October 2014-February 2015 RSS feed for this section

L. Ward Abel

The Tao of Barbour County

          I’d like you to pray for me. – George Wallace to Jesse Jackson, 1987

Barbour County roads all led down to the river
past bad times at both ends. Two catastrophes plus
the boll weevil and revenge would later ricochet blowback
firing weapons with uses beyond the then present
technology, when scars ran wet and black smoke obscured
the noose the poplar the walnut the water oak of Chattahoochee Valley.

Revolution always has a scapegoat. Still, defeat carries a responsibility
because the defeated often direct the conversation for good or not.
Abject poverty was on both sides of the issue because everyone lost
his ass, and some never recovered except darkly, through ideology
straight lines and victims in rooms; those same victims,
though much transformed, who by equal hatred, unforgiveness,
used night against the other.

It was into such a world of the defeated and easy targets that Wallace was born.
Vicarified memories of foreign occupation, a nation, a culture fallen,
recharging its wrath like old batteries to inflict retribution where woods begin,
where it’s hard if not impossible to see after sundown. 
That’s why people look for fires after dark. Sometimes it’s for survival.

Lake Eufaula at night proves it. Proves that peace is something
separate from people. As George passed by the fields
the woods ripe for breeze, or seeing muddy roads or broken rocks,
there was a storm in his mind, an out-of-focus broil with glad-handed
self-evidence, logic in loops.  The lake was calm many a night
while he raged and screamed to Yahweh. But God chooses sides.

Maltreatment begets equal opposite causes if born in vengeance,
compromises the Christian way, as up is down and right is not.
Yet, like blue sky in a rainstorm, there’s always the firefly:
millions combined can light up fields together;  a solitary one can
give a point of reference for those without due process, hope,
confused by the facts, disappointed by ideals, who wrongly
dismiss the healing properties of light.

So eras begin. Damaged ones like his. Yes, revenge times. They start from  
ruin received, grow in the womb of blood like spinal cord bullets,
live among putrefied soldiers lying along fence lines.
But they always end with a come-to-Jesus moment,
when clarity and wisdom coincide even if for a nanosecond,
and the parted clouds allow the model for all music to transcend.
When a man like George Wallace, the Tzu Lao of sinners,
is forced to greet his wounded opposite on the fall line. 
And in that radiance they finally pray together.



The Stealth Center

You passed over the mile-wide river
like a dandelion bird
lighter than weather and longer lived.
I decided to follow along.
No one even noticed us.
Just think, I thought,
here we are the center of everything
but through without a stir.
Before then I was sure I could elevate
the conversation.  Later though
I grew more accustomed to listening.


L. Ward Abel, poet, composer and performer of music (Abel, Rawls & Hayes), teacher, retired lawyer, lives in rural Georgia, has been published hundreds of times in print and online, and is the author of Peach Box and Verge (Little Poem Press, 2003), Jonesing For Byzantium (UK Authors Press, 2006), The Heat of Blooming (Pudding House Press, 2008), Torn Sky Bleeding Blue (erbacce-Press, 2010), American Bruise (Parallel Press, 2012), Cousins Over Colder Fields (Finishing Line Press, 2013), and Roseorange(Flutter Press, 2013).


published 2014 by Sybaritic Press 
188 pages
order a copy here


Learn and run.  – Dawn


(The actual review follows this section.)

Finding Octavia

Anybody who grew up with Star Wars should be a science fiction fan. The adult intellectual in me appreciates the mixtures of Kurosawa, Flash Gordon and archetypal mythology in original trilogy, but the evergreen child in me still thrills at the ultra-exoticism, dashing heroes and ultimately doomed villains. Next to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars has become the sci-fi nucleus for cinema, and my adoration of films such as Alien, Solaris (1972), Vanilla Sky, Europa Report, Gravity and the Matrix trilogy stems from that original childhood fascination.

As for sci-fi/speculative literature, I’m not an especial fan, and though I’ve stuff by Robert Asprin, Alan Dean Foster, A.C. Crispin, Isaac Asimov, Tim Sullivan, William Gibson, Philip K. Dick, Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven (The Mote in God’s Eye is a masterpiece) and Arthur C. Clarke under my belt, my few favorites have been, are and always will be Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Michael Moorcock. From now on Octavia Butler will be included in that few. A huge honorable mention goes to C.S. Lewis’ underrated space trilogy, which includes Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength.  In fact, much of Butler’s imagery and tone brought Perelandra to my mind more than a few times.

Though I’m familiar with works of some black writers who contributed to the sci-fi genre (including W.E.B. DuBois’ “The Comet” in Darkwater, Virginia Hamilton’s The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl, Sam Delany’s books, and even George Schuyler’s Black No More – which could have inspired Dr. Seuss’ The Sneetches), I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m relatively new to Octavia Butler. Many may blame this on her unlikely gender and race in a literary genre that tends to be manned by, well, men – and many who happen to be non-black.  I don’t think so, but nor do I care. However, in order to have more authority to even think of writing a review of Near Kin, I insisted on familiarizing myself with Butler’s books, including Kindred, Survivor (the novel Butler herself repudiated), Parable of the Talents, Fledgling and Dawn. During my power-reading I also watched and read Butler interviews, as well as explored some related criticism. Needless to say, I was quite impressed, not to mention predisposed to be able to listen to her voice for three week’s straight if ever necessary. And her face. Butler had a remarkable face.

I picked Kindred as my virgin voyage since I’m a fool for almost anything to do with time travel. Back to the Future is my mini-religion, and Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys continues to fascinate me. I’m even one of the few goofballs on this planet who love that 1994 Van Damme stinker, Time CopKindred is up there with books such as Jack Finney’s Time and Again and Time After Time (of which Butler’s book reminds me), Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand, and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (which had to have been partly influenced by Butler’s novel).  It cleverly and bravely takes time-travel literature to a different level by locating the main (and only) past location in the pre-Civil War South, smack-dab in the midst of American slavery, one of the most atrocious stains on U.S. history, not to mention world history. 

The central protagonist, Dana, is torn from the 1970s to 1815 Maryland every time Rufus, the son of a plantation/slave owner, is in mortal danger as he matures from boy to man. Dana learns that Rufus’s existence is crucial to her own existence, since he eventually impregnates Alice, a slave, with a daughter who Dana’s key maternal ancestor. This is one of many examples of Butler’s interest in symbiosis rather than black-and-white (so to speak) user/used dichotomy. Like Marty McFly in Back to the Future, Dana must act in her own ultimate self-interest: set up the eventuality of her own birth. She does succeed – with a price. Aside from learning first-hand that whites and blacks are inexorable in U.S. history, she literally leaves part of herself in that sinful, horrible era, and that era marks her with the truth of that past for the rest of her days. On the final return from the past, her arm becomes fused with a wall and must be amputated for removal.

Which brings us to the elephant that seems to be in every room in which books by black authors are read: race. Honestly, like John Coltrane, I like to judge an artist by his or her “sound” rather than skin color or heritage, and I’ve long since grown bored with the artistic segregation of so-called black literature, no matter how good the intentions for such a categorization are. Black History Month is twelve months long.

There shall be and should be no forgetting of American slavery, but there are those who question how long society should wear its sackcloth in morose memory of that mass sin. That question oversimplifies the matter. Kindred’s Dana says to her husband at one point: “You’d think I would have had enough of the past,” but as she becomes more and more immersed in the real history of her doomed ancestors, she realizes that it’s not necessarily a one-sided decision. As the line goes in P.T. Anderson’s film masterpiece, Magnolia, “we may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” “I want to suggest that history is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history” James Baldwin write in “Black English: A Dishonest Argument.” Atrocity stains deeply; it cries from the soil. This is why Faulkner was obsessed with his Southern heritage that belonged to both free whites and captive blacks.

While Sori, the female protagonist in Fledgling, Butler’s vampire novel, seeks to restore the lost memory of her past, Dana’s ancestral past is forced on her by inexplicable circumstances. With her direct experience and undeniable knowledge of such barbarism, she is no longer content in her relatively civilized, sanitized present:

“You might be able to go through this whole experience as an observer…But now and then…I can’t maintain the distance.  I’m drawn all the way into eighteen nineteen, and I don’t know what to do.  I ought to be doing something.  I know that.”

The sin of slavery (which was once Earth’s norm, and is still aching in the human heart to reign again) is as worthy of reiteration and analysis as the Shoah, but there shouldn’t be some unwritten rule that black writers must always address the “black experience” in her or his works any more than every Jewish writer needs to write a Holocaust book. Yes, “racial” writers often pigeonhole themselves, but narrowing Octavia Butler’s awesome contribution to science fiction down to the rarity of her race and gender in the sci-fi field just sucks. “Black history” is inexorable from American history; “black art” is inexorable from American art; Butlerian sci-fi is inexorable from American sci-fi. Butler certainly tends to focus on race both literally and symbolically in her work, but her overall theme is humanity and what it is to be human – and this takes place in particular individuals rather than representative masses. When Joan Fry wondered about using the term “black” or “African American” in an interview with Butler, Butler exclaimed, “Oh, Lord!  Labels again!” Her primary goal was to write a good story, but her work has more than one level, and some of those levels certainly play with issues of being black and the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade. “I have no idea who picks up on them and who doesn’t,” Butler said. “I think some of the academics do, because they expect you to do things like that.”

In a 1963 interview Ralph Ellison said that “all novels are about certain minorities; the individual is a minority.” Ayn Rand said as much in her famous “The smallest minority on earth is the individual” line. “If the Negro, or any other writer, is going to do what is expected of him,” Ellison went on to say, “he’s lost the battle before he takes the field.” He also summed up what I’ve come to believe and what Kindred and many of Butler’s other books seem to imply: “One ironic witness to the beauty and universality of this art is the fact that the descendants of the very men who enslaved us can now sing the spirituals and find in the singing an exaltation of their own humanity.” This is why nobody owns the blues and everybody owns the blues. And why jazz (that messiah of the prophet blues), is as ubiquitously American as superhero comic books.

A very refreshing aspect of Butler’s insight into race is her fairness about who can exhibit racist or, at least, prejudicial behavior. We tend to always hear about white people who find interracial dating and marriage odious, but what’s behind closed doors of the black family is rarely revealed. Often, what both old-fashioned white and black fathers can agree on for sure is that they don’t want their kids hooking up with each other. In Kindred, Dana, a black woman, asks Kevin, a white man, what his sister thinks of the prospect of their matrimony.  He admits that she, despite her liberal sensibilities, disapproves – but soon we learn that so does Dana’s uncle and, to a lesser degree, her aunt:

“She doesn’t care much for white people, but she prefers light-skinned blacks.  Figure that out.  Anyway, she ‘forgives’ me for you.  But my uncle doesn’t…He wants me to marry someone like him – someone who looks like him.  A black man.”

This honest revelation reminds me of the black side of the conflict in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. John Prentice, Jr., played by Sidney Poitier, rejects his father’s old-fashioned prejudice against his loving and wanting to marry a white woman – and self-prejudice: “You think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.”

In a critical essay on Kindred, Robert Crossley (University of Massachusetts at Boston) does a brief but worthy study of the book.However, he loses me when he says things such as this: “Some of [science fiction in the 1940s and 1950s] was provocatively racist, including Robert Heinlein’s The Sixth Column (1949), whose protagonist in a future race war was unsubtly named Whitey.” First of all, a scholar spieling about sci-fi literature should be a little more nuanced and less obtuse. Secondly, I think it’s ironic that Butler probably owes a lot to Heinlein. I almost refuse to doubt that she read his Methuselah’s Children, for instance. The controversial Farnham’s Freehold (1965) was not his story to begin with. Rather, it was a cleanup job for a story called “All” by science-fiction editor John W. Campbell, who undeniably had some pretty problematic views on race and blacks in particular. Far from originating a racist tale, Heinlein actually reformed the story in order to flush out a lot of racist elements. The race stuff that’s left shows bigotry on both the heroes’ and enemies’ sides, particularly on the part of the PanAsians who consider themselves the superior race and view white folks as slaves. Politically incorrect by today’s standards, the characters’ epithets and jingoism (again, from both sides) can be offensive, but this was published during World War II, while suspicion of the Chinese and Japanese was high and, ironically, shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor fulfilled a surprise attack by Asians that the book prefigured.

