Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook 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). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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The problem with much of what we do is that we do it for each other, first and foremost, basket-weavers showing off their particularly clever turns of craft to fellow basket-weavers, who are, in turn, basket-collectors, experts in the historical lineages of select weaves and materials. We discuss baskets at bars, where baskets get made, on stage. We study baskets in our homes, at our basket-making tables. We dissect baskets in classroom workshops. We read blogs wherein baskets are made, baskets debated. A basket gets made into a movie and some of us denounce the original basket and others of us are enthralled anew; some of us are jealous, some of us declare, once again, that baskets are dead. The future belongs to plastic.
I’m guilty of this, certainly, and especially here, where my task is to critically ponder yet graciously respond to the truckloads of baskets delivered monthly to the decomP offices in southern Ohio. Some of these baskets take my breath away, but always also from the point of view of a basket maker, at least also, in part.
But baskets are made, one might argue, for something other than appreciation. What might (naïvely?) be called honest use—you put fruit in them, when the fruit are too many and too heavy to carry. Maybe you pack a picnic, or a dog that otherwise would be complicated to carry or require, on its tiny legs, to follow along. A basket keeps yarn from spilling all over the floor, or keeps spare toilet paper rolls handy yet discreetly housed.
My point is we shouldn’t forget what it is that stories and novels and poems and hybrid genres do—what they did for us, to inspire us into this path, this hungry profession; what they can do, potentially, in the best of all possible futures.
Reading Sarah Gerkensmeyer’s collection of stories, I felt like I was at a basket-weavers’ convention. I don’t know how else to put it. This is a book that sounds like an MFA program. There are certain turns of phrase, certain true moments, certain gimmicks, certain set-up scenes of mild but domestic absurdity, certain props of language, minor epiphanies or other techniques of fading the story out into the horizon:
1) The heat is like a cupped hand...
2) “What’s that noise?” Jan’s mother asks when she calls one night, a couple days after Jan’s visit to the placement agency.
“Is that static?” her mother asks. “Do you have the TV on?”
Jan realizes that her mother can hear him breastfeeding, the wash of soft suckling just below the phone.
3) The monster who has been haunting me since I was a kid is depressed.
4) In art therapy, a man with “two separate wardrobes. One for his fat, masculine self and one for his thin, feminine self” urges his students to draw “two pictures of our mother’s womb.” The trauma here centers around reabsorbed twins. Another story has a woman hired to cry over high-end produce at a high-end grocery story.
5) The Boundary Waters.
6) But at that particular moment, she simply drives them into the dark, dark night, unaware for now of what it is that they all, each one of them, are driving from.
For me, reading this collection was like eating, instead of bread, the dry ingredients of bread—so much flour, so much water, yeast, a pinch of salt. Maybe no salt, actually. To me it was simply vacant: decently-crafted, with semi-colons and the occasional filigree of plot (the sound of a child breastfeeding taken for static! That was beautiful, but not enough to sustain even the page, let alone the story), but nothing stunning, no engagement with language or with story such that it took the breath away.
Which brings me back to baskets, I’m afraid. We’re drowning in them. Technology has allowed proliferations in publishing, in self-publishing, and, along with it, calcification of old divisions based on hierarchies of training and/or who you know. There are grants to fund the writing of certain stories for certain journals, programs that hire those folk to teach paying customers who want, also, to survive, somehow, financially, writing stories. I should switch back to my metaphor. Every month here at decomP I examine baskets that look like they were made at a craft camp, predictable and lifeless. And I encounter baskets made of street-detritus, barely woven, tangled of reed voicing a kind of unrevised scream. But I also encounter baskets that, defying all convention and scrambling expectations, lift, weightless, at a rush, dragging me into the sky and leaving me dangling, nearly unconscious from the altitude shift. Maybe, I suggest, that’s what baskets should be, should do. And maybe—to drop the metaphor again—any story that isn’t breathtaking, that doesn’t inspire tremors, just isn’t worth taking out of the notebook, the exercise book, the drawer.
What do we make baskets for? To pad a resume, to advance a career, to land a teaching job, to generate holiday presents for relatives, to bring home a trophy for the mantelpiece or the coffee table? To lance some abscess in our souls, to cry out in mourning, to twist caricature for the purposes of revenge, to dance under the laurels of our cleverest thoughts? To unite, to mobilize, to reach the lonely, to lift the fallen, to testify to our existence in this cold world, to change it?
There are all sorts of reasons. And I have no idea what reasons motivated Gerkensmeyer, who I regret is, tangentially at least, on the receiving end of my lament. But let me just say this: we basket-weavers spend an inordinate amount of time talking about process. Maybe, however, the how has come to outrank and outnumber the why. And maybe in a world of proliferating products—baskets, baskets, everywhere, and too damn few that amaze, that haunt—we should turn our discussions back to questions of motivation, questions even of function, of purpose, and keep those goals foremost as we proceed.
If you’re reading this, you probably know a few things about making baskets, and you probably have a whole stack of your own. But there are baskets and there are baskets. The latter, as they say, can be sharp as a crystal and living as a kitten, rich as raw pigment and subtle as three-day-stewed goulash. Those are the books I want to read: the surprising, the addictive, laced with painful reality and sustained by refreshing artifice. This one didn’t do that for me, but in its lack it reminded me, page by page, of the itch, the need, which I hope can become something like a solid conversation...
Official Sarah Gerkensmeyer Web Site
Official Autumn House Press Web Site