Peter Sotos, Lazy (Creation Books, 1999) [originally posted 20Jan2000]
There it is. In front of you. Open it. It's only a book, after all. It can't hurt yoPeter Sotos, Lazy (Creation Books, 1999) [originally posted 20Jan2000]
There it is. In front of you. Open it. It's only a book, after all. It can't hurt you. Go on. Open it. Do as I say. Do you like that?
What are we going to read about today? Part I: "Sensation," and especially "Myra," and of course long ramblings on one of Sotos' favorite subjects, King Ian and Queen Myra. "Damien Hirst defended the work and threatened to pull his pieces from the show if the Hindley portrait wasn't allowed in. Hirst is seen by most as the cornerstone of the 'Young British Artist' movement that the show trumpeted: SENSATION: YOUNG BRITISH ARTISTS FROM THE SAATCHI COLLECTION. And while many saw that the show was either an attempt for the Royal Academy to change its stodgy reputation or a chance for advertising 'guru' Charles Saatchi to increase the value and reputation of his collection, most of the paying punters saw an exhibition heavily steeped in sexual violence or, at least, sexual vagaries." (88-90) Careful, Peter, you're starting to sound like a mainstream art critic.
Part II: a logical leap into child molestation. Child murder. The murder of crack whores. All the lovely things that happen on the south side of Chicago while no one else is looking. You've heard of the projects, right? Do you know what they are? Would you like me to take you there? Do you know what a crack whore is? I can show you. We also get to look into the mind of Peter Sotos, somewhat. Not much. Just a little. You like that, don't you?
Part III: Another favorite topic. Would you like to go downtown? There are bookstores there. I think you might find them interesting. Especially the back rooms, where the peepshow booths are. And the Mexican hustlers who give it away for $5 a pop. And the transvestites. And the AIDS-infected young men who want nothing more than to keep having sex. It's all about risk. It's all about self-hatred. And we get to see it. Can you see? Can you see this? This is what you've been waiting for. Sotos is going over the edge, slowly, and revealing more of himself as he does. He's almost got to the point where he admits he does it because he wants to. "I spend most of my time enjoying things I don't like." (295) "I find men less ugly than women except when they act like them. Homosexual sex is often the quickest way there. And this is soon lapping up vagina and working on some ridiculous clit numb mistake. This turned into christmas and thanksgiving and his birthday and all the lipstick I could afford for one little suburban bar tit grope and sister blow job. I do want to see AIDS ejaculate. I want to be sure." (313)
Don't you like story time? I know you do. Don't justify. You don't need to justify to me. Just admit. You always knew there was a seedy side to life. That's why you love watching detective shows on TV. But they can't show you the heavy stuff on TV. They don't show it to you in the movies. You never knew where to see it before. And you want to see it. You know you do. In order to appreciate what you have more fully. You have to see how the other half lives. Incest. Rape. Murder. Brutality. Serial killers. Casual, anonymous, high-risk sex. Pornography. Pedophilia. Home invasion. Abduction. Assault, battery, molestation, homosexuality, HIV, the media, hatred, hatred, hatred.
Chicago's demented master of journalistic debauchery has returned with another look at what mPeter Sotos, Tick (Creation, 2000)
All hail the new Sotos.
Chicago's demented master of journalistic debauchery has returned with another look at what makes America's criminals so notoriously American, that underbelly of anticulture, epidemia, slime, drugs, free love, and contempt that few Americans are even aware exists, and those few know it because either they're involved or the name "Cabrini Green" rings a bell because they saw it in a Clive Barker film.
Some would have you believe that Sotos' work is pornography, a view that Creation seems to subscribe to; at least, "Peter Sotos Pornography" is emblazoned upon the back of both the last two Sotos works. It's certainly good for shock value. But is it really the case?
In the popular definition of the term, perhaps. Sotos reports on, and revels in, the prurient. He shows us what most of us would rather not see. In the two hundred twenty-two pages of Tick, we are handed the case of Girl X, which made a very brief splash in the newspapers and brought the name Cabrini Green back to the frontal lobes. We're given JonBenet Ramsey's autopsy report, as gruesomely amusing as it was. We're told the side of the Matthew Shepard killing that most news reporters refused to report-- that Shepard's killing was "most likely" drug-related and had nothing to do with his sexual orientation. It's tabloid journalism without the pictures and the necessity for self-censorship that one is required to follow if one wants to have one's work published in the Weekly World News.
