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Archive for February, 2011
Don’t Go Fish is the fourth chapbook Kat Dixon has published, the others being Kississippi, an e-chap from Gold Wake Press, and Planetary Mass and Birding, which are both forthcoming (Dancing Girl Press and Thunderclap Press, respectively).
Coming from Maverick Duck Press, Don’t Go Fish is plain and unassuming, and after a few reasons I realise why. Dixon’s writing needs no adornment. The images rise up from the pages to evoke an inner landscape that, while whimsical, is lit by a stark and unforgiving light. By stark, I mean a sparseness of metre and economy of words. By unforgiving, I mean in tone, in meaning and in style.
Speaking of style. This might be taken as a reductionist observation, but certain things like attention to line length, use of colour and metaphor remind me of poets like William Carlos Williams and H. D. Which lead on through logical progression to the Modernist movement in general, the Imagists in particular.
Lines such as “Address: / (stunned blue beneath a collapsed / skylight and folded / into so much rescued wrapping paper,” and, “When morning comes, I’ll be there / Sewn into the neck of your undershirt. / Breathing,” are all spare simplicity and offhanded control. Dixon doesn’t need long, overly clever interpolations or convoluted, emotionally weighted similes.
I have been carrying this book around with me for months. The lines sink in slowly, giving up their subtler narratives measure by measure. It is not a book that can be gulped down and digested—you must wait, and taste it first.
A Review of “Life in the Slow Lane: Surviving a Tour of Duty in Drivers Education” by Thomas M. SullivanFriday, February 11th, 2011
According to my notes, the Driver’s Ed company is located in Suite 405. Well, the tall mahogany door in front of me does have the number 405 on it, but I’m looking at a brass plaque with the name of some real estate company. There’s no mention of any driving school.
I push the door open anyway, enter a silent room, and hike across a mile of marble to the reception desk. The lobby is excruciatingly bright and devoid of plant life. A receptionist looks up from blowing on her bright finger nails and chirps, “Hello,” with false enthusiasm.
“Um, I’ve come for my Driver’s Ed interview,” I stammer. “Is this the right place?” I glance down at her desk and spy the latest issue of People and a bottle of nail polish, modern accessories of the downsizing-prone employee.
She laughs as she nods. “They all say that.”
“Buckle up,” Thomas Sullivan warns his readers early in this “excruciatingly” boring narrative, the detailed chronicle of the author’s time working for a “hypocritical” driving instruction company, “and enjoy the ride.” Car puns abound—“Maybe a sort of Car-ma was at work” in leading his destiny to this job, for instance, a job for which he was, initially, “revved”—but even as the humor here is relied upon to give life to the story, it falls short. Righteous anger, rather than humor, is the deeper motivation here; Sullivan tells this story in order to give voice to his indignation at the “empty, commercial relationship” this particular company had with its clients, kids for whom the authors feels a particular connection and for whom he has a special compassion, which, in turn, is the root of his pedagogical approach. If you care about how “Being exposed to a Driver’s Ed company that doesn’t value people or relationships,” then you might manage to stomach a few pages of this book.
Plot twists include the part where the author decides, “it’s time to finally deal with my dental issues.” Moments of revelation include the moment where the author “must admit that I’ve done a full reversal on the cell phone issue,” declaring “Maybe these communication technologies can be cool if you can control their impact on your life.” There are also broader reflections on social and political ramifications of “car culture”: “This dispersal of people into sprawling, fuel-chugging communities definitely has a cost.” If you think you’ve heard all this before, don’t worry—you absolutely have not heard the relentless barrage of accounts of driver’s education session after driver’s education session.
For me, the only break from this monotony was an unintentionally creepy moment “grinding away two dead hours between lessons, reading a copy of Teen in the 7-Eleven,” but, alas, even this is merely earnest “Continuing education … to further my knowledge of the teenage world.”
