Chapbook Review: “A Tale of Two Chapbooks”

The Pulpit vs. The Hole
Written by Jay Shearer
Gold Line Press, 2012
ISBN 9781105543647

Memory Future
Written by Heather Aimee O’Neill
Gold Line Press, 2011
ISBN 9781932800869

A Tale of Two Chapbooks

Back when Dickens created Madame Defarge knitting up a revolution in a quiet cafe corner, publishers sewed together ephemera and called it a chapbook, after the chapmen or street dealers who peddled them for cheap.  Before magazine ads or tweets, it was a quick way to get the latest in print out on the street.  At Oxford a few years back, I sat in the rotunda of the Radcliffe Camera researching a chapbook from 17something, stitched by hand, that included both the poet I’d found and some derogatory essays about the Duchess of Devonshire.  Since then, chapbooks have become a way for emerging authors to show their work before having a full-length collection or novel to print, or for authors to preview upcoming work; it is a stepping stone on the publishing path.  There are many chapbook contests, helping both authors and small presses grow.  This is a tale of two winners, in fiction (2011) and poetry (2010), of the Gold Line Press Chapbook Contest.  The press is associated with USC’s Ph.D in Literature and Creative Writing Department.  I was interested in what, in my view, made these two selections winners.

The Pulit vs The Hole
The fiction winner, selected by Percival Everett, is Jay Shearer’s The Pulpit vs. The Hole.  This long short story, of events at a Christian summer camp, is a tight little ball of yarn that unwinds from beginning to end with the pacing of a practiced storyteller.  Shearer knows exactly what story he’s telling and how to best go about it.   Well, there’s this pulpit and there’s this hole . . . immediately engaging nouns and yet their meaning is obscure, hooking with the easy-reading charm of a young dude telling you his summer camp story.   The insinuations of religion and sex are intentional, as befits a co-ed Bible study camp for waywardish youths, but you don’t really get it until the end.  Shearer’s characters are authentically teenaged–funny and challenging and angsty, with definite stuff to work out–from page one.  Teen stuff on the surface with a laconic subtext that hints of something about to go horribly wrong.  Suitably hooked by both premise and tone, the tale unfolds exactly as it needs to and does not falter.  No spoiler alerts here, but the “quiet kids” of Cabin 6 don’t spend all their time on Bible study.  And even when they do, it’s interesting.  Such a smooth ride on such a bumpy road in only 43 pages that you can see as if you’re watching a movie is why Percival Everett picked this one out of the pile.

Memory FutureMemory Future, selected by Carol Muske-Dukes, begins with an epigraph from Jeanette Winterson’sGut Symmetries (an extremely quotable and quoted author, as shown by a quick Google, and a book I must read immediately) and uses phrases from it as section titles.  As the chapbook title suggests, O’Neill’s poems are memory banks in time shifts, written in short two, three and four line forms mainly, until the middle section, “the spin of the earth that allows us to observe time” (Winterson’s line).  This section is one poem, “Winter in Spain,” consisting of seven numbered sonnets, and it was here I entered the chapbook more fully.  Particularly in II. with its opening line of “The flecks of red fade, not the hope.  There’s more  .” After reading this sonnet and appreciating its heightened nuances, feeling it to be the best in the book, I noticed a small pink dot had been affixed to that very page.  Apparently someone else felt the same way.  I was frankly relieved to see the last poem, the narrative “Second Grade Teachers Don’t Have Names Without Mr., Mrs., or Ms.  Attached” deviate from the controlled, even-tempered collection, and spin out a little.

What binds these two together is a consistency of tone in each author, an assured spareness in thoughtful, personal, circular narratives where, like a ball of yarn, or an orbit, the end takes you back to the beginning.  O’Neill studied with Marie Ponsot, among others she acknowledges, and it shows.  Less is more doesn’t quite nail it.  Another opening sonnet line of O’Neill’s–she writes killer first lines–better sums it up.  “Nostaliga is uneasy.  For so long” . . . it’s an enjambment, so no period.  The story goes on, like a circle.

Review by Susan Lynch
© 2012, All Rights Reserved
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