can be non-nuclear or non-blood or non-state sanctioned can not claim that title. Hirshman’s gay revolution triumph seems rather that the gays have cast themselves in the moral certitude and the desires of mainstream, of white male patriarchy and the attributes of capitalism.
Perhaps that is most dangerous of all. For the victims of hate crimes are usually not the successful NYC real estate broker that opens the book. LGBT keep getting discriminated at in the workplace, LGBT youth represent the highest percentage of homeless, queer folk keep getting killed. To call out Victory! now is tantamount to yelling Fire! in a crowded theater. Lives are at stake.
THE UNBEARABLES BIG BOOK OF SEX , edited by Ron Kolm, Carol Wierzbicki, Jim Feast, Steve Dalachinsky, Yuko Otomo and Shalom Neuman. Unbearable Books/ Autonomedia. 2011. 640 pps. $18.95.
First, to dispense with the obvious: THE UNBEARABLES BIG BOOK OF SEX is not a stroke book. To be sure, you (or the grubby inner adolescent of you) will find, inevitably, a sprinkling of verifiable “dirty parts” (as a time-saving service, we refer you to pgs. 156, 165, 431 and 485). But savvy readers, looking past the book’s formal category as “erotica,” will surmise that the words “Unbearables” and “sex” appearing in the same title will more than likely yield, for the most part, a bumptuous pageant of squalid missed connections, subliminal-to-outright multigendered abuse, delusional gambits of seduction and, overall, a Cook’s tour of carnal dysfunction in its myriad sordid forms. And, of course, they will be right.
The volume under review is the latest in a series of “big book” anthologies squired by the band of convivial literary incendiaries who call themselves “The Unbearables” — presumably after the classic novel by Milan Kundera. Like the other collections, this one includes several score contributors, many recurring from previous compendia, that include a few marquee names (Delaney, Malanga, Kostelanetz, Litzky), as well as familiar figures from New York’s alternative lit scene and sundry more from God knows where. Entries span most conceivable genres: fiction, memoir, poetry and criticism, as well as a lush center insert of visual art, which seems to favor the porno-collagiste.
(And, speaking of the “p” versus the “e” word, let’s take the opportunity to settle that interminable debate once and for all: “Erotica” is porno you want your girlfriend to look at.)
What there is in these pages that is unabashedly celebratory of the sex act is to be found largely (and perhaps predictably, as these things go) in the poetry section (Anyssa Kim, Dan Waber, Terri Carrion). Elsewhere, mostly in the fiction and memoir selections, the most consistent note is a kind of prolonged stammer in the face of the most primal and confounding of human acts, that rare force — built by nature for literal creation, yet all too often giving birth to vertiginous flameout — putting all too many writers at an exceptional and agonized loss for words.
(Here too there are notable exceptions — viz Steve Cannon, John Farris, Doug Nufer — sicko and funny burlesques that evoke the haute, screwy lyricisms of the classic Olympia Readers and the Grove Press’ Black Cat erotica series.)
By contrast, the Unbearables previous Big Book, The Worst Book I Ever Read, scans like one unbroken, bubbling gabfest. Not hard to reason why. That work, calling on contributors to riff on the worst book they ever read (title says it all), was as much as anything a series of deliberate meditations on the ritual of reading and the book as artifact, a purposefully designed action and object of mediation between gentle reader and the raw hellishness of life as lived, which is exactly why we read them and write them. The result was a license for more-or-less relaxed fun, and even in its darker pages (and, as an Unbearables enterprise, there were plenty of those) it made a more-or-less relaxed, fun book;
Much less so in this collection, a full-body, multiple immersion into exactly that raw hellishness of life as lived, as only the savage caprices of sapien sexuality can make it. See, as near-random examples, Jill Rapaport’s slumming anomie, Penny Arcade’s flaking marriage, Dave Mandl’s low strip club farce, Anne Hanavan’s faux-cop ‘ho troll, L.Z. Hansen’s pervo bomb underneath the trysting couch…
No, not pretty or abundantly sexy, or always eloquent, or even coherent. But, if nothing else, credit THE UNBEARABLES BIG BOOK OF SEX with holding up a creditable mirror to our fucked up erogenous nature. What it loses in prurience it makes up for in an unsparingly illuminative honesty. Are you turned on yet?
Nikky Finney Has Chops by Natalie N. Caro
In her latest collection of poetry, “Head Off and Split,” the National Book Award Winner, tackles race, sex, and turns an unrelenting eye to the politics that saturate both. It would be too easy to say that Finney writes solely from a place experience. While she is the “child of activists, [that] came of age during the civil rights and Black Arts Movements,” her politics are all her own and so are her stories.
