Reviews of Dennis Danvers' "The Fourth World" and "The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry"
Rebels with a Cause
In the year 2014, the haves of the world live in the safe, virtual world of the Web, while the "global village" is still characterized by "dirt floors and dysentery and children slowly starving." In this setting of two starkly different realities, Richmonder Dennis Danvers, in his novel "The Fourth World,"(Eos, $23) joins the 1994 Zapatista uprising in the Mexican state of Chiapas 20 years after its inception. He makes it the center of a plot by the world's rich and powerful to strengthen their power, then gives us a cast of underdogs and misfits that wins us over as it works against all odds to subvert that plot.
Despite the book's overly leftist politics, it is character, not politics, that forms the book's core. And the characters include several American expatriates: Santee St. John, an employee of NewsReal, a media giant that uses people as cameras to capture the sights, sounds and especially the emotions of the sensational for transmission to its plugged-in audience; Margaret Mayfield, an idealist who has made the Zapatista cause her own; Zack Hayman, an aging pothead who only wants not to become involved but does nonetheless; and others too numerous to mention. But they include, too, and most importantly, the Zapatistas themselves, the Mexican men and women who have seen their families murdered and their land stolen.
"The Fourth World" is sci-fi with a conscience, with an unwavering conviction that the rich and powerful do indeed rule the world and rule it with utter disregard for the lives of the people they brutalize and even sacrifice for their own self-serving ends. But the story it tells is also one that suggests that with perseverance, a clear sense of right and wrong, and a little luck, the tyrannized and their allies might just be able to overcome the tyrants.
OK, folks, here's poetry with some edge. Postmodern with a vengeance. Heck, maybe it's even post-postmodern. In any case, "The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry," edited by Alan Kaufman (Thunder's Mouth Press, $24.95) contains poetry of a bewildering variety and quality that is perhaps a measure of these unsettling times.
Where else could Patti Smith, that diva of proto-punk, coexist with a beat poet like Dian di Prima? These kinds of juxtapositions are what make "The Outlaw Bible" so enjoyable to read. Kaufman has given us a range of poetry that one is not likely to read in academic journals or see coming out of the writers' schools.
Many of the poems jump off of the page at you. They have the noise of the street instead of the monotone of the seminar. Whether the appeal of the poetry in this collection is like the visceral excitement of clever pop songs, or a genuine contribution to the art of poetry depends on how one views what professors are fond of calling "the canon of literature." There are lots of poems by convicts as well as by ordinary dropouts in this book, too.
I tend to think the spirit of this type of poetry is profoundly American in its colloquialism and its irreverence. So it's not odd to see poems by Walt Whitman, our greatest poet/prophet, included with a reflection by the late hip-hop singer Tupac Shakur, and a stream-of-consciousness rant by teen rebellion icon James Dean.
Whitman taught by word and deed that American poets should be daring and original and even, if necessary, profane. The poets in "The Outlaw Bible" fulfill these requirements abundantly. Joseph Lewis
Heads-Up: The University Press of Virginia has added a new entry to its interesting series the Virginia Bookshelf. This time, it's a collection of classic Southern recipes from Edna Lewis who grew up in Orange and then became one of America's most famous chefs. Her "In Pursuit of Flavor," was first published in 1988; now the University Press has published it in paperback ($14.95).