Insomnia and the Aunt

by Nicholas Grider

Insomnia and the Aunt
by Tan Lin
Kenning Editions, 2011
44 pages / $10  Buy from SPD / Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

It would be a mistake to state outright any kind of thumbs up or down regarding Insomnia and the Aunt because that would mean there’s something there to judge, and while I’m not suggesting that the book is empty, I’m arguing that the book lives up to its promise billing itself as an “ambient novel.” Both words in that phrase are tricky when dealing with a fifty page novella studded with postcard and TV photos and posed as a very hazy memoir mainly about the unnamed narrator’s relationship to his aunt, though.  This titular aunt used to run a motel with her husband in rural Washington for an uncertain span of time across the final third of the 20th century and the first decade of the present one, information delivered to you sometimes in sometimes matter of fact announcement but sometimes in what could be called “ambient” fashion through slowly accruing tossed-off-seeming information. And “ambient” and “novel” normally sit askew from each other, which makes both terms problematic and the reading experience an uncertain one but in the case of the book ambient and novel work together in tandem, both forms present throughout.

Uncertain is maybe the key word to use here because it applies to nearly everything in the novel, from the narrator’s actual relationship to his aunt (he states that his mother won’t explain the blood relation completely and he doesn’t seem all that curious) to what compels him to visit his aunt every season for an all-night marathon of watching a staticky TV in the front office. And even when his aunt was alive there’s the elusive chronology of the novel, a lifespan in which the aunt watched both the Vietnam War and The Colbert Report on TV yet died in 1987 of pancreatic cancer, making her a kind of ambient aunt, always there in the background like a television left on but not watched.

And it’s not as if I’m giving away plot points, here, because there is no plot. An ambient novel is not going to get really heavy-duty in a James Patterson way, then, but even without that there’s not much to hold onto in terms of “something actually happens.” The lack of event (or anything resembling character development) only clears the flesh off the real skeleton of the novel, anyway, which is that it falls somewhere between an essay and standard stream of consciousness meander such that you get a book that puts forth several topics for argument and connects them to each other but only in a tenuous and lateral way. And if what I’m describing sounds like a flat or annoying read, it isn’t; the book is brief enough to drift through more than once and while you won’t get any deeper into the novel during round two the ideas the narrator keeps circling back to take on a kind of plastic quality that gives you guideposts for navigating the blur.

The novel is a book of suggestions more than anything, topics raised but not discussed.  And for an example of one of these suggestions, there’s something like this, which isn’t the entirety of the book but pops up a lot:

Lying and having sex are best done with the eyes completely closed.  To lie and to have sex at the same time is one of the greatest things anyone can do.

Re: lying elsewhere in the novel there’s also this, for an example of the circling:

For my aunt, and I think for Robert Redford, lying was a specific thing, like a baby crying in a room or an animal with a soul or, at the least, those mental states that scientists believe trigger particular actions like chasing after a bug or moving to another branch, which is to say that lying is the most sincere way of expressing oneself, and the best way anyone has of connecting one thing to another.

This kind of definition and reworking starts up almost immediately but (for example) lying haunts the reportage of the narrator’s relationships with other characters in the book, all of whom are older, first-generation immigrants. But there’s no finely honed explication of these (or any) statements anywhere; back to TV again because television haunts the novel as much as individual messages haunt, it’s like a TV channel that only plays commercials, albeit captivating ones that advertise identical things.

As essay, what the novel wants to talk to you about is more than one thing, and passes from television to family relations to the immigrant experience in America to the idea of America itself to, most importantly, memory and how it fails and what that means both in the context of personal experience and more broadly as a Chinese immigrant traveling from a lived and particular China to a monolithic America. The novel can’t really be clumped into the patronizing category of “immigrant lit” because there’s no instance of immigration fully realized but passing references are made to the narrator’s mother and father as immigrants and an important kind of plurality of China is set up with the narrator’s repeated mention of his mother and aunt’s various dialects and ways of speaking both “Chinese” and American English–,

Like most voices on TV, my aunt has two or three American voices, one separated by Mandarin, one by the so-called southern Chinese dialects, and one by an Amoy dialect (or Xiamen, as it is now called), all of which exist on the edge of some American version of melancholy.

This gets countered not by a wide-ranging US, though, but rather by how the US comes to you through the TV set, superficially various but really one constant stream of images the narrator links to memory, in that a given TV event is a memory that doesn’t belong to you and once it’s off-screen maybe it’s not a memory at all.

The one potential frustration you’re going to encounter with the novel-as-essay is that declarations are made and then simply moved aside in smooth, precise narration for the next declaration, and you end up with a collection of arguments/positions/memories that exist mainly in introductory form. This is what I mean when I described the novel as loops–topics like emotion and memory pass by again and again but instead of getting depth you’re getting a kind of breadth found when a subject like emotion (or lack thereof) slides by in different forms and points toward different ends. And because of the flat tone and the narrator’s distance from everything he shares or describes, all of the declarations take on an equal weight, a kind of spin on the ongoing topic of television and the way TV equalizes what it transmits to you by giving it to you all in the same way, at the same volume, every (potentially false) memory as good as the next.

Insomnia and the Aunt invites you to begin to circle issues it raises in your head, push them up against each other, and make sense out of a kind of televised, or ambient, equality of offhand statements. You’re invited to sit with the book and absorb its loose ends, and it’s a very rich reading experience in that sense, so while things may be factually slippery or left unfinished it seems like it’s in a deliberate and considered way, more meditation than conventional novel, or something somewhere between a novel and everything that’s not a novel, every story that can’t be finished or remembered or even told at all.

***

Nicholas Grider is from Milwaukee.

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A Man Reads Men by the Lips of Women

by John Pluecker

I Want to Make You Safe
by Amy King
Litmus Press, 2011
87 pages / $15  Buy from SPD Books

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amy King is doing God’s work. Of course, I don’t mean God in a traditional Christian way; I mean God in the way that King speaks of God in her recent book, I Want to Make You Safe:

God is the excess
of our collective minds 
of our collective wing wax
of our flights past time zones.

King’s poetry—its meandering syntaxis, its resistance to singular meanings, its mysterious connections and lack of connections—opens up the mind to unexplored avenues of thought. I also find King doing this work through her editing, specifically on the journal, Esque, which she co-edits with Ana Božičević, in which they bring together a wide array of contemporary poets and prose experimentalists, people like Jennifer Karmin, Cara Benson, Cynthia Arrieu King, Ching-In Chen and more. The new edition alone should get her a seat in heaven. If you haven’t seen the third issue, called Revolutionesque, you should definitely check it out.

What motivates this work in her poetry and in her curating? In an essay on queer poetry, King says, “Queer poetry strives to complicate the other, confound how we know that other, so that we might, however fleetingly, explore the other towards an even greater effort: to imagine What Else beyond this other self.” Imagination and complication and confusion as a goal for poetry. There’s an explicitly hopeful sense in King’s work: the hope that through a practice of imagination and effort to explore, we might find something outside of ourselves.

Amy King’s poems put the edge back; they back-pedal from safety or lighten the heavy, promise-laden clouds. If the clouds look heavy with rain, King launches a rocket into the clouds to seed them and bring that damn rain down already. I found a lustrous core of good old-fashioned queer hurt and joy. I know I’m projecting my own feelings on these poems. But no apologies. Like King said in an interview on HMTLGiant with Roxane Gay, “The reader makes “sense” of what she encounters using her own experiences and ideas.  So a lot of poetry is associational.” Associate away!

