Posted July 1, 2013
Fiction by Danielle Collobert
Translated from the French by Nathanaël
Litmus Press, April 2013
Paperback: 104pp; $18.00
Review by Courtney McDermott
Murder is hard to describe. Written in 1964 by Danielle Collobert, it has recently been translated by Nathanaël. Is Murder a series of prose poems? Vignettes strung together? A novella? And who is the story about? Who is the story for? To decode how to read Collobert’s work, examine the first line: “It’s strange this encounter with the internal eye, behind the keyhole, that sees, and finds the external eye, caught in flagrante delicto of vision, curiosity, uncertainty.” Collobert reveals the interior worlds of people through their external motions, their external grasping at memories shared. This story is both in and outside of itself.
Further down, the narrative ‘I’ appears: “. . . this eye, I say, dazzled by the sun that comes at my back, onto my back, into me, through my shoulders, heated like steel, has the power, or better, the strength to divine things.” Collobert is a diviner, of sorts, trying to make sense of a future that is haunted by its past and exhausted with its presence. The ‘I’ cascades over the sentences, pulls and tugs at the stories, disappears to remerge, to marry with the ‘we.’ “How did we get here?” she writes.
This post-World War II prose piece examines a world trying to navigate its way through its daily isolation. The characters of these pieces—always nameless and almost indistinguishable from one another—sift through memories of a time before war, but resign themselves to the cycle of fear and drudgery that always brings them back to the same point, to the darkness that is their present world. The ‘I’ and the ‘we’ chart the movements of these people—of the old woman in the café, of the men chiseling stone in the quarries, of the weary-faced soldiers, and of the ‘he’ behind the keyhole whom the ‘I’ has decided to kill. “We will kill him in a thousand ways. I’m well versed in murder. I invent several every day.”
When Collobert’s world is not remembering, it is striving to move forward. Often, her characters are immobile; they are caught pausing in their routine and exchanging gazes. Inside they feel isolated; outside they are all interchangeable in their pain, their search for the end. “Every day,” she writes, “I take the form of a departure.” And yet, there is a strange unity among these people. They are connected, ironically, by their solitude.
Collobert’s language is poetry, charged with metaphor and laced with melancholy. There is the “memory of a beautiful exhaustion” and the narrator (who may be us, the writer, them) declaring, “I have an internal sea.” This internal sea of emotion is somehow caught in the pages, wrangled by Collobert’s expertise with language.
Murder is a book that you can revisit in pieces. You could open it up to the man who paints monsters and try to isolate his experience, his imminent assassination. But in doing so, you’d unlock the ‘we,’ and feel the need to traverse the other pages, to explore the meaning in this man’s death compared to all of the death and memories of death that the characters are burdened with. If Murder is Collobert’s response to the aftermath of war, then it is a reminder that the war does not end when the white flag is raised, but that it rages on, in the internal crevices of the people remaining.
Poetry by Katharine Coles
Red Hen Press, March 2013
Paperback: 120pp; $17.95
Review by Julie Swarstad Johnson
The Earth Is Not Flat, Katharine Coles’s fifth collection of poetry, considers the meaning of discovery in the context of the Antarctic landscape. “If you wanted to be first / You live in the wrong time,” Coles writes in the book’s opening lines (“Self-Portrait in Hiding”). This desire to arrive first, to know first—and a contemporary inclination to question this desire—informs Coles’s wide-reaching poems recording her experience in Antarctica, made possible through the National Science Foundation’s Artists and Writers Program. In The Earth Is Not Flat, Coles invites her reader to undertake the unsettling experience of approaching the vast Antarctic landscape along with her, and to both push against and embrace a deeply-rooted desire to explore and know the world.
Readers familiar with Elizabeth Bradfield’s 2010 collection Approaching Ice will find the extreme latitudes explored from a different angle in The Earth Is Not Flat. While Bradfield’s writing emerges from her years as a naturalist living and working in the Arctic and Antarctica, Coles’s work records the experience of the outsider. “When I get there at last, someone will look over my supplies clucking his tongue,” she writes in “Proposal.” This disappointment follows a list of preparations, including: “I will let machines read my heart and run until my breath fails,” and, “To close my eyes here at my table and imagine cold sky, drowning, wings that carry a body between.” Coles’s experience in Antarctica balances between these extremes—the limitations of the body and the far sweep of the imagination.
