Monday, September 21, 2020

Alive and Kicking

Berlin-based Rixdorf Editions continues to establish itself as the premier publisher of Wilhelminia in English translation. Although a streak of social conservatism marks the reign of German Emperor Wilhelm II, which lasted from 1890 until the end of World War I, an undercurrent of progressivism coupled with a razor-edged avant garde ensures that Rixdorf’s catalog somehow still manages to feel like it’s ahead of its time.

Rixdorf’s most recent addition is James J. Conway’s translation of Austrian critic Hermann Bahr’s Antisemitism. Originally published in 1894, this is the first time it has been translated into English. The book is a collection of Bahr’s interviews with contemporary politicians and intellectuals on the topic that was experiencing its pre-Nazi zenith. Despite the force of Bahr’s critical work (art and literary criticism, dramaturgy, and essays) and the pervasiveness of his creative work (journalism, interviews, plays, short stories, and novels) across a life that spanned seventy years, few of his writings have been translated into English. This publication begins to correct more than a century of neglect by the English-speaking world.

Conway, who impeccably captures the original’s literary qualities, says it was the text’s sense of place that first caught his attention and made him want to translate it. From the eloquence of its opening paragraph, the reader can immediately appreciate that sense of place that Bahr’s book offers:

Hohenzollernstrasse, wide, white and empty, leads to the long, long street that borders the Tiergarten. Your footsteps echo and there is not a human sound to be heard. Only on the corner is there a shrivelled, scrawny woman selling wilting yellow stalks as though they were actual flowers (12).
Conway provides plenty of notes detailing the histories and biographies behind even the simplest of passages. In this example, he informs us that Hohenzollernstrasse was renamed Hiroshimastrasse in 1990 and currently runs through Berlin’s embassy district. Such details establish necessary contexts and equip readers with meaningful frames of reference.

The book’s original German title (Der Antisemitismus: Ein internationales Interview) effectively combined and gave currency to the then novel terms antisemitism, internationalism, and the new journalistic genre of the interview. At the time, Bahr’s use of the interview format was groundbreaking, and if even only for its historical significance in the history of journalism, the translation provides a critical resource. But it is its contribution to the vast field of Holocaust studies, offering a historical context of Europe before the rise of Nazism, that proves to be most significant. Antisemitism records a period of history in which millennia-old religious hatred and bigotry were being weaponized by virulent strains of nationalism and racist pseudoscience, and it’s telling how many of those interviewed interpret and dismiss antisemitism as a mere economic problem under the pretexts of religion and nationalism.

Bahr’s conversation with leftwing parliamentarian August Bebel, who founded German’s Social Democrat movement, provides a good example among several others. Bebal argues:
The true adherents of antisemitism, the small traders and the small landowners, are not entirely wrong from their point of view. It is largely in the figure of the Jew that they encounter capital. In Hesse and other parts of south-western Germany, … mortgages are in the hands of the Jews and in every market the buyers of agricultural products are Jews. As a result, the negative effects of capitalism always appear in the guise of the Jew, and of course it is natural that these classes, who are not given to pondering the capitalist system at length, but rather abide by the forms and experiences in which it confronts them, succumb to antisemitism (25).

Today this kind of economic account seems almost quaint, and it is particularly alarming to see how banally impotent such a diagnosis was and still is in the face of genocidal rhetoric, of which there are also several examples throughout the book.

From French polemicist Henri Rochefort we can hear pre-echoes from the “all lives matter” [sic] faction: “I do not oppose equal rights for Jews, I favour equal rights for others” (159). And from Belgian legal scholar and proud race-baiter Edmond Picard we catch a glimpse of overt racism and xenophobia: “there is great danger in granting liberty to Jews, who have an entirely different psychology, a very different way of thinking and feeling to us, even if they adopt our dress and our customs” (175). The sheer breadth of perspectives is striking, while the ways those perspectives resonate with our current discourse is disquieting.

