Book Review: Money Money Money Water Water Water

Money Money Money Water Water Water

Written by Jane Mead

Alice James Books, 2014

ISBN 9781938584046

Money Money Money Water Water Water Jane Mead’s assured hand has snipped exquisite holes in her poems, allowing the unsaid to rise, waver and haunt every line. In her fourth collection, the poet has removed every non-essential word, a mastery of distillation, to create a work of pure potency.

In tercets, mostly (three line stanzas), roaming through lean sections of natural shocks, Mead contemplates environmental and existential immensities in a liminal subtext and never puts a foot wrong. On the left, single tercets with monostich gesture to the right hand poems in language as urgent, wistful and primary as   How much how much where going     and you know exactly what she means.

What can’t be said speaks wholly through absence; connections are deepened through asyndeton (no connectors). Gone, most of a sentence; the word going is allowed to remain, to reappear like the repetitions of the title, or ghosts. Going, going, gone.

Questions don’t need question marks, nether states like “the can-be / and the want” “primitive stalks of might-be / and aftermath” tell all. Known by the spirits of deer, and the dead. Ag reports, pesticides. The effect is transfiguring in a transfigured terroir. Something changes into something else in the space between the going and the aftermath, and in us, as Mead asks her last question.

How much can you subtract now 

How much and still get by

Review by Susan Lynch

© 2014, All Rights Reserved
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Book Review: Glossolalia

Glossolalia: New & Selected Stories

Written by David Jauss

Press 53, 2013

ISBN 9781935708841

With prose that is precise and devastating, David Jauss presents seventeen new and selected stories about the resilience of people as they are dragged through the rough of isolation: isolation from God; isolation from love; from community. And in that isolation is discovery. Jauss builds and cultivates these immensely complex characters while never abandoning them completely. It seems to me that Glossolalia asks the question: what keeps these characters moving after taking nearly everything away?

Glossolalia_CoverIn the last twelve months, I have not read many new short story collections. Novels seem to have taken over my bookshelf, and so consequently, I really forgot why I fell in love with the short form those years ago. It was the surprises, the gut-punch that you never saw coming and left you forgetting how to breathe, only to start the next gut-punch pages later. Stories that ended far sooner than you wish they had, and Glossolalia lands every blow with stories that challenge the form, stretch the narrative bounds, while also committing to honest and more traditional storytelling.

David Jauss has no limitations. “Apotheosis” is a story written in letter-form, by Friar Miguel Sabogal during the Spanish Inquisition, pleading his innocence on the charge of being a heretic. In the letter, the friar recounts his story about torture and the fragility of the spirit as it is reduced to its fewest possible components. “The Bigs” is a story about a baseball player from the Dominican Republic playing for a Double A team. The story is written in first person and in a dialect that lends such authenticity to the narrative voice that the reader can nearly hear it. The title story, “Glossolalia,” is a much more straightforward narrative that shows what happens when a boy’s father has a complete mental breakdown. Jauss’ great attention to nuance is what really sells these stories: the nuance of voice, the nuance of character. Young fiction writers should read this collection and learn from one of the truly great masters of the form, and the casual reader should simply allow these stories to blow them away.

There seems to be a reoccurring theme throughout the collection of bad fathers, broken fathers. Stories about fatherly faith gained and lost and then found again. What Jauss achieves with this collection is a brutal realism, the hard callous that insulates us within our darkest dreams and our deepest regrets. But ultimately these stories remind the reader of the amazing resilience of people, of how “a life could break so utterly, then mend itself.”

Review by Adam Padgett

© 2014, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: Home Burial

Home Burial

Written by Michael McGriff

Copper Canyon Press, 2012

ISBN 9781556593840

Home Burial coverHome Burial (Copper Canyon Press,  2012) exposes the Pacific Northwest poet Michael McGriff knows inside out with a stunning forensic lyricism. His knowledge of the backwoods, the quarries, the bay “shaped like a rabbit / hanging limp / from the jaws of the landscape” is downright chthonic, haunted by spirits of place, the departed, and the old junkers they left behind. His poems track movement shapeshifting through his rural routes/roots, personifying Midwinter as a woman who “lets the darkness / sit down beside her” here, pointing to glimpses of reeds–or is it human hair– waving from the bottom of the pond in another abandoned wreck there. His unflinching reports are detailed with a poetic grace that does not betray the bleak realities of life, as, say, a four-legged predator, an obese dead man removed by a crane through a shattered chimney,  his grandfather’s will found on the back of an invoice in the shed, a woman about to die on the job at the mill.