As a first-time visitor to the southernmost continent, Coles most frequently records her feelings of wonder and amazement in response to the landscape’s beauty and strangeness. In “All Day Long the Glacier Sings,” she writes:
Today, the glacier
Could tell us everything, if we
Would listen. We try,
Cocking our heads, not knowing
What or how to answer.
Coles’s desire to translate the landscape and to commune with it permeates other poems in the collection as well. In “Walking the Glacier” she writes:
If I forget myself, I could
Become spectacular. Could throw
Myself, whole hearted, into something
Poems like this, which record Coles’s ecstasy, rank among the best in the collection because in them, she looks deeply at questions of human reactions to and interpretations of the natural world. She responds whole-heartedly to the landscape’s beauty, while also recognizing the human need to prove things “real . . . with scanners / And microscopes, instruments we assembled just for this” (“The Human Mind Did Not Create the Ice”).
Coles’s longing to connect with the landscape also leads her to reach out to the work of other artists, explorers, and scientists who also consider life at the poles. For example, in “Music of the Spheres,” an ekphrastic poem based on an installation at the South Pole by artist Lita Albuquerque, Coles writes:
We have seen before is already gone
Or was never there and still
This feeling of something lost appears in another responsive poem, “Problems of Description in the Language of Discovery,” based on Coles’s conversations with mathematician Kenneth Golden:
I’m not here
To charm or conjure. I’m just watching,
As if, knowing what the numbers come to,
I might be able to tell you how they mean
Coles aspires to act as a bridge for the reader—between the reader and other thinkers or the Antarctic itself—but she also recognizes her inability to truly fulfill this role.
In “Fixing Antarctica,” she writes, “I keep taking the same photo over and over / As if to say Look, and Look.” These lines prove an apt summary of The Earth Is Not Flat: occasionally, the poems feel repetitive in the questions and situations they consider, but at the same time this repetition mirrors Coles’s own experience of Antarctica, an inhospitable landscape that nevertheless awes, as when a group watches as a penguin
Takes to the water and takes
Our breath—flight stitching wave to sky
. . . and each of us, turning
Head to follow, saying, Oh.
These breathtaking moments change Coles’s attitude about discovery by the end of the collection. After her opening statement on living “in the wrong time” to discover first, she later writes, in “Looking South,”
Will I imagine I’ve seen
Enough? Always so much
Left, no matter
Where on earth we’ve been.
From her knowledge of history and collective discovery, Coles moves toward a sense of the individual’s constant discovery of the world as she experiences things for the first time. “Nobody’s settled / Anything yet,” Coles writes in “Rumors of Topography.” The Earth Is Not Flat succeeds as a record—and an endorsement—of the individual’s capacity to discover the world anew.
Poetry by Shira Dentz
CavanKerry Press, April 2013
Paperback: 96pp; $16.00
Review by Erica Walburg
Door of Thin Skins by Shira Dentz is more an artistic display of raw emotion than a collection of poems. Part visual art, part narrative story, the book traces the consequential turmoil of a young woman’s life after she was sexually preyed upon and mentally harangued by her therapist. But it is more than simple prose. The poetry is scattered, ripped apart and shoved back together in seemingly fast, nonsensical quips, much in the way a person can’t be fully aware of the firing of neurons in their own brain. It begins with conventional stanzas and solid lines of prose, and opens much in the way a dramatic movie might, centered on a small detail, in this case, the figurine of a woman:
door of thin skins. A woman’s torso with flowing
breasts, blue and tarnished. the slight and gold.
A woman’s torso with flowing breasts,
blue and crannies of a tree; on their hole.
The figurine is probably a piece of art found on one of the shelves in the posh, luxurious office that is “furnished according to Freud, lover of the primitive.” The décor alludes to the psychologist’s focus on sex, antiquated methods, and powerful ego. This sets up the context for the coming conflict. Indeed, the psychologist explodes into the narrator’s life by arriving on the page with a blown-up, size-72-font “A.” She continues on to describe him as a “whale of a man.” There he is, massive, consuming the blank place of the page, as well as her mind, identity, and life in the coming 84 pages.