Heinlein was very conscientious about racism, and a lot of his positive characters were of non-white descent (Rico, the Filipino of the popularly misunderstood Starship Troopersto name one). Farnham’s Freehold, which reiterates the Sixth Column theme of an enemy that thinks it’s the superior race, is often slammed for emphasizing racist stereotypes despite its apparent anti-racist premise. A manmade cataclysm causes a warp in time that relocates Hugh Farnham and his family about 2,000 years in the future. A dystopia in which whites (called “savages”) are victims of oppressive racism is run by a regime made up of a conglomeration of non-Caucasian races, the Chosen, who inherited the world whites destroyed (an ironic prefigurement of Manson’s warped Helter Skelter eschatology).

Some critics point to the cannibalism of the Chosen to be racist in its echoing of black-as-savage paranoia. (My mind goes to the misinterpretation of Evelyn Waugh’s Black Mischief, which satirized aristocratic white liberals rather than denigrated African natives.) One of the points of the book is that humanity at large tends to slip into such madness when power corrupts; the violent and abusive wheel turns. I’d bet that many of the folks who disdain Farnham’s Freehold wouldn’t be so fastidious about, say, Darius James’ rather insane Negrophobia, or by Bernardine Evaristo’s re-imaging of American slavery in Blonde Roots (2010), a novel that depicts whites being kidnapped and taken to the made-up continent of Aphrika to be enslaved and dehumanized in every way Africans were during the real thing. The female protagonist is branded with “KKK” (for Kaga Konata Katamba, her black master’s name) and forced to serve as a “house wigger.”

Consider the female protagonist in Heinlein’s masterful Friday (1982). Friday is an Artificial Person (AP), probably genetically engineered, who is an agent fulfilling clandestine missions for a wisecracking old genius known to her as Boss. She’s indistinguishable from actual humans except in physical prowess, resistance to pain, deadliness and mental acuity. The question of what is human and who is equal pops up again and again throughout the novel, and Friday becomes rather sensitive about implied and overt discrimination against APs as the story progresses. When her secret is revealed to her human polygamist family, one of a few sister wives castigates Friday for deceiving them: “I’ve never had to deal with a creature not of God’s Law before…[U]nder our laws…a nonhuman cannot enter into a marriage contract with human beings.” Before this blowup, Friday defends a stepdaughter’s decision to marry a Tongan man. Sister-wife Vicki states her case plainly: “Mixing the races is always a bad idea.” And Friday, deflated, replies: “You don’t know any better. You’ve never been anywhere and you probably soaked up racism with your mother’s milk.”

I can’t help but think of a similar passage from Octavia Butler’s Survivor, in which a character named Bea suggests that Neila, the stepmother of mixed-race protagonist Alanna, should consider allowing the child to be raised by “her own kind.” Neila, of course, is appalled.

The older woman sighed. “Oh, my. I knew this was going to be difficult. But, Neila, the girl isn’t white.”

“She’s Afro-Asian from what she says of her parents. Black father, Asian mother.”…

…”I thought that after you’d had a few days with the girl, you might… reconsider.”

There was the sound of Neila’s laughter. “Come to my senses, you mean.”

“That’s exactly what I mean!” snapped the older woman. “Several of us feel that you and Jules ought to be setting a better example for the young people here – not encouraging them to mix…”

In the world of Heinlein’s Friday, human suspicion of Artificial Persons serves as a metaphor for racism, obviously, but, more importantly, Boss’s repeated admonishments against Friday’s self-consciousness of artificiality are an excellent example of science fiction’s – certainly Octavia Butler’s – tendency to kick at basic traditional foundations to the point of extending “humanity” beyond “homo sapiens.” When Boss makes a comment about Friday’s birthright, she corrects him:

“Birthright.”  Don’t make jokes, Boss…‘My mother was a test tube, my father was a knife.’”

“You are being foolishly self-conscious over an impediment that was removed years ago.”

“Am I?  The courts say I can’t be a citizen; the churches say I don’t have a soul.  I’m not ‘man born of woman,’ at least not in the eyes of the law.”

“’The law is an ass’…You are not only as human as Mother Eve, you are an enhanced human, as nearly perfect as your designers could manage.”

Again and again questions of the essence of humanity, genetics, cross-breeding, evolution and tension between the familiar and the Other dominate most science fiction, often with the intensity and radicalism found in, say, Donna Haraway’s breakthrough posthumanist essay, A Cyborg Manifesto. Another very successful and ingenious science-fiction author, Samuel Delany (whose novels Octavia Butler could never get into, by the way), takes these themes to the nth degree in his complex novel The Einstein Intersection (1967): genetically dynamic and volatilely mutating aliens take over a humanless Earth and try their damnedest to reach and maintain some sort of “normal” physical form and society, in emulation of the long-gone humans and their cultural scraps. This results in exploration of difference, the Other, assimilation, humanity, and the weird drama of DNA. As in Butler’s books, and perhaps more so, these themes needn’t be relegated to the black/white dichotomy. Believe it or not, more than black writers are concerned with these things. Humans are concerned with these things.

Butler has some pretty stark pet themes in her novels: problematic religions, captivity, pivotal female characters, characters raging against impossible odds and so on. But the problem of familiar versus Other (usually human versus superhuman or alien and explored through the literal and symbolic act of miscegenation, which dear William Faulkner beat almost to death in his wonderful masterpieces and less-worthy works) seems to be the deepest theme. Nikanj, a key alien in Dawn, the first novel in Butler’s Xenogensis series, says that “different is threatening to most species. Different is dangerous. It might kill you.”

Obviously the theme of the Other is prime ground for addressing racial barriers, and there have been many books that involve characters of the black and white races role-reversing in order to reveal something about what it’s like to be the Other, usually for the sake of imparting empathy and tolerance – even love – if not just holding a mirror up to what’s considered to be a self-blind racist society. Several examples include Mark Twain’s Puddn’head Wilson (1894), James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), George Schuyler’s Black No More (1931), John Griffin’s true-life Black Like Me (1961), and Bernardine Evaristo’s Blonde Roots (2010).

I must admit that Butler’s attention to color, kind, insider/outsider, etc., borders on tiresome but never really elicits more than a half-humorous eye roll. Oh, Shori is the only black vampire among the Ina kind in Fledgling? And Ina are otherwise invariably chalk-white and blonde? What a surprise. The more interesting thing is that Sori must be told she is black, similarly to how Adam and Eve are said to have not known their own nakedness in Eden until the Serpent spilled the beans. A passage from Fledgling:

He started to leave, then turned back, frowning. “Ordinary sun exposure burns your skin even though you’re black?”

“I’m…” I stopped. I had been about to protest that I was brown, not black, but before I could speak, I understood what he meant.

Days of Future Passed by Cacy Forgenie

Much to my delight, it seems that Butler is too wisely pessimistic to believe in utopia as curative for human ills such as race-based prejudice.  Instead, she acknowledges more genuine and palatable microcosmic healing rather than macrocosmic schemes.  “It’s safer for people to overcome the feeling on an individual basis than as members of a large group,” said Ralph Ellison. How true. The breakdown of societal walls happens bit by bit and episode by episode. More generally, sincere love between humans happens on a heart-to-heart basis rather than by lofty edict. Neighborhoods on the sides of railroad tracks will always self-isolate while the brave and curious individuals who dare walk across those tracks will find that neighborhoods also can be neighbors.

Such microcosmic success is shown in the sexual intercourse between and marriage of human Lanna and alien Diut in Survivor. I always say that miscegenation is one of the keys to dampening racism, and here it is analogized in the love between different species. Aside from the hateful rivalry between two communities of the Kohn species (Garkohn and Tehkohn), tribal intractability is overtly shown in tension between Lanna and her Missionary foster father, Jules.  Lanna reveals her coupling with Diut, and, despite his basic kindness and goodwill, Jules can’t justify these things with his Missionary religion. He questions the existential worth of the Tehkohn in general. In response Lanna insists on the “humanity” of her husband’s kind: “You know how human they are.” And Octavia Butler’s recurring problem with monotheism is evident in Jules’s reply:

“Physically humanlike, perhaps.  But spiritually…what god do they worship?”


“On Earth, even the most primitive savages recognize some supreme being or beings, some power higher than themselves.”

“That might be true – on Earth.”

“Only animals were completely without spiritual beliefs.”

“On Earth!”

In Dawn protagonist Lilith is horrified by a master plan of joint procreation of hybrid children between captive humans and captor aliens. (The consequences of this master plan are shown in Adulthood Rites and Imago, and the Patternist series and Fledgling, also involve the theme of genetic manipulation and human evolution.) Loss of true humanity is what Lilith fears while her alien counterpart, Nikanj, thrills at the intended result:

“Our children will be better than either of us…Our children won’t destroy themselves in a war, and if they need to regrow a limb or to change themselves in some other way they’ll be able to do it.”

Lilith speaks for every anti-utopian when she replies:

“But they won’t be human. That’s what matters. You can’t understand, but that is what matters.”

As Nikanj observed earlier in the novel, humans “are horror and beauty in rare combination.” (I’m reminded of something Dmitri says in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”) This sums up the basic catch-22 that arises in all worthy dystopian works: the folly of throwing the baby out with the bathwater in the quest for perfection, absolute equality, and peace. In A Clockwork Orange, Alex’s Skinnerian/Pavlovian conditioning squeezes out his love of music, particularly Beethoven. In the superior 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers film love is the bathwater baby. Consider the eerie assurance of body-snatched Dr. Kibner: “We don’t hate you.  There’s no need for hate now. Or love… Don’t be trapped by old concepts, Matthew, you’re evolving into a new life-form.” Even if some type of conditioning or deep sacrifice of human nature could vanquish racism Butler would reject it. “Ridiculous” was the word she used to describe utopias, and she admitted that perfect societies not only require perfect people but they’d be boring if achieved.

Of course, racists see race mixture as something just as extreme and traumatic as body-snatching. Consider many of the Nazis’ obsession with blood and eugenics, or Nation of Islam founder Fard’s tale of mad-scientist Yakub and the lab-originated white-devil race. The old “one-drop rule” is still alive and well in the world, particularly in America, and its “positive” mask hardly hides the basic racism. All racial chauvinism is poison.

It takes no genius to realize that Butler’s work tends to bring to mind the slave-narrative tradition. Characters face and work through captivity; some are even actual slaves. Novels such as Mind of My Mind, Survivor and The Parable of the Talents recapitulate the author’s fascination and concern with oppression, power and control. The recent film adaptation of 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup’s factual account of his kidnapping and unlawful sale into Southern slavery back in the 1850s, pleased me very much with its accuracy and near-verbatim treatment of the author’s confounding and deeply touching testimony. Reading of Kindred’s Dana’s struggle to get a letter that could lead to her manumission reminded me of the Northup book. And Butler’s Parable of the Talents (whose obnoxious journal format and monotony had me trudging uphill to its ending) deals with a future slavery rather than a past one. 

Lauren Oya Olamina, co-narrator of the book (along with her daughter many years later), “hyperempath,” ex-Baptist (like Butler herself) and founder of a philosophy/religion called Earthseed, keeps a secret account during her people’s captivity under the fanatical (and annoyingly caricatured) Christian Crusade in a manner similar to Solomon Northup’s clandestine letter-writing:  “I’ve hidden my writing paper, pens and pencils away in our prison room.” (Captive Lilith in Dawn also lobbies strongly for writing materials.) Olamina voices the general anguish of enslaved people and the particular injustice of violently amputating Africans’ heritage after bringing them to the so-called New World:

We’re expected to feed ourselves and our captors.  They eat better than we do, of course…They’ve burned all that they could find of our past.  It’s all ungodly trash, they say.

The imagined sci-fi future echoes and speaks for the real-world past, and Olamina reveals the deep price for both manumission and diaspora:

But we’re not slaves anymore…I’ve done this: I’ve sent my people away. We survived slavery together, but I didn’t believe that we could survive freedom together. I broke up the Earthseed community and sent its parts in all directions. I believe it was the right thing to do, but I can hardly bear to think about it…I’ve torn a huge hole in myself.

This figurative hole reminds me of the figurative and literal maiming of Dana at the end of Kindred. Butler explained her choice to have Dana lose her arm:

I couldn’t really let her come all the way back. I couldn’t let her return to what she was, I couldn’t let her come back whole and that, I think, really symbolizes her not coming back whole. Antebellum slavery didn’t leave people quite whole.

