THE RIVER SOUND by W.S. Merwin

(Knopf) $23Coming into town with a minimal amount of pre-publicity and hype (even for a poet), W.S. Merwin nevertheless gave off real star power as he took the podium at Elliott Bay Book Company on November 12. The reading was dual-purpose: one stop on a tour to promote Merwin's latest volume of poems, The River Sound; and to honor the late Denise Levertov, the British-born poet who spent her last years in Seward Park before her death in 1998. Many of Levertov's friends were in attendance, and an emotionally wrought hush awaited Merwin in the basement of the bookstore.

Merwin began the reading with several poems of Levertov's, accompanied by anecdotes which brought tears to his eyes and to those of much of the audience. After a few poems from Flower and Hand, Copper Canyon Press' merger of Merwin's two books of the late '70s and early '80s, Merwin dipped into The Lice, published in 1967. He declined to read from the new book, claiming he "didn't bring a copy."

Merwin does not seem to fear death. He seems almost to be welcoming it like a long-awaited guest, and The River Sound's cover is a black-and-white silver gelatin print looking up a river at the coming horizon. I, for one, hope Merwin is putting off his last journey as long as he can. GRANT COGSWELL

CULTURE JAM: THE UNCOOLING OF AMERICA by Kalle Lasn

(Eagle Brook) $25Adbusters magazine, that anti-advertising prankster, is effective because it is as slick and pretty as its neighbors on the magazine rack -- simultaneously playing the game and undermining it. Instead of demonstrating the same insidious finesse as his magazine, Adbusters founder Kalle Lasn's new book, Culture Jam, is a long-winded and small-minded analysis of our contemporary consumer culture, ending in a flaccid call to action against it.

Lasn's few main points are repeated so many times (like the advertising ethos he abhors), it pains me to recapitulate them once again: corporations have won over the soul of America; we the people suckle the teat of consumerism like Huxley's "soma"; and we need to act spontaneously and resist every detail of this lifestyle to get back to an authentic life. The principle problem in his assertion is the supposition that this malady is a modern one -- as if brainwashing didn't exist before television -- and the liberal, unspecified use of phrases like "authentic life." Without a clear definition of what these references signify, the argument at large disintegrates, and Lasn loses authority on the subject.

In reality, commercialism is much more complex than a master-slave dialect. When product ubiquity has resulted in such marvels as hiphop and pop art, life in the material world deserves a more complete analysis. Lasn, however, is the curmudgeon stomping on his soapbox, with no intention of considering more than what he feels, and in turn repeating himself into idiocy. If he sincerely believes that the generation born between 1965 and 1980 "represents the biggest waste of potential energy, passion, creativity, and intellect in our time" (page 114), he simply has not been paying attention. Too much TV, maybe? BRIAN GOEDDE


LOST AND FOUND

THE DEATH SHIP by B. Traven, 1926

(Colliers, first Colliers edition publ. 1962)Most widely known in America for his Chaucerian tale of gold and greed, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, B. Traven remains one of the more mysterious literary figures of the 20th century. He published The Death Ship in Germany in 1926, and was originally assumed to be of German origin. When it was discovered that he was living in Mexico, he was thought to be a Communist refugee hiding from the Nazis. Later it was rumored that he was none other than Ambrose Pierce, who had disappeared in Mexico in 1913.

The facts were less romantic, but not much: A Mexican journalist discovered that Berick Traven Torsvan was a reclusive American of Norwegian ancestry, residing and running a restaurant in Acapulco while continuing to publish tales which sold millions of copies in 36 languages.

More than a high seas adventure tale, The Death Ship initially follows the narrator -- a cross between Melville's naive Billy Budd and cerebral Conrad -- through his humorously frustrating struggles against government bureaucracy, highlighting Traven's hatred for passports, paperwork, and the type of parochial nationalism which necessitates them. The narrator is denied his very existence after he loses his passport, and is unable to regain it because of his itinerant, undocumented sailor's lifestyle. He is then forced to join the motley crew of a "death ship," enduring "white slavery" aboard a ship betrothed to the ocean floor in exchange for insurance money.

Traven's descriptions of the bowels of the boiler room recall Dante's Inferno. These passages allow the author to sing the praises of the expendable ("already dead") men who bond through brutal experience, and to harshly criticize a world fueled by corporate greed. Because it is a working-class seaman's story, The Death Ship is an anomaly within a genre where heroics and intelligence are generally the domain of the nautical brass.

That The Death Ship makes a cameo appearance on a table in the movie Fight Club seems as much an anomaly as the book itself, and as mysterious as its author. PETER BUCHBERGER

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