But the court's definition of pornography is more stringent. Prurience is not the only requirement; the work must also serve no social purpose. This is the great paradox of obscenity law. It can be argued, and strongly, that any depiction of society's dank underbelly serves a social purpose, be that purpose reform or simply exposure. Whether we want to see the spectacle isn't the issue, and of course we're all aware that Americans, as a culture, will cause traffic jams by slowing down to look at particularly gruesome auto accidents. Couldn't you argue, in light of the cases of Girl X and JonBenet Ramsey, or the handful of other missing-child cases Sotos mentions, that keeping these things in the forefronts of the minds of parents is a public service? A social necessity, even?
Sure. And you'd be right.
Couldn't you argue, in light of Americans' appalling ignorance about HIV and AIDS, that a detailed understanding of its transmission is essential not only to every man who puts himself at risk, but every woman married to such a man?
Sure. And you'd be right.
If you wanted to strike out into the grey areas of the law, you could make the case that well-written personal experience is more likely to stick in the head than dry textbook relation. Who gets more listeners around the fire, the Ben Stein wannabe or the jolly old chap who makes up voices for each charater and punctuates with hand gestures?
Make no mistake, Sotos is a gifted writer. When he lapses into the rhythm and dictions of a third-grader, made-up words and all, he does so for a purpose. When he wants to be, which is most of the time, Sotos is precise, collected. Not detached-- after a certain amount of immersion, it is impossible to be detached-- but this is a man who never loses his head, a voracious reader who drops literary allusions with the frequency and obscurity of an Ezra Pound. Just because the parallels he's drawing have to do with dead teenagers as opposed to a world war doesn't make them less valid.
Peter Sotos may be tasteless. Peter Sotos may be prurient. But he is also effective. And he is necessary. **** ...more
Rita Dove, Thomas and Beulah (1987, Carnegie Mellon)
Rita Dove won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry with Thomas and Beulah, and it's pretty easy to sRita Dove, Thomas and Beulah (1987, Carnegie Mellon)
Rita Dove won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry with Thomas and Beulah, and it's pretty easy to see why. Dove's poetic biography of her ancestors is hyperkinetic, jazz-infused poetry rooted in the Depression, full of life, sass, and vinegar. Nothing is sacred, from motherhood ("She dreams the baby's so small she keeps/misplacing it") to death ("Later he'll say Death stepped right up/to shake his hand, then squeezed/until he sank to his knees."), and some contemporary jabs mixed in ("...Joanna saying/'Mother, we're Afro-Americans now!'/What did she know about Africa?"). Dove has been one of America's shining poetic voices for two decades now, and there's never not a right time to go back and revisit this stunning collection. Perhaps her strongest work. **** ...more
A note to those reading this on any site where I won't have to censor it: the following review contains quotesPeter Sotos, Lordotics (Creation, 2008)
A note to those reading this on any site where I won't have to censor it: the following review contains quotes from the book that contain adult and “politically incorrect” language, as well as graphic depictions of sexual situations. If such things offend you, then make the obvious choice and don't read the review. If you do so and find yourself offended, remember that you have been warned, and you have only yourself to blame.
Sotos' ninth book has seemingly escaped the controversy that surrounded his last, Show Adult, but it's most likely only a matter of time; the second a non-limited release of this is announced, expect the rats to come crawling out of the woodwork, as they usually do. And, as usual, none of them will have actually read the book, preferring to listen to others, who most likely will also have not read the book, but who are more than willing to condemn Peter Sotos on the strength of his earlier works. It's a tough call, really; while Lordotics definitely showcases a kinder, gentler Peter Sotos, one notes that the words “kinder” and “gentler” are relative in the extreme; Sotos is still obsessed with the same topics he's always been obsessed with, but Lordotics sees the creeping in of a world-weariness. Not a cynicism; Sotos has ever been the cynic. It's almost as if he's as tired of the cynicism as he has been of the topics over which he obsesses for years, but because they are obsessions, he still can't stop talking about them.