It is to the translator’s credit that the book maintains such a high degree of readability while still sounding like something written more than 125 years ago. Conway describes the stylistic challenges of translating Bahr’s book as “trying to capture the flavour of conversation between prominent figures of the era, many of them at the top of their rhetorical game, in a way that might have been expressed in the English of the time.” To facilitate the process, he consulted “a few late Victorian texts to get a sense for syntax, register, tone, idioms, especially in dialogue.” He masters the effect of the German while injecting the English with enough verve to keep it from bogging down into a syntactical morass. His stylistic choices become another critical buttress, much like the helpful notes, concise biographical sketches, and meticulous and accessible Afterword he provides, that serves the text well in its new life in English.

From rabid anti-George Soros conspiracies across broad swathes of the Hungarian and American populations to the near-global rise of Holocaust-denying rightwing extremism, antisemitism still manifests as one of the foremost assaults on civil liberties and on liberalism in general. For all of its supposed specificity, antisemitism always appears as but the vanguard of a more general, more savage ethnonationalism. Bahr’s Antisemitism remains the epitome and apex of the modern form of what he calls a “seductive poison” before polemics gave way to a policy of genocide. For this reason alone, his book will continue to be more than just a mere historical curiosity.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Ditch Water Poems

There was a time when I tried to read literary journals until I realized why they were utterly unreadable to me: all action resided in the head and everything took place, even childhood, within the city limits. And the city was always the same: blah blah big blah blah anonymous blah concrete blah metaphor for inner-self. Blah.

Give me someone who knows the taste of nopales and the palette of dirt possible beneath the fingernails after a hard day of work in the sun. Give me poverty and burning sex in the back of a car that needs a new engine. Give me the bruise of a prostitute's lip and the soapy smell of dishwater to wash my hands in. Give me the hope of selling drugs and sex as a way to mitigate the dead-end road that ended a few miles back.

Joseph Delgado's book of poetry offers writing that doesn't attempt to tame or domesticate the wildness of the human heart at the edge of destitution. His land is vast and populated with junkies and prostitutes and dear old aunts who can teach you to skin a rabbit or kill a man. The smell of oil, grease, tobacco, and sex are not piped in for the tourists but instead provide an accurate indication of the land's plentiful scarcity and lack. The taste of cheap beer and smoky guajillo permeates the forty-eight poems that make up this sexy AF collection. Ditch Water: Poems by Joseph Delgado is available by Kórima Press.

Drink deeply from the ditch.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

SX11

Out of the 39 entries available from the SXSW 2020 Film Festival on Prime Video, I've watched 23 so far. Free access ends tonight, and I plan to catch as many of the shorts as I can. Here are my Top Picks from the ones I've watched.

For Documentary Features, the standout is My Darling Vivian, dir. Matt Riddlehoover, about Vivian Liberto, Johnny Cash's first wife and the mother of his four daughters. An interesting look into her life without devolving into a hagiography, it includes great interviews and archival footage.

I watched 2 of the Narrative Features, and neither one was outstanding. For Narrative Shorts, here are my favorites so far:

Broken Bird, dir. Rachel Harrison Gordon - engaging story about a biracial girl who gets distracted by disco on her way to womanhood.
Daddio, dir. Casey Wilson - it's always good to be reminded just how talented Michael McKean is as an actor.
Dirty, dir. Matthew Puccini - nice love story that navigates around the shit of life.
Reminiscences of the Green Revolution, dir. Dean Colin Marcial  - this was a surprisingly beautiful film that does a lot in just a few minutes.
Soft, dir. Daniel Antebi - wow with that cinematography and just a tiny glimpse of a life.
Still Wylde, dir. Ingrid Haas - affecting story with talented actors.
Vert, dir. Kate Cox - interesting twist on coming to terms with who you are and who you love.