Finney has a knack for narrative and is a natural story teller for whom lyric seems compulsion, if not instinct. At her strongest, Finney weaves through lines like the seamstress with fresh, unusual, and imaginative metaphors. Her language is so rich you are compelled to read her poems aloud if only to feel the texture of her words on your literary pallet.
The first section of the book is a masterfully crafted series of vignettes that explore black history in the South. However, Finney is no mere historian. She imbues stories of black resistance with the same red velvet smoothness she attributes to her subject.
In “Red Velvet, (for Rosa Parks, 1912-2005)” Finney both eulogizes Parks and imbues her with new life. She characterizes Parks as a seamstress “who knows her way around velvet,” for which “by forty-two, biases are flat…patience razor thin.” Finney beautifully carries sewing metaphors throughout the poem, holding history “by pins.”
By contrast, the poems that deal with the events of Hurricane Katrina and the political response cut to the quick. Finney is simultaneously sardonic and heartbreaking when she tells the individual stories of victims of the flood. In “Left,” the reader is literally left to watch the abandoned beg for aid, watch the event unfold slowly, forced to be part of that “national council of observers.”
In the second section, Finney brings light to a fact little known, the true length of the clitoris, which “like Africa is never drawn to size.” This short poem is full of punch and aptly characterizes much of the subtle subjugation of female sexuality that has plagued and continues to plague society.
Nothing and no one is exempt from Finney’s sharp tongue and quick wit, not even the former president or members of his staff.
By: Natalie N. Caro
Backwards the Drowned Go Dreaming on a Mystery Train
by Tsaurah Litzky
“I could hear a story being written, but I didn’t know what it said, there was only the rhythm,The staccato pumping of the heart that was way faster then any human heart – more like a bird to be crushed in a fist.”
Backwards the Drowned Go Dreaming (the title is taken from Rimbaud’s Drunken Boat) is a wing ding of a masterpiece surfacing from the literary underground. It was put out by Sensitive Skin Books, the radical press that is also responsible for Sensitive Skin magazine. The author of Backwards the Downed Go Dreaming, Carl Watson, has published one other novel, The Hotel of Irrevocable Acts (Unbearable Books/Autonomedia) and a collection of stories, Beneath the Empire of the Birds (Apathy Press). These books have also been published in France by Gallimard and Vagabonde Press respectively. Nonetheless, I can scarcely say, alas, that Watson is widely read. What a great, great shame, because Watson can write like an eagle flies. He knows that all surfaces are curved as the earth is curved and there is no such thing as a simple story. His vision is far reaching and his writing strong enough to carry us up and out to a place where we can breathe pure helium
For example: “Sitting over cheap local brews in roadside diners, we fantasized that people wondered who we were. We let them wonder and we wondered back. For all they knew we could be heirs to the Starkweather/Fugate heritage – highway killers reborn in passive bodies, but still bearing forth the noble momentum, the past life memories. For all we knew they could be the ones who’d gun us down on the outskirts of town. But it was that ‘wonder’ that drove Tanya and me insanely across the landscape, thinking that, if we stopped the world would stop making sense. Or maybe it would start making sense and then we would have to take responsibility for it. Or maybe we were just running out of piety.”
As the story unfolds, it appears to be a romance, a love story about the liaison between Tanya McCoy and Luc a.k.a. Frank Payne. They meet in Portland Oregon in the early seventies when she climbs in his window “but she was really looking for someone else.” (Isn’t this all too often the case?) Watson expresses his doubts that it is a love story. “I’m not even sure it was a love story. I’m not even sure that love stories exist except as models for emotional oppression.”
Mr. Watson, I need to tell you that, like the word, “safe” or the word “God,” the word “love” is an irresponsible word and that emotional oppression can be and is both good and bad. The “love” story of Tanya and Luc is as searing and memorable as any love story I have ever read and I’ve read a lot of love stories — indeed I am addicted to them, maybe because of my many failures in love. I will mercifully spare you my recollections; I prefer to talk about
Backwards the Drowned Go Dreaming, a book about journeys and symbols and the open road which only appears open until you hit the brick wall around the next curve. It is also a book about the idealism of youthful desires and the search for some kind of ultimate freedom, which is itself a chimera, and it is as well a book that captures the burnt out flavor of the 70’s and the dead end of the American dream. Tanya and Luc set out seeking some kind of 60’s Utopian adventure but it is already too late — instead what they find is the cigarette butts floating in the dregs of a glass of gin and a 70’s wasteland of crash pads, lost souls and last chance saloons.
