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Moloch, Or, This Gentile World

Henry Miller

Grove Press, $12.00 paper

by Peter Anderson

Moloch is a towering and ugly work, like the idol after which it was named. First published 65 years after it was written, it emerges as forced and unwieldy, vicious, maudlin, full of stupid blunders and haphazard, weak writing; but also, for good or ill, as a work of extraordinary political consciousness, predicated upon the longing savagely to corrode, or better yet, explode the foundations of a world of wage slavery and commercial empires. This world, in the closing, chaotic, inflated years before the Depression, is that of the Great American Telegraph Company, for which Dion(ysus?) Moloch/Miller works. Like Notes from Underground, it is a novel ambitious of being more than a novel -- but as such it is abortive. Miller, as his wife June once put it, was no Dostoevsky. Moloch does, however, succeed in drawing attention, page after page, to the enormity of the crime perpetrated daily by corporate America against the legions of the helpless and vulnerable, the crackpots, drifters, and dreamers -- the messengers, on whose wretched feet the Great American Telegraph Company literally runs -- who are robbed, not simply of their fair share of surplus profits, but of their real (by which Miller always means joyous, expansive, transcendent, and ideal) lives. Though they deliver a sack full of telegrams a day, the messengers cannot communicate their own "real" messages.

On a street corner in Chinatown, for instance, the Hindu immigrant Hari Das is happily inspired to cry to a desultory crowd: "Men of Cathay, behold in me the Promised Redeemer . . . the new Savior of the World!" But he is very nearly arrested or clubbed, or both, by Officer Mulligan on his beat.

"You've got the gift of the gab all right, you black bastard. Now get this! I wanta treat yer right . . . If yuh got anything on yer chest, look me up and spill it to me, see? Don't practice on these Chinks. They don't know wotderhell it's all about, get me?"
In the next circle of hell, surrounding and goading and mocking the messengers, sit the company clerks and administrators. Here Dion Moloch, as petty bourgeois as any, spends his time, "a sensitive soul attired in a suit of Bedford whipcord and pale blue shirt, the collars and cuffs of which were disgracefully frayed." If Moloch/Miller's whipcord armor marks him out as the aspirant scourge of those around him, the fact remains that they all, including Moloch, his boorish cronies like Prigozi, Stanley, and Dave, as well as naive lost souls like Hari Das, are bound together on the same degrading wheel of work, day in, day out, under a corporate tyranny. (Clearly, much of the same ground is being covered in Moloch as in Tropic of Capricorn, for which in certain ways the former is a drab rough draft. Compare Moloch's "Great American Telegraph Company" with Capricorn's "Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company.") It is Henry Miller's hard, anarchistic political resolve which will not allow him to conceal the grotesque meaninglessness of the mundane struggle. The book bursts with it, clamoring in multiple, often raucous voices -- the narrator's, the protagonist's, numerous characters' -- against the mediocrity and brutality of a life stunted and stifled by the day's demeaning reality. Night brings no relief to Dion Moloch, but only a return to work's counterpart, domestic entrapment. In desperation, he resorts to the odd jag, pursuing women for the sake of escape, booze for no better reasons, unable to make anything more of himself.

"I know, I know," he admits to his old friend Prigozi, who has touched on Moloch's most desperate need: to write. "What do you want -- a row of spare-time novels? I tell you, when it comes five o'clock, I'm licked. The company's got me, body and guts. And when I get home, there's Blanche. Do you know what it feels like to sit down at table with a totem pole?"

Curiously phallic as a term of abuse, a "totem pole" at the dining table, bizarre and disproportionate as it is meant to be, exposes to ridicule not Moloch's wife so much as his own fear of her dominance. And the wife as towering phallus seems indicative of a deeper reversal of identities in the household than Moloch/Miller might perhaps be prepared to admit. Later though, in a tantalizingly brief confession, he will tell Blanche of an experience of his own with her old lover, Jim: "Well, after I took you home that night, and you told me you had refused Jim your hand, I went back to Claridge and went to bed with Jim." -- and just lay there, of course, talking about Blanche. Blanche, for her part, has no patience with Moloch's need to write, and sets out to suppress it as irresponsible. When he skips a day's work, she warns, before slamming the door on him: "Remember that you have a job. Don't go starting a book again."