The poetry is the confusion of the narrator not only as she experiences it, but also as she recounts it in her mind, shuffling bits and pieces and rebranding the hurt over and over again. Even in that first example above, the repetition and broken grammar tell of a never-ending obsession with this relationship and situation that consumes the narrator’s life. Typography as well as the internal structure of poetry is manipulated. “Slippery Slope” has the words “slippery” and “slope” scattered across the page in large “X” formations, and slides into the next poem, “Lettery,” in which the words “slippery” and “slope” are torn up and left to a long ellipsis. There are moments and memories that are branded in the narrator’s mind, ones she cannot escape, even in silence.
In “Sense,” the manipulation of text and typography is even more dramatic and violent. There is no break from the chaos; every negative space leads into another phrase or broken word. The poem itself takes up a full spread, assaulting the reader with a flurry of lines and phrases, possibly emulating the feedback the narrator receives about her lack of “common sense” and her own attempts at trying to make sense of the matter at hand. Repetition, countless punctuation and the basics of grammar are torn asunder in the collection as a whole, but “Sense” breaks the world down even further, playing with semantics and the word’s definition. Where was this woman’s “common sense,” people ask her. How does one make sense of it all? Her senses are overloaded by trying to comprehend what makes sense and what doesn’t. Dentz breaks it all down on the next page, the last of the poem, in which the word is shoved together and then broken apart, at last ending upon an infinity symbol. It is as though she is trying to say: some things never make sense.
Between these art pieces (which is what these poems are, really) are more standard, numbered poems that give the artful poems context. The numbered series appears to be “excerpts” from the narrator’s experience with police and the trials. These conventional poems balance out the experimental poems, which may be overwhelming and intimidating to some readers. The world Dentz has created captures the narrator’s restless, reeling mind, as well as the cold disinterest of the outside world. The frustrations and hurt coexist, and yet the outside world continues to move on its own. Dentz’s collection is a powerful and unsettling art piece, delving into the psyche of a broken young woman who is surrounded by damaging people. It plays with the reader’s own sense of self and sense of the world. The last poem of the collection is an echo, in meandering, grayed-out text, of that sentiment: “that heat of inward evidence, by which he doubts against the sense.”
Fiction by Bennett Sims
Two Dollar Radio, May 2013
Paperback: 242pp; $16.50
Review by David Breithaupt
At last, someone has written a thinking man’s and woman’s book of zombies. Let’s stop here though; you just read the word “zombies,” which, consciously or not, paraded a reflex action of several split-second images across your mind from our collective Jungian zombie attic. Here’s what you probably saw: black-and-white film stills from campy 1960s B-movies, dozens of acting roles for those who can’t act, close-ups of blank-eyed crazies and legions walking as if they’d just overdosed on bath salts. After that trailer you concluded, not interested.
Don’t go away. Bennett Sims’s amazing new novel is about zombies the way Moby Dick is about whales. What we have in this book is the zombie as springboard to that rarefied air of higher planes of thinking. Before you wonder what the hell I’m talking about, let me introduce the book.
Hurricane season is looming in Baton Rouge. A zombie plague has broken out across the States and is still too new for scientists to isolate the cause. Matt Mazoch’s father has disappeared and is assumed to have joined the zombie ranks. He enlists the aid of his friend Vermaelen for one week to help search for his father. Known to return to significant haunts of their past, the zombies try to go home again. Thus the two friends search old locales dear to Mr. Mazoch, hoping to find him, though what they might do if they find him is not discussed. Matt doesn’t seem to have a plan, and Vermaelen is afraid to ask. His speculation begins to color a large portion of the book as he begins to wonder if Matt really wants to find his father. He begins to think that Matt might not want to “find Mr. Mazoch, but to never find Mr. Mazoch: to forever have this desideratum dangling just out of reach, leading him day after day deeper into the calendar, like his own Bethlehem star to follow.”