There is no total solution to the insoluble fact of atrocity and humans’ inhumanity to humans. And, as far as Butler is concerned, without a doubt, the answer certainly doesn’t lie in monotheistic religion, Christianity in particular. (Robert Heinlein also tends to sneer at religious fundamentalism, especially in Revolt in 2100, which features a dictatorial regime called the Theocracy.) Though her Baptist past informs her and a lot of her criticism of organized religion is right on and inarguable, much of Butler’s characterizations strike me as oversimplified and hackneyed. An odious creep named Andrew Jarrett – who’s from Texas, of course – embodies the Christian Crusade, a regime that is extremely oppressive and self-righteous as much as self-blind, an extreme and meaner version of Survivor’s Missionary sect. 

The religion (non-religion?) of Earthseed, which is in tune with the natural unfolding of things and therefore right (a notion that is a distant cousin to de Sade’s nihilistic determinism, really) is pitted against the rather sophomoric Christian-chauvinist dystopia that has about as little real-world possibility as do Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta. “God is Change” sums up the credo of Earthseed, and a lot of bubblegum religiosity and what I call Zen-lite flows from that.  Earthseed encourages adherents to help give shape to constant change, and doubters or Christians are seen as dumb dams butting up against creative rivers. Tellingly, Olamina negatively recalls a sermon from her childhood that hailed Jesus, who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever.” In Earthseed terms, the static Jesus is the opposite of God.

Olamina’s condescending brother protests: “You can follow Earthseed, build your way to go to the stars, fall down into chaos, and wind up in hell! Or you can follow the will of God.” And her friend Dan typifies the closed-minded, condescending Christian dogmatist: “It isn’t really religious – your service, I mean.  You guys don’t believe in God or anything.” Personally, I shy away from both dogmatism and naturalism. I appreciate – need, can’t help but be both an agent and subject of – change, but I’m a willy-nilly child who doesn’t wish to have a willy-nilly parent, a wobbly wheel that wants a stable drivetrain. Improved civil rights is change, yes, but so are cataclysm and cancer.

G.K. Chesterton wrote that “satire may be mad and anarchic, but it presupposes an admitted superiority in certain things over others; it presupposes a standard.” Can’t that be applied to just about anything? Can change be change without a flux-resistant thing or concept? In a similar vein G.K. wrote: “[Y]ou cannot praise an action because it shows will; for to say that is merely to say that it is an action.” If God is change and change is God, then I’d hate to meet the devil.

I don’t want my personal thumbs down to ruin my praise for Octavia Butler, however. She belongs on the bookshelves of anyone who loves good science fiction and excellent literature in general. As author DL Warner says in Near Kin, “[Butler] presented universal themes on a down-to-earth level.” That’s Butler’s greatest strength, I think.  The bottom (bottomless?) line for Butler is the question of humanity. What constitutes a human? What makes certain types of humans “worth more” than others? What happens when “human” is a judgment call made by beings – human or not – in power or with more power? In a sense, these are the same questions involved in thinking through the age-old institution of slavery – and I dare say that no eras of that once worldwide institution have been written of and studied more than the American one. This is just another reason to consider Butler a dyed-in-the-wool American writer, and a darn important one at that.


Near Kin

To be honest, I’m usually not a fan of tribute anthologies.  Here’s what I wrote at the beginning of my review of From the Four-Chambered Heart: In Tribute to Anais Nin (another anthology published by Sybaritic Press):

Having heard and been disappointed by my share of tribute music albums, I often approach tribute literature with a grain of salt in one hand and keep the other hand free just in case I have to yawn.  Maybe this attitude stems from my lifelong indifference to dressing up for Halloween, and emulous songs or writings seem like costumes rather than unique ensembles.

However, I ended up appreciating that book and speaking very highly of it, and I’m pleased to do the same for Near Kin: A Collection of Words and Art Inspired by Octavia Estelle Butler.  The book is the only of its kind, as far as I can tell.  When I first heard of the book, I wondered who the heck came up with the idea to do such an unlikely tribute.  But that’s just what Near Kin’s charm is: someone showed due respect to Octavia Butler, and it’s about damn time! 

Marie Lecrivain, poet, author, editor-in-chief of poeticdiversity and “editrix” of Sybaritic Press, edited the anthology and wrote its foreword in which she praises “[Butler’s] scary and wonderful worlds” and “her vision, bravery, artistry, and…her wish to fashion a better world than the one we live in now.”  Mentioning Butler’s accomplishment of becoming the first black woman to win a MacArthur Genius grant, Marie makes sure to emphasize the author’s expertise rather over her genetic makeup: “I briefly pondered Butler’s racial origin, then cast it aside…I loved her writing!”  This calls to my mind something that Ralph Ellison wrote in “The World and the Jug”: “While I am without a doubt a Negro, and a writer, I am also an American writer.”  Marie reveals that Dawn is the book that inspired her to explore more of Butler’s work.  I can see why.  The book is extraordinary.  (I am disappointed, however, that Marie didn’t include her own work in this collection.)

As with the Nin anthology, I can take or leave the interspersed illustrations and photographs in Near Kin – which is not to say that I don’t dig them.  My favorites include Cacy Forgenie’s Days of Future Past and Justus (the front-cover image), Lance Tooks’ Kindred (taken from the front cover of his graphic-novel adaptation of the novel), Fabiola Jean-Louis’ lovely Balance and Birth of the Seed (which is on the cover of the Kindle edition of the book) and Marissa Lafferty’s Space Lady (which looks like a sci-fi version of Josephine Baker).   I do think that I’d be more partial to the inclusion of the visual art if color printing and/or glossiness had been feasible or affordable.  Fabiola’s paintings could have especially shined.

Though I liked some pieces more than others in Near Kin, I must congratulate every contributor for her or his enthusiasm and care for the inspiring author.  Octavia Butler deserves both the admiration and emulation.  The works range from intentionally derivative to very vague (as far as reference to Butlerian writing goes), and I have to say that perhaps I appreciated the stuff in between those poles. 

The prose piece that impressed me the most is Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ “A Litany for Survivor: The Book That Octavia Didn’t Want Us to Remember,” the text of a presentation done at UC Riverside’s Critical Ethnic Studies: Settler Colonialism and the Future of Genocide in 2011.  The essay, on the whole, is excellent, though I diverge from some of its core notions.  Gumbs shares some theories on why Butler ended up repudiating Survivor and wanted it to fade away.  Her first guess is that the author shied away from the premise of humans living among “a somewhat humanoid species of folks who are hairy, and deep blue, or green.”  Then she reiterates what is probably the most popular theory (since Butler herself expressed it): that the author was ashamed of the “little green man in outer space” cliché.  Finally Gumbs builds on the initial theory and wonders if Butler feared “danger in a racist society” in response to depicting the communal, “very hairy” and “darkest blue people had the most power.” 

First of all, I can’t accept Butler’s own “little green man” rationale.  It’s so weak and unsubstantiated, since so many of her books star the equivalents of little green men, and so does the science-fiction tradition in general.  And the basic things that save any sci-fi work from failure due to the “little green man” cliché are a good story and good writing.  Butler had both of those locked.

I also reject the fear that a majority of white society (“vastly racist” is problematic) would scorn or, at least, ignore, a science-fiction novel in which the most endowed beings have a lot of hair and dark colors.  Here’s how Gumbs puts it: “[Butler] feared the blacker-the-berry logic she employed would be misinterpreted.”  On the contrary, I doubt that, by the time of Survivor’s publication, the majority of contemporary readers, particularly sci-fi fans, were so meticulously bigoted as to be insulted that gorilla-like beings that constantly change colors (note: including bright ones) were physically stronger and more savvy than white colonists on another planet in some fantastic existence.  That’s a stretch I can’t accept.  (The popular Planet of the Apes movies had just culminated five years earlier, after all.)  If anything, wouldn’t the scenario of a black woman repeatedly saving, castigating and eventually killing a white man incense racist whites and also render the Kindred novel unsavory in Butler’s eyes?  I just don’t think she had such a weakness in her.  (And I think hairiness occurs among both blacks and whites.)

However, I’m somewhat in accord with Gumbs’ thoughts about “commodification of black women’s creativity” and her note that Butler herself worried about being “tokenized.”  (Humorous aside for Survivor fans: one might say that Alanna wasTehkohnized.)  Gumbs points out that Butler was frustrated by apparently being “the only black woman science fiction writer” and encouraged others like her to get into the genre.  That’s understandable, but I think too much of a big deal is made about quantification of kinds in different fields.   Not every low count is an unjust or undue dearth.  Often it’s a matter of cultural patterns.  Why does there seem to be a preponderance of Jewish people in comedy?  Why are there so many Hispanic males and so relatively few women in comic-book art?  And, at the risk of flippancy, I ask: why else are there so few hockey players of Asian descent?  

Gumbs does go into the chronic tragedy of an alarming number of black women being slain in their own communities back in the 1970s, particularly in 1972 Boston, as well as the 1979 Atlanta Child Murders.  She ties the outrage and ignited activism of many black women to the term “survivor” and wonders if the connotation of that word soured Butler to the very title of her novel.  The word is justifiably more important to Gumbs and black female activists, I think, because in a racial context it not only defines those who stand against and live in spite of racial oppression, but, as Gumbs says:

By claiming my survival, and my survivorhood, I’m placing my life in the context of our collective dead whom genocide sought, and seeks to destroy, but cannot erase, because I’m here continuing to witness our dead by saying, I am a survivor.  Saying “I am a survivor,” is a ritual that invites the dead to continue participating in the creation of the present moment, and the future.

A powerful thought indeed.  Butler didn’t think that blacks had made peace with themselves, and whites still had yet to make peace with blacks, but, as Gumbs admits, Butler isn’t on record as addressing this angle in regard to her apparent disdain for Survivor at all.  However, there is one thing Butler said that comes close to what Gumbs posits.  While discussing the irresponsible behavior of the black man who’s paired with Lilith for sexual intercourse by the Oankali, she explained that “his situation is reminis­cent of the survival characteristics that black people developed as a result of slavery, characteristics that were useful in slavery but detrimental later.”  Perhaps the old but persistent and now negative modes of survival ruin “survivor” as a positive term?

I’m in line perfectly with Gumbs when it comes to desiring that others read Survivor though its author wouldn’t want them to.  Of this artistic violation we are both complicit.  Do we know better than Butler?  Is Gumbs seeing the novel’s worth in regard to black heritage and “keep on keeping on” in the face of hatred and obliteration, while I see so much more than a Star Trek novel and think that Survivor is an integral piece of the Butlerian puzzle?  Whatever, Survivor survived death, even after its very creator tried to kill it.  And now the book continues as a witness to the deceased author, inviting her to participate “in the creation of the present moment, and the future,” as Gumbs puts it.  Similar to Dana’s wall-fused arm in Kindred, it seems that the novel stays with us despite its artistic amputation by the author.

(By the way, I also agree with Gumbs when she says “I really don’t think the way she writes dialogue is all that convincing, or great.”  This was particularly strong for me in the speech of the characters from 1815 in Kindred.)

Another favorite piece in Near Kin is DL Warner’s “Identity,” which is a brief essay on how Octavia Butler inspired embracement of her identity and to apply that identity honestly and fearlessly to her own writing.  Warner is always outspoken about her belief that well-written erotica deserves more respect than it gets.  I agree with her wholeheartedly.  While explicit violence is overlooked or justified in the critical world, explicit and unconventional sexuality tends to be shunned or minimized as pornography. 

Comic-book maestro Alan Moore and feminist artist Melinda Gebbie collaborated on the epic graphic-novel series, Lost Girls, in order to counter the prejudice against erotic art in both the written and visual fields.  X-rated and then some, the result is a delicious, surreal and mores-traumatizing explosion: literary, contextual and high-quality, which is what Moore and Gebbie intended, and what DL Warner also intends.

Warner relates an incident that happened while Warner participated on a Star Trek panel in which a snooty sci-fi novelist objected to her calling the Trek universe on its frigidity, its lack of sexuality.  When he quipped that injecting sex into science fiction didn’t make her “a second rate Octavia Butler,” she replied that just as “being brown, female and a sci-fi writer” didn’t necessarily warrant identification with Butler, “his being pale and doughy [didn’t make] him Alfred Hitchcock.”  I hope she took a bow after that one!  However, Pasty Doughboy unwittingly emboldened her trust in her art. Considering Butler’s pride in her subject matter, Warner decided to forge ahead without shame or shyness about her own work: “Thus, I stepped out of the shadows, assumed my true identity and hid my erotica no longer…I am forever grateful to Octavia Butler for that freedom.”

