The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2010

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MAY 2010 Issue


R. Crumb
The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis
(W.W. Norton, 2009)

The Bible isn’t a totally incongruous choice for R. Crumb, the originator of Zap, Snatch and Jiz comix. After all, Mr. Natural sports a long beard and robe, resembling a mystic, gurus or saint. And Genesis is wild and woolly.

The natural poetry of the King James Version is seamlessly redacted with Robert Alter’s 2004 re-translation. The trademark pen and ink drawings are at once engaging and tragic, compelling and comic. Crumb presents the serpent with legs still intact. On Sodom’s outer walls, figures of topless hussies ride winged bulls. Brawling brats swarm around a frazzled Rachel.

Every panel hurries the reader along while still inviting lingering attention to detail. Crumb illustrated the sacrosanct text with respect, but prior associations with his big-bootied heroines and “truckin’ on” fellows filter through. Surprisingly therefore, the characters’ raw-boned portraits actually augment the text’s spirituality—imparting humanity to the loves, foibles, and sacrifices of Adam and Eve’s brood.

Five years in the making, this is Crumb’s crowning crest. His dedicated research is evident. Occasionally he adds footnotes to explain, for instance, the different names of God. The sky god, the mountain god, and so on probably represent vestiges of the Ur pantheon.

Over 2000 years old, Genesis has the longest record for wide readership. This bold new treatment will add scads of admirers. It’s Righteous!

Cynthia Kraman
The Touch
(Bowery Books, 2009)

Shuttling between the profound and the profane, Cynthia Kraman’s poems are anchored but still float. Unusually formal in structure they are supple in style. “Orderly and fixed / they stand up on the warped and wobbling page.”

The author spent time in England pursuing a “tower” (translation: a Ph.D in literature). Old references like Chaucer and arcane cadences are updated into a sparkling idiom. Rather than sounding stuffy, metrically scanning lines are refreshing. Kraman masterfully breaks them and uses enjambment, surprising the reader and adding loft to her peripatetic musings.

Upon this scaffolding of rhythms, inventive lyricism and imagery accompany our pilgrim as she seeks out answers and records experiences. She is precise and rich in her descriptions of landmarks and parks, gardens and bars. She can be surreal and playful as when “night comes galloping” like a “giraffe.”

 In “Winter Night Poem” (there are actually several with that title), Kraman envies the “tottering sky / from which the eyes of the dull winter night / stare down without blinking.” Her address reveals loneliness, but triumphs in expressing the inviolable core within.

A poet must be in total touch with her medium. In the end, the words lead to an epiphany. Kraman sees her “shadow… / cast across the page like a crab moving / Sideways, in the same place only further along.” And that’s very moving.

Geoffrey Gatza
Housecat Kung Fu: Strange Poems for Wild Children
(Meritage Press, 2009)

Aesop, Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, and Gertrude Stein went on a picnic and conscribed Geoffrey Gatza to be their scribe and compatriot. Gatza’s strange hybrid poems are wild, but tempered by the fire of their faux- childish purview.

The table of contents is a veritable bestiary. A  “Giraffe” walks through “the resident quilted trees.” In “Hyena,” souls fall “burning under a trumpet veil.” A zany zest percolates throughout as Gatza spins his rapid-fire reports.

Gatza allows his muse to tell delightful tales with mellifluous lists of mock seriousness. What starts with the venerable semblance of a proper children’s poem quickly skews toward musical phrasing, linguistics, philosophy, and integrated hyperbole.

“Hortense Hippopotamus” begins with a wry adage: “A lot can happen between the cup and the upper lip.”

In “Lorikeet Landing” a bird asks for a multitude of (often-rhyming) things: “a swimming tree… sand from Waikiki” and a “mystical flying mare.” Gatza manufactures generous textures.

Despite a dark streak, the poems tend toward the luminous. The strategy is quaint and avant at the same time. “A cub could understand but an old lion cannot.”

Immediate and intimate, Gatza’s poems forge an effective new genre-bending empire. Children (and “grownups”) who are lucky enough to read them will be ever after under their spell.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2010

All Issues