Archive for April, 2011

A Review of “RE: Telling. An Anthology of Borrowed Premises, Stolen Settings, Purloined Plots, and Appropriated Characters” by William Walsh, Editor

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Spencer Dew

The subtitle summarizes the gimmick here, as does Matt Bell’s opener, a story wherein the plumber Mario (the one who is plagued by turtles, who “kills with his ass”) ponders the nature and motivations of God, this deity being, explicitly, one with a pocketful of quarters and the ability either to press Continue or to walk away. On the one hand, the project of this book is familiar ground. Revisions of fairy tales are the stuff of undergrad writing assignments decades back, source for countless poetry collections and critical polemics. And, yes, here we have a mournful Paul Bunyan, revenge as plotted by Humpty Dumpty’s brother, a radically truncated “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” But this is an anthology, too, of a certain subset of young writers, and the retellings here have that flavor, too, the taste of performance. We are given a revised history of ABBA, and we can almost hear the audience laughing in whatever bar such a story might have been first read.

The same holds true of a retake of “I Love Lucy” full of fornication, gonorrheal infections of the throat, female friends bonding over food. Another story reexamines one of the classical texts of female friendship as, instead, a threshing floor of sexual jealousy. Of Ruth’s famous declaration to Naomi (“wherever you go, I will go … Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God,” etc.), we are told “She would come to regret this decision almost immediately.”

What saves this volume from succumbing to smugness of forgetability is the strength of its writing. There are revisions that stab through the heart of the original, like Shya Scanlon’s hilarious “Tropic of Candor,” which imagines Henry Miller as a virgin, raiding his mother’s liquor cabinet and instant messaging into the night. “I know I said I’d ream out every wrinkle of your cunt, and I wanted to, for realz.” Yet there are also stories that stand as stories, regardless of the framework. Molly Gaudry gives us a brief, painful picture of childhood—of, specifically, two siblings dumping a dead pet frog into a river. Joseph Riippi gives us a high school student fantasizing about his blind English teacher. “Does she read enough to build calluses?” he wonders, contemplating his own calluses, which come from fantasies like this: “She reaches with antennae arms; her calluses feel wet face, open eyes. She reads to him from his acne.” Crispin Best (in the process of reimagining the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles characters) gives us a lonely creature who used to date a girl who “did all the recordings that play on the number 11 tram, the ones that say the name of the next stop.”

Most days Krang buys a ticket and just rides around on the number 11 tram.

Krang listens to her voice saying the names of the stops and sits there and tries to be calm.

He listens to her voice and scrolls through old text messages on his phone.

Then there are those pieces that explicitly reflect on the process of retelling, on the role familiar stories and characters play in our lives, how we embody them. Tim Jones-Yelvington presents yet another Law & Order spin-off, this one geared to theories about the “millenials”—that “self-referential generation”—as a potential market. “In the criminal justice system, there are the police who investigate crimes,” the show begins, “and the viewers who watch television shows about their investigations. These are the stories of viewers like us.” The chronicle that follows, episode by episode, parodies fandom’s obsession with pull quotes and trivia as well as that brand of intellectual inquiry inspired by fandom (think Stanley Fish on The Fugitive, only think of some slacker checking the chiming windows on a social networking site during the commercial breaks in the show). “In this episode,” reads one summary,

Jools engages Simon in a critical conversation about Law and Order: Special Victims Unit in which she attempts to deconstruct their mutual fascination with the series. Jools says that by producing the same anxieties it allays, the series is complicit in the so-called ‘culture of fear.’ According to Jools, this ‘culture of fear,’ which exploits middle America’s terror of urban crime, has enabled the United States to incarcerate more citizens than other ‘First World’ nations do, while establishing the construction and operation of prisons as profit-generating enterprises.

Soon these characters, their “viewers like us,” are embroiled in their own drama, mixing incest and incarceration and a brutal dose of sexual violence. A different twist on the conventions of fandom frame the contribution from Henry Jenkins, who presents commentary—as a scholar of such phenomenon—on his own attempt at slash fan fiction, in this case a brilliant re-engagement with the text of A Christmas Carol.Every line in this scene comes directly from the novel,” Jenkins writes,

What I was doing here was recontextualizing Dicken’s (sic) original language to offer up an alternative interpretation of what the characters might have been thinking—this integration of original dialogue and internal monologue is a common literary device in fan fiction. I was rewriting it for the purpose of critical commentary and in the process, I was trying to include as many elements from the original novel as possible while offering explanations for the character issues which have long concerned literary critics writing about the book.