Well, DL Warner has to like M. Justine Gerard’s very erotic “Small Talk,” which is one of my two favorite fiction pieces in Near Kin.  It’s a subtle sci-fi story that takes place in a society that puts a premium on speech.  Yes, speech.  Forget the saying “Look but don’t touch.”  This story involves “Look, touch – but don’t talk.”  A man named Niall propositions a reluctant prostitute named Benaya, and the reader eventually learns that in this society citizens can tongue-kiss and engage in oral, anal and any other kind of sex – but conduct no conversation.  This law isn’t obvious until the end of the story, which makes its assault on our talkative sensibilities that much more impactful.  For example, not knowing the clever gimmick until later, one might be both confused and curious during the preliminary “interview” between Benaya and Niall:











He smiled.  She realized Niall was teasing her.


Red flag.  Benaya raised an eyebrow.

“No,” she declared.

If Niall had asked “Talk?” there wouldn’t have been as much mystery, since it’d be understandable that a prostitute would want to avoid much verbal involvement.  But “Words?” is an odder request.  Niall might be interested in tongue-kissing and both oral and anal sex, but he requests words specifically – without joking.  In fact, the request worries Benaya.  Why?  The no-words concept is quite clever in its playing with prostitutes’ mythical “no kissing” rule (which was probably popularized by Pretty Woman) and its turning “Talk is cheap” on its head.  Imagine how much we take words for granted, let alone the luxury of open-ended discussions or even ecstatic exclamations during great sex.  Much to both her dismay and delight, Benaya learns quickly that Niall is not only well-hung but he can deliver the goods.  She avoids alcohol because it loosens the tongue and might waste precious words in a talk-regulating world, but it’s next to impossible to stay mum when a lover hits the spot.

Benaya moaned.  Niall was massive.  She bit her lip and did her best to keep silent.  Clearly, he can tell how much I like this.  Fuck, I have to keep my mouth shut!

 Niall flexed inside her.  Surprised, Benaya opened her mouth.


I love how Banaya suppresses even the during-sex cliché of “Oh God!”  What would make people so afraid to talk – or even moan words ecstatically – freely?  How did such self-censorship – worse: self-silencing – become such powerful policy?  Gerard doesn’t explain, and I’m pleased that she doesn’t.  As far as we know it just is, like the sudden time-travel in Octavia Butler’s Kindred or the worldwide stoppage of male sperm count in P.D. James’s Children of Men.

After some mind-blowing fucking the Benaya and Niall fall asleep together.  When they’re both awake Niall presses her on his forbidden request again:

“Say something to me.  Please.  Say anything.”

Benaya cringed.  She felt trapped.  This was not part of their agreement.  Quickly, she jumped out of bed, grabbed her dress and her shoes…

…“I need to speak.  More than I need art, food, sex, money.  I need to save myself from the silence.  Please, speak to me!”




Interestingly and tellingly, the last – and probably most poignant – word Benaya says to Niall before fleeing is “sorry.”

“Small Talk” is a splendid example of what DL Warner spoke about in “Identity”: “erotica [as] a valid subject to explore artistically.” Gerard incorporates rock-solid (I can attest!) erotica, which is explicit enough to be called pornographia, into a solid science-fiction story.  The formula works.

My other favorite fiction piece is Alex Hernandez’s “A Thing of Soft Bonds,” out-and-out science fiction without a doubt.  It has the smoothness and technical elaboration of Robert Heinlein and the feminist/metamorphosis tropes of Octavia Butler.  (Both writers tended toward ethnodecentralization, and the characters in this story have a good handful of diverse names: Villaneuva, Chen, Puig, Sousa-Cruz, Foluke, Jackson and Rodriguez.)  If I had to teach a class about what makes a good short story in general I’d probably use this one as one of the primary examples.

“A Thing of Soft Bonds” contains all the goodies: a spaceship in distress, a crew at the point of no return to safety (in this case a space station), an outside threat (in this case a violently horny all-male penal colony), dystopian desperation (in this case a shortage of women), mind versus might (in this case a geneticist against a brutish General), the primitive consuming the so-called civilized (in this case overstimulated neurotransmitters enslaving an enemy), science’s fine line between help and harm (in this case knowledge of and experimentation with biology and genes giving otherwise helpless women a chance at survival), and gender-bending and tampering with what it is to be homo sapien (in this case a “man” without a Y-chromosome and a female-to-male transgendered man, as well as…well, you’ll see).

The spaceship Ashaba is under assault by the leading General of the penal-colony planet because he wants to commandeer any women on board for recreational rape to serve as a pressure valve for the prisoners.  While the leading men of the Ashaba are fatalistic about the inevitable horrors the ship’s women must face, Barbara Villaneuva, Chief Scientist of the mission, immediately starts to brainstorm an alternative to either gang rape or execution once they’re overwhelmed and taken down to the criminal planet.  The ship’s captain commits suicide, and there are no weapons with which to defend the crew. 

The very Butlerian feature of the story is the central reason for the space mission: collection of alien tetradecapodal animals.  With all the odder-than-oddness of Butler’s Oankali, each one of these creatures looks “like a furry, arboreal octopus with fourteen arms.”  And each one is not really a one but “a colony organism, made up of fifteen individual-but-connected specimens.”  See, the species’ immobile female, who is all brain and sensory organs – “and fourteen clasping vaginas,” eventually drives fourteen males into a “mindless, writhing” state with her mature scent so that they are driven “into on orgy that would forever bind them in perfect union.”  This symbiotic relationship provides the female with strength and the ability to ambulate “with the nimble elegance of [a] gibbon[.]”  What can Barbara do with no weapons and nothing but her alien specimens and laboratory?

You see where this is going.  With a marvelous deftness and lexicon Hernandez presents a surprisingly believable (though not necessarily fully understood) gambit thought up by the quite resourceful and brave Barbara: she decides to use available genomes and nano-bacterium (I think) to concoct a biochemical defense against the approaching threat.  After injecting herself with chromosomes containing “genomic snippets from bees, ants, termites, naked mole rats” for a few weeks, Barbara’s appearance and body chemistry changes drastically, to say the least.

The athletic body she had prided herself in was no avocado-shaped and glistening with perspiration…Stretch marks split her brown skin like lightning…

…“What is that smell?”  Helen Chen froze at the entrance, aghast.  “It smells like rotten meat and stale piss in here!”

 “That’s me,” Barbara said, facing the ship’s coordinator…

Barbara then explains to Chen – and us – the logic in her seemingly mad experiment:

“My endocrine system is quite extraordinary now.  I’m secreting powerful messenger chemicals – it’s what you’re smelling – they elicit the over-production of neurotransmitters in men: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, vasopressin and others.  To their unsuspecting minds, I exist both as loving mother and magnificent lover.”

Barbara’s reek, while seeming to be repellent at first, is really an attractant.  And it comforts her students, who have voluntarily accepted transgenic modifications in order to have a chance at being spared rape or death by the coming prisoners.  The students’ changes aren’t as evident as Barbara’s but if separated from her and her comforting scent, they too will become the enormous, “curvy” being that takes the fertile rotundity of Paleolithic Venuses to a whole new level.  Barbara wants the rest of the crew, including the questionably gendered Rodriguez and the female-to-male Jackson, to inject her blood in order to complete the clever standoff.  Later, Jackson participates enthusiastically, but Rodriguez refuses, echoing a protest that is usually likely to come from an Octavia Butler character, not to mention countless characters in sci-fi/speculative literature.  And he learns another of Barbara’s…enhancements:

“So my choices are to live like a subhuman or become something less than human?  Fuck that!  I choose to be my own person!  Even if that means dying.”  He took a swing at Barbara, but she easily caught his wrist.  He struggled and tried to pull away, but the muscles beneath her flab were now incredibly dense.  She was twice as strong as any man, even a carefully crafted one.

Eventually the men led by scumbag Sousa-Cruz breach the Ashaba.  Gushing with stinky sweat, Barbara simply reveals her mountainous naked body: “Everything slowed as biology took over.” 

Barbara only stood there, enthralled by the sight of the men swaying like blades of grass in a breeze.  They literally vacillated with anticipation, their gun barrels wavering from their mark. 

Does Barbara’s plan succeed?  Sniff, sniff, sniff…

A lot, if not all, of the other Butler-inspired fiction in Near Kin is pretty good.  Some titles that surface when I think of it are “Waking Dr. Wexler” by Angel Uriel Perales (a wonderfully written story that seems to involve a sort of time travel, at least via madness or dementia), “No More Stories” by Jordan Alam (in which characters experiment with a device that allows for the virtual piggybacking on other people’s dreams), “In the Beginning” by Meghan Elison (which seems to be an excerpt from or an offshoot of her dystopia novel, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife), “Sweet Autumn” by Charie D. Le Marr (which involves empaths, probably in honor of Butler’s The Parable of the Sower/Talents), and “Saint of the Unknown Universe” by Linda Ravenswood (in which a woman kills her abusive man, discovers that he was a robot all the while, and wonders how she’d ever become pregnant).

Balance by Fabiola Jean-Louis

Much of Near Kin’s poetry is very worthy as well.  “Dreams of the Slave” is written by Walidah Imarisha, a teacher, writer, spoken-word artist, “historian at heart, reporter by (w)right [and] rebel by reason” (her words). The format of the poem is quite…vertical, which helps one imagine it being performed by the author.  The narration is full of slave imagery and the plaintive patterns of the oppressed; the narrator mourns the loss of her sold love.  She remembers his wise words of hope and assurance, but in the absence of her love she wants “the night sky to go black./Suck up the light/and leave only darkness.”  Her despair turns to joyous rejuvenation when her love directs her toward freedom, symbolically pointing North and evoking the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman and the bravery of both escapees and the whites and blacks who pitched in despite the great risk. That freedom was earned in part by the slaves whose blood was shed and still cries from the ground, and it seems to be symbolized in what I interpret as a vision of an old ex-slave woman who holds out her hands to show scarred wrists but no chains, a sort of transfiguration.

The weight of hope
is crushing me,
and I no longer
care to struggle
for breath.
But when I look to the heavens
my love is there.
teeth pinpricks of light.
My love
points north,
and I see
the stars take another shape:
round face
intense eyes –
hair growing like
untamed cotton.

Her broad lips
the shape of freedom.
I look at her wrists:
No chains –
There are scars
but no chains…

…And I heard the whisper:
It was not in vain.

Nothing was in vain…

will not
be lost…

Sticking with the subject of slavery, Sherese Francis had Kindred as her inspiration for “Give Me Your Hand”:

You pull me
back in need of saving
But I am pulled
for me and you…

Your survival
hinged on my back,
and I have the leathery scars
to remember
our strange symbiosis…

There are many kinds of slaves, of course.  As we saw earlier, slavery can result from biochemical perfect storms, as it was posited in Alex Hernandez’s “A Thing of Soft Bonds.”  Michelle Angelini unwittingly sings Hernandez’s tune in her poem “On Becoming Part of the Crowd”:

I transition
as if turning from a teenager
to an adult with a more
intensive hormonal overdose,
It is exquisite torment – too much…too much…
Will I survive going through it?

I belong
Now I’m inside the circle and have power
over others.  They are slaves without
knowledge and I gained
a unique power.
What will it be?…

“There Is Nothing Inconsistent” by David Scriven is deceptively simple but resonates (how I hate that term!) long after it’s read.  At once surreal, animistic and metaphysical, it has a slight Octavia Butler feel: weirdness, nature, the ever-present threat of death, the grayness rather than stark contrasts of the human heart.

…There is nothing inconsistent
About believing that
The smell of rotting flesh
Tells the presence of a ghost…

…There is nothing inconsistent
About believing that
A man is evil,
Or good,
Or that words cannot hurt you.

Julia Stein indirectly celebrates Butler’s feminism in a poem called “1996.”  She reveres women protesting a clothing business propped by Thai sweatshop workers, martyred union-activist Fannie Sellins, Russian-born unionizer Sara Plotkin, whose championing of laborers once touched the steel industry of Pittsburgh, my hometown.  Female activism is viewed as a suprabiological family, a maternal heritage that paves the road for each new wave of collective praxis:

They whispered to use their secrets, handed them down,
mother to daughter.  We have their courage as their inheritance.
Just as our mothers walked across the coal fields
we have begun to walk across the land.