McGriff presents the hardscrabble vignettes in forms as natural as weather, in language at once harsh and beautiful, shitkicking and prayerful, but never off pitch. This, his second full-length collection, is a Lannan Literary Selection. In its thirty-one poems, the poet’s response to the natural world and the ultimate fragility of all its inhabitants hardened by necessity ties these cautionary tales, remembrances and elegies together like #50 Heavy Cougar Genuine Leather Logger Laces. Imagining McGriff creating his poetry in the tough guy settings of his titles: the break room, the Oyster Bar, or sitting – like Midwinter – at the kitchen table, is grainy, cinematic. Anyone who knows this heartbreaking country knows Home Burial  nails it; anyone unfamiliar is shown its beating heart, the lay of the land, and what lies beneath.

Review by Susan Lynch

© 2013, All Rights Reserved

Chapbook Review: The Egg Mistress

The Egg Mistress
Written by Jessica Poli
Gold Line Press, 2013
ISBN 9781938900037

 
 
Jessica Poli’s The Egg Mistress (Gold Line Press, 2013) brims with delight, sensuality, and devastation, muted and estranged in poems and prose poems grappling with the various stages and eventual end of a romantic relationship. The chapbook cycles through a tight economy of symbols, including a barn, eggs, corn, a kitchen, salt, and cotton. These images, through their reappearance and repetition, work to create a pervading, unified rural-domestic sense of place. Much of the emotion of the chapbook—held at arms’ length (at times buckling, allowing it to take over even in the coolest of lines)—passes through this conspicuous frame. Rather than confining, these poems derive a wonderful, quick energy from Poli’s enigmatic, matter-of-fact wit. For example, the prose poem “The Naming of Things Kept Us Busy” notes with dry, bitter, disenchanted wit an exchange of vows:

landlocked deadbolt dust bowl house in the middle. We read the entire list at the ceremony. After all, we were so careful about getting everything right, stuck on the word love for a day—love, like the failure of the word lung, like mineral. A grassy kiss against teeth. Grinning badly by a cactus. The blood dog’s bite against your thigh. Finally we settled: a hand in a room full of hands.

The speaker relates the content of the vows in barren, claustrophobic terms in the first sentence. The poem then proceeds to convey a gentle yet disengaged (grassy) kiss and the obsession with the word “love,” which fails to adequately name what actually passes between the speaker and her addressee, just as “lung” and “mineral” fail. The nature of these words’ shortcomings is unclear; perhaps this is true for the speaker, attempting to articulate and define the intangible. The final sentence simultaneously evokes mundaneness and eroticism.

Another poem, particular in its dryness and absurd humor, is the eponymous “The Egg Mistress,” in which the speaker declares herself as existing as two selves:

In the morning, I fill the counter with crab legs.
Large white pots boil on the stovetop
ready for an afternoon feast.

I keep my hands full.

Pass your name with salt over burners.

In the kitchen, there are two of myself–
one cooking, stirring, sautéing,
one lying dead on the slick tile,
crabs crawling and tangling in her hair.

I step over her and fry an egg.

The image of crabs “crawling and tangling” in the hair of the dead self while the living self moves about, keeping her hands full, expresses a paradox: to balance the numb, assertive, and pragmatic self, there must necessarily be something dead and plain in sight. One cannot have it a single or solitary way. In order to work through grief (to do what must be done in the everyday), there must be a sort of active separation or detachment. In fact, this separation, resonating throughout the chapbook, lays bare pain and regret in a stark clarity. The matter of fact line, “I step over her and fry an egg,” shows the speaker both ignoring and accepting the lying form as part of her environment. There’s triumph in these lines, as well as dejection.