Meanwhile, the government has issued a safety pamphlet called FIGHT THE BITE (bites being the common transmission of the disease). As the undead are sighted, they are quarantined and kept on a barge outside of New Orleans. Matt and Vermaelen ponder the quality of life a zombie lives. Are they awake? Can they see? What thoughts do they have? No one knows, and the zombies aren’t saying.
During the weeklong search for Matt’s father, a metamorphosis of thought begins to unravel regarding the relationship between father and son. Mr. Mazoch’s zombiefication has prompted a review of his and Matt’s life together. Forgotten memories are recalled and various scenes are re-visited. Vermaelen and his girlfriend, Rachel, reevaluate their own relationship in light of the zombie plague. How would one react if the other were infected? What important sites would they visit if reanimated? (They exchange lists of landmark geography sites to search just in case.) Finally, the nagging question which hasn’t been uttered finally comes to the surface: what do you do with a loved one who has been reanimated? Read the book and find out.
This is a book of musings and ponderings of human relationships, so if you are looking for fast-paced zombie action, look elsewhere. Sims explores many offbeat tangents that you would never expect in a novel that features cameos with zombies. There is talk of “hypothetical thought-experimental monsters from mind-body philosophy.” There is mention of religion, recalling a radio talk show preacher proclaiming that “when there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” Heidegger is even brought in with his theory of “Dasein,” literally “being there,” for his explanation of the understanding of objects for comprehending the average zombie. You don’t know whether to go into deep thinking or laugh. Or both. Remember, this is a thinking reader’s book of zombies.
As I understand it, Sims was a student of David Foster Wallace and caught the footnote virus from his mentor. I don’t mind, as my footnote-novel reading career began with Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine and continued onward through Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I am a vet and I found Sims’s footnotes well-planned and well-used. I eventually got into the rhythm of adjusting my eyesight.
I won’t spoil the ending for you except to say it reminded me of the final pages of Frankenstein. I’m talking about the book, not the movies, so don’t jump to conclusions. In fact both books are really about relationships and might make interesting companion readings. They address one of my favorite topics in literature, the role of the outsider in society—and really, who could be more of an outsider than a zombie and Dr. Frankenstein’s monster? I won’t go into the whole shebang of monster as metaphor, but this book might start your gears turning this way. This book will be lodged in my cranium for quite a while. Bennett Sims has embarked on a unique literary journey; join him now and fight the bite.
Poetry by José Maria Hinojosa
Translated from the Spanish by Mark Statman
University of New Orleans Press, November 2012
Paperback: 192pp; $18.95
Review by Elizabeth O’Brien
Black Tulips, published by the University of New Orleans Press as part of The Engaged Writers Series, is the first translation available in English of the work of Spanish poet José Maria Hinojosa.
In translating this lesser-known member of the famed Generation of ’27, translator Mark Statman offers the book as an introduction to Hinojosa’s poetry and states that he hopes to encourage future interest and further inquiry into Hinojosa’s full body of work. The book is contextualized by a helpful forward from Professor Willis Barnstone, who offers a poetic frame of reference for Hinojosa’s style and content. In the introduction, Statman provides thorough background information concerning Hinojosa’s life and death.
Hinojosa was born in Campillos in 1904, and he died in 1936, in an attack on the prison where he had been imprisoned by anarchists. He had begun to write poetry when he went to study in Madrid in 1923. There, in spite of political differences stemming from his own republican leanings, he was strongly influenced by Breton’s surrealist manifesto and by the poetic work of his contemporary peers, Federico Garcia Lorca and Miguel Hernandez among them. Hinojosa later focused much of his attention on politics rather than poetry, but he nonetheless published six volumes of his own poetry in his lifetime. Black Tulips provides a selection of pieces from five of these volumes and helpfully presents Statman’s translations beside the original poems in Spanish. Hinojosa’s La Flor de California is not included here because the pieces contained therein, Statman says, “took me further from the poet’s work than I presently wished to go.”
Nonetheless, evidence of the “strange and anachronistic qualities” that Statman finds in La Flor de California can be found in the selection of later poems that are included, as Hinojosa clearly can be seen to experiment with increasingly more surreal images, and his lines grow lengthier and sometimes forgo breaks altogether for prose poetry.