Interestingly, in spite of Butler’s celebrated feminism, she has been criticized (perhaps most notably by feminist Dorothy Allison) for not adequately transcending patriarchy and domesticity, and for having her female protagonists identify with or assimilate to the agents of the power structure or dominant culture.

Reviewer Cherry Wilder included Survivor in what she saw as a negative fantastic trend in science fiction:  “The female fantasy that is currently gathering momentum seems to run as follows: ‘I was the chosen mate of a large, alien-looking male.’”  And, in another contemporary review of the novel, Geraldine Morse bashed what she saw as the basic implication in the unlikely coupling of Alanna and Diut:

If you enjoyed Mandingo, that titillating tear-jerker about the lust of a white plantation mistress for her black slave, you’ll probably enjoy Survivor, which raises the tension at least theoretically by introducing a pleasant bestiality in the male partner, who would closely resemble a six foot tall blue gorilla if such a thing existed.  Survivor isn’t a bad book, and the ploy of miscegenation perks up an otherwise uneventful story, but with apologies to the gorilla, there’s no real meat in it.

What all the authors and artists in Near Kin share is a fundamental appreciation and reverence for Octavia Butler, and some of the poetry addresses this directly.  Wanda Smith’s “Octavia’s Brood and Vision” evokes Ray Bradbury, who seems to be an obvious influence in Butler.  Smith parallels their careers, praising Butler for her more complex characters, and ending the poem with this magnificent imagined scene:

Up among stars on the Milky Way Ray Bradbury
looks around and blinks.
Octavia E. Butler throws him a kiss and winks.

Smith also wrote “Octavia and Playboy,” which addresses the inclusion of such sci-fi giants as Heinlein and Bradbury in the pages of Playboy in the 1960s, and how Butler and other female writers never made it “on pages/between the bunnies,” let alone the Playboy Book of Science Fiction.  Smith produces yet another great imaginary afterlife encounter to close the poem:

If Octavia and Hef do meet among stars in the heavens
she will probably ask, “Hugh who?”

Tara Betts’ “A Sonnet for Octavia Butler” (which I like far more than her other poem, “God is Change”) is biographical:

[S]he burrowed into books – other worlds.
This was one way to speak, a slight curve
toward a future only she could write…

Ink continued to bite
teeth marks into her pages, where change
became God and women felt the past’s lash
and collared futures that echoed the bleak
lives of so many, like her mother, smashed
beneath nightmares that poverty often wreaks…

Perhaps the most powerful tribute to the honored author is in Cat Angelique McIntire’s “Haiku for Octavia Butler,” which has an imaginary Butler as narrator:

don’t look so damn smug –
you’ll all be compared to me.
few will measure up.



– David Herrle, 10/2014

David Herrle reviews John McKernan’s RESURRECTION OF THE DUST

published 2007 by The Backwaters Press
more information here



First impressions aren’t always the most important impressions.  I’ve walked away from a book or a song with moderate appreciation for it, only to end up adoring it after another visit or two.  “That wasn’t bad” becomes “That was really effing good!”  This is the case with John McKernan’s poetry, at least for me.  After going through a long backlog of review copies and the rapid passage of time in this pinball-game drama of life, I finally arrived at McKernan’s Resurrection of the Dust and stood at its front cover, hesitating to go in.  The author had sent it to me quite a while ago, and, since the book had already been out for a few years before I received it, I wasn’t sure if the author had since moved on from this work (which I, as a master repudiator, can relate to).  Would he even remember sending the book to me?

However, the delay in reading wasn’t intentional or accidental; it was circumstantial.  But I wanted to fulfill my word to consider doing a review of the book.  First of all, the title called to me.  It rang like Faulkner (Intruder in the Dust), Hurston (Dust Tracks on a Road) or Kansas’ haunting “Dust in the Wind” song, and, of course, the phrase that follows the Book of Common Prayer’s famous “ashes to ashes.”

I opened the front cover and crept in.  The table of contents revealed a list of 223 poem titles, in alphabetical order.  (This made my latest poetry collection of 191 pages seem less obese.)  Thankfully, the poem titles welcomed me right away, for I’m a sucker and stickler for cool titles.  Hell, titles are half the poem.  McKernan’s range from a single word to Dali-painting-title-long-and-weird.  And many of them allude to or point very loudly at death: “Be Soul & Die Sex,” “The Corpse Gives Itself Away,” “Your Corpse Wants Your Body,” “Death’s Rummage Sale…,” “My Last Breath,” “My Father Returns From His Grave,” “My Ode to Death,” “The Shadow Beneath my Corpse is Always” and “Your Skull,” to name several.  How could I, one who obsesses about mortality ad nauseam, resist?

Resurrection of the Dust doesn’t break any new ground as far as subject matter goes: the past as present, death, Daddy issues, place of origin (Omaha, Nebraska, in this case), momentary impressions.  But what matters most is how these familiar things are perceived and poetized.  These poems are chock-full of enviably great lines that are right on though they’re not up against a standard.  McKernan has perfect pitch: a lot of his phraseology seems as if it couldn’t be otherwise; the way he writes a particular image or observation or feeling is the exact way it should have been written. And these golden lines know they’re good.

Despite more than a few jumbled “Surrealist” pieces and passages that amount to not much more than strung-together words and images (I’m snobbish when it comes to such experimentation), McKernan’s deft wit and svelte cleverness usually pump out worthy gold, such as “the endless violence of the prism,” “[t]he word autopsy/sounds like a switchblade clicking/open in the dark,” and “[s]creaming my name in Braille.”  Cancer is “pink cancer,” a spade opens the earth “into a soft coffin of air,” “a sun-rinsed cloud” is “speechless,” Death observes a distant galaxy “[t]hrough his microscope,” “a red light can paint the sidewalk pink/Or give a face the look of fresh sunburn.”  Then there’s one of the ultimate questions we never think to ask: “How much does a comma weigh?”

So, yet more poems about the past within the Now, mortality, childhood memories and Daddy can be experienced anew, with a curiosity and wonder akin to discovering a new wall of ancient cave drawings or an unknown species of bird, thanks to such golden lines.

Needless to say, McKernan’s metaphorizing is quite impressive, as shown in “After Light” (one of several pieces in which the title doubles as the opening line):


The sleepy village

It rounded up all the shadows
From every graveyard
& lynched them

And in “Omaha Nebraska”:

You are the toy store
I can’t enter…

You are the candy shop
I am forever banished from…

In the midst of seriousness, there are a lot of humorous and inventive phrases.  (Someone call James Lipton and tell him to add “gymnasium of wolves” to the next edition of An Exaltation of Larks, please.)  In “Much of the Packing Material”:

This darkness must have gone to Yale
To learn how to act    It knows how
To impersonate the silence of my coffin

Also, McKernan’s stuff tends to be Imagistic, a style that I once disliked but has wooed me over the years, thanks to finding it in very capable hands.  Some favorite examples: “The silence was bumpy like a teaspoonful of white rice,” “[f]ive ice cubes clinked/In a dark room,” “[y]esterday runs screaming down the hillside/waving a butcher knife” and

Hard hands     Firm jaw     The neat hair     Crisp shirt

White suit     Sharp tie     Talking to a small boy
Lying on a blanket     On the sloped green lawn…

From “Catalog of New Lanterns”:

The grave digger’s bright spade   Greased  Tilted
Your eyes     Your green eyes

Pewter cup of the subway veteran
Plinking with silver    Bright dimes…

And in “Red Wagon” (which appears after “Red Cloud” and “Red Snow”):

The voices of the people when you listened
        to them all together sounded like wet cement…

The rain which had stopped an hour ago began
        again & plinked against the metal of the red wagon

McKernan had to have been winking at William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” while writing this poem.  If the passage above doesn’t bring the Williams piece to mind, I suggest enrolling yourself in Being Aware On Earth 101.  Mercifully the pertinent passage from that too-famous poem follows:

a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

I tend to prefer the how to the what in art, particularly in poetry, but Resurrection of the Dust has the unsavory subject of death at its nucleus, so I’m morbidly delighted by the book’s what as much as I am by its how.  First of all, all art is partly about death, vibrates with death, spotlights death.  When I experience the art of a dead person, “He [or she] is dead” is always at the back of my mind.  When I experience the art of a living person, “She [or he] will die” is always at the back of my mind.  There are both ephemerality and eternity in art, just as there is a skull behind Garbo’s timeless face.  I’m offended and bored by art that never faces death, never dares to hold and contemplate the pitiful skull as did Hamlet.  This is why I’ve an especial appreciation for McKernan’s work.  He keeps death around – because death is always around.  It’s as with us as life is.

Every day I’m anxious daily over the anticipation that someday I’ll be a corpse.  You, reader, will be a corpse.  Those eyes you’re reading with will surely decay.  (“Quintessence of dust” indeed, dear Hamlet.)  In one poem “Sister Death” is mentioned: an almost certain clue that McKernan knows Faulkner (that greatest American Tragedian with death in his ink), particularly The Sound and the Fury and Quentin Compson’s narrative.

The primary symbol of mortality in the book is the narrator’s father, who died when his son was only sixteen years old.  In one poem the father visits from beyond the black velvet, “[c]omplaining/About the leaky coffin.”  “It’s so silent down here,” the dead man says.  He can’t sleep without the sounds of a broken clock and a creaky stair. 

The father is a spiritually massive presence even in death, for there’s mountain-like substance in the left-behind vacuity of the (dear or dreaded) deceased.  He used to always sit in a leather chair, and after his death the chair and its emptiness frighten the son.  In “The Son” a dream of his father in a coffin recurs nightly, and he can only look at the coffin’s shadow, not the coffin itself.  Though sources of foreboding, the conflated chair and coffin call to the son, inviting him to plunge into death’s darkness, to take the place of the lost patriarch.  After all, in “I Look Hard At the Photo on the Wall,” the narrator admits that he’s “always wanted to become my father.”  What better way to explore this notion than in a poem called “The Son?”

…I touch the shadow
It is substance     I can lift it

It feels like cotton     I fold it as a napkin
& put it in my pocket…

Then the son borrows an air pump and inflates the shadow until it fills the room.  In his waking hours the boy associates the shadow of the empty leather chair with the coffin’s shadow in the dream and wills a new dream into occurring.  He deflates the coffin shadow, cuts it into the shape of a boy with his mother’s scissors and somehow uses the shadows cast by the coffin and chair to exorcize the foreboding and identify symbolically with the father in a bizarre form of resurrection or reincarnation.

…I have entered the darkness
Of Death    I make a new boy

My fear floats away like dreams…

I sit in my father’s chair    I rock
I am the son of my father at last…

The fearful shadow also stars in “The Shadow Beneath My Corpse Is Always” (a title that’s completed by the poem’s opening line: “In training”).  As someone who is ambivalent about mortality, swinging from hopeless belief in the finality of the grave and the hope of a benign Hereafter, I appreciate fantasies about the death of Death.  (I’ve written my share.)  There’s a noble but pitiful superhero quality about our desires to rescue or redeem our loved ones from Death’s bowels.

…[The shadow] loves pretending he is
A layer of skin     Peeled from Death’s moon-burnt

Shoulders     Tonight he is resting under
Me     As I write these words…

He does not know
That I am sharpening the tip of each syllable
To impale him     Him & his little brother Fear

On the other hand, the narrator, ever aware of his guaranteed future state as a corpse, imagines his last breath “floating somewhere”:

Perhaps it is moving
Over an orange grove
In Venezuela…

You are Last Breath     I know
Nothing about you
Except your taste     You
Taste like forty acres

The reader has reason to fear as well, for there’s not a soul alive that won’t be dead someday.  So much of what we do doubles as a denial of impending demise and our flesh becoming a future feast for microorganisms: whether it’s artistic creation, destructive war, building massive edifices or losing ourselves in the tiny eternity of sexual abandon.  Sex, however, isn’t a sure-fire way to deny or diminish death.  That’s why it’s a cliché to say that sex and death go hand in hand.  As far as I’m concerned, sexual ecstasy is both a revolt against and reckless resignation to the idea of death and putrescence.  (As I’ve written before, “the lifeful squish and smells effigize death’s pus and gas.”)  After all, doesn’t all sex culminate in a “little death,” at least for males?  In “Intricate Interior Laughter When We Worked” sex and death swirl together indeed:

At that mortuary on Dodge Street in Omaha
Of course we had sex inside caskets

With our girlfriends     It was best
When we could close the lids
But that was risky     What were we doing?