The Egg MistressAside from Poli’s effective use of a consistent system of symbols and place, The Egg Mistress contains multiple examples of deep, vivid imagery. The poem “I Hide the Core Heap Under the Bed” begins by describing traces of apple-flesh and peel: “Balsa hands and / red sugar on hot fingers: / you used to have a hold on me.” The third line reads like a line from a love song, transplanted and equated to the vestiges of the apple. The traces of the hold are still apparent. The speaker recalls making love “under black lights” with a sense of violence and shame; she recalls the tenderness in her lover’s brushing lint away from her mouth—no more. Finally, the poem ends with the speaker recalling an intimate line, “Let me melt, I always said. / You fed me apples in the morning. / You told me not to cry and fed me apples.” The inclusion of these lines, reminiscent of cliché, ring sincere in the face of the speaker’s bereaved state and Poli’s thorough depiction of gestures and images contained within the poem.

The Egg Mistress can be taken as a layered sequence; each poem and prose poem feels a fragment, part of the whole. The speaker’s consistent tone also unifies the chapbook (we assume these poems have a common speaker). Through several rereads, one gains an even clearer sense of Poli’s intent—to tell the complex story of a relationship, or relationships, through several complex poems, able to stand on their own while complementing one another. There’s also a renewing joy of discovery, of surprise, inherent in this collection, despite the despair and strangeness woven into this book. And part of this joy comes from poems that defy easy explanation or expectation—handled with a level of dexterity and intelligence and care, evident of Poli’s poetic maturity.

 
Review by Tristan Beach
© 2013, All Rights Reserved

Chapbook Review: Say You’re a Fiction

Say You’re a Fiction
Written by Kari Larsen
Dancing Girl Press, 2012

Say You're a FictionPoetry is the universe that surrounds the tiny, rocky province of prose; it’s where we learn that our linguistic laws are relative and artificial. This frustrates people – it intimidates and annoys them – and it has given the publishing industry license to ignore poetry (especially the chap-book) more so than literary fiction or even the short story. The impression, perhaps justified, is that people have no time for poetry, ironically, because it so concise. Novels – even big, Franzian leviathans – teach us how to read them, and even the experimental ones count on the reader’s familiarity with the quotidian world – light and shadow, gravity and magnetism – in order to highlight their departures. The physics engine of prose is easily understood; being alive qualifies you to read it. Does anyone even know how to read poetry?

When I was in graduate school, I often asked professors this question. The answers were highly gendered (though, one hopes, not wholly representative). A male professor told me that reading poetry was about mastery – overpowering the ambiguity and fluidity of poetry by bringing the rigidity of theory to bear on it, binding it with context, biography and history. To read a poem was to break it, to domesticate it, to choke the life out of it. A female professor suggested something nearly oppositional – acknowledging the bewildering power of poetry, surrendering to it. To read a poem was to drown in it.

Take, then, Kari Larsen’s excellent chapbook, Say You’re a FictionIf I say it’s beautiful written – darkly and wisely crafted – surely that is diversion, though no less true. I have to say more, but what, or – rather – how? We aren’t dealing with characters or plot, exactly, and so summary seems foolish, yet I’ve got to say something about the piece. We have some measure of constancy: over and over, two men chase the woman who narrates her flight:

“Two men / chase me / through the Louvre / in my nightmare”
But repetition is not understanding. Not yet. So, something has to be done – one needs a strategy, or at least a tactic. Which will it be, then, murder or suicide?

Murder/Suicide

First, there’s Murder: Poems are not parallel universes, like ghosts or neutrinos they do touch our world at certain points, however delicately – that’s where we’ll set the hooks. The epigraph is often the poet’s throat, bared and thrust at us. Larsen’s Godard taunts us: “When you see your own photo, do you say you’re a fiction?” This is the artist’s double-game, the representational uncertainty principle: when we think Godard is making a film, he’s giving us life; when we think he’s documenting, he reminds us – with the frame, the jump-cut, the montage – that he’s not. An irony: in this old slippery spot we set a hook.