Tanya and Luc begin their journey hitching from Portland to New Orleans but eventually set out for the West Coast on a 1969 BSA Lightening motorcycle. “We took the little roads when we could, the blue highways, the diner lined routes, the 66s and the 77s. There were scorpions in our boots in the mornings, skies salted with stars, trucks like giant glowing grasshoppers in the night, naked drunks screaming in small town gas stations.” When they get to L.A. they hook up with some of Tanya’s old friends. Everywhere they go everyone wants to know about Tanya’s mother, Naomi O’Connell, “a legendary figure among Tanya’s less than legendary crowd.” Naomi knew the Beats, she had been to Woodstock, she was said to be acquainted with Norman Mailer and Gloria Steinem. Throughout the book, Naomi casts a shadow over her reckless, wild daughter as Tanya struggles to become a singer and establish her own identity. Naomi is Tanya’s cross to bear.
Out in California, while still “with” Luc, Tanya spends some time with an old boyfriend, Reggie. Because of his antics, she lands herself some jail time. Luc returns to Portland, Oregon, and takes a room in the Freeway Hotel. He meets Patsy Little Death (Watson has a genius for names) as well as a few other willing ladies and experiences his own summer of love. In a bar (where else?) he is approached by Walker Birdsong a grizzled character in green lizard cowboy boots, who may be a drunk who tries to pass himself off as a visionary and shaman or a visionary and shaman who tries to pass himself off as a drunk. Either way he talks a lot. Like Naomi, Walker is a pivotal character in the book.
When Tanya gets out of jail, she travels to Portland to find Luc and the pair go to Oregon, to Eugene, to visit Harry Sandman, Tanya’s “father.” Naomi has told Tanya that Harry is her father but that was one of the many things Naomi told her that Tanya never quite believes.
After spending some time with Harry, Tanya and Luc head for the mountains to find work in the orchards picking apples. They meet fruit tramp weirdos like Anthony Bloch who calls himself Blockhead and singing families that worked together like the Hernandez clan. Few were happy with their lot and around the campfires in the evenings disillusion raged. As Watson describes it:
“Drinking and fighting and spewing. It was a glimmer of what the world would was to become, a passing that was to take place subtly, in which we didn’t any longer live in a common tapestry of mixed fates, but an infinite number of individual productions in which the teller of the tale was also the star, and everyone’s subjective opinion mattered more than any collective destiny.”
After their time of what Watson calls the “sacrifice in the apple camps” Tanya and Luc head for Chicago. Tanya tries and fails to establish herself as a singer and the couple begins to drift apart. As I hope you will fall under the breathtaking spell of this book and want to read it for yourself, I will not detail all Tanya and Luc’s further adventures or tell you what happens at the end except to say that the mystery of Tanya’s paternity is solved and Tanya and Luc do not
marry and live unhappily ever after.
The failure of Kerouac’s classic, On the Road is, in my opinion, that there is no strong female protagonist. Watson remedies this in Backwards the Downed Go Dreaming when he gives us Tanya. She flies off the page and spits in your eye. She can shoot pool and change the oil in a motorcycle. “Tanya wasn’t one of those women who stalk the outskirts of a broken down scene bitching. She never gave thought to any physical, financial or chronological impossibilities.” I fell in love with her as, obviously does Luc.
The bedrock of this book is Luc’s memories and recollections of Tanya. So while it is a brilliant exposition about the dismal breakdowns of the seventies and the failure of the American dream, Backwards the Downed Go Dreaming is even more powerful when understood as a study of the power and importance of memory and recollection, a study of the way certain events and memories always remain as magnets, focal points in our lives.
This is how we develop our personal archetypes; i.e. whenever Luc hears a Janis Joplin song, whenever he hears a bottle breaking “down the haunted halls of the long hotel of mounting recollections,” he thinks of Tanya. Our memories are with us throughout life and attract other events to them; memory crosses and re-crosses the lines between imagination and recollection. (While I was first reading the book I was overcome with memories of the man I have loved for the forty years since we were together. Not at all surprisingly, he suddenly paid me a visit. You have probably guessed: we bungled it again.) Memories are part of all our stories and some say memories determine who you will become. Backwards the Downed Go Dreaming is a meditation on the way memories keep haunting us. Try as we may to exorcise them with drugs, booze and/or sex, there is no escape, no way out, no way to avoid the inevitable, unanswerable, existential question.