Were we proving our bodies weren’t dead[?]

Screwing in coffins pretty much sums up the weird games we play daily in the face of oblivion.  The game compromises even our compassion for the unfortunates who go into that oblivion before us.  Though news of others’ deaths always accents our own eventual ones (we’re privately relieved that we live to see another morning), McKernan goes further and reminds readers point-blank in “Your Corpse Wants Your Body”:

It wants your legs for crutches
Your hands for garden gates

Every furrow of your smile
Each dab of starlight hiding
Between the lattice of your eyelashes…

…It wants all of you that’s
Ever been & it wants too forever     My Dear

And in “Your Skull”:

All the words
You will never hear
Float elsewhere now
Anchored in dirt…

Even Heaven is no real solace because the narrator predicts that there “[y]ou’ll be emptied of language.”  All this clever verbosity, magnificent metaphors, slick similes and inventive phrasings to record and analyze a brief life – then eternal inarticulation for an eternal eternity?

Another recurring motif in the book is the sundial.  I’m reminded of the age-old tradition of the so-called sundial mottoes, which are aphoristic sayings, usually negative and about fleeting time, etched into the stone, steel, brass or bronze of the ancient timekeepers.  You may recognize “Time and tide wait for no man” or “Snatch the present hour, fear the last.”  More interesting is the frequent appearance of the word “shadow” in the mottoes: “Time passes as a shadow,” “By the shadow shall I mark time” and “I am a shadow, so art thou; I mark the time, dost thou?”  I don’t know if McKernan had these in mind, but this is the glorious natural context of poetry and art in general.

Shadows mark time, but we must remember that light surrounds them.  In “Where Are You?” the narrator nightswims in vast Lake Erie and skims the lake’s bottom, among the algae and underwater creatures, looking up to spot distant airplane and even more distant satellite lights: “People drown themselves now & then/But I follow the lights.”  As Lady Gaga said in a 2011 Google interview, “if you don’t have any shadows, you’re not standing in the light.”  Though McKernan walks among the tombs and peeks into mortuaries, the beauty of his poetry and the persistence of his memory are celebratory rather than all dirge.  This is the secret of the death-dwelling artist, who sees the skull behind everything with the acuity of the live-as-if-already-dead samurai.  (I know, because I am one.)  We may say “So far gone am I in the dark side of the earth, that its other side, the theoretic bright one, seems but uncertain twilight to me” along with Melville’s Captain Ahab in moments of confusion and despair, when graveyard worms seem to be the only survivors, but our poetry, while being partly about death also is about life, is life.

Remember, the book is called Resurrection of the Dust, a decidedly death-defying title.  I can’t say that I found any stated defiance of death by McKernan, and, similar to Faulkner, the work has a somewhat grim vibe, or the feeling Sophocles leaves behind.  John McKernan will die someday; he might even be dead by the time you read this.  Who knows?  He certainly hasn’t voiced any dramatic hopes against that materialist fact, but, regardless his – and Faulkner’s and Sophocles’s! – private eschatology, I insist that the art itself does the exaltation.  This is part of the reason I adore Ingmar Bergman films: his lowest and most traumatic moments can’t dampen the thrill and wonder with which his art fills me.  There is glorious music in The Silence. In spite of my natural pessimism and my attunement to John Donne more than, say, Norman Vincent Peale, I’m compelled to balance out Franz Kafka with Frank Capra, because of either genuine faith or desperate denial: it depends on the day.

Earlier I mentioned that it brought my mind to similarly ringing titles such as Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust. Well, there is an intruder in the dust: it’s life.  And it’s here, for the time being.  It’s here for the being.


Another fine writer, G.K. Chesterton, wrote in “The Praise of Dust”:

“What of vile dust?” the preacher said.
Methought the whole world woke,
The dead stone lived beneath my foot,
And my whole body spoke.

Jean Colonomos

Jean Colonomos is a former member of the Martha Graham Dance Company and a former freelance dance journalist who wrote for publications such as Dance Magazine and The Village Voice.  Her award-winning play, Black Dawn, is based on psychogenic blindness many Cambodian women suffered in the wake of Pol Pot’s Cambodian genocide. 


                               In the nineteen sixties I was a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company.

We are the Graham crackers
who worship at the Temple of the Pelvic Truth.
We pray to the Kundalini and Duende Goddesses
where our contractions and releases,
like these holy preachings,
begin at the base of our spines.

We start our rituals on the floor,
some of us anticipating the classes’ tone
from the pianist accompanying that day.
Tom, our least favorite,
bangs out a 4/4 beat
missing the sensuous innuendos
in Martha’s movement vocabulary.

A small group enjoys
drip-dry jazz king Ralph.
He teases out a note
and then                    silence.
When we’re about to give up,
he plunks another key
to inform our next move.

And then there’s Stanley
whose swelling chords
seep into our bodies.
When he plays, we lose
how imperfect we are,
how awful is our balance,
our contractions,
and our being.
We are truly gone.


I’m happy to report
the lines on my face
are still double-spaced.


When Isabelle starts pre-K this fall, my daughter asks her four year old whether she wants to learn French or Spanish.  Plain, Isabelle replies, meaning plain English.
My year-plus grandson, William, teeter totters, then kerplops on his tush.  When he’s frustrated, he’ll sometimes crumple into a ball and cry.
During Isabelle’s dance recital, she pays little attention to the teachers at stage right and left performing the steps.  My granddaughter has memorized the routine and improvises when she forgets what’s next.
Giddy William watches his sister dance, rocks his head back and forth, then bends up and down in sync with the head-banger music.
When I snap Isabelle into her car seat, she strokes my cheek saying, I love your skin, Nana, then points to my forehead saying, that’s my favorite part.
Six months after her brother enters the world, Isabelle asks her mother, When can we have another William?

*title of Byron Katie’s book




Anna Wypych

Anna lives in Gydnia, Poland.  She has won several awards for her work, and her work has been exhibited at many museums and galleries.  Visit her site here.

100 Hours of Work to Show One Little Thoughtfulness, After Which Nothing is the Same

Safe Place

Primitive Truth

Pink and Flower


Lana Gentry

Lana Gentry is a self-taught artist and writer who lives in Virginia. Learn more about Lana and her art here.  Read the SubtleTea interview with her here.

Christina’s World Trade Center


Flower For JonBenet


Must Be Santa

Ronald Pagan (now in the art collection of J. Mitchell)

Mike Worrall

Born in Matlock Derbyshire, UK, and now living in Australia, Mike Worrall, a self-described “intuitive painter,” specializes in subconscious-plumbing Surrealist works.  His work has been collected by the likes of Alex Proyas and Roman Polanski (who modeled a scene in his Macbeth after one of Worrall’s paintings).  Visit his official site here.

Trouble With Time

A Period Drama

The Sadness of Rivers

The Forgotten Expectation

The Distant Voice of Reason

The Exploration of Time


David Herrle interviews artist Lana Gentry

Lana by Kristy Evans

In “As Much Truth as One Can Bear” James Baldwin wrote that “the multiple truths about a people are revealed by that people’s artists – that is what the artists are for.”  This is part of why I love to share the thoughts of worthy artists in my interviews.  SubtleTea welcomes a particularly thoughtful and stylistic artist this time around: Lana Gentry.



DH: I’ve had many Muses, but dammit, I’ve never been a Muse. But you, you’re a living, breathing one! And there are hundreds of portraits of you done by artists from here to everywhere to prove it. You seem humble about being pretty, but let’s be honest here, you’re easy on the eyes (and a former model). Despite your response to praise, beauty is a game of both canvas and palette, and beautifying oneself is an art in itself. How and when did this enviable phenomenon of Musedom originate – and is it enviable? What is it like to see yourself through other artists’ eyes?


LG: I was far too round and short for any runway modeling. LOL. I did some pin-up stuff in my youth to survive. I don’t feel any shame about that.  As far as the portraits go, in all humility, I have many friends who have been painted and drawn quite a few times. Of course it is true that I have amassed a few portraits.  The real answer is that I do not know why the phenomenon is in full swing even now, but I have a few theories I will address in a moment.

First of all, I am not that easy on the eyes. I am rife with imperfections. I feel grateful to be presented in glorious ways: normal and defiling ways. I am not thin, I am not young, my teeth are crooked and gapped, I am not very tall. I stand at 5’3″. I meet no conventional standard of beauty.  I believe the portrait phenomenon is comprised of a few things. I have always surrounded myself with creative thinkers. I always find myself commenting on artists’ works online, chatting them, hanging out with them in real life, writing about them, interviewing them, and sometimes creating portraits as well. I have a very strong connection to artists. I always have; it is a lifestyle. I came from a family of gifted artists. This was true in my immediate family and also my extended family. Both of my parents had amazing creative abilities. I would say the portrait thing has been going on for about nine or 10 years now, if you are referring to the online collection of portraits. I also have portraits of me done by family members and intimate friends, so in that regard, perhaps longer. I do not post them all, but I post the ones sent to me online or portraits the artists have approved for public consumption. I’ve lost count, but it currently exceeds 350. 


DH: Despite my usual hesitation to classify stuff, I’d put your visual art somewhere between Lowbrow and Romanticism. Sensuous, but intellectually seasoned Art Nouveau, mixed with Sendakan fantasy, Surrealism, psychedelia, and an old-school political-cartoon vibe. It also has a slight Giulio Campagnola flavor. I like how you incorporate handwritten text (a la iconoclast Ray Pettibon and mystic William Blake), whether it’s an epigraph or something from your own mind. How would you describe your work? Why are you an artist rather than a lawyer or a riveter?

Well I doubt very seriously I could ever pass the bar. LOL! Although I do enjoy a good debate. My art has been categorized in a number of ways. As classifications go, I hear more than anything else, self-taught or outsider art, folk art, dark art etc.  My work has even been likened to prison art. My father was a convict at some point and an artist as well, so maybe that contributed. These categorizations do not offend me. I’m lucky anyone gives a fuck to hate or love me or my work. I’m not defined by classification. I see my own art as more of a personal type of journaling. When I am inspired by people or life events (both good and bad), I am inclined to document those experiences. Because my creativity mostly excludes conscious influences, I find it hard to categorize it myself. On the other hand, if people wish to categorize it for shows, 
reviews, articles and so on, I humbly accept any observations about what it is that I do.


 But I Do Remember by Lana

I know you’re an admirer of Ayn Rand’s work. Like me, you seem to savor the honey and spit out the bees in you admiration. Sure, her puritanical rigidity, rude infidelity, apparent inability to admit failure, and reduction of fallen-short folks to infidels are turn-offs, but her foibles remind us that even anti-utopian utopians aren’t perfect. I think much of the vehement bashing of Rand (often by lazy bums who haven’t really read her stuff) borders on psychosis. Often she’s mistaken as a Libertarian (an affiliation she despised) or a staunch conservative, while she was anything but and would hiss at GOP pols (“the hippies of the right”) who mix lukewarm Objectivism with collectivist compromise and religion (also despised by her) in their flimsy rhetoric and actions. I think she was ever tormented by America’s muddy waters of morals, economics and politics, fearing a repeat of what the Bolsheviks wrought in her native country.

Bottom line: she said that “there’s no such thing as a worthless human being – unless he makes himself such.”  What is your attraction to Rand, Lana? How do you react to folks who criticize that attraction? How do parts of her philosophy influence you?

LG: Yes I definitely agree that her native country and what she observed had a profound impact on her life and work. I stumbled upon her philosophical fiction in my early twenties and I always saw much of what I did enjoy as more corroborating than influential. I think once her name became affiliated with certain circles (as you have mentioned) this amped up the hatred for her, although this hatred always existed for reasons explained in her works. Her works in fact are about that very hatred that exist in men who have a particular distaste for the individual. Rand’s radical and obvious ideas reject mysticism and blind allegiance to anything. 

I like the term “savor the honey and spit out the bees”.  I do not agree with everything Ayn Rand ever said, nor can I necessarily be in keeping with the stark manner in which it could sometimes be delivered. She was hotheaded on occasion while struggling to have a clear view of reality. She was human.  She was passionate and although she fought her emotional side, she did have one.  She had emotions, although she did not believe they were a good instrument for measuring right from wrong. Having said that, I do admire a lot what she has written. 