Scrooge, for instance, “always found excuses to prolong” that time he spent at the office, making money but also spending time with Marley.

The variety of engagement with retelling as act and idea makes this an exciting and intriguing volume. While Jenkins works within the pre-existing text to explain its logic, the emotional motivations of the characters, another of the best stories here takes as its pretext such a skeletal outline of a narrative—the story of “Jack and Jill”—that its author, Jim Ruland, has remarkable freedom to invent. Given a boy, a girl, an eventual fall, a tumbling after, all the other aspects—in this case, Amsterdam, drugs, the sex trade—are so much delicious detail, spun out like cotton candy, what the Dutch call, more menacingly, sugar-spider. This is the treat of retelling—and of RE: Telling—the startling juxtaposition, the blandly familiar suddenly made dangerously new.

Official William Walsh Web Site
Official Ampersand Books Web Site

A Review of “birdsong 14: Anew” by Tommy Pico, Editor in Chief

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Spencer Dew

Birdsong Collective is a workshop community devoted to fostering and promoting art-in-process by various means, including this “flagship” publication, “a collaborative, bi-monthly lit/art/interview zine based in Brooklyn.” Within are nice quality color reproductions of art, including eerily nostalgic photographic pieces from Patrick Dyer, washed in color and light, as well as stories, poems, and a mash-up micro-interview of five questions dished out to five artists, including the poet Melissa Broder and the street artist FARO (neither of whose work, unfortunately, is included in this volume). Instead, moving at the speed of this nearly Twitterable interview piece, we have coverage of sex and relationships and comparisons of both, implicit and explicit, to art. But what else is there? In two pieces of visual art that exert an unexpectedly powerful pull, Julia Norton gives us soft-toned mountains, tinted in pinks and robin’s egg blue, fantastic otherwise abstract shapes laid out on wood panel, the grain visible, and marked, each one, with tiny traces of human presence, a “sanctuary,” a series of utility lines. The relation between these miniscule impositions and their real world corollaries, and the relation between these outposts within the image and the wider scale of raw rock and wild green foliage, is more than a nod at traditional Japanese screens. In fact, there is no white space here, no emptiness, only another layer (that grain of wood again) of wildness, planed down and sanded for domestic use. Not that these images are allegories, or anything so simple, but they are also far more than mere whimsical landscapes.

These pieces demand time, require some pondering, silent engagement. While this isn’t true about everything here, it holds for the best. The poignancy of LaJohnJoseph’s description of a baby brother’s “Buzz Lightyear all-in-one / ripped at the knee,” for instance, or Khalid El Khatib’s haunting story “When I Watched You Die” seize comprehensive attention from the reader. This latter piece shifts from italicized theorizing—grasping at making sense of the event—to the inescapably concrete details, such as how

The nurse collected your thousands of medication and dumped them all into a large Ziploc bag. She poured out vials of blue Percoset with vials of yellow Ativan and squeezed a tube of vasoline into the mix, kneading it together so that the colors bled and half melted pills clung to the side of the bag. She asked me to sign a legal document as official witness of the destruction…. I remember everything but your death.

Official birdsong Web Site

“Decomposed decomP”: Guest Post by Caleb J. Ross

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

When researching Stranger Will, I learned that “decomp” is jargon in the human remains removal profession for a decomposing body, as in “bring an extra towel, we’ve got a three-week decomp.” I’m not exactly sure how decomP magazinE got its name (well, I do, but let’s say I don’t), so let’s pretend for a moment that the terms share etymology (because they do). Something rotting, filthy, that’s been sitting around for a while, but damn, it brings a few of us a lot of pleasure to experience. In honor of this comparison, I am going to dive into the decomP archives and pull out three stories that I’m still trying to scrub from my brain.