Skillfully adopting William Blake’s famous line, “What is the price of experience?” Walker asked: “’Do men buy it for a song?’ He shoved his face towards my face, ‘or wisdom for a dance on the street?’ Then he got up and stalked off.”
Jung would have approved of Backwards the Downed Go Dreaming replete as it is with archetypical situations and characters, such as Naomi, Walker Birdsong, the washed up hippie radicals, Jack Starkweather Algiers and Ruby Tuesday Beauvoir.
I believe Jim Jarmusch would like this book too. When I was reading it, I sometimes felt like I was in a Jarmusch movie, in part because of the book’s eccentricity, picaresque episodic quality, off beat characters, and lunatic humor. Both Jarmusch and Watson succeed in capturing the dystoptian character of the seventies, as well as tell a living, breathing hell of a road story. At the same time and perhaps most importantly, they triumph gloriously when they ruminate on the meaning, the importance of memory and recollection. I particularly thought of Jarmusch’s 1989 movie, Mystery Train. The earnestness of Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase as they wandered the nighttime streets of Memphis, searching for the ghosts of the sixties (mainly Elvis), reminded me of Tanya and Luc.
In writing Backwards the Drowned Go Dreaming Carl Watson has written a phenomenal book that will interest anyone who is interested in the human condition, anyone who is interested in the powers of memory and recollection, anyone who still asks the question – why?
Watson reminds us that it can be both a sustaining lesson and a pleasure to remember.
“Still it’s good to be back, I said to myself, raising a glass to toast the indifferent universe, and Tanya, too. The jukebox helped me out by playing an appropriate pop song about the indifferent universe. A thin sheet of light cracked the afternoon dust. The light spread out into a greenish fan. A silhouette broke across it.”
Poems by George Spencer
Reviewed by Mary Wise
We are all on a journey – through life – through ourselves – through the things and the ones we love. To that end, we are all pilgrims searching for that “holy land” so that we can say, “yes! We’ve arrived! We now know, and we can rest.” George Spencer’s Unpious Pilgrim, charts a journey toward that exact place. Resembling a “how to” book on one level and a personal travel log on another, Spencer’s poetry develops an often ironic narrative of what one needs to know or may experience on one’s far-reaching journey toward the self. His sometimes humorous, sometimes harsh and unrelenting treatment of subjects ranging from writing to murder to art and religion develops a far-reaching message about the innate human struggle with duality and the ensuing desperate search for “how-to” be.
To guide us through our journey, he sections the book into six areas of inquiry one would explore when making a pilgrimage: Planning the Trip, Things to be Learned, Travel Advisory, Forms and Other Detours, People I have Met and Places Visited, and The End in Sight. Each collection is a richly developed guide through our searching, which locks these poems together as a solid work of art. As such, it is not merely a collection of poetry – this book is itself a poem. The best collections are strategically organized and contain poems that work seamlessly together – unfolding gently, pulling us in and making us look at our deepest selves. We come away knowing more, having a greater sense of reality. And as a result, we look at the world differently. George Spencer’s work is no exception. He is a masterful teacher who has developed his unmistakably unique voice.
He pulls us through each angle of ourselves, holding up a mirror and forcing us to look into our own faces and see our own duality. We become the Unpious Pilgrim through his systematic breakdown of our piety. He challenges our notions of what we believe is real by juxtaposing them with seemingly opposing subjects and schemas. In becoming Spencer’s Unpious Pilgrim, our expectations of what is right and true, our notion of a solid singular reality, shift dramatically.
The very first poem in this collection, “Love Song,” introduces the crux of Spencer’s Unpious Pilgrim with the simple line: “We must be happy with what it is.” This refers to not only the destination, but also the path we take along the way. He further emphasizes this with the previous lines where he says that “maps” are “Interesting because they are usually wrong. / More imagination than coordinates.” In that little nugget lies the entire truth of it: the duality of expectation and reality, of journey and destination, of cause and effect and the almost irrelevant connections they have to one another. This ideology is what I found most intriguing about this collection.
Once handing us this “map” and asking us to “Love” it, he pulls us deeper into our journey, unraveling each element of our beliefs and then dropping us into his experience.
Almost indigestible, this journey becomes part of the reader, who will find herself sifting through the books reverberations long after the pages have gone. Using various forms, from the experimental Meaning What? to his prosaic On the Bus to his formal Valentine’s Day Villanelle, his work layers images, time, and space, so the reader feels the weight of immersion from multiple angles inside the journey. It is a book of reaching and of finding. He takes us into thickly layered, seemingly disjointed metaphors leaving the reader heavy and almost overwhelmed at times –as one might feel when searching for the correct path to take on one’s journey. This excerpt from Writer’s Block is a perfect example.