A few days ago, I stumbled across the new “Hood” video by Perfume Genius:

The video gave me the feeling of what I imagined when I heard “I want to make you safe:” Arpad Miklos, this huge muscular gay porn star, swaddling Mike Hadreas: taking care of him, holding him, brushing his hair, putting make-up around his eyes. It’s tender and sweet and the radical opposite of bullying. Here’s one case where it does get better, Mr. Savage. This strong man, a man famous for his voracious fucking of other huge men, delicately handles, pets and cradles this twink.

And I went to the title poem of Amy King’s book and I projected all of these feelings onto it. How could I not? For me, queerness is born out of that tender feeling of being cared for, a gentle enclosure to seal one off from a harsh and angry world. It’s not only a theoretical construct, it’s an image from a dream. Or maybe that feeling I am describing is love. In King’s book, there is love, a lot of thinking about love. The promise of love between people.

This brings us to the last line of the title poem in the book: “Please reattach the orifice if / I’m ever to hold your love.”

Why was the orifice detached in the first place? Who did the detaching? It makes me think of that classic gay erotica story called Blue Light by Aaron Travis. In that story, gay sex goes supernatural as a dominant top literally divides the body of his sub into various pieces and procedes to use those body parts in lustful and lascivious ways. The sub is all the while alive and conscious of what is going on, enjoying his body’s division and manipulation:

I felt myself being lifted up—a sensation of weightlessness and vertigo—the room fell and whirled around me. I tried to scream with horror, and couldn’t. I caught a glimpse of something in the mirrors—my body, stick-still within the blue light field—Michael standing aside—holding something in his hands—holding—my head

Ah, the m-dash has never been used to greater effect. At the end of the story, the sub’s body is magically returned to its original state. All orifices are reattached and the feeling is one of intense satisfaction, fullness. It gives a twisted meaning to King’s line: “Please reattach the orifice if / I’m ever to hold your love.” King’s words orient the reader toward the gaps, the breakage, desire:

Sometimes we write
another time
to ache by,
the jester jumping
along our spinal 
cords between
knuckle bones
the imprint of God’s 
shattered fist.

As I was reading King’s book, I ended up thinking of a love triangle—between two people and King’s God. This God or god is a different kind of being, one closer and less distanced from the strangeness of daily life.

I really loved the two long poems in the book, “I Want to Make You Safe” and “This Opera of Peace.” I found both to be slow unfurlings of her ideas and her imagery, her meandering thinking-in-writing about intimacy and love and connection and language and nature and objects: “I will marry you and take / You to crucify continents.” The breadth of King’s imagery is shocking at times: “beer into poetry,” “political drudge into words of oil on skin,” “a baby wren beneath my tongue.” The images are gorgeous, obviously. In the shorter poems, this imagery was so dense, so baroque, so maximalist that at times it feels constrained, bucking to get out. In the longer poems, the dense imagery has more room to breathe.

At the end of King’s essay on queer poetics, she reprints a poem, “Men by the Lips of Women,” that she says illustrates her own poetics in action. The poem is included in her new book. It begins: “I’m in love with a man who doesn’t love me.” Who is this queer woman writer who loves this man? Are we, queers, okay with this hetero love? Or is cross-gender love always hetero? Clearly no. And who is this “man who doesn’t love” her? It’s a periled start to this queer poem, it’s destabilizing and off-putting on some level. Uncomfortable. The line “His fright is an orb ofHold me, I’m yours” takes me right back to Perfume Genius and Arpad Miklos, but now the feeling is more complicated, riven with instability and inpredicatability, unmoored from easy imagery. We’re thinking about where the woman poet fits in. But then who I am to gender Amy King? Or to make any assumptions about relations, sexual or gendered or otherwise? The poem reminds us to look warily, askance, to linger. And yes, in that lingering, that splicing, there is a utopian desire. Surely, the What Else points toward a different future. As the poem stunningly concludes:

I am that love you light yourself with
and my gender is powerless in this. We are metered only by our own machines,
while the book is a clock that forgets her mechanics.
Her hands can count but would rather wipe warm dew, 

the pall from your lips and kiss the lids 
of your eyes from sleep. Here am I, is he, 

with yoke and shadow removed, she is, her in me, 

apart from you, man reading men by the lips of women.

As readers, we’ve moved into a love in which gender has lost all power. There is a slippage in the voice of the speaker, as the “I” becomes “he” becomes “she” and then “her” and then “me” and finally “you.” Subject becomes object becomes subject and object and “sobject” continually and repeatedly spinning back around. It’s a happy kind of instability, one which I (or he or she or you or this “man reading”) am happy to live in for a while.

***

John Pluecker is a writer, interpreter, educator and translator. His work is informed by experimental poetics, radical aesthetics and cross-border cultural production and has appeared in journals and magazines in the U.S. and Mexico, including the Rio Grande Review, Versal, Asymptote, Picnic, Third Text, Animal Shelter, HTMLGiant and Literal. He has published more than five books in translation from the Spanish, including essays by a leading Mexican feminist, short stories from Ciudad Juárez and a police detective novel. There are two chapbooks of his work,Routes into Texas (DIY, 2010) and Undone (Dusie Kollektiv, 2011). A third chapbook, Killing Current, will be published by Mouthfeel Press in 2012.

Snowflake and Different Streets

by Saehee Cho

Snowflake / different streets
by Eileen Myles
Wave Books, Forthcoming April 2012
232 pages / $20  Pre-order from Wave Books

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eileen Myles’ poetry actively, consciously pursues the tangential thought. In her new dual collection of poems, Snowflake and Different Streets, the text glides into the tangent like she has no sense of return, like she’s just floating.

There is confidence behind the lack of linearity and I follow it happily because the text seems to already know that the tangential thought might just be the more exciting thought or as Eileen Myles might say, “the peach of it.”

The “the L.A./Driving poems” have the eagerness of speech and it doesn’t come as a surprise that these poems are transcriptions–road poems during long twilight commutes between Los Angeles and San Diego. The series weaves and the landscape changes with an almost brilliant speed and the work reacts by slowing down, by being moved but not moving. It’s unusual to read her resisting this sort of speed, wanting to linger a little longer. In #8 Car Camera, she writes:

I want to be as open as I am

what’s moving be the thing
that holds it all
I think that dot is me

Reading “the L.A./Driving poems is not unlike the experience of seeing her perform—her eyes incredibly committed to the page and her free hand up in the air, making quick wrist turns along with line breaks. She isn’t speaking to anyone in particular but it is a conversation to be sure. It is her incredibly precise voice that activates her work. She doesn’t invest in language as representation, she isn’t trying to convey meaning so much as she just wants to cut straight to the stuff of being. At times, her poetry is so slim I lose my breath a little.

Snowflake and Different Streets is designed so that one side of the book presents one collection and then flipping the book, the reader is presented with a second collection. The form invites contrast, or at least comparison, but the degrees of difference feel slight—more like a sway rather than a change of course. Different Streets is noted as newer poems on the title page but even this is later amended in the notes as not completely true. There’s a lot of pleasure to be found in giving up on the burden of form or reading into the separation of the two collections–the feeling of flipping the book backwards and forwards, opening up a page to find the text running backwards. If there is a notable contrast to be found, it might be in the two identically titledSnowflake poems in each collection. There’s a kind of exuberance in the first Snowflake, a thrilling realization that every moment is remarkably individual because experience is remarkably specific to any/every individual:

There’s no female
in my position 

There’s no man

wow
there’s a raccoon

on the tail
of the plane
and there’s
no oneseeing that now
but me

The second Snowflake poem reads much more like photograph, arresting and lacking a desire for explanation. It’s a moment, it’s a slice and there is pleasure in that too.