For Documentary Shorts, I'd recommend the following:

Betye Saar: Taking Care of Business, dir. Christine Turner - straightforward focus on an amazing artist.
Broken Orchestra, dir. Charlie Tyrell - innovative storytelling, though I wanted less talking heads and more of the music.
Modern Whore, dir. Nicole Bazuin - sex positive look at contemporary sex work in the age of #metoo.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Review: A Luminous History of the Palm by Jessica Sequeira

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 Not really a question: is it any wonder that I began this book while flying to California, the place where palm trees first took root in my imagination.

But a question: what if history were more than (anything but) a list of battles and dates? What if history were a living thing, one that promises to to be more than just its mundane existence? A touchstone, a point of reference rooted in the ground and in the imagination? Such are the questions that underpin A Luminous History of the Palm.

Across its 57 pages Sequeira delineates the various incarnations of this most fruitful of symbols. It becomes health and wealth before transforming into weapon, home. She traces its appearance from ancient Judea to the rice fields of Thailand. She witnesses its manifestations as chimera, star, a succession of frond-like waves, a symbol of time and of the zodiac. She measures the height of their god-like gazes, offering, no, not enlightenment but a share in their own luminous natures. At its most playful, it's simply a puzzle book where the reader searches for a hidden tree on every page.

This book is a meditation in the best sense, not just on the palm but also on the art of translation, of crafting fiction. Is it any wonder—again: not a question—that Sequeira devotes her book to the tree that shares its name with the open hand.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Wonder Years: A Review of 926 Years by Kyle Coma-Thompson and Tristan Foster

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 A few weeks ago I received a circular in the mail for a real estate company. The business had been around for a few decades but it boasted having hundreds of years of experience by simply tallying the work years of its individual employees. I straight away recognized the mathematical fallacy. This kind of creative accretion operates in the new book 926 Years by Kyle Coma-Thompson and Tristan Foster, and published by Sublunary Editions.

The book comprises twenty-two short(er) stories. Each features a person, a character, whose age ranges from 8 to 81. (There are two who are 54. The characters have an average age of 42 and a median age of 35.5. ) Adding their ages together, you arrive at the misleading sum of 926.

Tempering this total "age" of the book's title is a quote from Victor Klemperer's war diary, translated by Martin Chalmers, that serves as the book's epigraph: "It is said children still have a sense of wonder, later one becomes blunted. —Nonsense. A child takes things for granted, and most people get no further; only an old person, who thinks, is aware of the wondrous."

You promptly begin to wonder, if you are a thinking person of a certain age, whether such pure accumulation, per Klemperer's claim, grants one the wondrousness of old age. As if to let slip the fact that the authors are on to you and your sly ways, the first story begins, "The child is dying." It's a grievous tale about the convenient lies parents tell themselves and their children about a god's mercy. And then the next: an even older man, this one "great," who seems to know the magic trick of dying well. But in the meantime….

And another and another. The stories amass. They are compiled. But like real estate experience, it's sheer arithmetic and accumulation. And childlike wonder, no matter one's age, still gets taken for granted, stunted—blunted, no matter the number of years you manage to put behind you. It's up to you to figure out what it all adds up to.

Tristan Foster's Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father (Transmission Press) was easily one of my favorite books last year, so I was excited about this collection. I spent an excessive amount of time trying to determine which of the authors penned each story, making assumptions about what each writer might be familiar with regarding the cities and geography mentioned throughout. There are worse ways to read a collection of short stories. But, alas, some numerology cannot be unraveled. And regarding cities and geography, the book could easily have been, instead of accumulated years, stockpiled miles.

This collection is a field of stars with no predetermined constellations mapped out. It shimmers in the void and pulls you in with its spectacular gravity.