In Moloch, as in the vast majority of what Miller wrote, his protagonist is representative of the writer. It is not just American sexual politics that is at stake in talking about Miller, but the politics of writing itself.

What, then, is wrong with Moloch?

If it were only a matter of technical incompetence -- inability to sustain and develop a plot, lack of direction, prolixity, tedium, a halting woodenness of style, flat and tinny characterization, and so on -- we could throw up our hands and forget it. Moloch is a first novel. What do you expect? But to begin with, Moloch is unexpectedly strong, rhetorically more diverse than any of Miller's later writings. In addition, most of the mistakes in Moloch are unerringly the "right" ones; those, that is to say, which seem to have facilitated his development into the iconoclast he was to become. Upon observing himself, or Moloch, launch into a dazzling verbal rhapsody, he says, as if defining his own future style:

It was a funambulesque exhibition sans parasol. To race with deft, sure steps, to grease his way through rather than ponder on equilibrium -- that seemed the safest measure. And as he raced...he opened fire....
Writing as tightrope walking, as acrobatic exhibition and attack, without so much as an umbrella to hang on to should you fall.

But Moloch does fall, or topple.

In the attack at the ideological climax of the book, Moloch becomes a monstrosity.

"Get them in a corner," Dion Moloch proposes to himself as he strolls through a Jewish quarter of town:

Just rub their noses in the dirt, and then ask them for a little plain talk. "Out with it, blatherskites! Own up, shitepokes! Who's responsible for this mess?" Watch them whine and whimper, offer flimsy excuses: Russia, the pale, pogrom-makers, the whole category of bromidic absurdities. Press them a little further. . . In the end, they'll admit it: "they love dirt!" It's just as natural for them to be filthy as it is for the Germans to be tidy, for the Irish to be poor, and the Catholics to be ignorant. "It must be in the blood," he told himself. The poor, lousy, mangy devils! Just the same, he could never get used to it. If he could only bawl them out publicly, or clout their fat behinds with a barrel stave. Whew!
True, Miller is trying in Moloch to crush the victim out of his own soul. And Dion Moloch's anti-Semitic scapegoating here is largely conscious: he knows it is a symptom of his own failure and degradation, his own inability to come up with anything but the caricature of an answer to the banality and corruption he sees all around him.

Moloch is a novel. It is not Mein Kampf.

Writers cannot be stripped of the right to a poetry of invective. There is no reason why writing should not wound us or appall. To write, to read is always a risk. Writing, reading, as Miller knew, means ecstasy, not catharsis.

But after Auschwitz, Adorno said, poetry can no longer be written.

Is Moloch after all Mein Kampf?

In a world where the old devils are stirring again, raising their bloodstained snouts to sniff the air, questions like these need to be traced, thread by thread, whatever the risk, to the dark heart of things, where Miller's Moloch squats like a smoldering beacon.

Remembering Babylon

David Malouf

Pantheon Books, $20

by Harvey Blume

There is an area forever associated with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, an area of meeting, crossover, mixture, transgression, an area inhabited -- incarnated -- by Kurtz. Kurtz is the renegade, the one who has abandoned western identity to assume unspeakable powers in an African forest hidden almost entirely from view of Belgium's river steamers. When Kurtz returns to, or is retrieved by, the West, it is only to rave eloquently and die. He never explains the mystery; he is the mystery. He can't articulate the taboo; he is the interdiction itself, the broken commandment, in his very being. The tablets of the law are shattered on the golden calf. Out of this collision comes a Kurtz. David Malouf returns to this supercharged Conradian terrain and summons language strong enough to hold it open, to make it bearable, nearly, for the duration of his remarkable novel, Remembering Babylon. Whereas Kurtz, invoked for most of Heart of Darkness, only materializes at the end, Malouf presents us with his creature of two worlds, his in-between, nearly at the beginning. The first words Malouf gives him, though they may never, like Kurtz's "The horror! The horror!," course through our culture until uttered on screen by Marlon Brando, are memorable enough:

" `Do not shoot,' it shouted [to children who are not quite convinced that the creature they are looking at is human], `I am a B-b-british object!'"