The root of the problem with this book is what the author refers to as a “clash” “between competing perspectives over what is acceptable.” One perspective holds that books, in order to be published, should show a certain merit; that a memoir, in order to stand on its own as a text, must be artfully framed. A life is shaped in the telling, animated—a boring life can certainly make an interesting book, but it takes work, the work of writing. Sullivan’s perspective seems to be that recitation—regurgitation, even, as it often seems to be—of events are sufficient enough, structured by a chronological bookends (he needs a job, he becomes a driving instructor, he leaves the “hypocritical” company) and veined with a moral critique (it is, after all, a “hypocritical” company, and Sullivan is “a good teacher,” “decent at the job,” with some opinions to pass on about what that means and why it matters). I do not believe that what Sullivan has done, in these pages, is a finished book. What we have, at best, is a rough draft, a rambling sketch needing the infusion of order, form—needing, in short, effort, hard work, an investment of time.
Life in the Slow Lane is a book that should not be read, but, worse, Sullivan has not yet written it.
Ken Wohlrob shares a certain ideal with Henry Miller, a commitment to “the streets” as that which stands in opposition to “literature.” As laid out at the start of Black Spring, Miller believed that “In the street you learn what human beings really are; otherwise, or afterwards, you invent them.”
“What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say, literature,” Miller insisted, and while much could be said about this understanding of the world (and of art, which, to be authentic, must represent a return to the “wild”—to “childhood” in a sense Miller adapts from Rimbaud), suffice it to say that Wohlrob, in this collection of stories set in and otherwise about the streets and public spaces of New York City, has a similar allergy to that which is “false, derived.” This is not to say that these pages crackle with the vigor and originality of Henry Miller—they do not. But the pieces in Songs of Vagabonds, Misfits, and Sinners: New York Stories, rely on a dichotomy between authentic and fake, between feeling and pose.
Consider the giant tampon, a piece of installation art, its string kicked around or trampled by gallery visitors. This isn’t the sort of art that finds valorization in these city stories. Rather, Wohlrob channels the voices and tastes of various New Yorkers—the old Italian man searching for the right variety of Tums at a CVS store, the woman dancing at a strip club to put away some money for her daughter—who are resolutely of the street as Miller meant that phrase.
Consider Ramón, who learned to paint from his father, sitting on a milk crate, working on “flattened cardboard boxes from behind the bodegas.” The two would travel from Brooklyn in to the Met, admiring certain paintings, like Klimt’s Mada… which “was Ramón’s first girlfriend. Pale, surly, and beautiful,” though “He could never pinpoint what exactly drew him to her. There was a mystery, a presence, or a something.” Ramón, however, is a painter of the streets. His tastes run toward Otto Dix, but he’s trapped in a world where galleries feature portraits of cartoon characters or “a series dedicated to photographs of feet … lascivious scenes inspired by Balzac’s Droll Stories with cutouts from Disney coloring books,” etc. He misses the old neighborhood and its wild reality, its streetness, and he tries to capture something of that in his own painting, one of which ends up hanging in a men’s room , or, as Miller and Ramón would rightly insist on calling it, a toilet. Irony and theory are not interests of Ramón’s. “Where is the goddamn mystery??!! Where’s your passion??!!” he asks of the works of contemporaries. Yet there is indeed a passion, and a mystery, in his work ending up there amid the sounds of defecation, the automatic flushing, the human filth and mechanical sterilization.
The toilet, as juncture between the human and its denial, is, in fact, the perfect place for art. The toilet is practically “the street” (Miller, in Black Spring, sings the praises, at length, of Parisian-style outdoor urinals). Likewise, out in an alley, among the garbage cans, two denizens of this book argue over Kandinsky and Joan Miro, a spat cleared up only by another man screaming the name Max Ernst from his open window. Yes, this is the street: “scraggly men, in soiled t-shirts, the necks wide and stretched so their chests could be seen, tattered sport coats with rips in the material, and pants that once had color but now only had grime, circled one another, hands held out like claws, crouched down in wrestling stances.” “Kandinsky asshole!” screams one. “Joan Miro fuckhead!” comes the retort.