To understand my deep appreciation for many of her quotes and writings, you would have to understand my dark past.  I’ve lived in the prison of poverty, addiction, and homelessness. I’ve lived among people who were violent and absolutely unaccountable for anything. There was a lack of reason in my household growing up. Although I love my parents and have made peace with both my living father and my deceased mother, I yearned for stability and accountability. They had virtues and vices like all parents, but I longed for the opportunity to change my reality. It was confirmed through some of the writings of Rand that I did not have to submit to a life of masochism and servitude. In my case I had a mind and an unrelenting fervor to escape my misery and I knew that I could. The thought of taking control of my life to the degree that I could, was frightening but also invigorating and exalting. All the women I have admired have been women who have stepped around obstacles to achieve their goals. These would also include Oprah Winfrey, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martha Stewart, Wendy O. Williams, Camille Paglia, Radcliffe Hall, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Virginia Woolf, and so on. I’ve always been drawn to tough women. I like the ones who step out of line to proclaim their existence. 

I don’t bother much anymore with the criticism railed at me for appreciating some of Ayn Rand’s work. Mainly because it is so obvious that many of the people criticizing me for appreciating certain aspects of her work have based their contempt on non-contextualized quotes, false quotes, agenda-driven motives, and blatant misunderstandings. They rarely venture into the realms of true philosophical debate. Some do and some genuinely disagree philosophically. I can respect opposing views. I cannot rightfully assault people or deem them inept for disagreeing with me while simultaneously requesting their respect for my views.  When certain people make an attempt to engage me though, it usually takes hours just to unweave the tapestry of lies they’ve been fed. They just call me names, and post links to bullshit sites.

Here is a dismantling of some myths that exist about Ayn Rand: Ayn Rand did not support a military draft. Ayn Rand did not revile poor people. Ayn Rand did not support the idea of not collecting social security or disability. This myth has been used to create an illusion of hypocrisy by saying she was a hypocrite for receiving Social Security. First of all I’m not sure it was ever firmly proven that she collected Social Security, although I would not doubt it. She was a part of that system by virtue of living in America. Secondly, it is reiterated in her material, that men who have contributed to society and had their funds taken by legal force through the IRS, deserved the opportunity to reclaim some of what was rightfully theirs. What I appreciated about her work was the idea that blaming others was unfruitful, using emotions as primary tools of cognition was dangerous, and her shining a light on the idea that the world was filled with people who were driven by jealousy, undeserved power, and the need to destroy genius. She acknowledged other malevolent forces, which have historically and consistently crumbled societies. 

Ayn Rand was a staunch atheist, and she constantly rallied for a separation of church and state. She was pro-choice as well. She did not view the “rape scene” as a rape scene in The Fountainhead. She was creating a scenario of tension and passion. She wrote one of the best essays I have ever read about the stupidity of racism.  She opposed nepotism, monopolies and cronyism. She believed that money was not the corruptor of man: that he was either immoral or he wasn’t.  These are some of her virtues, not vices. But you never read about these online. You read about her associations to Libertarianism and Conservatism. She had very strong views that opposed so many ideas in all parties.  Was she perfect? No she was not perfect. But I say show me your heroes, the personalities behind any kind of art, writing, acting, or anything else that you admire.  Show me your music collection, your most appreciated books and films. Show me your heroes and let me do a background check. Let me then decide if I deserve to be spoken to the way people have spoken to me online about quoting Ayn Rand.  I no longer discuss it online, not because I am afraid but because it is an exhausting full time job that creates a lot of division, rage and misunderstanding. If you hate me for appreciating the works of any artist, writer, poet, philosopher, musician or whomever, that’s too bad. Open up that indoctrinated steel trap you call a mind. Better yet, go fuck yourself. 

Despite its flaws,
Atlas Shrugged, the culmination of Rand’s ever-reiterated moral philosophy, belongs up there with books such as 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, The Wanting Seed and A Clockwork Orange. The novel’s central hero, John Galt, is the apotheosis of the author’s deepest fetishes and highest ideals, including her girlhood crush on The Mysterious Valley’s iron-willed Cyrus Paltons and The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark.  However, Galt is the most boring element in the novel. Rand considered art to be “a concretization of metaphysics,” and I think he is only that, not a character. “You don’t exist,” Rand wrote to herself in the 1920s.“You are only a writing engine.” Galt is an Objectivism engine, a capitalism engine, Rand’s statue-like savior. “Who is John Galt?” All A, no non-A. No nuance, misgivings or ambivalence. 

I know that you prefer The Fountainhead to Atlas Shrugged, and Howard Roark, Galt’s more-blooded prototype and analogue (naïve idealization?) of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. (If anything, she should be recognized for being perhaps the strongest endorser of modern architecture and Wright’s renaissance in the last century.) Tell us about your love of The Fountainhead and your hots for Roark. Does his uncompromising defense of creative integrity affect your own artistic ethos? Also, spiel on the significance of your Ugly and Reprehensible piece, which features a nude self-portrait flanked by the heads of Rand and the intellectual heir, Dr. Leonard Peikoff. 

LG: Many anti-Capitalists are still enjoying Capitalism every day when they wake up. Of course they’ve not lived under Communist or tyrannical regimes. They stand at a distance with expensive lattes proclaiming the virtues of Communism or other evil methods of governing. They’ve not been blocked from selling or making their art or any fucking thing else. They haven’t been to prison or killed for making art. No one’s chopping their heads off for being female, atheist or gay. They aren’t slaves to tyrannical governments the way other people are. They think they are – but they aren’t. Those Neo-Americans, how they long to suffer as much as others do. 

Everyone is A and non-A. I will not answer “Who is John Galt?” because it is the hook that leads to the book. As far as my preference, thanks for doing your homework. I do prefer The Fountainhead to Atlas Shrugged. It has a more natural flow in my mind.  I am not so much influenced by Rand’s character Howard Roark, but, rather, I’m psychologically corroborated by the conviction and integrity his character held with regard to his own creative vision. He had no interest in duplicating existing works. He believed in an honest exchange among men and he chose to work in a rock quarry while maintaining those creative ethics on his journey. He rejected the notion of consistently working in his field until he achieved a state of no compromise.

Both books push the idea of creativity and original thought. They heed a warning about a world to come, that does not allow a man to simply be himself. The idea is that men have so often traded their individualism for collectivism under the guise of being noble. In The Fountainhead, there is a strong message about the rejection of collectivism versus the embrace of individualism. It rejects sheepish thinking which includes religion or any non-religious dogma that resembles it. The Fountainhead illuminated the idea that man’s personal desires, visions, and achievements had the right to stand on their own without contamination or compromise. I would think that even if people hated the works of Ayn Rand, that they could appreciate my appreciation for such an idea.  Are these views popular? Well, fuck no they aren’t. Then again, life’s not a popularity contest. I wasn’t put on this earth to kiss anyone’s ass. That’s not my view of a happy life.

You referred to the significance of my work Ugly and Reprehensible, which includes images of Rand and Peikoff.  This came from a personal experience that happened many years back. I had drawn a very small portrait of Ayn Rand, and I believe I named it Patron Saint of Reason: replacing the religious, mystical figure with one of reason and rationality, Ayn Rand. My friend who was working with me at the time helped me send out letters to many galleries, organizations, collectors to bring light to my work. One such letter was sent to The Ayn Rand Institute because it was related. I knew that Ayn Rand as well as her followers had specific views on art. So I am accountable there. This was one area with which I never completely agreed with the Objectivists anyway. So Dr. Leonard Peikoff, an author, co-writer, intellectual heir and friend of the deceased Rand, returned a scathing and cruel reply via secretary that addressed my portrait, calling it “ugly and reprehensible.”  I didn’t mind the “ugly” as much as the “reprehensible”. 

That “reprehensible” cut me to the quick. It implied that I had some evil intent with regard to doing the drawing. He wasn’t an art scholar or instructor but reading those particular words would not have been easy coming from anyone at that point in my life. Since the organization was so firmly tied to the idea of individualism, it really seemed like a strange thing for him to say.  So that’s why I did the piece, as an answer to what I thought and felt was a hypocritical and unnecessarily cruel note from Peikoff’s secretary, quoting Peikoff. I have since stomached much more criticism and it has trumped the criticism given by Peikoff. I am not unaffected by what people think, but I am much less affected by the things people think and say than I used to be. I understand that he has every right to his opinion, just like anyone, whether it makes sense to me or not. It’s an opinion. I had to also consider that he adored and knew this person. But yeah…whatever.  I don’t hold grudges…much. 

The Fountainhead by Lana 

What degree did you earn at Satan’s School for Girls?

LG: Well I didn’t earn anything really. It was all in jest. Since I already had a heavy fan base of Satanists who were completely convinced I was a witch, I just went along. They all tell me you can be practicing witchcraft without even knowing it. After being alerted to the fact that Anton LaVey, founder of the modern church of Satan, was deeply influenced by the writings of Ayn Rand, it all started to come together. LaVey had apparently paraphrased Ayn Rand’s writings and incorporated them into the foundation of the church. Once I understood this, it was clear why any philosophical words from me, which held in part an Objectivist viewpoint, might be seen as Satanic. I have learned a bit about the history of Satanism from artist Stephen Leyba, who was anointed years back as a Satanic minister (by LaVey). 


DH: Magritte said that worthy painters should specialize in images rather than ideas. Having a soft spot for art for art’s sake, I tend to yawn at political/moral works, especially preachy progressive or religious ones. However, when the frivolous reigns, I want manifestos. And I do reject art that only deconstructs or shatters ideas. 

What matters most to you in your own art – the image or the idea, or is the dichotomy unnecessary? What does art ultimately mean to you?

LG: Some artists think that art has to have a purpose beyond producing joy in the eye of the viewer. Others think that art has a primary obligation to produce joy in the eye of the viewer. There are other interpretations that address the meaning of art and there have been since the beginning of art. I am not a scholar, but an artist. For me personally, art or creative writing represents and releases my thoughts and feelings. That’s it. Everyone is different. Even in my portraits of others, it becomes a way of laying myself bare and throwing back the world as I see it…or feel it. 

Any benefits that may or may not come from it have little to do with what internally drives me to do it. I am just compelled to do it. That’s all I know. 


DH: How far should an artist’s biography color his or her artistic reception? Can one can be in extreme disagreement with aspects of the personal lives and world views of artists, including actors, but appreciate much – if not all – of their work? David Byrne put it perfectly in his Bicycle Diaries: “My definition of what is good art…isn’t determined by the biography of its creator…At what point does the extra-creative activity of the person begin to make a difference in how we perceive their work?”

George Orwell nailed it in his incensed criticism of the ultra-controversial Salvador Dali: “One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously to the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other.” How do you approach artists and their art (or art and its artists)? How do you navigate the glory and garbage?

LG: Ah yes, this is a question I have incessantly grappled with within myself forever. It should not differ really from public boycotts of businesses who support views we do not hold, and yet, often, art does. People will forgive certain artists any sin regardless of the weight of its seriousness. The artist as opposed to the art are not always as closely related as people believe. Some are, sure. Many argue that an artist’s work reflects his deepest held convictions and values. However, when you have seen that serial-killer John Wayne Gacy has painted a field of flowers or what might have been an entertaining, benevolent clown had we not known his nature, it gets confusing doesn’t it? Then you have some humanitarians making some of the most disturbing art you ever laid your eyes on. Artists, for instance, may use a swastika or a cross in a work, and if you don’t know them personally you aren’t sure if they are opposing, demystifying or endorsing these symbols.

Thomas Kincade was a very dark person. The Carpenters were dark people. Who knew? We don’t always know people because we know their art. We have to find our own lines. I can admire a work while despising, questioning or misunderstanding the artist. I can separate them – sometimes. LOL. It has to do with degrees of what we will and will not accept.  


DH: Got pubic hair?* (Before you smack me and call me “masher,” that’s meant as a rhetorical question.) In my interview with the formidable painter Susannah Martin, I addressed the refreshing inclusion of female pubic hair on her nudes: “Despite my praise of artifice and mown flora, I applaud the tufts in Courbet’s Origin of the World, in any Delvaux or Magritte nude.” The persistent trend in the last 25 years or so seems to be the sunny patio rather than the shadowy thicket. What are your thoughts on bald versus hairy pudenda in art, fashion, even porn?