“Climax or Cry” by xTx

I like the playful nature of this story, placed against the heartbreaking content. The casual asides (“You are missing Lost, btw. I hope I don’t forget and delete it by accident” and “I wouldn’t know, you didn’t call me….”) serve the passionate narrator well. The seemingly nonchalant nature of the running commentary, which is the story, makes the narrator’s obsession almost grotesque.

“LINE” by Barry Silesky

One very interesting authorial choice is what keeps this piece alive for me: the hesitant introduction of the persona. This short piece, probably categorized as a prose poem, doesn’t bring a single he/she/him/her into mix until past the half-way mark. So the reader is subjected to ambient description and intangible philosophical ramblings, almost to the point of exhaustion, but then BAM, we get a “she” and everything falls into context.

“History of Space Whales” by Megan Casella Roth

This piece opens like it could be a Brian Evenson story, which immediately got me. I’m a sucker for grotesque characters built with equally grotesque imagery. The idea of a man built entirely out of broken watches can, conceptually, be driven in so many directions. And perhaps Megan Casella Roth will do so with a larger piece (fingers crossed). But at the same time, the brevity of this piece, and its refusal to implicate the reader into an intended message, gives it charm.

This is a gust post by Caleb J. Ross as part of his Stranger Will Tour for Strange blog tour. His goal is to post at a different blog every few days beginning with the release of his novel Stranger Will in March 2011 to the release of his second novel, I Didn’t Mean to Be Kevin in November 2011. If you have connections to a lit blog of any type, professional journal or personal site, please contact him. He would love to compromise your integrity for a day. To be a groupie and follow this tour, subscribe to the Caleb J. Ross blog RSS feed. Follow him on Twitter: Friend him on Facebook:

A Review of “Grim Tales” by Norman Lock

Friday, April 8th, 2011

Spencer Dew

…in small ways, too, the end of the world came…

One of the texts I often teach, as a professor of religious studies, is the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, a central narrative in Judaism and a terrifying story, told, in the Hebrew Bible, with slow-building suspense, even a flash of humor: “And Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac, and he himself took the firestone and the knife, and the two walked off together. And then Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father,’ and he answered, ‘Yes, my son,’ and he said, ‘Here are the firestone and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?’” This is a moment not unlike that of Red Riding Hood at her grandmother’s bedside, pondering the size of her teeth. There is rope and wood and a sharp blade; the only thing missing is the end of the world.

The Akedah was likely in Norman Lock’s mind a few times as he composed this startling, seductive, book—a book of endings, of tiny narratives of catastrophe, suicide, murder, metamorphosis, nightmare, and writing. There is a whiff of Kafka, also, maybe even a taste of that unparalleled reader of Kafka, Maurice Blanchot. Most centrally there is an attempt to reenter and reinvent the work of the Grimm brothers, to show us something about the logic of fairy tales and why they haunt us so. Here is a mirror that steals a man’s reflection. Here is a field of knives, a thick fog full of ladders. Here is a “hedgehog, dead by the side of the road, [that] was once a man who refused to believe in fairy tales.” And here, too, are pieces of writing that predict death, that stand as literal sentences of death; pieces of writing into which the writers and/or readers literally disappear.

He happened to look down, idly, at a book lying open on the table and read in it his own death, which instantly came to pass.

He read in the morning paper of his own death in a boating accident. That same day he bought a boat and took it out on the river. It capsized and he drowned.

He was turned into a book so that he might disappear inside it.

Now, Death had only to address an envelope and send it to its victim in order to claim him.

This is how the book progresses, an accumulation of endings. For the most part, the characters are anonymous persons, though there is a sense, in this accumulation, of echo, that the “he” who finds his “that his papers had been worked on during the night” might also be the “he” who “was writing a book of tales,” and who “In the middle of his book … left a note in which he confessed to all things—no matter how wicked or shameless—that were set down in the book, like fiction,” even the “he,” who, “when he had shut himself up in his room to write,” is overheard by others to be weeping.

Meanwhile, children turn into furniture or are strangled by furniture, smothered by coats, mauled by kitchen appliances. Horrors are followed by alternative horrors. We are given “another version of the story” followed by yet another. There is a relentlessness to the variety here; consider these pieces, isolated by white space, rendered autonomous and whole:

I loved one man and married another, she confessed to her husband as she watched him close his eyes for the last time—the cord knotted at his neck.