Freeze
traffic

I don’t have much hesitation about this being my favorite collection of Eileen Myles’ work. There’s a low mumble of sweetness threading the collection—an eagerness to see the secret radiance in everyday things. It feels youthful and tenuous and it makes me a little nervous. The work is in constant negotiation between Myles’ spontaneous delight and the threat of that delight burning off. It is that fragile optimism that makes her work so heartbreaking at times. There is so much space for the general state of awe to break, for the tangent to lead into a blank space but even when the work dips quite low it seems more like she is drawing a curtain rather than making some irrevocable descent.  As for cynicism, which is so beautifully absent from this collection–I imagine Myles holding out a hand, pushing it off the page.

***

Saehee Cho holds an MFA in Writing from The California Institute of The Arts. Her work has been featured in Sidebrow, decomP, BAP, PANK and Ex Nihilo. She lives in Los Angeles.

Robert Ashley — Perfect Lives

by Nicholas Grider

Perfect Lives
by Robert Ashley
Dalkey Archive Press, 2011 (Reprint)
240 pages / $13.95  Buy from AmazonDalkey Archive

 

 

 

 

 

 

Premiering on television in 1984 and first published in book form in 1991, Perfect Lives is several texts at once: a comic opera libretto, a novel about a temporary bank heist, a blurb-billed epic poem ranging through small town Midwestern vernacular and Eastern metaphysics, and a kind of textual final resting place for the titular performance in the form of notes, a preface, a synopsis, some notation from the score, and an edited conversation with writer, composer and director Ashley during which he explains the genesis and outcome of the project. (Ashley: “I had this practice: I’d go into a room, close the door, and start singing.”) It’s a good thing that the book is several texts, because while it’s a success as an engaging epic (experimental) poem, it would be a stretch to call it a novel and as a libretto it leaves you having missed out on the three-hour television program that it became with no idea of what it sounded like unless you’re familiar with Ashley’s work and no idea what it looked like except for a still of the production on the cover of the book and a frontispiece featuring Ashley himself playing narrator. Ultimately the loss of context doesn’t make the text suffer because as a set of eight experimental poems obliquely describing a bank heist and an elopement among more metaphysical things it wins at being an engrossing read and at capturing small town Midwestern vernacular and widescreen philosophy in very crisp but entertainingly malformed ways.

You get all your diegetic heavy lifting done up front with a four page synopsis and then, minus the transcriptions and notes and prefaces, you’re left with the non-chronological text itself, seven sections, each of which are sung by a different narrator—maybe, and I’ll get back to this—with an italicized chorus that either comments upon or completes the narrator’s sung stories and meditations. The way Ashley went about voicing his elusive narratorial figures (it’s hard to call them narrators or characters) varies greatly but is often reductive and repetitive in a flatly reportorial way that kept reminding me of Leslie Scalapino’s early work (or Hannah Weiner if you replace clairvoyance with a Greek chorus) and reads in part like this, from section two, during which an unknown narrator mentally surveys a field while also gazing at elderly lovers in a supermarket:

looking for something interesting
now turn left still on the inside still
looking for something interesting
now turn left the fence is still there keep looking
keep looking for something interesting
now turn left again still looking still
looking we are looking for food
                                    time to go
                                    friendly shoe
                                    friendly sole

The drift and repetition here continues in many styles throughout the book and is the only real textual constant once it becomes clear early on that there’s no intra-book indication of transfer between characters and narrators and becomes clear across the width of the poem there’s no main storyteller, and while some sections have a more clearly defined narrator than others those sections still imbue said narrator with more information than he or she, as a character, could possibly know. So it’s incredibly confusing who’s voicing what but that twists the clipped flatness into a sidelong blur that never really ceases the entire book. The specific lines you’re reading might be clean and simple, but the bewilderment that comes from quick fades between narrators who exist either inside or outside the story is a more entertaining mystery than the oblique bank heist and its lack of consequence.

What’s also disorienting about the narratorial drift is that in a few places video camera movements are inserted seamlessly into that drift, movements that might have literal counterparts, placing the libretto in a weird situation in which song might narrate what you the TV opera viewer are seeing vs. what the character/narrator is seeing. The moves are so seamless though they don’t interrupt but rather just shift the real heft of what gets narrated, which is an assortment of landscapes real and imagined, literal and metaphysical, particular to Ashley when writing the libretto and loosely universal, from the back of a car headed toward Indiana at dawn to a repeatedly referenced fiery evening sky and from a household view of a horizon to rocks that live and create living bruises. These visions of different kinds of plains of existence that culminate in a vision of a backyard picnic in the final section move first through bars and hotels and parks and even a family home (in the opera’s only feint toward characters acknowledging and singing to each other) and in especially oblique form during the marriage of elopers Gwyn and Ed, narrated (we’re told in notes beneath each section heading in the opera-proper contents page) by the Justice of the Peace performing the ceremony. Here the text completely frees itself from the responsibility of narration and instead circles the abstraction of a spread of language itself via defining marriage and across the passage of a few eons:

Language     has sense built in.  It’s easy to

Make sense.     To not make sense is possible,

But hard.     Language does not have truth built in.

It’s hard     to make truth, which is to stop the search.

Such generalities and the unknown source they’re coming from are a constant across the book, but rather than coming off cloying or meaningless they instead have an additive effect, a kind of plain-talk philosophizing voiced by most of the narrators in one form or another and touching on all the regular clichés of metaphysics: truth, language, the self, light, the passage of time, etc. Again, this doesn’t bug but in the nonlinear smear has a reaching quality as if the narrators are pushing toward something beyond them, something epic just beyond the edges of the set of songs as epic poem.

Getting lost in all of this though is exactly how great in particular the language is even as it constructs a flat, loose metaphysics; one of the themes in the work is performance itself, and in minute particulars we get delivered great passages like the following, recalling the attempt of a bartender’s wife to learn to play boogie-woogie piano by watching TV tapes:

                Some got it and some don’t,
She says at night. 

                I got it.
Poor Rodney.  Art Widower.

                He lost it to the left hand memories,
The structure.

                He lost it to the right hand
Blue notes.

The book roams as freely from poetic particular to dreamy generality as easily as it drifts between narrators and the cumulative effect is that the drift of voice forms a plural that’s both particular to the midwestern landscape it occupies and given over to what’s far beyond the particulars of a bank heist or backyard. The cumulative effect of reading Perfect Lives is one of being overwhelmed by an outpouring of language, completely adrift in the best way possible.

***

Nicholas Grider just wants to be liked.

Will You Still Like Me, If I Tell You The Truth?

by Janey Smith

Heavy Feather Review
Volume One, Issue One
January 2012
Buy Kindle for $3.75

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whenever Janice Lee emails me with a chance to review something for HTMLGIANT, I always respond too late. Which means I never get what I want to read to review. I was late responding to Janice’s email about reviewing Eileen Myles’ new book. I was late responding to Janice’s email about reviewing Brian Evenson’s new book, too.

Of course, I was quick enough to get Heavy Feather Review to review. At first, I resisted reading the stuff in it. I thought maybe I could write a review without reading the stuff in Heavy Feather Review. I’m glad I didn’t do that.

If you don’t already know, Heavy Feather Review (Volume 1, Issue 1—hereafter, HFR) is produced by four people: Nathan Floom, Jason Teal, Jason Carnahan, and Kyle Bialko. After reading HFR I’m not sure what the general aesthetic of the journal is. It seems like everything goes. There is a tendency towards the absurd. And moments of really wonderful writing. There are a lot of writers in HFR. Some with whom you may be familiar, some not. I wish I could say more about HFR in general but I can’t think of anything. I hear it’s available on Amazon or something. If you can’t find it there, or don’t want to pay for it, email me. I have an electronic review copy so I can give it to you for free.

There are thirty-seven writers in the first issue of Heavy Feather Review. I like that. I wish there were more.