Although Hinojosa’s work throughout his lifetime is rooted largely in the natural world, his early poems in particular rely on sharp natural images, often forgoing expository flourishes and simply proceeding from one image to the next. The translation is faithful to meaning and attentive to Hinojosa’s use of white space and caesura, making for poems that leap from sight to sound, as in this verse from “Poems for someone”:
sound in my soul
and when they ring
their petals fall.
This sort of synesthesia inspired by nature is a theme Hinojosa returns to in the opening of “Simplicity”:
The fingers of snow
on the small drum
This somewhat later piece leaps from the physical imagery of snow-as-fingers to the metaphorical weight of the drum “of space.” While the repiquetearron en el tamboril of the original Spanish is far more musical than its literal translation, “tap on the small drum”—particularly because repiquetearron is set on its own line, forcing us as readers to pause on its nuances—the complexity of what happens in the space of the compact verse as translated is remarkable.
In the chronological arrangement of the work, Hinojosa’s evolution as a poet is clear: his early work’s brief verses composed of streams of images give way as the collections progress to longer lines and then prose poem forms, and the subject matter begins to make more surreal leaps from the physical to the metaphysical. Included from Hinojosa’s later work is a selection of poems from The Rose of the Winds, a collection organized around the points of a compass. “E” opens:
I dyed my retina
a lemon yellow
and half-closed my eyelids
to look at the sun.
The poem is centered on its speaker rather than on the image as viewed by the speaker, and the poem departs from here into still more lovely weirdness. Hinojosa’s later work shows a speaker with more agency and a tone that consistently grows darker as the political climate of violence and upheaval is reflected in Hinojosa’s images of blood, and of fire, as in the later poem, “Wings are made for flying,” which ends: “Before dawn / a white dove will come to leave blood on our roof / and that blood, curdled, by noon will be our skin.”
Like many of Hinojosa’s later poems, the grotesqueness of the imagery in “Wings are made for flying” is amplified by its sensual presentation. Again and again in Hinojosa’s later work, dark themes are treated with a sensitivity that makes them all the more striking for what they withhold.
Black Tulips offers readers a well-curated selection of work showcasing Hinojosa’s range and spanning his development as a poet. The collection also offers an excellent introduction to Hinojosa’s work as a whole and further embellishes the Generation of ‘27 for the English-speaking world.
Poetry by Kelly Davio
Red Hen Press, March 2013
Paperback: 88pp; $16.95
Review by Emily May Anderson
The title of Kelly Davio’s debut collection establishes an expectation of anger, bitterness, perhaps violence. Burn this house. Burn it down. The book, however, is much more interesting than that simple emotion, although there are moments where anger slices through clearly.
The first poem is titled “Auguries”—conjuring up the idea of divination, omens, foretelling—and it does foretell some of the themes and recurring images of the book. The poem opens with “a gong at the window. Not the sparrow / who occasionally lobs himself at my smudged glass, / but a pigeon.” That warning gong precedes a violent storm in which the magnolia tree “tilts / for earth, drops its heavy blossoms to the dirt” and light poles “yaw in gathering wind.” After the storm the speaker goes outside to survey the damage: “I walk to the street, rubber-booted, make / appraisal of each static hurt. To what / significance such eroded things?”
That opening poem establishes Davio’s clear narrative voice; there is no doubt about what happens in the piece, and the language is rhythmic and precise. It also sets up birds as a key image. The sparrow, peripheral in “Auguries,” takes center stage a few poems later in “The Eye on the Sparrow” with its titular allusion to the Christian notion of God watching over even the sparrows. Davio’s sparrow, on the other hand, seems to have slipped through the cracks of His vigilance as it crashes into the speaker’s window “like an aimless bottle rocket . . . with feather sparks flying off in a trail / of smoke.” The speaker also turns her back on the bird, saying she doesn’t want to see it thrash in her hands, doesn’t want to “hear it / rasp a sound like mom from its cracked beak,” doesn’t want to see it die.