 *inspired by the famous “Got Milk?” ad campaign 

LG: Well I have to say that’s an odd question, but given how many vaginas I have included in my work, I’ll address it!  People are far too freaked about vaginas in general. Friend, model, and horror-movie actress Erin Russ once referred in conversation to the overgrown yoni as a 70s power muff. LOL!  She’s always had a brilliant turn of phrase and I found it rather hysterical.

Hair, no hair? I don’t care.  As far as my own, I’d rather not make it a subject of public consumption here. I’m sure the vagina will make an encore in my own work again, because it is relevant in my symbolism. I never add it for shock, it just seems to communicate certain things that wax and wane depending on context. Porn? I dunno. For whatever reason, you can post images of art where people are sliced to pieces and people will nod with approval, which is fine. Show them a pussy in your art, and there’s a better chance they will lose their minds. A vagina is not only a natural part of the body; it’s also a powerful visual symbol, which I did not completely understand until I publicly showed works that included them. I find it shocking that people find them so…shocking! I don’t know. I didn’t invent the fucking thing or how people prefer to view it.  

DH: William Blake saw women’s nakedness as God’s work. Artistic portrayal of the nude female began to surpass the Greeks’ Apollonian worship of the male form during the Renaissance (despite Michelangelo and Leonardo), gained gusto with Rubens and kicked into high gear in the 18th and 19th centuries. Since that grand aesthetic shift the female body, with or without clothes, has been the default locus of beauty.

Of course, “a woman is closest to being naked when she is well-dressed,” as Coco Chanel said. The fashion industry is dominated by female models, who are scarlet-lettered for feeding a traumatic “female body image” that prompts Anna Quindlen to call for the Barbie doll to be slain like a vampire (yo, Anna: Barbie’s about the clothes, stupid). Along with Camille Paglia, I think fashion is high art. How do you view the bodiness of females in art, the woman as the gaze’s target, so-called body image and Barbie? Is fashion art? 

LG: Well, I will start backwards. Yes, fashion is art. It can be bad, horrifying, good or great art of course. Fantastic fashion is an amazing thing. I love the work of Edith Head, Vivian Westwood, Coco Chanel, and the list goes on. As far as Barbie goes, I think that this rigid view is just one more manifestation of America’s ever creeping victim mentality. Barbie is a motherfucking doll. I had them, and they did not ruin my life or my self-image. Do I think it’s wonderful that we have a less narrow view of beauty in print and in toys now? Of course. It’s great. I just think all this shit about “If I played with a Barbie I always felt I had to look like Barbie” is fucking absurd. I don’t think people looked at stuffed Snoopy dolls and cried because they did not look like them, unless they were Furries (wink). I don’t think most little boys looked at 
Stretch Armstrong and cried and said, “I’ll never be like him!” I just fucking don’t. People say ‘But Barbie does not look real.’ Of course she doesn’t look real. She’s a goddamned doll for Christ’s sake. If you’re running around depressed because you never lived up to your childhood toys and icons like Wonder Woman, Superman, Spider-Man, or Barbie, you got some serious fucking issues, man. 

By the way, the idea that the female form is more entrancing or beautiful than the male form is not seen through my eyes. Both men and women can be visually intoxicating and beautiful. 


 Pin-up sketch by Lana

What works of visual art (including films) rock your ass and roll your soul?

LG: Oh my God, too many to mention. I will only add a slice from arenas that are mostly familiar. I absolutely love the paintings of
Dino Valls. I am a huge fan of Eric White’s paintings. I love [Frank] Frazetta’s paintings. Beksinski is incredible. I love the drawings of Paul Rumsey. I have an affinity for Maxfield Parrish and others from the Golden Age: Frida Kahlo, Yashifumi Hayashi, to name a few.

Films.  Well, I love Blue Velvet by David Lynch, Terry Zwiegoff’s Crumb, Wernor Herzog’s Grizzly Man, The Machinist directed by Brad Anderson, Heavenly Creatures by Peter Jackson, Murderous Maids by Jean-Pierre Denis (and its English remake, Sister My Sister), anything [by Alejandro] Jodorowsky, Brother’s Keeper by Joe Berlinger, Four little Girls by Spike Lee, as well as other stuff he’s done, anything by Alfred Hitchcock, anything by David Cronenberg, and on and on and on… I also am a gigantic fan of so many documentaries. The brilliant editorial process involved in presenting a particular view is such a fascinating art form. 


DH: You also write, mostly short stuff – including memoirs, embellished memoirs, dreams, brutally honest observations, and weird but insightful – even koan-like – vignettes. Some kickass lines from some of your stuff: “You can’t choose true suffering. It chooses you.” “No flesh falling from the bone could have ever made you one drop less beautiful to me.” “It’s time to wash all this deceptive sand and molasses from my motor and get the fuck on with it.” “Never was I more empathic than in that moment that I crawled onto and inside of her, to feel every vapor of what she was feeling.” “A man is such a fragile creature. The most fragile creature on the earth.”

LG: HEY! I resent the fuck out of that “embellished memoir” comment you tried to slide in on me!  Did I write all those?  Thanks for reading them back and thanks for your kind words, sir. I stand by them all.  


DH: You also jam poetry here and there, and I noticed that all of your poems rhyme. Is that a natural inclination, or is there a particular reason? Have you ever thought of compiling stuff for a book? Also, spiel about your favorite authors and their works.

LG: They don’t all rhyme but my mind has always easily pulled together rhymes. It’s a compulsion to quickly organize words in a certain manner – and a compulsion for my hands to dance quickly across the keys when I release them. Some people find poetic rhyming archaic, flowery, or childlike. I can only say I love to do it. I love the perfection and lost floral notes of Edgar Allan Poe. I love the metaphor and order of Emily Dickinson. 

Books are great. You already know I love The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. I love Presentations of Gender by M.D. Robert J. Stoller, Phantoms of the Brain by V.S. Ramachandron, My Dark Places by James Ellroy, Disco Blood Bath by James St. James, The Power of Positive Thinking by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie – so many. I guess it becomes obvious here that I am inclined to non-fiction and true crime, although I have enjoyed some great fiction too.

With regard to a book about me, I have been approached by an artist and keen thinker about doing a limited edition of books that reference me and my projects and life. We’ll see how it goes. 


DH: You’re affiliated with loBURN magazine, and your most recent contribution is an interview with the inimitable R. Crumb. Like bizarre greats such as Daniel Johnston and Tomi Ungerer, Crumb deserves his cult following and heavyweight title in underground-art history. What a fortunate opportunity. And, as I can testify, you didn’t waste it – the exchange was excellent. How did you convince such a private and discriminating artist to agree to the interview? And what was it like to conduct a dialogue with such a maestro? Tell us about how you became involved in loBURN and some of the other worthy artists you’ve met and/or interviewed.

LG: Yes
loBURN is a quarterly, independent magazine where I can express myself with ease because there aren’t many hard fast rules. I am grateful to do some writing and editing there. Some of the notable artists I have interviewed in the course of my life are are Joe Coleman, Norbert Kox, Pamela Wilson, Chet Zar, Chris Mars, Paul Rumsey, Dave MacDowell, Paul Booth, Laurie Lipton and so many more. 

I write about things and people that interest me. Other creative people also contribute to loBURN: Tatomir Pitirui, Hope Bellgren, Abe Weinstein, and Allisun Talley as solid staff – and many other fluctuating, recurring contributors. It’s a labor of love. 

I’ll address Crumb here. He definitely deserves his place and then some. I did not get an immediate reply when I contacted [him]. He usually does only extremely visible and occasional interviews at this point in his life. He made me fight for the interview, which I appreciated. I was persistent, and he eventually asked me to pitch it while saying he would likely not do it.   I could only pitch it by telling him about my strange life and why his work had always been inspirational to me. 

There was a fascinating back-and-forth process that took place in my trying to get that interview. It was the one interview that I was steadfastly compelled to do. I’m a huge fan of the work. I am a huge fan of his courage, which is unconscious and immediate. I am a huge fan of the way he loves and worships his wife. There is a subtext there between the lines of his “deviant” (if you want to call them that) or natural thoughts and expressions about women, a subtext that contains his adoration of his wife. There is also an open expression from Crumb about the amazing attributes of Aline Crumb. She is also a wonderful artist, a brilliant thinker, and hysterically funny. She seems to completely accept him as he is no matter what he says, thinks or creates. His observations and fleeting thoughts about women or anything else don’t seem to incite any disdain in her. She is powerful. This is my view anyway. I think he is incredibly honest and she encourages him to be honest among other things. They have an impressive simpatico.

Robert Crumb is iconic, not just as a comic artist, but as a living monument to truth and fearlessness. Like so many before me, I just can’t even begin to express what an inspiration he is as an artist and thinker. I think every artist should see Terry Zweigoff’s and David Lynch’s documentary, Crumb, and, of course, they should explore his work in other ways.  


DH: Death is always on my mind. I don’t fear it as much as I resent it. The “death is part of life” platitude seems unacceptable, and I feel that mortality is something very wrong in existence. However, I often envy the majority’s daily suppression of this monumental anxiety. Is denial of death the nucleus of most human activity? Do you fear and/or resent death?

LG: I don’t know that it is really suppression, but maybe it is. To engage it too much while living can obviously be unhealthy. I had a tremendous fear of death in my youth perhaps because my mother died young. I am not without fear I suppose, if I obsessed on it.  I’ve been close to death, and that brought me closer to understanding how the mind can hand it over and be okay sometimes. Tremendous physical pain or mental pain can make a person beg for death. That’s a morose answer, but it’s true. For me, considering ever-lasting life in one present consciousness…is much more daunting than the fear of death. 

When I think of death, my greatest terror is leaving the world with too many unconsummated ideas trapped inside my head that will never come to fruition. This brings me to the resolution of willing my ideas to other artists as I am going (should I have that luxury, woe is me) and mandating that they gather to have a show of my visions as they see them after I’m gone.  How grandiose and neurotic is that? LOL! Still, some other artist will steal that. 


DH: Yet, there’s Joy, isn’t there? In one of my books I speak of an “Imperceptible Door,” a redeeming permeation of what appears to be a closed physical system of ultimate futility. Something you wrote reminded me of this imagery: “I’ve been knocking on a door, that’s not a door at all,/Knocking on a door that is a wall.” The great Chinese theologian and Christian martyr, Watchman Nee, claimed that we fight in vain to enter a room in which we already are in, that grace has already opened the door and let us in. “Think of the absurdity of asking to be put in!” Eldridge Cleaver spoke of an immortal, salvational spark inside all of us, “In the midst of the foulest decay and putrid savagery, this spark speaks to you of beauty, of human warmth and kindness, of goodness, of greatness, of heroism, of martyrdom, and it speaks to you of love.”

So, is there a door, Lana? Are we knocking needlessly instead of listening for a knock? Does a spark penetrate the Abyss? Please share your thoughts about Joy versus despair.

LG: Eldridge Cleaver had it right. Consider Anne Frank. I’m knocking on and listening to everything, whether it echoes or not. People tell me sometimes that I glorify darkness, when in fact I only acknowledge darkness. I don’t glorify it, nor do I ignore it. Life is comprised of joy and despair. Most people have that to reconcile, regardless of their situation. Funny that a life of mostly glory can sometimes create a vacuum of no appreciation. It can also make people ill-prepared for reality. When despair comes to knock, the one who has lived a life of mostly glory has no calluses, no preparation for despair. Each of these forces plays against the other in the course of our lives. I’ve had plenty of despair and tragedy. For me, it has made me a person who can be utterly enraptured by the scent of a rose or the brilliance of a dandelion. I’d like to also think that it gave me an infrastructure of reinforced steel.  Not all events in life allow for such philosophy but it’s the best I can say. Perspective is everything. Despair can make one so very appreciative of joy. It can also teach us that the most humble and simple things in life, can be joyful.

By the way, thanks for letting me bend your ear in an online interview. It gave me a chance to speak my mind in an unfettered manner.

See more of Lana’s art here.  Experience her via social media here.

Lana Gentry is a self-taught artist and writer who lives in Virginia. She specializes in graphite and colored-pencil drawings, and her work has been featured in many group exhibitions, including one in Shanghai, China along with art photographer Kristy Evans. to present a two-woman show in Shanghai, China.  Her numerous writing credits include articles, interviews (particularly in loBURN magazine) and 
fiction (in Dire McCaine’s and D.M. Mitchell’s horror-story collection, A Dream of Stone). Learn more about Lana and her art here.