The riddle of Miller’s stance, of course, is how to make “literature” out of that which resolutely rejects being “literature”—how, in short, to weave written art out of material that resists any whiff of being “false, derived.” Or, to phrase it another way: How do you consistently churn out such stuff without becoming a caricature, a cheap copy of your own better moments? Urine and cabbage don’t make a story more real, more authentic. Hanging a picture in a toilet doesn’t make it more of a comment on or scream against the slow decay of human existence.
Wohlrob attempts to counter this risk with details. Fading sunlight makes “the old couch look even more battered and bruised, silver duct tape glowing against the pale, worn brown leather. Off in the distance, cars ran over potholes and divots as they raced down the BQE.” Here are the citizens of Washington Heights one afternoon:
Dominican crisscrossing Cuban, Puerto Rican walking around Irish, hipsters scooting past doctors and nurses from Columbia University Medical Center. They headed towards the Puerto Rican restaurant with the chickens hanging in the window, the drippings glistening on the crisp, dark skin. Or to the Gristedes to pick up cabbage, rice, and a liter of Pepsi. Or into the Dominican bodega to buy calling cards with names such as “Oro Solido,” “Knockout,” and “100% Platano NY.” Or just to get home, the final stretch in a return to peace and quiet, or at least enough peace and quiet that could be had on humid summer night when everyone sat on the front stoop, listening to the local Reggaeton station, yelling up and down the block, and playing dominos.
Then there is the psychological, the emotional element, which, for Wohlrob, is frequently one of desperation. A husband smells his wife’s cancer on her vomit, her breath. A scam is coined to pay for medical bills, but here’s the view inside the scammer’s mind, a stab at a vernacular of suffering—of confusion and terror and pain:
They walked down the hallway. Room numbers rolled past. 4G05. 4G06. On the other side: 4E18. 4E15. Nurses and doctors throwing out measurements: 10ccs of this, 12 milligrams of the other, two doses of blankblankblankamine. The dials of the blood pressure cuffs: 120, 140, 160, 180. The LCD readouts of electronic thermometers: 105, 102, 98. The Sanskrit of physician writing followed by an endless stream of numbers in columns. More room numbers. 4G01. 4E02. Then a calendar with days marked, meetings listed with times. November 20th, 2:00, admin meeting. A clock on the wall. 8:05 pm.
These stories don’t always succeed. There are characters that are hard to care about, the music of the street—particularly how people talk—is alluded to rather than represented, and there are false notes, choreographed comparisons, images that smack of the derived. But in the end there is an ample dose, too, of the “accident and incident, drama, movement” that Miller argued was the inheritance of being born and raised in the streets.
A Review of He Wanted to Be a Cartoonist for The New Yorker
by Matthew James Babcock
“What, after all,” Matthew James Babcock asks in the course of this poignant and sinewy novella, “is the difference between joy and agony? Between laugh and scream?
In both cases, the body churns chemicals and shoots fluids through millions of lubricated labyrinths. The lungs pump. Tears bloom. Pressure snaps a tendon of pencil lead. Incisions of ink mar paper and flesh. There is a cleansing, a burst of clarity. A hush follows. The result is truth. Something new is conceived, a fresh connection or observation, something drawn up for the first time. It is original, your creation.
The protagonist, Bryce, has a friendless school life and a violent drunk for a father. After an obsession with a young vixen leads to further humiliation, Bryce exhibits an uncanny knack for cartoons of, as the title indicates, the variety found in The New Yorker. Consider “Christmas at the Nonconformists,” for instance, “a shot of a woman gripping a clown figure whose accordion-spring body had been permanently ripped from its mechanized container. She exclaimed, ‘Oh, Bill. Just what I wanted. A Jack-Outside-The-Box!’” Or, farther down the slide of crossword puzzle word-play, “Henri-Louis Pernod vending a new beverage from a street in Couvet, a customer eyeing an elaborate glass of the liquid, and asking, ‘Will it really make the heart grow fonder?’”