Friday, January 17, 2020

The Plat Thickens: A Review of John Trefry's Plats

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In his Meditations, Descartes cites watching people bundled in winter dress at a distance as an example of the gap between perception and judgment:
If I look out of the window and see men crossing the square, as I have just done, I say that I see the men themselves…; yet do I see any more than hats and coats that could conceal robots? I judge that they are men.
The narrator in John Trefry's Plats dismisses Cartesian judgment altogether, relying on the lie of perception that would reduce others to pure color and form. But perhaps that's not quite right: Trefry's narrator, who himself is not quite fully human, and by "human" I mean possessing judgment and individuality, seems to require scare quotes. He is not so much a narrator as sheer narration itself: a near-endless barrage of perceptions that he can't quite adjudicate to save himself:
What you feel in the darkness isnt consistent with any physical possibilities, if you knew the shape of your body or where it lay. It is diffused and adrift. Your senses burn where they shouldnt, amidst you, all of it is you and you are filled with so much vague geography. In the rolling black shiver that fans through you the touch is consistent, liquid ice, or oil asymptotically kissing freezing. You dont reach final states. You remain on the verge. It is so still and so uniform that it touches you completely at once, with the same anesthetic pace across your unfolded perception, a perfect unreflective blackness from which your own extents, in the way that you want them, are not visible or present. You feel the coldness describing them, but they are gone.
The text relies on idiosyncratic punctuation. It forgoes hyphens, apostrophes, and even most question marks even while retaining a rather elevated diction. That is, the text reveals itself in a depleted, exhausted state while still operating under the pretense of literature.

It took me a few years to work up the stamina and courage to read this book. Every time I would open it, and I opened it repeatedly, almost every time I finished one book and was trying to decide on another, I'd see the intimidating blocks of tiny text in a seemingly endless repetition of structure and form. Each paragraph, each page, every eleven lines mirroring all the other paragraphs, pages, and blocks of eleven lines—a structure that doesn't seem to allow for progression and development.

It is as if Trefry took Blanchot’s literary experimentation to an extreme, scraping away the conceits of literature, of plot, of character, of theme, etc. until literature shows itself as literature in a state of diminishment. Literature as the erosion of what is literary. But Blanchot wrote abbreviated tales that barely amount to a collection of short stories. Trefry's "novel" is 156 pages. Here, too, the scare quotes are befitting.

If a novel does away with the elements that make up a novel, then what does that leave on the page? In the case of Plats, I'd say it is mostly setting and style. At least those are the two main elements that stick with me. In this way, Trefry comes close to fulfilling Artaud’s dream of a theater of pure mise-en-scène for Plats accedes to the primacy of place and props while dismissing those other literary conceits. It is called, after all, Plats and not Plots, for it most definitely concerns property, pieces of land, and architectural features to the detriment of diegesis.

The text harnesses the dissolution of character into props and the subsequent dissolution of props into setting, but it's a setting devoid of actual context. Plats takes place in a landscape formed by the deformations of character and narrative. What's more, the context provides no causal relation. It is utter sedimentation, as if accrual could stand in for development:
I promote the insistence that these phenomena of light and the manifestation of the cavernous formations are reflections. Through the atmospheric theatrics of vapor an emptied environment allows the surface characters of sheen and glimmer to prevail. These are subtle performances, the edges of characters. Little light reaches into the shallow dips of fingertips where I pool. My presence is far too sparse and oblique. In a downcast vista I receive distant and detached twinkles traveling through liquid gauze. Each drift of my milky cloud, growing more distant from the touch of the lipid light, has resulted in a softer rendering of the heaped body. I settle to await the transubstantiative dawn. I submit to the pliability of dew.
Or to put it another way, this is not development in the form of traditional narrative but development in the form of city planning: a cancerous growth that repeats tirelessly, reducing all difference to a blanketing a-topic sameness of place. Literature as accretion that raises parataxis to an ideology. There is no evolution, growth, or progress. It's a sedimentary storytelling that renounces all the qualities of what goes into a story.

For at least a quarter of the book, I called Trefry’s bluff and read across the pages instead of down them. That is, instead of reading Paragraphs 1, 2, and 3 on the left-hand page before going on to Paragraphs 1, 2, and 3 on the right-hand side, I would read both Paragraphs 1, then both 2, and then both 3, which seemed to make stronger connections among the otherwise seemingly unrelated paragraphs.