The sparrow is not the only one who calls “mom” either; the house cat also cries “a note that sounds like mom,” and the speaker of “Envy” does as well: “Today, Mother, you stretched a telephone wire / tighter than my childhood muscles / to tell me about your sons.” The mother reappears in other poems too, fleetingly and without a lot of sympathy. More sympathetic and more interesting is the speaker’s relationship with her sister—sometimes competitive, sometimes loving, and ending tragically in the poem “Chastity.”
The bird, the clarity, the precise and thoughtful language of “Auguries”—these carry through the book, along with that final question: What is the significance of this destruction? What do these broken pieces mean? The theme of memory, of the attempt to draw meaning from the past, continues explicitly in “The Way I Remember” and “Cleaning Out” among others, and it informs many more poems in subtle ways.
Even the rubber boots of “Auguries” find an echo later on, in the poem “Greed.” The poem moves from the first pair of boots the speaker received, “meant for snow, / though we lived in a drought town in a dry season”; to the ones she tried to lace lightly enough to bind her feet; to the steel-toed boots she bought when she left home, “heels meant for kicking”; and finally to a new pair which cost as much as all the others combined. The boots become symbolic, their leather imbued with the weight of growing up, the search for independence, and some ambivalence about that achievement.
The book is not all memory and storm, however; moments of humor brighten the collection in several places. In the longer piece “Why Rent is Cheap in Shoe Lane,” for example, the speaker describes her surroundings with a wry amusement. One section ends with flies banging against a window (more deliberate than the birds); the speaker says ordinarily she would open the window to let them out, except that “someone has taken the chardonnay / from my half-shelf of the mini-fridge. / My mood is inhumane.”
Although a few poems, particularly in the final section, seemed vague or disconnected from the book, others feel almost too clear; they drive their points home with morals or neat conclusions. But this is a small flaw in a book that remains tantalizingly unclear. The past is hinted at more often than it’s explained; the birds and boots and other images provide much of the story. This makes sense when we consider the book’s title. “Burn This House,” the speaker says, the title also of the closing poem. “Tell the rescuers they are not wanted. / Raise a hand to stop the water-bearers.” Let it burn. “Allow each column of timber to stray / from notions of form and size, catching / flakes of fire on your tongue.” After the fire, all that’s left are fragments, memories, the images in our minds.
Poetry by Wendy Videlock.
Able Muse Press, January 2013
Paperback: 96pp; $19.95
Review by Theresé Samson Wenham
Even from the title, you know you’re getting into something unusual. Wendy Videlock’s The Dark Gnu and Other Poems is a farcical combination of rules and shenanigans, truths and nonsense, stories and impossibilities. These contrasts bounce against each other in the language and poems, and we are given an unexpected experience in contemporary poetry. Videlock acknowledges influences from Mother Goose, Strega Nona, and Mnemosyne, so perhaps we should expect something for children, but these poems, although delightful in that way, are not for children alone. We find blue truths for our adult selves, too.
Videlock is also the illustrator of this collection, just as Shel Silverstein and Tomie dePaola illustrated their own collections of “children’s” poetry. This may be a clever disguise for work that clearly vacillates between experience and imagination. Her dreamy watercolor illustrations are this same combination of chance as when a subject meets an unpredictable medium. From “Said the Witch of Slain Valley” we are given impossible images in measured language:
They wanted to borrow my cane and my hoof
and hobble the albino fields
where cauliflower and asparagus bloom,
there, in the upstairs room.
Then, in the next poem, “To the Woman in the Garden,” with nothing supernatural, we are shown the irony of not appreciating whatever gardens we find ourselves in:
You did not notice the roses, the stones, or even
the toad, the child,
the sapling, the totem
pole, the crow, the dusk,
or the hummingbird,
the mantis, the dove,
or the hushed word
but spoke instead,
but spoke at length
of the horrible
The poems are primarily metrical and rhymed, which lend themselves to humor, fantasy, and children’s themes. However, this also allows the serious poems a place to resonate within the context of fantasy. “Some People” and “Sometimes” are like that. In “Sometimes” she says, “My heart is a thing that comes unhinged, / and I can be blind as a bat.” These are metaphors for serious human qualities that we all possess, organized within a rhymed structure and within playful language.
