ALWAYS FROM SOMEWHERE ELSE is the story of the author’s father Moiss Agosin, a Jewish doctor from Chile. Marjorie Agosin’s loving phrases clearly convey her father’s caring nature and other admirable qualities, and her deep devotion to him, honoring his struggle to build the best life he could under difficult circumstances. Dr. Agosin was often disinclined to speech, and the author “has had to intuit much of the stories,” as Elizabeth Rosa Horan says in the introduction. It is important to remember this when reading moving descriptions of events at which the author was not present. The Agosin family were wanderers, who fled as anti-Semitism grew too strong in each new place. Their travels are recounted beginning with the meeting of Moisés’ parents Abraham and Raquel in Odessa in 1910, on to Istanbul, to Marseilles where Moiss is born, to Chile and the USA. In Chile, Abraham earns his way from poverty to upper middle class as a tailor, and Raquel is no longer forbidden to sing as she had been as a Jew in Eastern Europe. They find happiness and are honored in the community that is their refuge. Moiss is unhappy confronting institutionalized anti-Semitism in his schools, but he is determined and enterprising. He alleviates his unhappiness with passionate piano playing and wins respect as a doctor researching parasites at the University of Chile. However, when he is offered the position of Director of Medical History all the assistants of the department resign in a body in protest against working for a Jew. He rebuilds the department, converting it into a modern institution of science.
Eventually he is driven from Chile by a newspaper campaign against him. He and his family alight in Georgia, USA, and there confront prejudice against them as both Jews and Latinos. The author concludes the book by identifying most Jews, including her family, as wanderers in permanent exile. ALWAYS FROM SOMEWHERE ELSE is a book pervaded by grief. It has been described as a meditation on outsider-ism. It is also, unintentionally, a study of the way a family passes misery down the generations from parent to child. It is not just the anti-Semitism of the rich Chilean Germans that is adopted from immigrant ancestors. Moiss teaches his daughter, just as his parents taught him, that Jews are outsiders with no home. He impresses on young Marjorie vivid stories about the pogroms that drove their family out of Russia. Abraham and Raquel refuse to dwell on their unhappy past, but Moiss intensely rebuilds it for his daughter.
The author lives what she describes as a happy life in Chile, and shifts at age twelve to a physically safe life in the USA, but even so she indicates survivor’s guilt when she asks herself, “Why did I survive?” I kept waiting for the book to recognize the responsibility of the individual for his/her own life, and never found it. Dr. Agosin is offered two different respected positions in Israel where he would suffer less from prejudice, and refuses them, staying in Georgia instead. Throughout the Stalin-like repressions of Pinochet in Chile, he and his family make visits from the USA back to Santiago and wait for their chance to return permanently. The author says that for two decades the Agosin’s made no effort to become part of life in the country where they now live. Such books have a value. It is well to shine a spotlight on cruelty, heartlessness and false accusation in hopes that the perpetrators will see that such things are not acceptable. It is also well for anyone who is subject to prejudice to avoid looking for the worst in people who are not prejudiced. The author gives very little recognition to the many unprejudiced people she and her father must have encountered in their lives. Instead she emphasizes that their friends in Chile showed hypocrisy when they voted against Dr. Agosin’s elevation to university director, and describes how little capacity for friendship she finds in North Americans.
At first this book was difficult for me to read, because Marjorie Agosin is a poet and I am a prose reader by preference. It went much better when I learned to skip over the phrases that were inserted for their poetic value but left me wondering what the author was getting at. I leave it to experts to evaluate the poetry. ALWAYS FROM SOMEWHERE ELSE is recommended for a very specialized taste. It is a companion book, A CROSS AND A STAR, the biography of Frida, Moiss, wife of Dr. Agosin and the author’s mother was reviewed last month. Both books, translated from the Spanish original, are part of the Helen Rose Scheuer Jewish Women’s Series. The author has won the Letras de Oro Prize and the Latino Literature Prize, and is chair of the Spanish department at Wellesley College, Massachusetts.
BONE WHITE AND RAVEN BLACK
Just like the chapbook title, BONE WHITE AND RAVEN BLACK, these poems are stark, bleak and full of unusual powerful imagery that sticks in the mind long after reading the poems. “Night Poem” reads: “You love me? I didn’t believe you in St. Johnsbury. I don’t believe you now. The classical station fades out at midnight and the seed on my belly cools like candle wax. You used to say the night was a vessel moving forward, a giant’s rowboat on a sea of black. I tell you it’s an empty, waiting thing, a galvanized tub left forgotten in the corner of a dusty barn. When this town had only one radio tower it stood in my dreams, phallic, like a demented maypole. But last October, they built another, and now I dream of the tense silence, the drawn bow, and stringing deer in the sky.”
Love here is an illusion, another prop to occupy the protagonist’s time. These poems are full of dark lyrical beauty that haunts the mind after reading them. Gohmann infuses each poem in this chapbook with a cold hard truth and displays a riveting eye for detail. These poems won’t warm you on a cold night like a lover, but they will leave an indelible impression on you.
To order: $3 cash or check made out to Christopher Harter, Pathwise Press, PO Box 2392, Bloomington, IN 47402.
First off, Sam Hamill is an accomplished poet in his own right with about a dozen excellent collections to his credit. Moreover he is a student of Chinese culture and the Chinese language. Comparisons with THE COLUMBIA ANTHOLOGY OF CHINESE POETRY and SUN FLOWER SPLENDOR , the standard anthologies of Chinese poetry in translation, come to mind and Mr. Hamill’s volume more than holds it own. Though less comprehensive than the former volumes (no poets after the early Ming Dynasty appear) Mr. Hamill has opened the stately grounds of Chinese poetry to a new readership so that nothing of value and interest have been missed. His readers are given an opportunity to connect with this wonderful poetry in fresh and vibrant language.