Indeed he was a "B-b-british object" -- a young one, still a boy -- until British seamen heaved him overboard near the coast of Australia sometime in the mid-19th century. Then he became an aboriginal object. For the aborigines, the boy's story begins when they find an incoherent crab-encrusted creature on the shore: the creature does something that approximates a dance and becomes, thereby, approximately human. The boy himself accepts this account of his origins except in dreams and in memories of a language he no longer speaks but has not entirely forgotten.

Malouf gives us access to the mind of Gemmy Fairly, as the boy is named by the whites -- or at least as much access as Gemmy has to himself, for his mind is chambered, double, and at the same time incomplete. Gemmy struggles with familiar English words until whites avert their eyes, seeing in his search for simple sounds a sign of impairment or, worse, of treason -- in any case, a mark of otherness that subverts their own identity. Gemmy compels them to ask themselves "the harder question. Could you lose it? Not just language but it. It."

Gemmy has left the aborigines, among whom he has lived for years, to approach the settlement because whites offer him clues to his first memories of a tyrannical parent and the children among whom he once swarmed in an English sawmill, cleaning nuts and bolts and eating crusted machine oil as if it were candy. From the moment of his appearance among the whites -- he is marched into town ahead of a boy brandishing the make-believe gun -- we tremble for him.

His presence makes the hardest men among them harder still. His indistinctness -- his being neither one thing nor the other, in age, culture, and appearance, his very jaw line reset by different consonants, different vowels -- seems more than imbecilic to them; it seems monstrous. If his existence can be resolved at all in their minds it is that he must be a "blackfeller" disguised in white skin, a dangerous emissary of the outback. He worries "the soulcase" out of them: How long, we wonder, will they let him live?

Those few in the community who care for Gemmy despite fears of their own are gentled in the process. Like the others, they are immigrants from crowded places who have established tenancy on the land in blind terror of its expanse, its openness, and most of all its dark, nomadic inhabitants who seem to appear and disappear like shadows. Now they cross over, somehow, through Gemmy, to vision. They put down tools at odd times to marvel at themselves marveling at insects, flowers, birds pulling filaments out of running water. One man considers that previously he had been no more than "a sociable self, wrapped always in a communal warmth that protected it from dark matters and all the blinding light of things, but also from the knowledge that there was a place out there where the self might stand alone."

Occasionally -- and always luminously -- Malouf crosses all the way over through Gemmy to the world as seen by the aborigines. Once they seek Gemmy on the outskirts of town to telepathically transmit images of the land they used to travel together. Another time they stand squarely within the field of vision of the town's preacher who fails to see them because he cannot assimilate the raw shock of their presence. They, in turn, see him as no more than a "shape, thin, featureless, that interposed itself a moment, like a mist or cloud, before the land blazed out in its full strength again and the shadow was gone."

Gemmy sees from both sides; he is the fractured unity, the unobtainable translation. And though he is the crucial center of the book, other characters are drawn to a comparable depth. It is through two of them, children when they knew Gemmy and now middle-aged, that we look back on the denouement of the story. This break in the narrative, incidentally, is jarring. The leap from present to future, though it occurs near the end of the novel, remains the author's one questionable maneuver.

The writing, however, never falters. There are books we like so much we don't want to finish them. In this case the same applies to paragraphs and even sentences. And in keeping Kurtz-space open to us at maximum intensity, David Malouf has written a profound and poignant book.

The Fourth Dimension

Yannis Ritsos
Translated by Peter Green and
Beverly Bardsley

Princeton University Press, $14.95

by Rachel Hadas

Any cartoon, painting, play or poem featuring mythological personages can be said to bring them back to life, in a sense. The striking thing about the 17 hefty monologues, averaging more than a dozen pages in length, that comprise the late Greek poet Yannis Ritsos's collection, The Fourth Dimension, is not that they reanimate Ajax or Helen, Orestes or Clytemnestra; it's that these figures still seem at least half dead. Is Ritsos's fourth dimension death? These long, slow poems deliberately amalgamate the past and the present, the living and the dead. The resulting macédoine is Ritsos's recurrent subject.

Along with our own food they prepared

the food for the dead. At the hour when we ate
they took from the table pitchers
with honey and oil
and carried them to unknown
graves. We made no distinction
between wine jars and funeral vases. We did not know
what was ours and what belonged
to the dead.
("Philoctetes") We might expect the cumulative effect to be shock, blasphemy, revelation. Yet it's none of these -- it's exhaustion.