The pit is full, he said. Wiping blood from his hands, the other man answered: Dig another one.

The first of these tiny stories is just that, a narrative, complete, in minimalist fashion; yet the second is so much more, opening to something archetypal. The horror of the pit and the blood is not limited to the literal, not merely a pit and some blood; rather, we have here the structure of nightmare, and, in the context of Grim Tales, it is like standing between two mirrors and experiencing the startling illusion of infinity. This is a book that strikes at the reader’s sense of scale; we are dwarfed, in these pages, by apocalypse. As the Akedah stands as a reminder of the utter incomprehensibility of the divine—a warning against the easy idolatry of assuming we can even speak about that which is God—so Lock’s book exemplifies the very possibilities of tale-telling. We are offered story after story, and we are shown, again and again, how stories work and why they matter.

Freud, for instance, that examiner of the uncanny and the ramifications of narratives on the everyday, gets a hat-tip from Lock. In one fragment—“another story,” as it says—copies of The Interpretation of Dreams are burnt, and, once every word was erased from the world, “the streets ran with beasts and madmen,” sons slaughter their fathers and fuck their mothers. The sentence is carried out, like the obsessive-compulsive hand washing that acts as a harbinger of plague, or the man who dreams that the world ends, finds this to be so, then wills himself to dream again, to make the world whole once more. It works, in its way, “But all those he did not know were no more.” Not that the world ends, but that the world in which we live has limits, and they are our own limits—this is the harsh truth here conveyed. Again, there are echoes of the Akedah: to bind, to prepare to kill, this is more horrific, perhaps, than carrying such killing out; the idea of a “test”—the incomprehensibility or cruelty of such logic, depending on how one reads it—is itself the horror. It’s nice, in short, that Isaac doesn’t die, but the story’s ending doesn’t do anything to salve the discomfort it creates. The discomfort lingers, unfolds throughout history, through Isaac’s life, and Jacob’s, and that of the people Israel. Lock gets this, the dynamic of an unsettling inscription lingering—a sentence than cannot be erased. The end of the world already exists in the mere idea of the end of the world. And this is enough to drive us mad. Lock puts it perfectly, hauntingly:

The end of the world came; and to save his family from the horror which would befall those who must await their own end from storm or famine, fire or pestilence, he poisoned them all. As he was about to hang himself, an angel appeared and said to him that he had dreamed it—dreamt that the end of the world was come. He stared in horror at his wife and children lying dead in the room with him as the angel, with an inscrutable look, withdrew—its wings stiff with insolence.

Official Norman Lock Web Site
Official Mud Luscious Press Web Site

A Review of “Feet First” by Dion N. Farquhar

Friday, April 8th, 2011

Spencer Dew

An elaborate engagement with nostalgia, Farquhar’s book is structured via her relation to times lost and times recollected. “Inheritance,” “Counter Culture,” and “Legacy” she calls the three sections of this book, and in poems that spill across pages we see memories, in fragments, and encounter the imperative to carry on such memories. “Remember,” she writes, “Free Abortion on Demand Socialist Feminism.” Elsewhere, in the poem “Meta-Local I: 1964,” we’re given a montage of sorts: “college students back from Mississippi / registering voters / Freedom Democratic Party / priests thrown out of Latin America / for teaching peasants / how to count” is offered as so much back-beat, background noise to the memory of “while my parents / read Ellery Queen / Readers Digest / in their twin beds.”

One problem with such a style is that the reader is given only flashes, verbal fragments; there are moments of clear and urgent intimacy in this book, but, more often, there is just the implication of such intimacy. Worse, Farquhar has the tendency to fall back on the recitation of names of celebrities and products, substituting a sense of corporate, cultural memory for that of the individual. There is perhaps a social critique here, and subjectivity exerts itself in the arrangement of such floating signifiers, but as a tactic it contradicts the desire, expressed elsewhere throughout this book, for a consciousness opposed to the commercialized speed of our contemporary, capitalist, media-laced world. That so-called smart phones modify our behavior is lamented, yet here is Farquhar, writing poetry following precisely such a swift and abbreviated rhythm: “Now Apollo’s a spaceship, Argo / a strarch. Nike is plural / as running shoes … Emily Post our Proust.” Not only are proper names here standing alone or, in a weak move, linked with limp irony to some more distant, imagined past (Marilyn Monroe is the “American Helen” who “gave us back our lips”), there is also the matter of what a sloppy mess this string of words is, conceptually. Is Post really “our Proust” or is the poet, tempted by the surface of things, indulging in a cheap pun? Likewise, how does space travel equate with commercial laundry products, and why are decades compressed via unexplained comparisons? “We read Baldwin Ginsberg Malcolm Che / Millett Leary Laing and Plath,” Farquhar assures us, but from the poem one must infer that such “reading” was likewise only on a surface level, a scanning or scrolling through, consuming in the sense of being a consumer, not in the sense of digesting, understanding, or using. This is Billy Joel’s approach to history, not Howard Zinn’s.