Videlock has the potential to nail things down as much as to open them up through gifted metaphors and outright fantasy. She also gives us the key to understanding the scope of the book in “As You Would a Peach”:
In this poem
things are held loosely
as you would a peach.
There is no crate.
There are no feet.
The book’s title poem, however ingenious, does not deliver the significance of its adjective or its purpose for naming the collection. Is it supposed to remind us of Mother Goose? That is the trick of titles; they must fulfill many roles at once. The more elusive they are, the more they need to resonate when given the chance. The rest of this collection, however, overcomes this small shortfall.
The Atomic Bomb and Cold War Narratives
Nonfiction by David Seed
Kent State University Press, November 2012
Hardcover: 384pp; $60.00
Review by Lydia Pyne
In history, we look to very broad narrative arcs as explanatory mechanisms. We look toward causal factors and try to make sense of how these components act within their variety of contexts. We look for underlying stories and connections within the past. As such, broad historical narratives can be incredibly general and deeply impersonal—without the right hook or character, readers are left trying to connect fragments of a dry and disconnected set of events. In Under the Shadow: The Atomic Bomb and Cold War Narratives, David Seed uses film, science fiction, and a host of alternative cultural mediums from the early twentieth century onward to highlight very specific Cold War narratives and to pull together characters to highlight various historical trends. He finds personal hooks for his readers in order to invest them in his historical analyses. His collection and analysis of these specific narratives illustrate a variety of tensions that, he argues, permeates the very cultural fabric of the Cold War. While his work does not comprise a historical meta-narrative of its own, it brilliantly illustrates smaller, more specific narratives pertinent to Cold War literati and historical scholarly enthusiasts.
Seed’s work begins with an examination of a somewhat unexpected author—Under the Shadow introduces The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind by H.G. Wells, published in 1914. While one might expect to start an analysis of Cold War narratives with stories (and film) in a post-World War II time frame, Seed’s analysis and commentary of history and literature draws from the early nuclear chemistry of the late nineteenth century and ends with a consideration of a postwar landscape. Under the Shadow works to make sense of a myriad of ways of engaging with nuclear weapons and their cultural fallout. (Pun intended.) Seed works with concepts (narratives) of nuclear refuge, the “do-it-yourself survival” which he ties interestingly into American exceptionalism, and questions of how war is reported, talked about, and engaged with in a nuclear age. He begins Under the Shadow by thoroughly grounding The World Set Free as a starting point for common apocalyptic tropes and mores of nihilistic technology and the deconstruction of a “modern state” that H.G. Wells introduces. Seed points out that these “types” of tension (really, Wells’s multi-genre work in literature) became imbued into traditional nuclear and science discourse. All of Seed’s analytic commentaries draw on a specific story, film, or motif, and his academic expertise works to weave in unexpected elements of history, philosophy, political science, and literature.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Seed’s analysis is his highlights of the interplay between science, history of science, and literature—looking at how each fundamentally and literally affects the other. Case in point: the discovery of the atom and its societal implications. Seed points out the chronology of H.G. Wells reading Frederick Soddy’s work on radiochemistry in the late nineteenth century, followed by his publication of The World Set Free, and the subsequent effect his book had on physicist Leo Szilard (credited with formalizing the idea of the neutron chain reaction in 1933) after he read it in 1932, the same year the neutron was described. Seed’s readers see that science, fiction, history of science, and even science fiction become a fantastically intertwined and complex milieu. What we might want to break into neat, separate spheres of intellectual domain, Seed forces us to examine as an intricate multi-component system, one that influence narratives.
Wells read and admired Soddy’s book, writing him into the narrative [of The World Set Free] as Professor Rufus, whose declaration in a lecture that radioactivity is signally the “dawn of a new day in human living” continues Wells’s opening narrative role as the chronicler of human progress. . . . The next phase covering the 1930s comes when a visionary scientist discovers a method of releasing and controlling this energy with the results of coal disappearing as a fuel. As these changes take place, Wells’s (Soddy’s?) utopian hopes of social transformation start to take on a more sober tone, because for every advance there is an unexpected problem.
