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Monthly Archives: March 2021

When It’s Called Not Making Love by Karen Jones (Ad Hoc Fiction)

When It’s Called Not Making Love by Karen Jones (Ad Hoc Fiction)

Karen Jones’s heartbreaking flash fiction collection, When It’s Called Not Making Love, is published by Ad Hoc Fiction which specializes in flash fiction authors and has published writers like Meg Pokrass, Diane Simons, and Jude Higgens. Jones’s collection takes a look at adolescent and young adult sexuality from the point of view of Bernadette, someone who is on the outside because she is considered overweight and just a little different. Jones is a master of point-of-view and draws us into Bernadette’s interior life allowing us to live in the awkward body of someone who wants and needs love but does not know exactly how to engage meaningfully with other people. It is an exceptional collection showing how people are at the same time used and rejected sexually and what that does to the psyche.

The most powerful flash piece for me was the final and titular story. In it, we are given three moments with three young men who have sex with Bernadette from behind, so they do not have to look her in the eye. They brag of the numbers of their sexual conquests, and she tells each they are her first in an attempt to elicit a stronger emotional reaction from them. The problem is in the way that these boys look at her and in how she sees herself as undeserving or incapable of having a fulfilling emotional experience involving sex. It ends with the line, “Maybe someday another boy would like her enough to look her in the eye while he fucked her. Maybe she’d even call it making love” (38). The difference between making love and getting fucked is the key concept of the story and collection. Bernadette does not seem to know how to achieve love, so she settles for what she can get. Of course, this is the key problem for many of us when we are young and are just trying love out. She captures that problem so well, and she had me musing about my own youthful fumblings toward emotion.

Her awkwardness in her own body is her defining characteristic in her world. Early in the collection, she begins a friendship with a girl named Jenny, whom everyone thinks is superior. Her grandmother tells the main character, “‘She’s half the size of you and twice as smart  . . . And so pretty. Why can’t you have silky hair like hers? Why are you such a lump of a girl, Bernadette?’” (3). This is a social condition that we are all aware of, but Jones does an exceptional job of drawing out what it means to be a human being who is seen as an insufficient accessory. This expectation that she is Jenny’s accessory and a bad one at that drives her early sexual encounters where she is often offered sexually to a friend so that Jenny can get the boy or the experience she wants. She is abused and neglected. She is a person capable of exceptional emotional range and she is denied the chance to have those emotions.

When It’s Called Not Making Love captures so well the pain of young people who want a kind of physical perfection and think they will never have it. It also captures the trap of thinking of this world in terms of perfection and imperfection.

John Brantingham 29th March 2021

The Sound Recordist by Seán Street (Maytree Press)

The Sound Recordist by Seán Street (Maytree Press)

The Sound Recordist, Seán Street’s sequence published by Maytree Press, is a distillation of many things he has written previously about sound in his poetry collections and the series of non-fiction books brought out by Palgrave Macmillan and Routledge. In these publications are key words that find their poetic echoes as themes and images in The Sound Recordist – interaction, identity, silence, time, memory, place, preservation, time and the ever-present past.

The theme of echoes, the need for echoes, is a constant in all Seán Street’s work, whether poetry or prose. In ‘Wild Track’ the ‘sound/ of air’ is ‘going on round us.’ It is ‘the moment happening’ in the ‘Perfect acoustic silence’ of a ‘blank empty room filled with/ possibility’. All around is ‘wide transparent space’ and here are layers of sound, the ‘inaudible threads’ (‘Microphone’) where ‘meaning lies between things.’ (‘Notes on Using the Studio’). In this ambience are signals ‘on the edge of things’ which emerge gradually like ‘Notes on dim staves’ (‘Early Show’). All one needs to do is be attentive, wait for triggers of memory and the ‘pauses in silence,’ accept that humans are sonic beings as both transmitters and receivers, and become what Seán Street has described elsewhere as ‘ear-witnesses.’