It’s just a tether, but the restriction from the infinite to the finite is drastic, a celestial contraction. Now we can start to wrench other references away from the morass of ambiguity – Godard gives us Anna Karina and Jean Seberg, Breathless and To Live One’s Life – and at each point, we set a hook. Larsen’s “Anna” and “Jean” are each the muse, the object of desire, the subject of the gaze – real and unreal in equal measure. And into these films – and into their tangled webs of identification and reference – Larsen inserts her voice. In her first poem, we’re inside the chase; immediately following, we’re outside, watching the chase as a film and recognizing ourselves onscreen. We’re brought to the scene of a shoot (or a shooting) – and then another, and another – and each time the emotion is further bracketed by the cool distance of film; even the soundtrack, the classic emotional ploy, is alienated:

“I tell / the plot in which I am embroiled / to the tune / while I plummet / beyond sound”
Likewise, human actions are straight-jacketed by the script-as-existential-law:
“I do not think we have stopped acting yet / and we can only extort intelligence from each other that will get us / to the next scene slate”

This is one way to read Larsen – to be one more predator, chasing her down the corridors of the Louvre with a camera and a gun, to say with cold detachment that you’ve won. But Larsen’s poems aren’t disarmed or domesticated (as even the stateliest sonnet has a little feral blood in its veins). You cannot kill what’s wild about them (although I’m sure you can exorcise it from your own reading and keep your own house clear).

But if it’s communion you want – be it with demons or spirits – then murder won’t suffice.

So, then, there’s Suicide: poems touch our world, yes, but they bend away to someplace else – and it’s not always the joyous, the erotic, or the pastoral. Sometimes poems are the translation of the ineffably horrifying. In Larsen’s chapbook, the poems start to build up fragments of this nightmare, the sense of being stuck in a soulless loop of someone else’s desire, in a prison of scopophilia, a puppet of cinematic convention. As Larsen writes, in a chilling sing-song:

“The song is the same / and it’s in the café / everything would be different / if another song would play”

In Larsen’s hands (so to speak), Godard’s mise-en-scènes become a labyrinth by Borges, signs trembling between a strangle symbolism and a frightening emptiness. It reminds me of Douglas Gordon’s “24 Hour Psycho” as it manifests in Don DeLillo’s Point Omega – a film requisitioned, manipulated and transposed into words,  so that we can see it, deeper and clearer. But where DeLillo’s language is cold and dead, Larsen’s crackles with dark wit. She knows and loves the game. She has a perfect sense of how to haunt a collection with phrases that return, slightly more twisted each time.

Repetition is not the same as understanding. Sometimes things never connect – some of Larsen’s work will escape you if you try to hunt it down and kill it like prose. Some of her references will elude you. Let them. But, at the same time, don’t take my attitude for Larsen’s. I’m willing – happy, even – to surrender to her dreamscape; Larsen’s heroines aren’t going quiet into that good nightmare. Despite the creeping existential dread, they are ready to fight, both against the ‘two men’ who stalk her and the larger forces which those men stand in for. A métaphore noir: we already know the plot, but sometimes the characters manage to subvert the script. As Larsen writes at the end of “Say You Love Me – oh, Say it with Paving Stones,” perhaps my favorite of the collection:

“As long as I am chased down by two men / I won’t ever be without a gun”
Review by Benjamin Schachtman
© 2013, All Rights Reserved

Chapbook Review: States of Independence

States of Independence
Written by Michael Klein
Bloom Books, 2012
ISBN 9780983761150

Immediately preceding Michael Klein’s much-anticipated The Talking Day, Bloom Books released a chapbook of essays by Klein, States of Independence, selected by Rigoberto González as part of Bloom’s 2011 chapbook series. Check out Bloom Magazine, which publishes biannual issues featuring both established and emerging queer writers.