Taken singly, virtually any one of Ritsos's leisurely monologues is a reminiscence of a particular mythical episode -- perhaps more than one -- decked out with cigarettes, coffee cups, and other mild anachronisms. But although the speakers are looking back in time, it isn't hindsight they offer so much as puzzlement: what did it all mean? Yes, they're just as stupid as we are. Only quieter. Another one

lifts his hand in a formal gesture, as though to deliver a eulogy,
cuts a crystal from the chandelier,
and places it in his mouth
very simply, like a glass fruit -- you think he's going to chew it, reactivate
some kind of human function; but no, he just holds it between his teeth
so that the crystal glitters with idle brilliance. A woman
scoops face cream out of its round white jar
with a practiced movement of two fingers, and writes
two big thick capital letters -- E
and O, perhaps --
on the windowpane. The sun
warms the pane, the cream
melts, drips down the wall --
this has no significance whatever --
in two short greasy tracks.
("Helen") There are many quick vignettes of sensuality, many mordant speculations, some Proustian reflections on the passage of time. But read -- as Ritsos intended -- end to end, the sheer weight of verbiage in these monologues is overwhelming. Peter Green and Beverly Bardsley, the excellent translators, are right to comment in their introduction that:
It is no accident that the complete collection has never appeared in English, that the temptation to present fragments, to excerpt, to dilute its impact has been too strong to resist. The book's . . . impact is deliberate. At moments we will feel -- as we were meant to do -- that there are too many dead, that they are too large, that they go on too long.
But I am less convinced by their next remark, that The Fourth Dimension challenges us to confront our own ambivalence toward the Other and toward the past, to ask how many of those who pray for the resurrection of the dead would truly welcome it.

Maybe so; but I feel challenged in the area of poetic decorums and taste, not in my beliefs. I am unable, in fact, to extract much deep insight from The Fourth Dimension. This is not necessarily a criticism; poetry is rarely the place to go for a revamping of our beliefs. Figures like Orestes or Iphigenia, as E.R. Dodds pointed out a generation ago in The Greeks and the Irrational, probably felt threadbare centuries before Christ. Ritsos bears eloquent witness to the shabbiness of the old myths; we must pry out profundity, if there is any, beneath his deadpan surfaces.

It is in his relentless cataloguing of the ordinary, the lengthy maladies of the quotidian and the centennial and the millennial, that Ritsos's originality lies. His accomplishment in The Fourth Dimension is to string the painted, chipped beads of the everyday onto long, long loops of thread, where they tangle and dangle -- striking, yes, but impractical, hard to disengage, and finally, a bit absurd.

To change the trope from ornament to what lies beneath: despite Ritsos's unerring eye for every kind of detail, his lines have flabby feeling, languorous and passive as the lives they recount. At times this flaccidity comes across as a lack of affect, at others as eroticism or faint cruelty: Let's go further down; I can't bear to hear her; her cries

batter my nerves and my dreams,
just as those oars
battered the floating slaughtered corpses
momentarily lit up by the ships'
flares, the shooting stars of
and they were all agleam, young and erotic, unbelievably immortal,
in a watery death that cooled their backs, their ankles, their legs.
("Orestes") The constant loneliness, boredom, and nostalgia in which all Ritsos's speakers are steeped may not admit of sentimentality, but it positively fosters garrulity. The fact that there has been no news for two or three millennia prevents no one from nattering on at length.

Language, even more than such novelties as ice cream cones or prams, might be thought to be a stimulant to the poor dead; but the truth in these poems is closer to the opposite. Death is at least as contagious as life; a strange lethargy flows back and forth between the two until we can no longer distinguish the one group from the other. Both, after all, inhabit a world in which whatever is going to happen has already happened.

Ritsos's figures recall characters from Homer and the tragedians, especially Euripedes, rather faintly. Some of Tennessee Williams's heroines, or a ghostly presence like Miss Havisham, are closer kin. But what finally struck me with a pang was that Ritsos's real -- and synchronic -- subject is not mythology but the pathos and poetry of lives that have gone on too long. Grislier than death, his true fourth dimension is old age.