Reading Plats was like induced amnesia, though perhaps it didn't help that I read the book while recovering from the worst concussion of my adult life. It made reading a type of forgetting, and as soon as I was able to pretend that I no longer knew what literature was supposed to be, I was able to embrace it for what it was.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Top 10 North Texas Play Productions of 2019

I attended 46 theater productions this past year, all of them in North Texas. Later this week TheaterJones will publish my year's highlights list, in which you'll be able to see which of these productions I named the best. But since I didn't have the time or space in my article to talk about the field of contenders, I thought I'd post something here.

I saw some incredible work, and I'm proud to be a critic, journalist, blogger, activist, and supporter of the arts in this region. My list is alphabetical by playwright's last name, and I'm including some basic comments with links to my reviews.
  • Caryl Churchill's Drunk Enough to Say I Love You and Here We Go by Second Thought Theatre — Two one acts by probably the most important living playwright today, and also the first time I've seen a production of Churchill's work. I've only recently started seeing Second Thought, and to make it up to them, as well as to acknowledge their skill and artistry, I'm allowing them two places on my list. Their next season looks amazing.
  • Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot by Forth Worth Community Arts Center — My review. One of my favorite plays by one of my favorite group of actors. This is maybe only the third time I've seen this show live. Interesting interpretation.
  • Guillermo Calderón's Villa (trans. William Gregory) by Teatro Dallas —I love Teatro. I saw my first Teatro production in 1989, which was also when I fell in love with their artistic director Cora Cardona. This was an intense play based on the aftermath of the Pinochet regime with an outstanding cast and interesting set.
  • Blake Hackler's What We Were by Second Thought Theatre — I felt shell shocked after watching this hard-hitting family drama by a local playwright, but the script was gorgeous in a brutal sort of way, and it was acted by a strong ensemble.
  • Samuel D. Hunter's The Few by Resolute Theatre Project —My review. Another great cast performing in the first Hunter play I've seen. I actually requested to review it just because of its director and because I'd heard so much about Hunter. The technical aspects were as flawless as the acting. I hope to see more by the playwright and this theater group.
  • Matthew Paul Olmos'  so go the ghosts of méxico, part three, a poet sings the daughter songs by Undermain Theatre —I've been attending plays by Undermain since 1988. Everything they do is interesting even if I may not like a particular show. Olmos's work is exquisite; he's one of my favorite playwrights, so it was great to see this show premiere here with actors who I know and like. Another gorgeous and brutal work.
  • Peter Shaffer's Equus by Lakeside Community Theatre —My review. Outstanding direction by Adam Adolfo, whose vision was revelatory. One of my favorite plays. Strong cast with good technical aspects.
  • Sam Shepard's Buried Child by Tarrant Actors Regional Theatre —My review. One of the first plays that fired my imagination. I'm a die-hard Shepard fan, though I finally got comfortable with the fact that he was a terrible person in spite of his writing skill. Amazing actors. Good direction and set.
  • Sam Shepard's Fool for Love by The Classics Theatre Project —My review. Another Shepard play, but this time by a new group on the scene. TCTP has easily become one of my favorite theater groups in their first full season. And their production of Tennessee William's Summer and Smoke could easily be on this list, but I had to cut a lot of shows to stick to the top-10 format. I can't imagine a more perfect cast. Great technical theater. Stellar production overall.
  • Steve Yockey's Reykjavík by Kitchen Dog Theater —My review. I didn't think I'd be interested in this show, but it captured my attention. Good cast. Fabulous design. And I trust Kitchen Dog. I've been seeing their shows since I can't remember when, back when The MAC was actually on McKinney Avenue. I hate that I only caught this one show by Kitchen Dog this year, but it was a memorable production.
North Texas is a rarity in that it sustains so many mid- and high-tier local theater companies. Some cities, even larger ones, do not have the thriving theater scene that Dallas and Forth Worth (and all their suburbs) have, so the trick is to to continue to support it and to not take it for granted. I'll do my part.

Please check out my year-end article on TheaterJones to see which of these ten outstanding productions I named the best of 2019.