Steve Roggenbuck is one of my Facebook friends. He is on the cover of every significant literary magazine in the country. He’s on the cover of the first issue of HFR, too. How did he do it? Charm, wit, a certain sex appeal. But also other things like misspelled words and incomplete sentences—and making funny, dark, sappy, romantic poetry. Yes, sappy. If you think ‘sappy’ is pejorative, think again. Sappiness is what holds trees together. In the forest that has become the online alt-lit universe, Steve Roggenbuck’s stuff is holding the trees together.

Jake Wrenn is not one of my Facebook friends. That’s okay. Neither of us have heard of each other until now, I think. I tend to make a bad first impression anyway. Some thoughts about Wrenn’s ‘Gossamer’: I didn’t develop a crush on Monica Seles until after she got stabbed on center court. Andy Warhol always looked so much more attractive after he was shot four times by Valerie Solanas. If you look closely at sand, you will see colors. That said, my favorite character in this story is TV. TV plays itself. It makes a cameo appearance, but is always on. And like the story in which it appears, if you stare at it long enough—well, you know.

Roxane Gay is a Facebook friend. I have been on Facebook for two years, one month. Roxane has been my FB friend since the beginning. She has even published some of my stories. She responds to my desperate emails and gives me lots of encouragement to write stuff from the heart. Here’s what I value about her thing in HFR: it attempts to find a truth in the insignificance of something of little value. That’s a tough thing to do sometimes. I don’t know if “How All Things Rot” comes to show me how all things rot—or why—but it did make me think about things in ways that got me to question the logic of the story, its argument, and certain aspects about life. I wish more stories did that.

John Dermot Woods is a Facebook friend. I’m going to go out on a limb: someday Action, Yes will published a book, or something of mine. That said, all three of Woods’ stories in HFR read like police reports or news wires. I like that. His obsession: missing children or what is absent. That’s important, too. We tend to come back to those ‘places’ where someone significant to us went missing. I know I do. But sometimes I also want to not go there—avoid those places that bring back sad memories. I like the formality of Woods’ style and tone. I like the concepts he’s working with.

Jesse Bradley is definitely one of my Facebook friends. He interviewed me as Mike Buffalo forPANK about a thing I wrote about a couple of Nazi fags. Jesse’s first poem confuses me. I like that. The poem is more a statement, it seems, than a poem. Poems make statements, that’s for sure. This poem’s chief interpretative export, or statement, is exhaustion. I didn’t feel that way after reading it. His second poem has a nice fisting scene in it, seems very punk rock—despite its title—and revels in a kind of sado-masochism. For the record: I have received only two restraining orders in my life.

Lori D’Angelo is not a Facebook friend. I think she will be someday. I love conceptual writing—it’s all I ever do. Her story “Neighbors” is a neat conceptual exercise—and a pretty good story, too. It goes like a spy-versus-spy comic from Mad magazine except there’s more on the line and less slapstick. It’s interesting how the story itself telescopes and blinds the reader to its internal logic while not giving everything away. The story seems to end twice. I like that. Both endings stun in a gentle, mysterious way.

Robert Vaughan is a Facebook friend. He too does this thing with words. It’s really a neat way to tell stories, write poems: choose a word, write stuff using all the definitions—including etymological—of that word and its associations with other words and anything that comes to mind. I mean, this would be a great way to rewrite the dictionary. We’re long overdue for that. Super cool, Robert Vaughan.

Chloe Caldwell is not one of my Facebook friends. She gives an interview. All the questions are one word questions—so it’s like a game of association. Chloe Caldwell really enjoys talking about herself—it gives her, in this case, a chance to write about herself, which she does very well. Chloe Caldwell is a fascinating person. I keep imagining that she must have flourished in the 90s when things were more critical and more intense—and by flourished I mean had sex with lots of people. I would like to talk with Chloe Caldwell someday.

Bradley Sands is one of my Facebook friends. Not only that but he has about 50 more Facebook friends than I do. Funny, his prose poem here is something he started a while ago but didn’t finish until Heavy Feather Review published it. I wish my stories were done when somebody published them. Anyway, Bradley does a neat thing: he puts a farm in the middle of Times Square and sees what happens. Everything is absurdly comic of course, full of caricature, loud puns, and advertisements for the self—whatever that is. But it works. Timely story.

Len Kuntz is one of my Facebook friends. I don’t remember how this happened. I don’t care. I’m glad we’re friends anyway. Kuntz’s story “Gravity” is neat. Kuntz takes gravity and personifies it—and all these wonderful things happen. I really think exploring the sciences through fiction/poetry is a great way to make art. The part about the astronauts is amazing. I wish I could get that high. Someday I imagine people will say only a nobody walks around in outer space.

Andrew Rihn does something that I like a lot. He takes a certain science and turns it (in)to poetry thus reinvigorating both disciplines. I think poetry and science should face each other more often. They could teach each other a lot. And the sciences have so much to give poetry. Wow. And what poets do with language defies logic sometimes—I have a headache. Andrew Rihn and I are not Facebook friends yet.

Peter Schwartz is one of my Facebook friends. He is also someone who has been very supportive of my writing. For a long time, I thought Peter Schwartz was a girl. It’s okay that he’s not. But, I wonder. The guiding thread of these twelve parables resembles Nicolle Elizabeth’s Facebook posts which are supposed to become a book soon. Maybe Peter and Nicolle are the same person? Well, if they aren’t, these parables would still be strangely amoral little things that take minimalism to a new level: near absence itself.

Elizabeth Ellen isn’t on Facebook. That makes sense. Reading her two stories makes me feel like I’m out in the world. In fact, as soon as I read these two stories, I went to her website to see if everything she had ever published was this good. I am grateful that not everything she has had published is as good as these two stories, which are incredible. Every once in a while I read a story and wish I had written it. I feel that way about these two stories.

It’s funny that Rick D’Elia and I are not Facebook friends. He lives in San Francisco and listens to the Cro-Mags. His story is pretty clever, too. He writes about Thomas Paine—the Thomas Paine—as if Paine were transported into today with today’s dilemmas and problems. Imagine Thomas Paine, the great revolutionary and provocateur, as a slacker—a TV-watching lowlife. I happen to like lowlifes. I like TV, too. And I like this story “What’s Good for the Goose” by Rick D’Elia as well.

James Valvis is not one of my Facebook friends. Yeah, I’m starting to feel insecure. “Seizure” is a set up. It’s a game where James uses the title word to make something really interesting and revealing—in a mysterious way. I kept thinking about Ian Curtis while reading this poem. And my Aunt Judy. I got my foot fetish from Aunt Judy. She used to drive me around in her Mustang barefoot. At Thanksgiving she’d sit at the table barefoot. She did everything barefoot. She even had seizures barefoot.

Alex Austin is another person who is not my Facebook friend. Alex works at a law office. I almost became an attorney before I made the mistake of thinking I was a writer. Alex, if you’re hiring, I’m available—in fact, I used to clerk at Angela Alioto’s civil rights firm. Seriously, available: 415.202.4378. What Alex has done in the story “Sayonara” is write a little pillow book. It is dreamy and sexy and confusing in a good way—the way good sex is confusing.

I’m writing this review very stoned. I can tell you, though, that Ricky Garni is not one of my Facebook friends. It’s funny but after I read Ricky’s two poems I wanted to take a walk with him after midnight, and catch a late night movie. These two poems are walks—like taking a walk with someone who’s really thoughtful and kind and humorous in a soft, clever way. I don’t know if Ricky Garni gets high. If he does, I want to get high with him, talk a walk along the North Carolina coast.