Honey: Stories

Elizabeth Tallent

Alfred A. Knopf, $22.00

by William Holinger

All of the stories in Honey are bittersweet, full of love and sadness: the sadness of not being pregnant and wanting to be; the sadness of being pregnant and not wanting to be; the sadness of your son's girlfriend's suicide. Yet every pain, every sorrow is counterbalanced by love: love of child, love of mate, love of parent, crazy love, past love, love at first sight. That's what the title means: "Honey," the verbal endearment, spoken in many different tones of voice to people dear to you in different ways. The situations that give these stories their energy are original and compelling. A man's ex-wife comes back to town and tells him she'd like to take their son for the summer. A couple drive down to Mexico to try to cope with the myriad feelings stirred up by an imminent abortion. And Caro and Hart, a couple from Tallent's earlier work, appear here in three stories: Caro is pregnant in two of them, and in the third, she and Hart are dealing with a colicky infant. Each of their stories takes a different point of view: the first takes Caro's; the second takes that of Caro's mother, Mercedes Dominguez of New York City, visiting her pregnant daughter in New Mexico; and the third takes the point of view of Hart's son, Kevin, whose girlfriend has committed suicide. Kevin has one of the best lines of dialogue in the book. When Mercedes asks him why he's trying to kill himself, he answers, "I just want to stop feeling what I feel." It's a direct and articulate answer to the question anyone would ask of a suicide, but Kevin's step-grandmother tops it when she answers: "You will."

The situation that sets "James Was Here" in motion might remind you of an Elmore Leonard novel. James has a handgun, and having concealed it in his jacket pocket, he visits several female acquaintances, none of whom is glad to see him. He even kidnaps his own daughter. But it's Elmore Leonard with a twist of goodness and restraint. Behaving more than decently, everyone lets James push them around, so he finally gets what he wants: one more chance with Gwen, his former girlfriend. Although she rejects him again, it's enough for James simply to have had one more chance, and he throws the gun away.

As in other stories in this bittersweet collection, it is love that triumphs in "James Was Here." The scale in James's heart tips back and forth as he dangerously visits first one woman, then another: love, hate, love, desperation, anger, love. The story ends, "He feels as if he saved them all," and you know this means because he didn't shoot them, but really, it's James who is saved: he still has the capacity to love.

And it's love that salvages many of the endings in this collection. While a number of the stories end with an act of lovemaking, the lovemaking is never the resolution itself, but rather tends to signify a temporary respite from trouble. For as Tallent reminds us in the title story, making love is the thing that brings on the pain of childbirth, and thus the pain and the joy of life itself. One of the pleasures of these stories is the assurance and grace with which they're written. Tallent often writes from a male point of view, and she does so with justifiable confidence. Yet she's even more sure-handed and convincing when she's deep in the recesses of her female characters' psyches. What's most remarkable about this collection is the way it renders elements that are exclusively female. Pregnancy, for example. In "Black Dress," the pregnant Caro has been struggling to squeeze into her dress; even breathing has been a struggle. But then,

the weight that seems to melt downward, following her belly's curve, gathering momentum, guided by kicks, is the baby turning over. . . . And sudden lightening, her lungs granted delicious depth, and . . . breath, lovely breath. . . .
Tallent is also deft and efficient at characterization. She can get to the core of a character in just a few sentences, as in the following passage, from "Prowler," describing a friend of young Andy's, named Leo:
For next to no reason, Dennis distrusts Leo, a smart, good-looking kid, self-assured around adults in a way Andy never will be, not until he's one himself -- maybe not even then. Leo's girlfriend works in a record store where Andy and Leo are always hanging out. Andy can't drive yet, of course, and neither can Leo. It's real proof of Leo's fast-talking charm that he has a sixteen-year-old girlfriend.
Stories that are this full of life cause you to think and to question and to experience a wide range of emotions as you read. They are about difficulties in personal lives and familial relationships: birth and death, parenting and step-parenting, spousing. They're multifaceted and complex, and therein lies their strength. They closely examine motive and feeling in a manner that might remind you of the stories of contemporary American writers like John Updike and Ann Beattie.

Setting Elizabeth Tallent apart is the fact that the characters in her stories never seem to give up on each other. In "Ciudad Juárez," Nina says, "I'm not going to judge the way any of us responds to things," and that, in a way, sums up the spirit of the book. Tallent's characters are always entering new, uncharted places in their lives, facing crises that have no ready solutions, and how they respond is simply who they are. In the end, they always do manage to work things out, for even though they've entered unfamiliar terrain, nobody's turning around and going back. They're committed to take the bitter with the sweet.

