By John Cage
Wesleyan University (2001), $25
John Cage gleefully created himself as an avant-garde composer, man of letters, and Zen revisionist. Anarchy epitomizes all his selves, serving up twenty mesostic poem-essays on the topic. Based on texts by such iconoclasts as Henry David Thoreau, Emma Goldman, and Cage himself, the poems consist of randomly juggled quotes restructured into oddly meaningful phrases. They read both horizontally and vertically, with capitalized letters in each line spelling out a second catchphrase, top to bottom.
It's not just a gimmick, despite a fair sprinkling of lines like "An/is/thE/cannot/so." For the most part, the permutations yield more conventional combinations like "marvelous structure of realIty it is enough if one tries" or "frOm the tree/sLow/impriSoned/liberTy." If read aloud as Cage suggests, the visual text recedes, and the aural qualities of language come to the fore. Experienced this way, even the most logical, straightforward phrases generate multiple meanings and associations.
Cage boasts that his "mesostic texts do not make ordinary sense. They make nonsense." Anarchy cannot be described as "a good read." Its nonlinear, nonsensical verbal expressions are meant to induce a state of psychic anarchism, as it were, leading to the individual transformations that substantially transform rather than merely re(dis)organize society. His final poem spells out Buckminster Fuller's name, and shortening it to BUCK FULLER produces:
liberty oF each
by virtUe of
buwaLda for daring to
laws of ouR own individual nature
A grim ending? Think of it rather as a challenging nightcap in this experimental, interactive recipe for change.
Arts of the Possible
By Adrienne Rich
Norton (2001), $23.95
"How do you make poetry out of political experiences," Adrienne Rich asks, "[poetry] not about, but out of" the issues that drive a collective movement? This question resides at the core of her new book, a group of twelve essays and interviews dating from 1971 to 1999. Incisive, self-probing -- yet never self-promoting -- Rich traces the evolution of her ideas on art vis-à-vis politics. Forthright in her feminism, she delighted in the 1970s liberation movement that encouraged women to make their own lives the subject of literature and public concern. But Rich's careful thinking, "unable to confine itself within feminism alone," is exactly what the movement now needs.
"Feelings are useless without facts," Rich insists, observing that emphasis on personal anecdote in the 1970s led to a lack of critical analysis in the 1990s -- and the marketing of feminism as self-involvement. Opposed to exclusionary politics, she decries the inevitable generalizations that followed. Statements, for instance, such as "Women have always been in subjugation to men" blot out what we really need to know: when, where, and why has subjugation occurred.
Convinced that beauty cannot be "severed from the doings of living people," Rich calls for a reevaluation of Marx's humanist principles. Quoting him, she reminds us that "Language is ... the presence of the community," a thought underlying her 1997 refusal of the National Medal for the Arts. Rich's letter to Jane Alexander, then chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, reprinted here with an accompanying essay, explains her refusal on the grounds that the Clinton administration glossed over -- indeed, dishonored -- the social intentions of her work by its failure to give voice to victims of racial and economic injustice. Why have questions about health care and social justice been discredited in our society, she demands to know.
Rich's 1975 essay "Women and Honor" appears unrelated to the others at first because it suggests a private emotional betrayal: Someone, it seems, perhaps a lover, has lied to her. And yet this essay truly reflects the political dimension of the personal. Truth-telling by all parties, Rich asserts, although it heightens the complexity of a relationship, prevents manipulation and thus cannot be "sealed off from the desire for justice."Arts of the Possible underscores the difficulty of resolving an age-old philosophical problem, namely, how to protect simultaneously the welfare of the one and the many. Read this book for its brash social criticism but also for its passionate, reinvigorating discourse on poetics and the social contract.
-- Marion Fay
The Yokota Officers Club
By Sarah Bird
Knopf (2001), $23
We first meet Bernie Root as she's flying into Okinawa with a planeload of other military dependents. The Vietnam War is on, and for the past year, Bernie's been breathing "civilian oxygen for the first time in her life" at the University of New Mexico. When she steps off the plane at the base, her Air Force major father, ex-nurse mother Moe, and five younger siblings behold "a vagrant in Levi's with peace-sign patches stitched to her ass and hems frayed to a dirty fringe from being trod upon by a pair of water-buffalo-hide sandals held on by one ring around the big toe. Who parted her straight hair in the middle and left it to hang lank as old drapes on either side of a groovy new pair of John Lennon wire rims. Who'd substituted patchouli oil for Wind Song perfume and had discarded deodorant, depilation, and undergarments altogether."
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