Several poems in The Sound Recordist emphasise sound as language, the interplay between the sounds of syllables and an imagination that creates a soundscape from the sonic resonances of words to create atmosphere and a sense of place. ‘Reel to Reel’ has the image of ‘language quietly singing to itself,/ the sound of its thought awaiting its second speaking/ … its proper nouns and verbs exact after all this time.’ A striking poem in The Sound Recordist is ‘At the Grodzka Gate’ where time zones touch and interact ‘Through the plain grey prose/of the everyday/that stands side by side/ with the unspeakable, and ‘you hold out a pen/to me, fingers touch/ and you become words.’

Other areas of the arts are also part of this essential relationship with sound. ‘Listening to Miles Davis in the Cardiac Ward’, for example, is an evocative poem is which music blends with the recovery process as the ‘singing of the morphine’s/honey through the cannula/finds entrances to dark worlds,/lights bright pathways out of some.’ In ‘A Trick of the Light’ an old Van Morrison tune sung by ‘Someone somewhere across suburbia’ is a memory trigger, a trick of sound, ‘A place to be when the place is elsewhere’ because ‘it’s what music does.’ The cover image of ‘Evening Stillness’ by the artist Paula Dunn is ideal for The Sound Recordist, while in ‘Memory in a Hallway’ John Singer Sargent’s ‘perfected brush stroke’ of a Venetian Interior is ‘the art of pure translucency,/ open doors reflecting water.’ A reference elsewhere to ‘The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel’ by Louis Daguerre enhances the haunted atmosphere of a building where even the echoes have died.

‘Time and Light’ is a particularly evocative poem in Seán Street’s The Sound Recordist adding, as it does, another dimension to the soundscapes already created in this sequence. Sound has now become one of the mysteries of light/hidden and trapped’ while light in its turn will ‘impersonate sound’ and ‘Time’ moves ‘beyond flesh into air’. Everything now is caught in shadows – the ‘layered time’ of

vegetation where angels flew, fleeting
punctum of a flash on altar stone
and the wound of a place’s lost past healed.

Mandy Pannett 20th March 2021

Pimp by Ranney Campbell (Arroyo Seco Press)

Pimp by Ranney Campbell (Arroyo Seco Press)

Ranney Campbell’s Pimp comes out of a direct, narrative, unblinking tradition that includes artists like Kevin Ridgeway, Gerald Locklin, Patti Smith, and Fred Exley. These are poems drawn out of the latest period of Campbell’s life when she decided to change her life by quitting her job and moving to California as a way to break away from the traditions and limitations that she found in St. Louis, Missouri. She has found a way to express herself with a narrative clarity that speaks her truths.
Her work comes often from a memory of exploitation, which she might be angry about, but does not draw her into self-pity. “In Them Days” for example, she recalls a relationship with a man who

owned a Mercedes
dealership, how he loved
his beautiful things

I was most prized
living art
up in Alta Loma

snow
in the foothills

me
in the Jacuzzi

with those high-priced prostitutes
brought to party
when sales was good
any certain day (33).

Her work throughout has the ability to draw a picture and suggest arguments and conclusion with quick images and a couple of perfect words. We are left to ponder the implication of what it means to be a woman who is chosen to party with prostitutes. In “The Boys come,” she draws on a previous time when men simply demanded of her with no thought of reciprocity:

when they came across Gert,
they got lucky.
when they came across me,
they got stitches (12).

This collection is not by any means stuck in her past; it is equally about this new life that she is building for herself and how she came to be where she is. Her move from the Midwest and her longing to get to the West away from its humidity and to the dryness of the deserts is shown in her prose poem “Burn Off.” “Red desert. Tan desert. I don’t care. Can’t stand it here. All the trees and green and weeds and humidity and people so slowed and dull with Midwestern demands on me . . . Sticky thickness manner oppression offends my innards” (35). This reminds me so much of the themes that run through a lot of Locklin’s work. For him the East was a place of pointless oppression, and for Campbell it is Missouri, but both find a freedom to be themselves in California. For both of them, California seems to be the place where they can find the authenticity of their true selves. For Campbell, it has allowed for this book which is an expression of emotions in a style that she did not feel welcome writing in St. Louis.

Campbell’s book is the kind of work that I love to see coming out of Los Angeles. Stylistically it is what I have grown up with without being a kind of imitation of previous work. It is her own work, informed by an MFA from her hometown but innovated through the life she is pursuing in the West.

John Brantingham 3rd March 2021

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