There's also what seems to be more contempt for some of Sotos' favorite subjects here. The top third of each page in Lordotics (which is, as has been usual recently, one hundred ninety-one pages) has a picture of a convicted “sexual offender” taken from one of the now-endless Internet sites that report such things. (As always, it should be noted that the definition of “sexual offender” is very lax, and on those sites, people who do things that by rights should have been legal for hundreds of years in this country are thrown in indiscriminately with, say, child molesters, because some people are too stupid to know the difference between consent and coercion.) True to Sotos' obsession, though, he filtered:
“Only offenders who were engaged in the sexual abuse of children. There are a few exceptions; mainly when it comes to indecent exposure. But because these men are meant to be placed back into the gloryhole and faggot situations that I insist on, I thought it legitimate to include those that tug at themselves in public. Some might argue that it would have been more fitting to put rapists in the group. There may be some. But I'm more interested in men who memorize.” (13)
As I said, however, “kinder” and “gentler” are relative terms. Peter Sotos examines parts of society that most Americans probably don't even know exist, and most of those who do are only interested in stamping those parts of society out of existence. Sotos reports from them in a matter-of-fact tone. While he passes judgment, always negative, on everyone involved in these subcultures (yes, including himself), he never passes judgment on the subcultures themselves. This, of course, is invariably enough to get someone's gander—usually that same puckered-looking soul who's out protesting in front of the places from which Sotos reports. Needless to say, if you're not condemning it, in the eyes of people like this, you're “glorifying” it, somehow. I doubt anyone without any experience in bookstore culture would consider any of Sotos' dozens, if not hundreds, of descriptions of bookstore culture over the course of nine books to glorify them in any manner.
“I see mental illness in here. I come here to watch grown men twitch and cry. I see more men physically exhaust themselves. I count entitlement. Drugs get to them, the alcohol and brutal rejection. They think of their families, I'm sure. Their mothers they've watched expire and miss so deeply and self-consciously. The faggot lovers with AIDS they don't get the same degree of sympathy for when condoms are stroked on just before the businessmen are ready to pop. So many of these dropping eye fat fucks are loaded on antipsychotics that working out which is beneficial or deleterious is something you have to wait for years to figure out. Tally how many of these scumbags I refer to as animals. Not quite the same way the ones who think they're reverting do, though. Nice slacks, a pressed dress blue shirt and while he's getting sucked, he unbuttons to let his belly hang. He rubs his hands around his naked thighs when his belt and pants drop around his ankles and strokes around his ass up and all over his protruding gut. You reach up to pinch his nipples and run through his chest hair when he'd prefer to do it himself. He is owed this. This is what you do. The last part of his disgust was only maybe at the door but chances are better that he knows perfectly well that you and other pigs like you have created this place for him.” (89-90)
I submit that if you consider that glorification of any sort, you should re-examine your definition of the term.
I have said it in reviewing all the rest of Peter Sotos' books (as to the long-standing debate over whether these events are true or not, Sotos himself has now put that to rest in a Hoover Hog interview on October 27, 2008, in the plainest terms: “I wouldn't create fiction.”), and I will say it again: whether or not you like Peter Sotos' work, you have to appreciate that Sotos is travelling waters previously uncharted in social criticism. (It should also be noted that Sotos does not consider himself a cultural critic, and in the strict sense of the term, he's right; he's a reporter, though as should be obvious from the passages above, were this a newspaper it'd be on the editorial page.) Sotos is an important writer from that standpoint, if (depending on your point of view) for no other. Adam Parfrey once said of the music of NON that the masses were destined to hate it, but for the few who instinctively grasped what Rice was on about, NON's music is “pure balm for the soul”. That same can be said of Peter Sotos' books. Obviously, the vast majority of readers will be uninterested in, if not repulsed by, Sotos' obsessions: bookstore and gay bar culture, child molesters and kiddie porn, serial killers. If you are one of the people who would be, then pass Sotos by and don't feel that you're missing anything. If, however, you share in one or more of these fascinations, you may well find yourself a new favorite author in Peter Sotos. I do suggest starting from the beginning ( Total Abuse: Collected Writings 1984-1995), for seeing how Sotos' writing has changed over the past quarter-century is as illuminating as the books themselves, but given how hard it is to get one's hands on older Sotos books, any starting point is worthwhile. As I write this (November 2008), Lordotics is currently only available in a sold-out limited edition of 113, but Creation have always put out a non-limited edition within a reasonable period of time after the limited release comes out. When it hits the streets, go for it. *** ½
Catherynne M. Valente, The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden (Bantam, 2006)
There are, at most, a handful of writers currently working who are as mucCatherynne M. Valente, The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden (Bantam, 2006)
There are, at most, a handful of writers currently working who are as much on love with the English language as Catherynne Valente. Each of her novels is a small jewel for the linguaphile, as much an experience as it is a book. Her early novels tended to run about one hundred fifty pages, and with language that demands lingering over and pondering, one hundred fifty pages seemed just about perfect. Now comes the pair of books known as the Orphan's Tales. The first of them is as long as Valente's first three novels put together (and the second longer); no surprise, then, that I ended up lingering over this book for an entire year. Actually, one day shy, to be precise about it. I can't imagine doing it any other way; this is a book that demands to be lingered over, pondered, enjoyed.