David Greenspan is not one of my Facebook friends. Although I wish he were. He lives in Florida and I need a vacation from unemployment. There’s a really funny part in one of his three poems where a bunch of junkies have a revolt. David’s also kind of obsessed with a girl named Sarah. That’s okay. She seems to like baseball a lot. I like baseball a lot, too. I cried when the Angels won the World Series in 2002. For me, the Angels winning the World Series is a lot like David’s poems in HFR, wonderfully absurd.

Nicolle Elizabeth is one of my Facebook friends. We had a funny encounter in which I sent her some poems for Word Riot which she accepted, then changed her mind. Actually, she accepted one line of one of the poems, then realized she had misread that line after I pointed it out to her. Then she changed her mind. Now that I’m an editor at metazen I think it would be fun to write really discouraging rejection letters followed by “just kidding—your thing was awesome—I’d like to include it in the next issue.” There’s some things I really like about “Nautical Miles”: the gold spray-paint, the community college, the three-cent screws. That is, I like the things that glow, and this story glows. What’s also neat is that Nicolle gives her characters Southern accents, I think. This made me imagine Nicolle busily writing this story in blackface. If this story were a glow-in-the-dark poster, I’d hang it above my bed.

Larry O. Dean and I have a shitfuck of mutual Facebook friends but we’re not Facebook friends ourselves. That’s too bad because I really liked reading “Mia Is on Cloud Nine.” Let me tell you something, Larry: the gags in the other two poems are good. But “Mia” is magnificent. I think its deadpan delivery is pitch perfect. And the punch line is right on the mark. If you guys are hiring at Indiana University Northwest, I’m available. janey.smith.is.baby.robot@gmail.com

Gregory Sherl is one of my Facebook friends. I feel we’re really not that close, though. There is something absurd about his “Memoir Pt.2” that I like. It’s touching in a punk rock way how he wants to get hit by a car so his girlfriend will come home sooner. I wonder if anyone has ever published nothing but contributor bios? I mean, just the bios—with no contributions other than the bios? I’m sure my publisher will do that in no time now that I’ve brought it up.

Nick Barr is not one of my Facebook friends. I really liked his thing “craigslistgirls.” Barr’s thing looks like it’s a craigslist page. But there’s a poem there or a story or something. It’s really neat. It’s moving. That is, it does something that not a lot of craigslist ads do: makes you long for someone. I guess sometimes there are missed connections ads that do that but not very often. I like experiments like this one where you take a popular medium and you use it to make something more wonderful.

Zulema Renee Summerfield is not one of the my Facebook friends. I haven’t seen The Social Network. So, I might not be getting everything that happens in this story. I haven’t read The Lord of the Flies either. I probably need to get out more or join a book club. I like that Summerfield asks a lot of questions. She interrogates Mark Zuckerberg and because Summerfield is writing the story she doesn’t let him answer any of her questions. That’s cool. Or, if not cool, then it’s torture. And torture—in certain contexts—is pretty fucking cool.

Howie Good is not one of my Facebook friends. I was hoping that when he introduced the five men sitting at the table there’d be a joke or something. Robert Duncan Gray owns a revolver. I’m pretty sure Diana Salier still has it in her pants. I like poems with umbrellas in them. I like musicals with umbrellas in them, too. I think Good’s poem “Kafkaesque II” would make a great musical.

Amy Glasenapp is not one of my Facebook friends. “I Don’t Want to Bury Dreams Yet” is a story about getting caught in the rain. It’s also about sticking with someone you love even during bad times. The story is neat because it seems to take place in Oakland, I think. It feels familiar wherever it is. I feel lonely tonight. Amy? If you read this, will you call me? 415.202.4378

Here’s something: Paul Arrand Rodgers is Facebook friends with Karen Craigo. It’s a small world. I love personification. I don’t do it very well but I like trying. Rodgers does it with Xerox machines. How cool. He tells us a little bit about ourselves by doing it, too. His other poem is short. It tries to make the case for the right way to do a full nelson. I don’t know if it succeeds, though. In a way, I hope it does.

Thomas Patrick Levy is one of my Facebook friends. Diana Salier asked him to read at 851, an abandoned apartment that Mike Kitchell and I have been using to host readings. I can’t wait to see him read there. This is the first time I have read his stuff. I really like it. There are three stories—all about a really cute monster. Levy uses capitalization to emphasize certain things. I remember when I used to do that. I really like the part about the string, the heart strings. I wonder if Levy is familiar with String Theory?

Karen Craigo is not one of my Facebook friends. We have 93 mutual friends, though. “Small Gestures for the Newly Departed” is wonderful. It’s a ghost poem which plays with Boson Theory, it seems. The first stanza doesn’t seem to have been written by a real person but by somebody other-worldly maybe. Craigo empathizes with her ghost friends. She proposes an ethics of the spectacular and advocates we develop a capacity to accommodate our ghastly friends. This poem is about working through trauma and memory. Done with light touches.

J.A. Tyler is famous. His writing appears everywhere. He does Mud Luscious, which is great and in Colorado. I really want Mud Luscious to publish my book. I think Mud Luscious should be my editors. They have a good ear for my stuff. Anyway, “[the second bear /// re-split]” is really wonderful. (I’m not just saying that because I want my book to be published by Mud Luscious.) Not a lot of the story makes sense even though it is about a bear. I like that. There is also a logic and recurrent characters and scenes that seem odd, familiar. I think it’s really neat when you make the familiar odd. The story’s center is inside a mountain. The story’s other center—at the same time—is inside a bear’s belly. There are all these colors.

I don’t think Matthew Savoca has a Facebook account. That’s pretty cool, I guess. I like poems about refrigerators. This poem is confessional in a way. It reveals that the narrator person is insecure and co-dependent. Those are very attractive qualities in a person. I think it would be hard to eat the plate of turkey and mashed potatoes in this poem. They are so cute. I think that eating when you feel sad—or wanting to eat when you feel sad—is kind of a nice convention.

Joshua Young is one of my Facebook friends. He’s famous, right? Well, he’s written a lot of books. Here, he writes two little epistolary prose-poems. Really neat. He writes letters to groups of people who have survived something. Possibly the ends of capitalism? Or just the dregs of everyday life? It’s hard to say, really. I like that.

Adam Moorad is one of my Facebook friends. His name is everywhere. I think if you looked around online for magazines to send stuff to, you’d find Adam Moorad published in at least three of them. I think “villa adrian” is a really wonderful poem. It’s simple. It involves two people and a secret. It reveals the secret but withholds a certain mystery. The poem is kind of confusing, which is sexy.

D.W. Lichtenberg is one of my Facebook friends. I see him at lit events in the city a lot. “The Upset of My Fool Hope” is almost a perfect story. The language is real, not anything trying to sound literary. Although I didn’t care for the second paragraph so much. It kind of defied the intelligence of the first. I like the concept of taking signs from protests or advertisements on television or the language of billboards and making it art. I hope the 99% gets everything it wants.

Meg Pokrass lives in San Francisco. She was the first person to ever solicit me for some writing. We met for lunch once. She is always writing. I have a feeling that her published stuff is just the tip of the iceberg. I like the use of the dog as a vehicle for something else, something more important maybe, more emotionally charged, in “Universal.” I really liked all of the little surprises and revealing signifiers in both stories. Writing about insignificant things—lint, for example—really makes great art. I wonder when Meg Pokrass is going to get an agent?

Seth Berg is not a Facebook friend. Although we have 99 mutual friends. His poem “Coleoptera Leukemia Morphology” is really neat. I like starting from the ‘outside’ of something and moving to the ‘inside’ of something, especially if that something is a human being. Berg seems to have discovered a new gothic or a new grotesque—with a light, imaginative touch. Some thoughts on the other poem: I wish people wore stilettos waiting at the post office or shopping for groceries. The sound of freckles makes me laugh. Does anybody remember xTx’s Elephant Summer? It is now a pine cone.