Once the devil was young and playful. The sea was high and happy.
Now the house is full of plastic furniture and cheap paintings. And
window dressings. Horn-tooting, and other outrages. So what to do?
His use of prose furthers the weight of these pieces, visually and through the breath that’s needed to pull through the lines. Without relying on enjambment and emphasis through line breaks, he crafts a tension where each element is equally weighted; the reader is not focusing on one element having more power than another within the poem. Everything, all at once, must be shouldered. The reader carries this overwhelming weight until, as a sort of pause for the Pilgrim (the reader), he insert a question. Here, we breathe – finally a break, to rest, to think, and perhaps most importantly, to question along with Spencer. “So what to do?” These quiet moments within the poetry string us through and lighten our load.
These prose poems are woven between a wide variety of other forms. The result is a rollercoaster of tension and release that one might feel on a pilgrimage. One of my favorite poems in this collection is an informal piece of one stanza situated in the first half of Travel Advisory: Genus. It begins with an immediate duality, “Banana is of the genus musa.” It sounds serious and scientific, but in choosing the word “Banana” he introduces the dichotomy. The serious line is immediately almost humorous, as the connotation of “Banana” cannot be overlooked. The contrast builds on numerous levels within the poem.
Upon first glance, my eyes read Genius as the title, and so as I went on, my eyes continued to trick me within the text. In addition, the duality with which the lines dance resonates strongly. It again unwraps the book’s premise from yet another angle with such a soft and strategic hand that I can’t help but read it over and over. This, here, is Unpious and searching and accepting and on many levels hilarious. It is a tiny snapshot of the journey and the arrival. We begin in a serious place, swirl through – groping at almost anything – and finally arrive at a seemingly disconnected place, proving once again that the journey does not equal the destination, “Genus has nothing to do with Genius.” Where we began, what we came from, has nothing to do with where we end up or what we can accomplish.
Like Dick’s Frozen Banana
is a Website that shows
you how to write plays.
I’m gong to write a play.
While humor is a strong thread throughout this book, not all of Spencer’s work leans to the light side of subject matter. In the formal poem, Baghdad Boxing Sonnet, the juxtaposition of a boxing match with the subjects of murder, racism, and classism, develops a similar dichotomy. This peculiar pairing weights the struggle and draws the reader into the idea that everything, even the worst, is at some level disconnected from its journey. Because this is hard to stomach, we innately want to fight against that notion. But Spencer’s ironic treatment questions us, turns the mirror toward us, and begs us to see ourselves, see how we see and don’t see what’s behind the horrors like these, and ultimately what’s behind all action – the journey that almost blindly builds to the point where
What a night, rocked the odds, prime time slaughter.
Commish runs for cover, leaving instead
black mothers to mourn. To white ears horror’s mute;
dark boy’s blood’s cheap like piss an’ rain water.
Throughout this book, Spencer uses such sharp imagery to cut us deeply. As a result we experience the poems as events. Here we come away with the sense that we are suddenly dripping something dirty and cheap. We feel almost shameful, as though we took part in this scene. These moments, these angles of view, where Spencer forces us to look at the many facets of our own duality, our own truth, twist our once solid reality into something even more real: something un-solid, something unsure, something Unpious.
George Spencer’s Unpious Pilgrim is wrought with humor, irony and irreverence. He takes us on a rollercoaster of emotions as we explore the realities of life and of ourselves from every angle. As a result we experience a span of emotions ranging from horror and shame to happiness and intrigue. We become the Unpious Pilgrim and in that becoming, Spencer teaches us what it means to journey through life, through love, and through the self. This is a beautifully written must-read book for all.
NARCOPOLIS: A World Reviewed
Narcopolis, the novel by Jeet Thayil Reviewed by Poonam Srivastava
Jeet Thayil’s book, Narcopolis, is not an easy book to write about. It is not always an easy book to read. I will not say I was enchanted by the first chapter. I was put off slightly. The writing is magnificent and poetic, but the tone of self absorption and narcissism was more than I could handle. It is a book that centers around drug use and thus, I could see the verity of a smoky mirror gazing set up. Still it disturbed me a lot more than the now famous, or infamous, fact of the nine page sentenced beginning. (Really, as a poet I see no problem in reading a nine page sentence as you know we all make our own punctuation anyway — how many people pause the exact same way for a comma, or a question mark?)