States of Independence is a thin, square-shaped, pocket-sized little book sporting wide clean white borders around its central image: a man walking his small dog on a sun-lit beach. The image reminds one of a miniature movie poster. Snow, sunlight, and rain all resonate with States, figuring in Klein’s personal semantics of loss, isolation, and love. The snowy borders around the cover of States do more than just provide padding; they accentuate the image’s isolating effects, while fortifying the sense of companionship and sobriety characteristic of much of States.

Klein’s prose often feels cinematic, as in the first essay of this sequence, “Movie Rain and Movie Snow”:

It was snowing in New York—and everywhere else, apparently—but especially in New York because that’s where I live and Fifth and Madison and Lexington Avenues all run down in the same direction of snow falling on awnings and doormen and cars and buses pulling people into jobs and schools all white morning.

This sweeping, kaleidoscopic sentence beginning the essay’s second section manages to stylistically integrate Van Gogh’s animated drops from “Rain,” the oppressive downpour at the end of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the haunting snow-motif in Citizen Kane. (Klein comments on each of these in the essay.) Snow, rain, and sunlight can obscure or clarify, symbolize or punctuate depending on how they’re framed within a work of art.

One particularly impressive essay is “Airports and Funerals in Sobriety,” in which Klein likens sunlight falling in an airport corridor to new sobriety; later, he manages to link this sobriety to vulnerability when depicting a funeral scene:

I was holding a white chrysanthemum in the cold and Andrew was holding a yellow rose and when there were no flowers left among the living we walked away and my brother-in-law stood there alone in the cold sunlight and Andrew and I walked to the car and joined a line of more cars driving to the reception which was lovely with strangers on their way—as it always ceremonies—to the memory that gets fastened to everybody’s living.

Much like the long sentence from “Movie Rain and Movie Snow,” this sentence depicts a sequence—more linear and sequential in this instance. A logical flow of events holds this together without punctuation. The cold sunlight is painful and isolating—causing Klein’s brother-in-law to appear starkly as a solitary figure, naked and alone in his grief.

States of Independence touches upon many subjects characteristic of Klein’s poetry and prose. Some essays are short and feel more like prose poems than vignettes; the chapbook itself is hard to define as strictly memoir or creative nonfiction, given its diversity. But that’s the virtue of presenting these pieces as a chapbook, which has fewer restrictions and fewer, divisive expectations than a full collection. Hopefully, States will appear in a larger collection someday so as to gain a wider audience. As it is, States is a great introduction to Klein’s body of work, exemplifying his dexterity and diversity as a poet as well as the honest emotion (whether bitter, sweet, or humorous) inherent in his prose.

Review by Tristan Beach
© 2013, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: Stray Decorum

Stray Decorum
Written by George Singleton
Dzanc Books, 2012
ISBN 9781938103544

 
Stray DecorumGeorge Singleton releases his fifth story collection with characters who are odd sorts of people, strays in their own lives, while strangely likeable. Upon reading anything by George Singleton, the reader instantly gets a sense of his distinct voice, which is an amalgamation the small town South (as in Flannery O’Connor) and cutting, satirical humor. A first read through this collection makes it clear that Singleton is a dog lover, but most of these stories are more about people who love their animals and how they discover meaning in their lives through their animals. You will not find any Old Yeller plot constructions or any moments where the demise of man’s best friend serves as the climatic device. These stories are smarter than that.

The eleven shorts in Stray Decorum are often simple and commonplace in terms of setting and conflict. However, there is a richness in the characters that Singleton depicts here that is extremely rewarding for readers. The first story, “Vaccination,” begins at the veterinarian’s office while the protagonist, Edward, takes his dog in for his vaccinations. With the most excellent first line in a short story I have read in a while, the story begins, “My dog Tapeworm Johnson needed legitimate veterinary attention.” In the first several pages, the reader is treated with a trip through the interesting and specific ethos of Edward: that of one who respects veterinarians more than human doctors; one who is extremely suspicious of microchips implanted in pets; one who names their dog Tapeworm Johnson.