Anhvu Buchanan is not one of my Facebook friends. He seems to live in the Bay Area, though. I have a thing for certain paraphilias. I never use condoms. I also like to prohibit breathing—under certain circumstances. Electricity is fun. I like the concept of imagining what a certain kind of couple might say, and do, to each other in certain contexts. In this case, two paraphiliacs. It feels as if Anhvu Buchanan wrote “Sweet Nothings of a Paraphiliac Couple” while watching Pulp Fiction—if so, awesome.

Molly Prentiss and I used to sit in Cooley Windsor’s workshop together. In fact, “My Someone’s Ears” was work-shopped in that class. I like what it’s become. I like using disability as a constraint. I’m surprised it’s not used more often. This story is light, touching, and funny. I miss hanging out with Molly Prentiss, eating pizza and talking about sex.

Well, that’s it. Janice suggested I write some kind of closing paragraph at the end, but that’s not my style. I don’t want things to end—and I feel that closure is overrated. If I had to say something to sum up my experience reading Heavy Feather Review, it’d be this: if you take your time, carefully pick through it, you’ll find some neat stuff.

***

Janey Smith lives in San Francisco, California. She is the writer of ANIMALS (2011) and THE SNOW POEMS (forthcoming on NAP, 2012). She is editor at metazen (smith.metazen@gmail.com) and contributing editor at Big Other.

The Tension of the Likable Unlikable

by Roxane Gay

Treasure Island!!!
by Sara Levine
Europa Editions, 2012
172 pages / $15.00 Buy from Powells

I love unlikable characters. In the fictional world, I want bad people to get away with doing bad things. I want the serial killer to slip into the night or live happily never after. One of the reasons I love American Psycho so much is the methodical and unwavering way Ellis portrays Patrick Bateman as an unrepentant psychopath who is as interested in the right restaurant reservation as he is in committing sadistic acts. It’s all very unpleasant (or it isn’t) but the writing is such that it is easy to be as fascinated as you might be repulsed.

I love finding writers who can hold the reader in that complicated tension where you like the unlikable character.

 

Sara Levine’s remarkable Treasure Island!!! (Europa Editions) is a book with a different kind of unlikable character than Patrick Bateman who is so criminally terrible. In her debut novel, Levine has created a narrator who makes you want to armchair diagnose the extreme range of mental disorders she displays.

In Treasure Island!!!, an unnamed narrator becomes obsessed with Treasure Island and decides to live by the book’s core values as she sees them: BOLDNESS, RESOLUTION, INDEPENDENCE, HORN-BLOWINGShe is completely self-obsessed and never considers the consequences of her actions as she selfishly moves through the world and tries be more like Jim Hawkins—as she ultimately tries to create her own adventure. She tells her friend Rena, “I must have been a sea-bird streaking through the azure sky of his daydream; in just the same way spirits are said to commune across cultures, time, and continents, Robert Louis Stevenson’s book Treasure Island felt cosmically intended for me.” Later, Rena gently asks, “Are you taking your Zoloft?”

The narrator works at a Pet Library where people can borrow pets. It’s a bizarre but delightful detail. The narrator is terrible at her job and in her quest to embody the core values of her new spirit guide, she makes a series of selfish, destructive decisions that include neglecting her job duties and taking (stealing) money from petty cash to buy a parrot so she can show her boss she is”capable of action.” Her master plan doesn’t end well, though the narrator is oblivious to what she has done wrong.

Soon she finds herself stuck with the parrot and without a job. Undeterred, she mooches off her gainfully employed boyfriend Lars until he can no longer put up with her. She continues taking wild advantage of the people in her life, justifying her decisions at every turn right until the end when there is a death and a stabbing and I cannot say anymore without ruining the book for you but I assure you, the narrator learns no lessons. In fact, whenever she is criticized by her boyfriend, her parents, her best friend, or her sister, she turns the tables, exposing and exploiting their vulnerabilities, often cruelly. Because they love her, the people in her life mostly enable her bad behavior as if they are unable to believe she is beyond redemption. By all rights, we should hate the narrator and judge her in the way her family cannot, but I too was willing to forgive the narrator her trespasses because she was so committed to her obsession and so unequivocally invested only in herself. When she runs into a girl she knew from high school working at a sandwich shop, a woman whose goal in life is, “to get through my shift with as little human interaction as possible,” the narrator is undeterred. She realizes, “Truthfully, I’m the kind of person who throws things away—letters, photos, tiresome clothes and people—and finding Patty was like finding some old thing in the closet that I had meant to discard. First there is annoyance (“I thought I’d thrown this out”), then the dawning realization fo your luck.”

There’s more to the story–the narrator’s sister, Adrianna is having a secret affair the narrator disapproves of. She tries to make sense of her sister’s relationship. “Maybe, I reasoned, she was sitting on his face for monetary reasons. Maybe she let him do things to her in exchange for cash, with a long-term plan to pay of her credit card debt and move out of our parents’ house.” Their parents encounter a bump in the road because of an old wound that hasn’t quite healed. There’s the bird, Richard. There’s an intervention over the narrator’s obsession with Treasure Island. The tension builds and builds and the narrator behaves so badly at times, I was tempted to read the book through my fingers. I was terrified to imagine what the narrator would do next but I still wanted to see.

I don’t know that I’ve read a funnier, smarter book than Treasure Island!!! Nor do I think I have ever cringed as much while reading a book as I did with Treasure Island!!! The wit is sharp, perfectly executed, and the tone is relentless and consistent from the beginning of the novel until the end. Levine is as committed to the narrator and the depths of her narcissism as the narrator is to Treasure Island. Each time you think the narrator has reached the apex of self-absorption and narcissism, she discovers new heights. Each time you think she might show her family or Lars a little compassion, a little tenderness, she stays the course. There is no redemptive arc here. She doesn’t learn a lesson or become a better person. She ends the novel as the same narcissistic, charmingly terrible person she was at the outset of the novel. That’s what I loved most about this book. So often in fiction we look for a redemptive arc. We look for momentum and for lessons to be learned. That’s not always how things work in real life. Sometimes people are bad and they don’t ever change nor do they want to change. The narrator is completely oblivious to her rotten ways and her unapologetic nature is refreshing. Sometimes, I get tired of redemption. I don’t always want to know the moral of the story. In Treasure Island!!!, Levine richly indulges that desire to appreciate a wholly unlikable narrator who is nonetheless likable. Levine makes you love her all the more for doing it.

The Tension of the Likable Unlikable

Treasure Island!!!
by Sara Levine
Europa Editions, 2012
172 pages / $15.00 Buy from Powells

I love unlikable characters. In the fictional world, I want bad people to get away with doing bad things. I want the serial killer to slip into the night or live happily never after. One of the reasons I love American Psycho so much is the methodical and unwavering way Ellis portrays Patrick Bateman as an unrepentant psychopath who is as interested in the right restaurant reservation as he is in committing sadistic acts. It’s all very unpleasant (or it isn’t) but the writing is such that it is easy to be as fascinated as you might be repulsed.

I love finding writers who can hold the reader in that complicated tension where you like the unlikable character.

 

Sara Levine’s remarkable Treasure Island!!! (Europa Editions) is a book with a different kind of unlikable character than Patrick Bateman who is so criminally terrible. In her debut novel, Levine has created a narrator who makes you want to armchair diagnose the extreme range of mental disorders she displays.