Despite the true genius of poetic literary wordsterism, there is an element to Narcopolis that completely disturbed and devastated me. It was not the poverty of Shuklaji Street, where the woman drinks a tea (pinkie extended and in rags) bought and paid by the king of junkies and then pees five feet away on a pile of garbage, no shame on her face. (Was it Dimple, the eunuch or Rashid, owner of the opium den, who bought the tea? It is hard to remember.) It’s not the cast of junkies and petty criminals and the one murderous bastard that disturbed me through the book. The bloody violence was, well, bloody violence. The disturbing element of the book permeated the settings and the characters and persisted the long of its 304 pages, and resisted any name. I persisted in my reading, drawn in tight by the authenticity of Thayil’s writing.
Despite the clarity, the poetry, the mastery of bringing place and time, hours and minutes, and people to life, Narcopolis’s disturbance left me ambivalent, and thus very much an addict to this book. Knowing that there was something “wrong” here in picking up the book again and still driven to it. Even as I fell in love with the spot on evocations of jalebi (my father’s favorite dessert) frying yellow and smothered in sweet stickiness (Thayil says he refuses to write about mangoes. Which is fine because he writes very well about chai and jalebi); the unhurried munching of the three drugged out men who celebrate their beating senseless of a fourth; the slow moving and opium infused friendships of the characters that frequented Rashid’s opium Den on Shuklaji Street; the bare boned fucking and exchange of drugs and sex for money and services; the harried and frenzied deals of heroin–next generation drug after opium; the colors, the smells, the keep-on-keeping-on that happened in that dark, desperate, yet completely composed and believable world, I remained drugged and despaired on a very deep level. This is something no book has accomplished in quite some time. Narcopolis is in me now like a place I’ve walked in, lived in. Only now do I understand it’s disturbance. The what and the how of my disturbance is the power of this book.
It is the what that happens in Narcopolis that is so vulnerably human. Dimple and Rashid and even Khalid, as well as paathar maar, or pocket maar, they are all caught up in the bind of being at once subject and actor. Holding the driving wheels of their lives while the roads get rearranged under them. It is not just a story of drugs and sex and violence and love. It is a story of the human condition, the searching for peace and for joy and for ownership of our time here on this planet in our world whether it be Narcopolis, Bombay of the ‘8Os pre-terrorism and pre-hindu/muslim clashes; or the bombay of the glitzy first decade of this century where Shuklaji Street is a run on sentence of cookie cutter steel counters, cafes, and danceterias.
That same story fits the Lower East Side of N.Y.C., Berlin, and Scranton, PA. It is the question of faith, and of freedom. There are the multiple identities, the multiple languages and faiths, and the fluidity such as when hindu Dimple wears the purdah or seeks shelter in a church; or when the drug dealing bandit worries about his asthmatic kidnapped son with a single word, “please”. It is the drunk unhappy businessman who rapes a housewife/whore and then robs and beats her before returning home to his haughty higher class, wealthier in-laws.
The disturbance is in the how it all happens that is so completely tragic. Forces lurk. Close at home and in foreign places other newly created often invisible needs push Dimple and Rashid and the others. As they struggle with their own dreams and demons, real life negotiations are playing with them as if they are so many dolls in a child’s toy box. So, the lovely opium pipes are exchanged for the ugly wrinkled aluminum foils with initial resistance and final submission. (One wonders how the by then Mr. Lee, who brought such ancient beauty of opium pipes to Bombay a full generation before Rashid, would have fared.) The long drawn out conversations dealing with literature, love and life that accompany the opium rituals of the smokers are replaced by a furtive and immediate descent into silence that comes on the heroin user immediately. “The junkie is free within the addiction.” And the mother is free within the child rearing; the worker free with the job and the disabled free within the scope of the doctor’s visits and limits of mobility; the old with in the reduced range of motion; the baby within the allowances of the parents. We are free within our “chosen” prisons.
Narcopolis a book that is also easy to read. The writing is true, non sentimental and heartfelt. The characters are well developed. The story has many narrators, most often it is told by Dimple the prostitute, the object of love, the sole woman character of substance — who was born a man. It is written in multiplicity. Unlike many books now, it is a book not of ideas, but of experience; not of problems but of struggle. I don’t want to limit this book to a “drug” book, as much as Thayil doesn’t want to limit it to a South Asian book. It’s a book about our times. It’s a book about life. It’s a novel in the sense of the word. Please read this book.