Babcock coins some nice cartoon punch lines, but the real strength of He Wanted to Be a Cartoonist… is the tightness of its prose, the propelling quality of its descriptions—be these of the sputtering hot metal of combat in Somalia or the slow, generally wordless choreography of a marriage coming apart. The feverish banalities of adolescence are Babcock’s particular forte, from the sludge of an afternoon alone to feverish obsessions over a crush. Bryce sees the object of his affection everywhere, in billboards and street signs: “She was Stop, Yield, and School Zone,” though she is also there, “her legs suntanned and shapely in pleated Terminix shorts,” having “declared war on household pests.” Babcock laces up the irony, but he also nicely preserves the quivering vulnerability of nostalgia, even nostalgia for a kind of misery, as lonely Bryce, slouched in a 4-H T-shirt, contemplates a teen club where “Everyone else sparkled … They wore lacy stockings, body-hugging tank tops, and cobra-backed blazers scored with canary candystripes,” and the air, it “smelled of deodorant, pickles, and club sandwiches.”
Life evades our plans, eschewing rational pattern, sense. And for this, the logic of cartoons is best suited to helps us cope and carry on. In art, as this novella argues, “there is little to explain …
There is only the urge to forge dissonance, to slap pigments and punch clay, to sculpt expressions of shock and meditative bliss. Time and space? Irrelevant. Probability? A nuisance. What is the distance, say, between Michael Jordan and Michelangelo? Mona Lisa and Mogadishu? Thomas Carlyle and Thomas the Tank Engine? It is the difference between dusk and dawn, paper and ink, creation and destruction. Which is to say, no difference at all.
A Review of May-September
by Jen Michalski
One of two novellas tied for first place in last year’s Press 53 Open Awards competition, Jen Michalski’s May-September is the story of Alice—a young woman with an MFA and a bookstore job, “eager for a handsome reimbursement”—and Sandra—an older woman embarking on a project of posting her memoirs on a blog. This is a story, then, of unlikely love, tenderly traced, and, just as much, of the weight of memory, the relationships that continue in our minds, even (or especially) when we are alone and their time long past.
For Sandra, “The nights were always the worst, when it was darkest and quietest. She couldn’t play the piano because of the neighbors, and all she had were her memories. No matter what she did, she could not make them loud enough in her mind. To fill the dark. She hated that they were so soft, pastel chalks, interrupted by car horns, intestinal distress, her own inexplicable sadness.” For Alice, whose own recent ex is still a physical presence in her life, the sadness is different but no less heavy.
Bringing these two together, Michalski demonstrates a gift for empathy and, more impressively, for pacing. Annoyance turns to longing, to desire, to love. Yet when Alice touches Sandra, she feels the cartilage beneath the flesh; “She thought about how, when she was Sandra’s age, not even Sandra’s age, Sandra would be dead.” Alone in Sandra’s bathroom, undressing, in preparation for what she knows not quiet, Alice finds herself pondering “the Oil of Olay, the prescriptions for osteoporosis, cholesterol. Tylenol. Ex-Lax. Eye drops” in the medicine cabinet, which is to say she opens the medicine cabinet, she searches out and stares these products down. “You are worried because I am so much older,” says Sandra, after a joke about how “it’s always good to check the expiration date,” but “Has it occurred to you that I am worried because you are so much younger?”
Either age is a problem, in the end, and Sandra is forced into the care of her daughter while Alice returns to her mother’s house, to childhood. “It had not been a long time,” Michalski writes, “Them. A few months,” yet May-September seems to make the same claim about all of us, in our leaky, watery bodies, sagging and becoming brittle as we shuffle through our too-temporary existences. It is stories like this that give us useful pause, prompting some reconsideration of what, in the end, might really matter.