 
In “A Man with My Number,” a door-to-door salesman tries to sell the protagonist (whose thoughts often drift toward his collection of machetes and bolt cutters) numbers for his house after the protagonist’s street address numbers have coincidentally gone missing. The story seems to be about boundaries and breaking those boundaries. From “A Man with My Number”:

“But my dogs never feel the need to roam. People who know me—people who don’t show up unannounced with a stray wondering if it’s one of mine—know that my dogs somehow understand boundaries. They show up at my house for a reason, then settle in. Dogs seem to sense things we cannot fathom. They know fear, sure, that’s all been documented. But they also know what kinds of people won’t feed or pet them if they (the dogs) run out into the road or chase birds on a whim. Dogs know good music when they hear it, too.”

In “Durkheim Looking Down,” the protagonist thinks his wife’s friends are odd while he secretly uses an electric dog collar to remedy his vocal outbursts during nightmares. A pompous intellectual (who the couples are traveling together to see) triumphantly claims, “Modern dance is to ballet as slam poetry is to literature.” The nuance in character depicted here elevates these stories beyond anecdotes or cheap laughs.

As far as fiction (especially short fiction) goes, I don’t generally seek out comedy. I prefer fiction that is visceral and gritty. So, I’m typically sifting through the steady stream of fiction flowing out of the South. That’s where you’ll consistently find your viscera and grit—not that satire can’t be cathartic and revealing of universal truths that we hope for in good fiction (John Swartzwelder’s short novels are great if you’re a fan of a The Simpsons). I wouldn’t categorize Stray Decorum as specifically comedy or satire, but Singleton’s humor permeates these stories. The humor and delicate social observations serve as the laces that hold these stories together, that elucidates who these characters are and where they fit in the scheme of things. Which, by the way, is exactly what this collection is about: people who are lost, strays, searching for where they belong. And like the animals we are so attached to, these characters want only to belong to someone or something or someplace.

 
Review by Adam Padgett
© 2013, All Rights Reserved
Adam Padgett’s short fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Appalachian HeritageSanta Clara Review, SmokeLong QuarterlyThe Conium Review, and elsewhere. He teaches writing at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Book Review: Counting Sheep Till Doomsday

Counting Sheep Till Doomsday
Written by Carlo Matos
BlazeVOX [books], 2011
ISBN 9781938103544

Counting Sheep Till DoomsdayBefore we’ve caught our breath, BlazeVOX [books] announced it will publish Carlo Matos’ newest poetry collection, Big Bad Asterisk* in 2013. Perhaps the editors feel eerily compelled to do so—for at the end of his last BlazeVOX collection, Counting Sheep Till Doomsday (2012), the Azorean-American Matos lets us know those who fail even once to grab on for dear life inevitably risk the wrath of many dire something-or-others. “When it lands between open arms, a simple catch, a lesson not learned enough—no blast craters to blow it all away”(from the poem, “The Insomniac’s Cookbook”). Consider yourself warned.

Or at least, be grateful you’re let in on the joke. For the next questions become: Well what exactly is supposed to rain down from today’s sky on our heads? How can we protect ourselves from insidious forces if we can’t even call them out?

In 2010, Matos demanded we pay attention to the sensual aspects of existence in his first poetry collection, A School for Fishermen (Brickhouse Books). He also authored a scholarly book, Ibsen’s Foreign Contagion (Academica Press, 2012), that focused on that most famous chronicler of human vulnerabilities. Now in Counting Sheep, Matos points out the many footfalls we poor mortals face daily which, if avoided, might yet insure our long-term survival.

This genuinely funny book imagines many gulp-laden takes on a planet seeded by Nervous Nellies, fatalists and rioting pachyderms. In such a world, Mr. Potato Head does not turn out to be the best consigliere for confession (an ear might just be delivered to your door); nor can caste systems ever be bucked by normal reindeer over reindeer who fly.

Counting Sheep struts in at 86 pages. Yet measuring 4X6, it’s just a wee bit bigger than a pocket-sized Bible or U.S. Constitution. So it seems apt to point out that, like those other texts, Counting Sheep is similarly useful to readers looking to be guided from here to there and back again—as Matos does right from his opening salvos in nine “Fate” poems which opine on inadvertent trespasses.

