Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). Dew is also a regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books. His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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Here are five very different, densely-built little books, published under one cover in small print. Each deserves its own space, and while the design here is in many ways quite beautiful, there is a sensation of being cramped, a kind of claustrophobia, like those encyclopedia images of a butterfly in its still-not-quite butterfly state, cocooned, wings folded in upon themselves, wrapped wetly, so fully contained within the chrysalis that the idea of them unfurled seems impossible. So maybe cut the book apart, for easy travel. Each of these collections of stories demands time, attention, air. At their best, each author can take your breath away.
The five books here are the four finalists of Rose Metal Press’s 2010 chapbook competition and the winner of the 2009 chapbook contest, Sean Lovelace’s How Some People Like Their Eggs, in reprint. Lovelace’s work is particularly notable—sparkling fragments hinged on surprise, on a quirkily tragic poetics. Handbooks for living with cancer, Charlie Brown and Snoopy, and, yes, the preparations of eggs favored by selected famous people are all topics here. A representative sample of style and content is this section from the book’s final piece, “Endings”:
A teenage girl catches an amazingly large fish. She pauses, allowing herself to gaze in wonder. It has a row of bent hooks and five broken leaders in its mouth. It has a history. The girl isn’t really a girl. She only plays one online. She is actually a grown man who works in a chemical company that combines corn husks with hydrochloric acid to create a polymer used in cruise missiles. He bashes the head of the fish on the gunwale and tosses it thrashing into an Igloo cooler.
Yet each book in this book has its own unique tone and style, whether pondering Woodsies and Palins with a wounded empathy—and articulating the violent sexual undertones of Wii Tennis—or reflecting with a kind of numbed mournfulness on loss and attraction and those physical remnants of ourselves that can be stolen or hoarded or stuffed into a T-shirt cannon and fired over the water. This is a writhing book. To return to the chrysalis image, there’s a sense of immanent rupture in many of these stories. In one Elizabeth J. Cohen piece we encounter two women “kissing violently, arms pressed to bruising, fingers finding ribs and spinal notches and pressing as though those buttons did something useful. They are not useful in any way,” the story concludes, a twist of hindsight on a moment of heated denial, a writhing to break out of limits. When another narrator wants “to lie down on the road and count very, very slowly to infinity” or when another resigns herself to swimming back and forth, naked, “displacing as much water as I can” because she knows there is no “way to win this conversation and there is certainly no way for me to win him,” the likewise naked man she is with and yet very much not with, these impulses, while flavored with frustration, are also something more.
A biding of time—a starving out of childhood, a holding of one&rstquo;s breath through relationships—is, perhaps, the common resonance of these books. A waiting for the chrysalis to dry out and crack. In Mary Miller’s Paper and Tassels, for instance, which features the scene with the silent swimming as well as a story from which the collection’s title is taken, characters shuffle or thrust or sit still, being touched, or simply stare off at space, willing themselves to be patient, refusing to ponder, letting time pass. There is an echo, in these stories, of Ann Sexton “nibbling the crisping edges, the whites” of her family’s fried eggs, or the children at the County Mall, realizing how wildly far apart their desires are, or the girl in the parked car who masturbates for a stranger, or the man who just wants “to call my ex-wife and have my call roll directly into her voicemail.” These are five small books that need their own space, their own frame, but on a shelf together they sound certain notes in harmony...containing themselves, for the meantime.
Official Elizabeth J. Colen Web Site
Official John Jodzio Web Site
Official Tim Jones-Yelvington Web Site
Official Sean Lovelace Web Site
Official Rose Metal Press Web Site