A History of Male Nudes in America

Dianne Nelson

University of Georgia Press, $19.95

by Heidi Jon Schmidt

"Frog Boy" is the last and best of the stories in Dianne Nelson's A History of Male Nudes in America, winner of the 1993 Flannery O'Connor award from the University of Georgia Press. Ms. Nelson follows with heartbreaking exactitude the thoughts and feelings of Rocky Davis, a "big, sleepy kid" who is passing into adulthood through the portals of unrequited love -- a torturous passion for his father's new girlfriend. Rocky watches as his father strokes her neck:
For the first time in his whole life, his father's hand bothers Rocky, actually repulses him. Up until now, it has mostly been a good hand, generous, caring, luminous in the dark. Now, it seems to Rocky, the knuckles are too big; the nails, squared off and thick and almost yellow.
When they go to the zoo together, Rocky can't help thinking the stench of the Reptile House must be his own. He begins to pilfer his father's belongings and it soon becomes clear that the only way Rocky can imagine attaining manhood is by stealing that most precious possession from his father too.

The other stories here often approach this complexity of relation, but at the last moment the author seems to shy away, unwilling to wade into the sorrowful lives of her characters. Instead she reaches for the antic. In "Dixon," a young woman troubled by a series of tall tales being spread about her dead brother, studies karate, hoping to frighten the tale teller into silence. Splinters fly, but the reader, curious about the truth of the dead man's character, his relation to his sister and to the man who is now inventing a life for him, is left wishing for more substance and fewer special effects.

In "Wintercourse," Lorna, a troubled daughter, hitchhikes home to disrupt the idyll of her father with his new bride. Lorna is equipped with a grab bag of mismatched delinquent characteristics: she's pawned her jewelry to take a madcap waterskiing vacation, been kicked out of college, wears a crew cut and baggy black clothes, and packs a pistol. Sportive nihilist though she is, Lorna has little effect on her relatives -- she spends her visit sleeping, while her hosts wonder what to do about her, dither, and give up. After a while she wakes, packs her piece, and leaves. Nelson has the talent to use situations like this well, to reveal wonders of pain and understanding in her characters, but she lacks the determination to push this story to its full possibility.

Which is particularly frustrating because Nelson has a real lyrical gift. In the midst of the irritating "Wintercourse" comes a striking and gently comic description of a drowned cow -- "a huge marble eye, then the sorry unsophisticated face of a Hereford" floating back and forth in an ice-covered pond. Again and again, her strong, spare images capture fleeting feelings and sensations with all their mystery intact. A child falling asleep becomes "simple yellow cloth or the yellow birds on my grandmother's clothesline in the fall when the afternoon sun subdues everything in its warmth." In "Exactly Where I Am," two men reveal in their postures the ache of the factory labor that has taken years from their lives, while the children they have labored for, ignorant of the efforts that keep them so safe and cozy, eat ice cream from paper cups and watch TV.

It is Nelson's tender concern for her male characters, their tongue-tied fragility, their Byzantine relation to feeling, that drives most of the stories in this first book. She takes the traditional gift of a woman -- to know a man's heart better than he does himself -- and turns it to real literary effect. The men here are in general much more fully realized than the women, and Nelson sees them with sympathy, admiration, and understanding. Their love, for their women and their children, is visceral, beyond explanation, "like biting on a hot, bare wire." In "Ground Rules," the opening story, a divorced father teaches his son to keep silent, feel as little as possible, and leave no traces, as they keep watch from tall grass, waiting to kidnap another son from his mother. The crime accomplished, they flee, seeing themselves as "thinking, running, feeling shadow[s]". . ."ghosts and birds." As in "Frog Boy," a man must take what he loves by cunning, or by force.

A Brief History of Male Nudes in America is at its best when it deals with men and women who, though inarticulate, are far from uncomprehending. It's a relief, in a time when literature often glamorizes drift and emptiness and brutality, to find an author whose characters are full, fleshly beings, suffering the consequences of their desires, bound to each other by love. Dianne Nelson is such an author, perceptive and often able to evoke a world in a phrase. I'm sure that in her next book she will wield these talents with more certainty and greater success.

Originally published in the February/March 1994 issue of Boston Review

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