Matos often shifts perspectives and points of view in his poems to topple modern readers off self-satisfied thrones. If not, we might never find ourselves cheering for the Job-like beetle as a piano sonata rains down on his head in “The Insect King”. Or after reading three different poems labeled “Design”, we might not somehow tumble in our minds to consider when we last explored the moral ambiguities of purists who see their contributions as indispensable—perhaps not since our flashlight-in-bed perusals of Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Yet if we give in to these surprising mind-burps and farts (see “In The Spider House”) and also have the sense to chew, not simply swallow, the popping hot-buttered verse Matos puts before us, we might just find no food taster need be hired. For there are enough sentries, friendly gargoyles, and third parties flanking us in the Counting Sheep poems that we’re practically insured safe passage in this roller rink world.

Review by Michele Merens
© 2012, All Rights Reserved
Michele Merens’ short stories have appeared inPlumHamptonsLilithThird WednesdayInkwellTherma, and Crawdad literary magazines and three anthologies. She is won of a Puffin grant for her full-length drama, The Lion’s Den, a DVD of which is now archived in Wisconsin Veteran’s Museum in Madison. Michele is a Barnard Senior Scholar in Creative Writing and a member of the Dramatist Guild.

Book Review: The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction
Edited by Dinty W. Moore
Rose Metal Press, 2012
ISBN 9780984616664

Examining a Flash Nonfiction “Field Guide”

Dinty W MooreSo what is creative flash nonfiction? Dinty W. Moore, editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, works toward a definition in his introduction to the volume. He is well positioned to do so, having established Brevity, an online journal of short literary nonfiction, more than sixteen years ago and having edited numerous flash nonfiction essays. Moore’s writing preferences indicate a willingness to relinquish a degree of control in the writing process. These preferences are apparent in the selections included in the volume. Readers familiar with Moore’s book The Mindful Writer will see how those preferences play out in the writing of flash nonfiction.

Working within the frame of 750 words or less, the writers of these essays jump immediately “into the edge of the fire,” to use Moore’s imagery, “getting to the fire” as quickly as possible. The authors write with concise language using the same elements, of course, of other literary forms, but making voice, verb tense, sentence sound, and mood serve this extremely short form in the most expeditious way. The form, then, promotes a sense of the immediate and the personal.

All of the 26 authors presented are editors and instructors, as well as writers of the brief form. A flash nonfiction prompt follows each author essay, followed in turn by an essay example. This allows the reader to see the application of the writing idea(s) the author offers.

Though not all of the applications were readily apparent to this reviewer, Brenda Miller’s “I’m sorry” essay made the application highly visible. She demonstrates how the recall of a single object lead her into a deep emotional response and understanding of an event in her past. Her essay approaches, yet manages to avoid, a self-pitying wallowing.Anne Panning finds “thingy-ness,” that is, concentration on ordinary, everyday objects, useful in forming flash nonfiction. Her first essay shows us how a small object or part sometimes stands in for the whole and can be used “as a means of reaching something much larger.” Her final essay, “The White Suit,” is one of the most poignant in this volume.

Flash Nonfiction GuideIn Lia Purpura’s essay we are directed to all things miniature, from dollhouses to Fabergé eggs to Chihuahuas to Chopin’s Preludes. Miniatures, she discovered, cause us to experience time as compressed. In viewing certain objects, such as miniature railroads, the smaller the objects, the more detail we notice, such as the lettering on a tiny boxcar, or the spatial scenes enclosed within an egg.

When Kyle Minor begins his essay with “We begin with the trouble, but where does the trouble begin? My uncle takes a pistol and blows his brains out,” we don’t know where he will lead us. Minor himself may not have known where his essay would take him. He seems to meander back and back in time, until he has lead us into the Garden of Eden. His exercise asks us to play with the element of time. The question of where we begin is only one of many choices we make for a piece of writing, he says.