Make no mistake—Under the Shadow is an intellectually dense and multi-layered book, and it highlights Seed’s clear expertise and academic credentials. Readers should expect to exercise their knowledge of Cold War literature, history, stories, and film as Under the Shadow expects a great deal of familiarity with the stories as a starting point. However, Under the Shadow is a book that weaves together a variety of disciplines with clear expertise and interesting things to say. One walks away from the book with a newfound appreciation of the complexities and intricacies of the subject.
Fiction by Endō Shūsaku
Translated from the Japanese by Van C. Gessel
Columbia University Press (Weatherhead Books on Asia), December 2012
Hardcover: 328pp; $29.50
Review by Patricia Contino
Endō Shūsaku’s Kiku’s Prayer is not a typical love story. While passionate, it is never romantic. The mysterious village outsider Seikichi and tomboyish Kiku are star-crossed from the start when he rescues her from a tree branch about to snap. Their subsequent, infrequent meetings always end in arguments and tears. The source of their heartbreak is the impact of Japanese law on their lives long before and during the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912), because Seikichi is Catholic—a banned practice that for thousands meant imprisonment, torture, and death. Thus the love here is both personal and spiritual, and never easy.
Kiku’s Prayer was first serialized in Japan in 1980 and published in book form in 1982. This is its first English translation. Religion, pain, and “East versus West” are crucial themes in Kiku’s Prayer because they were in the author’s life too. Shūsaku (1923-1996) was Catholic and studied briefly in France; several characters who interact with the couple are based on French missionaries and the officials who humiliated them. One of the few lighthearted scenes in the book is when Kiku takes her first bite of French sourdough bread “slathered with what tasted like hair oil.”
Shūsaku was sickly and hospitalized for extensive periods of time. This too is transferred onto Kiku. While courageous and outspoken for an uneducated peasant woman, the inner and outer struggles take their toll on her.
Seikichi is fierce in his convictions, but the blessing of being an outsider is obtaining a uniquely honest perspective. Kiku is not aware of the history of Christian persecution in Japan—the author and translator do an excellent job providing that for the reader—but she doesn’t need to be. Her intelligence, determination, and love become their own new testament. She resents Catholicism but understands it on a subconscious level. She finds great comfort a statue of Mary: “Never before today had she seen the face of a woman so pure, so clear. The woman in the statue was cradling an infant, and she wore a crown on her head. . . . It seemed as though the face looking down at her wore a gentle smile.” Catholics are fascinated by martyrdom and are occasionally very slow in officially recognizing the real thing. (Joan of Arc was not canonized until 1920; Archbishop Óscar Romero of San Salvador may never be). Readers will have no trouble recognizing the character of the strongest faith.
Her prayers are not rote; they are unrehearsed words from someone in pain. The statue creates and invites familiarity. Kiku has no problem letting Mary know that “All of this is your fault, I won’t forgive you unless you put everything back the way it was before,” or “I’ll get even with you! I’m not surrendering to the likes of you!”
Having Kiku’s Prayer take place in Nagasaki is a fitting choice. Missionaries concentrated their efforts there because it was a port city with a burgeoning international presence. Then too, the A-bomb is most likely on the reader’s mind and conscience. Shūsaku takes full advantage of both. He also cannot resist taking stabs at Japanese urbanization and industrialization. Employing a travelogue narration, he describes a place that lives only in memory:
If you walk around the neighborhood of the Ōura Catholic church today, you will occasionally spot one of the old wooden structures built in the Western style back in those days, looking now very much like abandoned houses . . . except for those few structures, the rest of the landscape was unspoiled hills.
Nagasaki was also known for Maruyama, its pleasure quarters. Shūsaku doesn’t have much to do with geisha but tactfully mentions that their nickname “wildcats” originates from their instruments being made from cat hides. To reach Maruyama visitors had to cross “The Bridge of Pondering,” torn down “thanks to land reclamation.” Beyond that was “The Bridge of Resolution” with its “unmistakable atmosphere.”
Pondering and resolution are both part of Kiku’s personality. Yet hard choices never harden her. She and Seikichi may not have had any ending other than the one Shūsaku gives them, but reading about them and the troubling time they lived in is itself a rewarding journey.