The book is told as a series of nested (very nested) fairytales; there is one large frame, concerning a girl whose body is tattooed with tales and the prince fascinated with her. Within that frame are two large stories the girls tells the prince. Within each of those are dozens of subtales, as characters within the stories tell tales (and characters within those stories... you get the idea).
The most impressive thing about the book by far is that things never get out of hand. If you get the idea of the structure here (the thing it most reminds me of, oddly, is modular bookshelves), you can probably see how easy it could be for a reader who isn't paying attention to lose his place. Despite the complexity, it never happens. Whether this is because I was just paying more attention than usual or whether it's Valente's storytelling skills I don't know. Oh, of course I do. I have the attention span of a whelk. Valente was in control through the entire book. The language is gorgeous, but that's a given with Valente; one expects nothing less. I wondered whether Valente's dense style would scale well to a book three times the length of those I'm used to reading. I shouldn't have worried; as always, this is phenomenal. ****...more
Catherynne M. Valente, A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects (Norilana, 2008)
Few things are as worth waiting for as a new book by Catherynne ValentCatherynne M. Valente, A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects (Norilana, 2008)
Few things are as worth waiting for as a new book by Catherynne Valente. As these things usually go, few things fill me with imaptientce at the waiting for them as a new book by Catherynne Valente. My current monetary situation (and the book's current, as I write this, availability situation where libraries are concerned—a most grievous oversight indeed) had me waiting far too long to pick up A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects, Valente's first book of poetry since 2005's Apocrypha. It was, however, entirely worth the wait.
I'm not sure I believed that Valente was capable of improving on the already-stellar work in Apocrypha, but there are pieces here that do so. While there's nothing in the book that falls short of the standard Valente set for herself in that last book, there are a handful of pieces that transcend even that:
“Hades is a place I know in Ohio, at the bottom of a long, black stair winding down I-76 from Pennsylvania, winding down the weeds through the September damp and that old tangled root system of asphalt and asphodel, to the ash-fields, clotted with fallen acorns like rain puddled in fibrous pools.” (“The Descent of the Corn-Queen of the Midwest”)
Anyone can make a person who's already seen something see it again in his mind. The point of poetry is to make someone who hasn't already seen it have a similar experience (similar because, as we all know, no two perceptions of a given even are identical, depending on the baggage, the mood, perhaps even the amount of caffeine extant in the system each reader brings to the table). That's how it's supposed to work in a really good book of poetry.
The title of the book implies retellings of old folktales, perhaps, in the vein one would find in the work of Angela Carter, Wendy Walker, or a number of other (and somewhat less accomplished than those twin doyennes of the modern form) retellers who have emerged in the past few years. And to be sure, there are fragments of tales here that you might recognize. But Valente knows, somewhere deep in her bones, that all tales are in some way folk tales; it's just that for most tales, the folk haven't appeared yet. And thus it is that personal history can be woven into folk tales (and if it's not personal history in some of these pieces, then I'm even more impressed):
“When they came to visit us last Christmas, he grumbled about the capitalist dogma of our spangled ornaments, our 9 pound turkey glistening like a gold-skinned baby, our soft mezzo-soprano two-part harmony. He spat after her when she went to Mass.
I stayed behind to wash the big turkey plate, and he leaned against the black kitchen counter, leering at me like an overseer. He put his hands over mine in the soapy water, and they were cold as storms. He whispered in my ear, his breath full of low clouds. (“Gringa”)
It's not just the confessional poetry that's been in vogue since the fifties, it's something more, something with that slight tang of legend. It says “This is a tale to tell around a campfire after all the children have gone to bed, scared of men with hooks for hands and creeping vines.” At this point, I had also planned to quote from the quietly devastating “The Eight Legs of Grandmother Spider”, the book's most personal piece, but there's no way to give you the full effect of the piece without giving you the whole thing, which is too long for a review. The same could be said, of course, with the two poems referenced above, but I could use pieces to point things out. You won't get the full effect of those until you read them for yourself, and that is something you should do as soon as possible. Valente is a true talent, right up there with America's best working authors—Walker, Koja, Taaffe, a handful of others—and the sooner your discover her gifts, the less you'll have to go back and experience when you inevitably decide to gobble up everything she's already written. *****