In “The Sounds and Sense of Sentences” Barbara Hurd quotes Virginia Woolf: “Style is a very simple matter:  it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words.” Contrariwise, Hurd states, “Aristotle knew that when music satisfies, it’s not just because we like how it sounds, but because it goes somewhere.” Her writing exercise advises you to copy favorite sentences of authors you admire and post them around the house. “Read them aloud, slowly and often. Then try imitating each of their rhythms and structures.” Listen for how the rhythmic pattern of a sentence does or does not propel the sentence sense forward, she advises. In her second essay she speaks of silences and pauses in action, such as the way blizzards shut everything down, or the functions of rests in musical scores.

Judith Kitchen writes on digression, and Ira Sukrungruang on using the “You” instead of the “I” in memoir. Aimee Nezhukumatathil wants you to take a plant, an animal, or landscape about which you know very little, research it, and then do “the fun part: expand each fact just enough to create an original and surprising rendering of the subject at hand,” trying to evoke a distinct mood.

Norma Elia Cantu steers us toward the use of shifts in tenses. She writes, “In my autobioethnographic writing I often blend the tenses in a piece to take the narrative to the past and situate it as a NOW event. I am remembering an event at a fiesta in Spain in the 1980s and comparing it to the next time I was at the fiesta in 2010. In this way, I can shift between what it was like years before and how it is in 2010; but as I write about it from the vantage point of what I call ‘the writing present,’ the spring of 2011, I am allowed to insert a future tense as well.” For her prompt, she asks a writer to think of a photo of (him)herself at a given age and ask: Who is taking the photo? What is the occasion? What are you sitting or standing on? If that child in the photo would talk to you, what would (s)he say? Then Cantu asks for a free-writing session, “letting yourself go wherever the writing takes you, answering the prewriting questions or not.” A next challenge is writing the exercise in different tenses, including the future tense.

I found two other prompts particularly enticing:

Robin Hemley’s essay arose when he accepted a challenge to write an accompanying piece for a friend’s series of photos of people running (i.e. late to appointments) and women idly “twirling their hair.” His essay concluded with explanations of the stadium and punctum (i.e. the point in the photo at which the decisive emotion, or “wound,” occurs), and of how we can bring these same elements to bear in an essay. “It’s the correlation between the literary imagination and the photograph that interests me, that inspires me as a writer,” Hemley says. For his prompt, he suggests students write about a given photo from one’s past. Then write about an imagined photo. Write so convincingly that your reader cannot distinguish which photo is fake and which is real.

Nichole Walker guides the writer into concentration on two disparate subjects, focusing on these for perhaps days at a time. She encourages us to allow our brain, as writers, to bring the two together into new juxtapositions, resulting in something unique, different, and idiosyncratic. Walker states, “Threading two narratives together in this way might work for you as it does for me—giving me a broader canvas onto which to figure out what I’m trying to say.” In her ensuing essay she brings two narratives into certain coherence, and surprises the reader with specific uses of the words “resonance” and “the methodology behind wishing” and, with poignancy at the ending, “We’re all walking on eggshells here.”

Moore presents so many ideas, approaches, images, methods, and styles in this volume. It’s a rewarding read, especially for the aspiring writer or for the teacher of the art of this miniaturized form. The collection carries us into newer modes of expression. We are free to explore them in order or randomly, like the crows seem to do on the beautiful cover of the paperback.

A list of suggestions for “Further Reading” accompanies the collection. It was compiled by the editor, the contributors, and the press and includes such works as Flannery O’Connor’s Habits of Being, Lia Purpura’s On Looking: Essays, Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, Virginia Woolf’s The Death of the Moth and Other Essays, and a collection, Distance and Direction, by Judith Kitchen to whom this anthology is dedicated. The breadth of this list itself indicates the sobriety of intent the authors represent in this useful volume.

Review by Carole Mertz
© 2012, All Rights Reserved
Carole Mertz has reviewed for the Page and Spine Fiction ShowcaseThe Christian Communicator, and the Long Ridge Writers Webletter. Her stories have appeared in various online sites, and in The Rockford ReviewThe Lutheran Digest, Mature Years, and a Whortleberry Press Anthology. Carole lives in Parma, Ohio, but grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country. She likes to think her most unusual “claim to fame” is having once played a triangle solo with a symphony orchestra.