There are generous selections from the great masters Li Po, Tu Fu and Po Chu-i. Po Chu-I is a particular favorite though scholars and connoisseurs hold Li Po and Tu Fu in higher esteem:
Po Chu-I (772-846)
Downriver, someone plays
a bamboo flute at midnight
Note by note, I’m transported
back into my youth at home
Listening, I feel my thin hair
quickly turning white
still growing old, still
sleepless, still alone
Mr. Hamill’s anthology is perhaps the best introduction to classical Chinese poetry currently available. It is a fine piece of work, beautifully translated, and dramatically successful in presenting the essentials of the vast plenum of Chinese poetry. The introduction treats the vicissitudes of translation and gives a thumbnail history of poetry translated from the Chinese from Pound’s and Fenollosa’s influential pioneering efforts through Waley’s scholarly work and Rexroth’s free re-workings. It would be hard to find a study of the art of translation, which is at once so useful, intelligent, short, lucid and readable. This book is highly recommended.
DIARY OF A SANTA FE CAT
Peggy van Hulsteyn
Sherman Asher Publishing
Vanity the cat chooses her ideal owners, visits the vet, falsifies her pedigree, and collaborates in writing a book. Accompanying these adventures is a string of delectable satires of human types 96 indigenous, the author says, to Santa Fe. You will enjoy recognizing many of them yourself. The chapter on writing should be framed and hung next to the desk of any writer with a feline roommate. In this first section of the book Vanity’s character comes across with catly vigor and playfulness. In the second half Vanity goes skiing, leads a museum tour, attends City Council, and gets a job. She wears clothes and does the culture circuit. No more satire, this is fantasy; and the jokes are all about cat conceit. DIARY OF A SANTA FE CAT is a book to choose by subject and location: cat hum or, coffee table. Recommended dosage is to read the first half straight through, taking time to savor. Once the book has changed character, pick it up for a quick chortle when you have a spare moment. That way the repetitive parts of the humor won’t matter. You won’t even have to take an allergy pill if you are allergic to cats, but if you are allergic to puns, medicate heavily before reading.
DO NOT LOOK DIRECTLY INTO ME
Green Bean Press
Dan Crocker is one of the best writers around today, and has gotten praise from the likes of Gerald Locklin and Gerald Nicosia. The title of this collection is Do Not Look Directly Into Me, but that is exactly what Crocker offers, a look into his psyche. The short stories are told in first person, and most offered amusing anecdotes into the life of a middle-class worker (a dishwasher in many of the stories). Crocker has a real ear for catching everyday language and colloquialisms and he spins a good yarn. The funniest had the unwieldy title of “Men, Or Why I Blame My Short Attention Span on Sesame Street, Or Things They Never Taught Us in Sunday School, Or It’s Not the Cosby Show, Or The Water of Generations, about the misadventures of Dan and his gay friend, Athens, when they meet Athen’s Grandparents and Dan is wearing a skirt and is drunk. The grandmother keeps calling Dan Athen’s “girlfriend”! The dialogue is funny and right-on. Also good is “Chicken Blue”, about a husband and wife couple who pick out men and women that turn them on in the crowd at a Blues Festival, so they can fantasize and have hot sex back at home later on. The story offers a twist ending. Least effective is “The Inner Charlie”, an annoying, one-note joke that repeats the word Charlie several times each sentence. The story clobbers you over the head with its point. Overall a fine collection of short stories by an imaginative writer. Dan is a very good poet too, and this entertaining collection shows how versatile he is as a writer. Highly recommended. This is another nice looking production from Ian Griffin at Green Bean Press. Green Bean Press makes the best-looking books in the small press today.
To order: $12.95 from Green Bean Press, PO Box 237, NYC 10013 or special order from your local bookstore.
ERRORS IN THE SCRIPT
One of the complaints that I’ve heard in recent years is that contemporary poets are too busy picking at their own scabs to advance the art of verse writing. Anyone who is of this mind is certain to welcome Greg Williamson’s adventurous and challenging new collection of poetry, Errors In The Script. For those who fear the difficulties of poetry that does not make easy sense of itself, this is a fine book to steer clear of.
Williamson combines rigorous syntactic and formal structures with both colloquial and more heightened diction. His sentences are testaments to the fact that these are not poems written in an insomniac’s fit of emotion. Every stanza, every line, fits a specific place in the whole of each poem. And each poem pits its rigid form against the decidedly non-rigid elements of contemporary life upon which the pieces ruminate. Make no mistake, this is not an easy book, but it is original and rich, both structurally and thematically.
Most startling and effective is the 26-poem sequence, “Double Exposures,” which comprises the entire middle section of the book. Here, Williamson uses alternating lines to address the separate images caught in different double-exposure photographs. Read independently, each set of lines is clear and plain, in rhyming couplets which provide a strong backbeat. Read interspersed, as the lines are juxtaposed on the page from top to bottom, new meanings arise. The play of each pair of descriptions in the poems mimics the play of each pair of images in the photos. The result is a series of examples of how meaning is made through language and image. Evocative, surprising and profoundly original, “Double Exposures” enriches the legacy of what poetry can do.
While the rest of the collection does not rise to quite the level of the middle section, the very formal explorations of very non-formal topics do prove interesting, as long as one has the patience to make one’s way through the dense tangles of language which Williamson cultivates along the way. From Wile E. Coyote to Origami, from pissy muses to multiple choice riddles, Williamson finds his subjects all over the place. There is even an annotated excerpt from a lost romantic manuscript about a trip to the mall.
The book proves to be as entertaining as it is enlightening, and it serves as a strange reminder of how we make our way through the world, doing our best to make sense of it, every day.