In Treasure Island!!!, an unnamed narrator becomes obsessed with Treasure Island and decides to live by the book’s core values as she sees them: BOLDNESS, RESOLUTION, INDEPENDENCE, HORN-BLOWINGShe is completely self-obsessed and never considers the consequences of her actions as she selfishly moves through the world and tries be more like Jim Hawkins—as she ultimately tries to create her own adventure. She tells her friend Rena, “I must have been a sea-bird streaking through the azure sky of his daydream; in just the same way spirits are said to commune across cultures, time, and continents, Robert Louis Stevenson’s book Treasure Island felt cosmically intended for me.” Later, Rena gently asks, “Are you taking your Zoloft?”

The narrator works at a Pet Library where people can borrow pets. It’s a bizarre but delightful detail. The narrator is terrible at her job and in her quest to embody the core values of her new spirit guide, she makes a series of selfish, destructive decisions that include neglecting her job duties and taking (stealing) money from petty cash to buy a parrot so she can show her boss she is”capable of action.” Her master plan doesn’t end well, though the narrator is oblivious to what she has done wrong.

Soon she finds herself stuck with the parrot and without a job. Undeterred, she mooches off her gainfully employed boyfriend Lars until he can no longer put up with her. She continues taking wild advantage of the people in her life, justifying her decisions at every turn right until the end when there is a death and a stabbing and I cannot say anymore without ruining the book for you but I assure you, the narrator learns no lessons. In fact, whenever she is criticized by her boyfriend, her parents, her best friend, or her sister, she turns the tables, exposing and exploiting their vulnerabilities, often cruelly. Because they love her, the people in her life mostly enable her bad behavior as if they are unable to believe she is beyond redemption. By all rights, we should hate the narrator and judge her in the way her family cannot, but I too was willing to forgive the narrator her trespasses because she was so committed to her obsession and so unequivocally invested only in herself. When she runs into a girl she knew from high school working at a sandwich shop, a woman whose goal in life is, “to get through my shift with as little human interaction as possible,” the narrator is undeterred. She realizes, “Truthfully, I’m the kind of person who throws things away—letters, photos, tiresome clothes and people—and finding Patty was like finding some old thing in the closet that I had meant to discard. First there is annoyance (“I thought I’d thrown this out”), then the dawning realization fo your luck.”

There’s more to the story–the narrator’s sister, Adrianna is having a secret affair the narrator disapproves of. She tries to make sense of her sister’s relationship. “Maybe, I reasoned, she was sitting on his face for monetary reasons. Maybe she let him do things to her in exchange for cash, with a long-term plan to pay of her credit card debt and move out of our parents’ house.” Their parents encounter a bump in the road because of an old wound that hasn’t quite healed. There’s the bird, Richard. There’s an intervention over the narrator’s obsession with Treasure Island. The tension builds and builds and the narrator behaves so badly at times, I was tempted to read the book through my fingers. I was terrified to imagine what the narrator would do next but I still wanted to see.

I don’t know that I’ve read a funnier, smarter book than Treasure Island!!! Nor do I think I have ever cringed as much while reading a book as I did with Treasure Island!!! The wit is sharp, perfectly executed, and the tone is relentless and consistent from the beginning of the novel until the end. Levine is as committed to the narrator and the depths of her narcissism as the narrator is to Treasure Island. Each time you think the narrator has reached the apex of self-absorption and narcissism, she discovers new heights. Each time you think she might show her family or Lars a little compassion, a little tenderness, she stays the course. There is no redemptive arc here. She doesn’t learn a lesson or become a better person. She ends the novel as the same narcissistic, charmingly terrible person she was at the outset of the novel. That’s what I loved most about this book. So often in fiction we look for a redemptive arc. We look for momentum and for lessons to be learned. That’s not always how things work in real life. Sometimes people are bad and they don’t ever change nor do they want to change. The narrator is completely oblivious to her rotten ways and her unapologetic nature is refreshing. Sometimes, I get tired of redemption. I don’t always want to know the moral of the story. In Treasure Island!!!, Levine richly indulges that desire to appreciate a wholly unlikable narrator who is nonetheless likable. Levine makes you love her all the more for doing it.

Ireland’s Bird Life: A World of Beauty

by Sara Baume

Ireland’s Bird Life: A World of Beauty
Edited by Matt Murphy and Susan Murphy
Text by Richard Lansdown
Images by Richard Mills
Sherkin Island Marine Station Publications, 1994
160 pages  /  Abe Books

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is a twitcher out on the seafront.

The seafront must be a few miles long altogether – stretching from the oil refinery past the power-station all the way to the saltwater lake, and then the woods. Some days the twitcher will be outside our house where the waders dabble in the mud for lugworm and shellfish. Other days he’ll be down by the saltwater lake where the wigeons and shovelers compete for stale breadcrumbs.

My boyfriend thinks there are a couple of different twitchers, but I know there’s just the one.

He is a little kingfisher of a man with long beak and speckled brow, and when he perches on the folding-stool with his face fastened into a pair of binoculars, his elbows jut out at each side like a stubby wingspan. Although it’s hard to tell through all his cold weather clothes-wear, I guess he is about seventy.

I am certainly interested in nature but it’s other people that interest me the most.

One day I tried to spark up a conversation with the twitcher, but he wasn’t very forthcoming. I suppose he’s bored to death of nitwits like me blundering over and scaring all his wagtails and wheatears away only to point out a common herring gull and think that I’m smart.

It must be lonely, being the twitcher.

Not just out there on the seafront in the drizzle all by himself, but up against of world of ignoramuses who do not know a purple sandpiper from a bar-tailed godwit.

Some time last December I mentioned that I would like to get a bird book for Christmas. I can’t remember exactly whose company I happened to be in when I mentioned it, but the result was that I received three.

I received Shore Birds of IrelandThe Complete Field Guide to Ireland’s Birds, and Ireland’s Bird Life: A World of Beauty.

Shore Birds has lots of nicely composed distance shots of flocks in flight and razor-sharp close-ups of freshly hatched chicks. Field Guide has hundreds of pages worth of shaded maps and anatomically correct illustrations. But World of Beauty has taken something of a less traditional approach to its photography.

On page 78, for example, a neat line of turnstones appear to be conducting a shitting competition down the hull of a ship. On page 80, an old man in a tractor is being mobbed by a rabble of black-headed gulls. And on page 90, there is a kittiwake sitting, somewhat obligingly, on an information board which reads KITTIWAKE / NUMBERS ARE NOW INCREASING.

I stacked up my bird books on the living-room coffee table and I study them after dinner in the evenings when my brain has been turned too spongy by food for anything terribly literary.

While I know I’m learning far more of practical application from Shore Birds and Field Guide,World of Beauty is the most strangely gratifying.

World of Beauty is the tabloid newspaper of bird books – its subjects captured off-guard whilst in the act of something vaguely inappropriate. And because what I mostly read is fiction, I suppose the appeal has something to do with how each picture alludes to a life beyond that which is pictured. The birds are not just glamorous specimens of their given species – but complicated and inconsistent individuals going about their respective daily mischief.

My boyfriend glances over my shoulder while I am reading, and as he does I will say things likeThat’s a GREY HERON and on page 21 he gets pecked by a ROOK. Or, That’s a JACKDAW and on page 140 he sneaks up on a sleeping horse and rips a beak-full of hair from it’s wiry white tail.

Ireland has approximately 370 different species of bird, and perhaps when I know all of them I will consider approaching the twitcher again.

Whenever we see him out the front windows or down by the saltwater lake, my boyfriend – who now accepts that there is only one – always comments on How nice it must be, or so he supposes, to be the twitcher.

And then I must tell him that it is lonely being the twitcher, that no one really understands.

They don’t understand how pure the oystercatcher’s single-noted piping call, how exquisite the golden plover’s plumage as it twinkles in midsummer sun, nor how the curlews are dying because of afforestation and how if global warming continues the way it is, then the knot won’t be able to get fat enough in Irish estuaries for its long-distance migration come the winter.