Yet perhaps it is the fads of certain past moments for which Farquhar is most nostalgic. Her argument against handheld devices, which “chirp of the Hot Synch—data”  and leech “bad faith” into the body is, ultimately, a begrudging acceptance of a lifestyle that the poet would rather not have. Yet this lifestyle is adopted, giving us poems composed along the premise of “If I had a blog” or leading to the rattling out of fractures entries of verse, the poetic persona presented as “a Wiki witch / laptop open on my lap.” Needless to say, other poets have identified and successfully resisted such contamination of consciousness, but the narrative voice of Feet First seems to have always moved at this speed, just at different times and with different company, off-line, in “loft parties on 14th Street, / the first mescaline trip,” etc. The nostalgia here is for a time when everyone was carrying on about “Malcolm Che / Millett Leary” et al., but the sense from Feet First is that the carrying on which is most missed was as empty as current discussions of celebrity fashion or engagement in video games. Indeed, one poem here addresses a “twelve-year old / technie” who doesn’t understand that the “enchanted kingdom” of the Disney corporation is, in fact, “hydraulics, gears / the teeth of a machine.” “How I wish,” the poem says, this child’s Xbox were named for “Malcolm / though that association’s / almost impossible / for a relatively privileged / pre-teen white boy.” That association, importantly, is just another pun, a stitching of surfaces. There is no coherent political ideology in lines like “the body politic fucked by capital: Tampax / no pins, no belts, no pads launched salad bars / Lean Cuisine, Japanese CDs on Bang & Olufsen,” just a barrage of unconsidered names and notions, a few recycled images or cheap—and, indeed, politically dangerous—comparisons. “The same people / are on the board at Philip Morris… / and Sloan-Kettering / boggles the market / like Bach at Buchenwald.” We have a political claim here, via association, that Philip Morris is somehow like the Nazi death camps, but like everything else in this slight and ultimately depressing book, it is just a gesture.  That this gesture is startlingly irresponsible, an act of disrespect to the weight of history and the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, is mere collateral damage; the analogy likewise lets Philip Morris off the hook for very real deceptions and manipulations—deceptions and manipulations which are very real and problematic but which are in certain essential ways unlike “Bach at Buchenwald.”

Rather than a “radical pursuit,” this book exemplifies the worst sort of reactionary cooptation, the seizure of the revolutionary, the turning of radical resistance into just another fashion, just another fad, another product to be name-dropped or collected, bought. While she may lift words from Obama or Palin, reference Wall Street and jihad, these gimmicks, rather than making the work here coherent, thoughtful, or efficacious, reduce the political, dehumanizing and thus defusing ideas by decontextualizing them. In a perhaps unintentionally revealing passage Farquhar, glancing back at a previous decade and the community in which she was then involved, writes:

Our Achilles’ heel was Art
and politics
we used everything we could: the streets, the courts
to oppose our arrogant Superpower nation

How is this image of the Achilles’ heel to be read? Art is not here the sword that can strike at the weak point of an oppressive culture; rather, the presumptions about art read here as the weakness that brought down whatever movement or momentum the collective “our” of the first line might have had. If that failed, then why not, now, string together poems from the trademarked property of multinational corporations? Feet First is thus a doubly depressing collection: crushing as an example of counter-revolutionary literature and further saddening as a reminiscence of failure. And the loss is ours, as readers as well as citizens; if only this were a book from that half-recollected then, a book of authentic poetry, scrambling up from the streets, striving to change the world.

Official Evening Street Press Web Site