A Review of “We know what we are” by Mary Hamilton

Spencer Dew

This beautifully produced chapbook–the winner of Rose Metal Press’s fourth annual short story chapbook contest, judged and with an introduction by Dinty W. Moore–features an unsettling letterpress printed ribcage on the cover and deals out short pieces driven by free-wheeling first person voices and a surrealist logic anchored solidly in the concrete, such that, for instance, we have

I am a long coat, a black duster, the kind that hangs off your shoulders and brushes your palm. The kind that nicks the backs of your knees and parts open front and back to allow for movement. The kind of coat that makes you taller, kinder, ghost-like. I don’t know,


It’s one of those things like how a riddle works its way into the notches in your sinus cavity and lingers and infects and wakes you at night and you try every possible path to resolution, and still you can’t figure the answer. And still you are awake at four a.m.

What’s hypnotic about such passages owes much to the coupling of real-world particularity–in object, in description, in language, and in experience–to something vast and mysterious, some message relayed, as in another story in this collection, via coded dots and lines. We have a coat, a way of talking about the cut and hang of said coat, we have “sinus cavity”  and infection, we have this insomniacal pondering, and yet all of these pieces are like glass shards glued down onto a mosaic, and the pleasure of We know what we are is that this mosaic is never visible as a whole. We see an arch, patches of color, a pickup truck loaded into a pickup truck, but something–like the visions of a fever dream–remains always just out of reach.

Consider Bull Shannon, for instance, or Theodore Huxtable. Both are invoked repeatedly in this collection, and in some sense surely hover above it as guiding spirits. The text is prefaced with the acknowledgement that without “Malcolm-Jamal Warner and the creators and writers of The Cosby Show…I would be lost.” Yet a story like “Me and Theodore climbed to the top of the water tower because we were scared of the tremors beneath the dirt,” beginning “There is nothing wrong with lanterns under your skin” has little to do with The Cosby Show per se. Rather, the story titles featuring these names function more as joke intros or oblique glosses on the brief narratives that follow, reflecting, as well, the speed with which one image, in Hamilton’s work, move on to the next. A songbird is replaced by a fruit bat, Malcolm-Jamal Warner in Eskimo kit is transmogrified into a plastic bag full of silver buttons.

This alchemy is not unconnected to the oral, performative nature of Hamilton’s work.  She, with Lindsay Hunter (whose Daddy’s was reviewed in this month’s decomP) co-founded the Chicago reading series Quickies!, focused, as it is, on polished and entrancing live presentation of literature. These quick pieces have the ring, frequently, of texts intended to be read aloud, where, unmoored from the permanence of the page, their shifts, non sequiturs, and free associations play out to different effect, part of the small talk preamble and intermittent gaze of the stage magician pulling off something casually spectacular with a deck of cards. Or an audience volunteer and a handsaw.

“Many rips make one hole insignificant,” says the narrative of one wisp of a story, at once speaking to and exemplifying Hamilton’s sleight of hand. Precision in the display of randomness, this is skill behind We know what we are. From the plainly stated–“There is a certain faith in the body’s ability to heal. In the way a broken bone set correctly will find its way back together.”–to the fantastical–“I said take up your weapons and make your way into the belly of night. Slash apart her mud veil.” Imagine a stage magician who, amidst assorted nonchalant pyrotechnics and the seemingly spontaneous hat-based production of numerous rabbits and fruit bats, also makes appear on stage, in glimmering mist, the motley billing of a night court session while shimmying around in imitation of the freestyle dance of The Cosby Show’s opening credits–this is the sort of book that begs you to flip back to the front page of a short story just finished and riddle your way through it again. “Tremors?” you’ll say, “Like, Tremors?”

Official Mary Hamilton Web Site
Official Rose Metal Press Web Site

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