I tell him that to be the twitcher would be to care little for the world beyond these things, and to be left with nothing much to talk about as a result.

We’ve never seen the twitcher down the pub, for example, on a bar stool instead of a folding one, enthralled by the on-screen Darts or Premiership instead of brent geese and redshanks – flinching at kicks of the ball and strikes of the board instead of the flap of wing-feathers and the paddling of webbed feet.

But my boyfriend says, No.  It’s nice to be the twitcher.

That it’s nice to be seventy and to have reached some stage in life where it’s okay just to strike out in pursuit of your interests and to sit at perfect peace before a rising, falling tide all day.  To have a flask in the boot of the car and a colourful Tupperware thing stuffed with teabags and a tinfoil rectangle to house your ham sandwiches.

Then why not go have a twitch? I say. I’ll lend you my World of Beauty.

But my boyfriend says, No.  That he hasn’t earned it yet.

That he still has too much to be discontented about for twitching.

***

Sara Baume is a writer, of sorts. Her reviews, interviews, articles and stories are published occasionally both online and in print.  She lives on the south coast of Ireland and can be found at
www.sarabaume.wordpress.com.

Cynical Monsters

by Daniel Cecil

In Defense of Monsters
by BJ Hollars
Origami Zoo Press
52 pages / $8  Buy from Origami Zoo Press

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Most people have little room for magic or legend in their lives. Folks spend most of their formative years cultivating a certain amount of cynicism towards legend and work incessantly towards creating a sense of control over themselves and the world at large. To be human is to conquer – whether physically or mentally.

We keep doing our work, spend inordinate amounts of time “surfing” the web (surfing itself invoking an image of an uncontrollable wave, that of information, tamed by man) and we watch television where we have 24-hour news coverage and programs that reflect our tastes. (Although it can be argued the practice of watching television is, in its own way, an acceptance of a mythology in itself. The very idea of personal choice in the current media system is false. A greatinfographic from designers Frugal Dad suggests, at the very least, we should reconsider what we’re watching as personal choice.)

We have morphed into cynical, secular creatures, and created a Western reality built on entertainment that recreates old legends and story lines but without the danger of immediacy (or, some might argue, a moral base that unifies us. We rarely look towards scripture, myth or legend as a moral barometer, nor use these stories as allegorical lessons which we may benefit from) that the legends of old seemed to conjure. Or maybe, I’m cynical.

But even with this so-called control we believe we possess, we still have a surprisingly large amount of gullibility built into our being.

Let’s turn our focus to some modern hood-winkery – the alleged boy in the balloon of 2009 – as an example.

You might remember the story:

Father sends up balloon.
Father cannot find son.
Father calls media attention to the fact his son is in the balloon.
New cameras and federal agents follow balloon.
Balloon is empty when it lands.
Someone saw an object drop from the balloon.
Cue manhunt.
Boy is found in home attic.
Father is sent to jail for 90 days and ordered to pay $36,000.

This modern tale of Icarus (a boy flying too close to the sun) made the world privy to a suffering we could conjure. This story, so heart-rending, compelled us to imagine a world outside our own. Each of us became a father who lost his son to a balloon flying in the heavens.

It is a study in human behavior, a textbook case, that when the incident was found out to be nothing more than hot air (excuse the pun) the father was nominated monster of the year. Not because of the way he fooled police, interviewers, and federal agents, but because he fooled us. And like a monster, we forgot him and the story that brought us all together as if we were somehow abused and had to hide the memory away. We returned to our individual bubbles a little more wary and said to ourselves that next time, in no way, would we be so gullible.

Our need to prove that we’re in control is at odds with how easily we can be led astray. In a way, we want to believe. But, with hubris, we attempt to create a world that will bend to our will. Yet we ignore the faults that indicate we’re not 100 percent in control. So skepticism and hubris remain in a constant balancing act. How do we give equal weight to each?  More importantly, have we given up something by attempting to expel wonder from our existence?

In response to these questions, BJ Hollars – in his new book of essays In Defense of Monsters – argues that on the one hand, re-imagining legend (using the Sasquatch, a gigantic turtle living in a pond, and the monster of Loch Ness as an example) may help us utilize cynicism effectively. But with the scales balanced he warns that on the other hand, giving into imaginary creatures may, ultimately, lead us to distraction.

Hollars is quick to insist that in reality the Sasquatch existed in the form of the Gigantopithecus, a large land ape that came over on the Bering Land Bridge some 300,000 years ago.

The bones of this ancient Sasquatch were ground for centuries into a potentially life extending powder. The destruction of such precious evidence of the past, and our inability to confirm the existence of Sasquatch in our current time, may have led to our current inability to realize the legitimacy of the Sasquatch as a true being. Hollars wonders whether “we can validate anything while being hell-bent on invalidation.”

To further emphasis this point of validation, Hollars points to the 18,225 new species of animals discovered in 2008 alone, a quarter of which were mammals. Although none of the mammals were as large as a Sasquatch, similar sized – if not larger animals – were discovered in the past. Do these discoveries allow us the possibility that we may have given up too early on Big Foot?

The effect here is a blow of sorts; Hollars is asking you, before anything else, to consider the existence of the monster and put your cynicism on the back burner, if only till the end of the book.

Hollars suggests that the problem may lie in our hubris: to accept the legend of the Sasquatch is to give in to the idea that we’re wrong. This admittance would require a giving up of control. The fact that the Sasquatch bridges the gap between the human and the lowly ape may be another reason for our hesitation to admit its existence. The Sasquatch, unlike other monsters, is anthropomorphic, and is therefore all the more frightening.

The legend of the “Shelled Sasquatch,” a large turtle found in a pond in rural Indiana, serves as another reminder that monsters may lurk directly below the surface of modern reality. The turtle offered travelers and tourists the chance of discovery, of hope, and a reopening of the imagination. In this way, the monster became interchangeable with God by giving us a glimpse of the unknown, where nature and the mysteries of the universe intermingle.

The “Shelled Sasquatch” is also a tale of warning; Although Hollars suggests that we should, on occasion, give in to the allure of the monster as a mind expansion exercise, he also warns of the danger we face when giving faith the monster’s legend. He points to the destruction of the pond and the surrounding land from the footfall of monster tourists hoping for a glimpse of the monster, as a reminder that in the mad hunt for the unknown, for the answers to a false reality, a perfectly good reality was ruined.

Hollars suggests that the search for monsters take us away from another task of great importance: that of serving our fellow man.

In his essay on the Loch Ness Monster, Hollars is incredulous of the laws made to protect a monster that has shown little desire to be discovered. Harming Nessie, in any way, was made illegal by the Scotland Secretary of State, Sir Godfrey Collins in 1938. This, Hollars writes, was at the same time millions of Jews were being shipped by train to their deaths, much to the blind/turned eye of a European populous.

Earlier in the book, Hollars states that the Sasquatch may be the fittest of all of Darwin’s creatures because the Sasquatch has the good notion to stay hidden away from us and the unfriendly world we choose to live in. Maybe it isn’t that we choose to exist in a cynical reality. Maybe the focus of our cynicism is misplaced.

Although this book may be at first glance about defending the existence of monsters, BJ Hollars makes an even grander argument for humankind’s penchant for shortsightedness and our ability to give into one idea without broad reflection. To give up the idea of the monster is to also give up ourselves: because without monsters we lack the imagination for a bigger world. To accept the monster, however, we give into a world which negates reality.

Hollars’s essays never beg us to give in to the monster’s existence, nor do they suggest we should count out the existence of monsters altogether. The world will always exist in duality. Instead, Hollars asks us to look at both sides of the issue. The book, instead, simply asks us to be humble.

***
Daniel Cecil is a writer living in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He is a fiction editor for the literary magazine Versal.