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Category Archives: American Fiction

Between The Music And The Sun by Andrew Hughes (Literary Alchemy Press)

Between The Music And The Sun by Andrew Hughes (Literary Alchemy Press)

     I reached out to Andrew Hughes, who is my former student, while I was reading his short fiction collection Between the Music and the Sun and had a quick conversation with him about what he was doing in these stories, half of which are set in Nashville, Tennessee and half of which are set in Phoenix, Arizona. He told me that part of the project was to capture the new American South and desert Southwest and how the working class lives within it, which intrigues me of course. Like every other American, I was raised on a literary diet rich in the works of Southern authors, but only to a certain point in time. My Southern reading includes Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, and William Faulkner, and so my understanding of that region is limited to images that have become stereotypes. My knowledge of the desert Southwest is even more narrow, so I was eager to get a little better insight into how the working class lives in these places. I am pleased to write that Hughes’s collection complicates my understanding of these regions, and that I was surprised to see that his South and Southwest are places of interior spaces. Where Falkner might have had his characters outdoors, sweating away in a heat, Hughes’s working class people have moved indoors. After all, much of fieldwork has been mechanized. Instead of a rich sense of the outdoors, his characters have been driven into the blandly air conditioned interiors of the service and health care careers to live lives of hidden insignificance where they feel anonymous and cut off from the world.

     Hughes’s Nashville is a place of bars, restaurants, and hospitals where people are not enjoying themselves or being healed but facing the indignities of jobs that cut them off from their humanity. I was reminded again and again of the television show The Office where David Brent humiliates and is humiliated, and everyone must smile or risk losing their livelihoods. That is Hughes’s new South. Gone is the richness and trauma to be replaced by the slow grinding that defines so much of this world. In one story, told from the point of view of Mica, a doctor working in a hospital, a paramedic is told to “Get out of my ER” (15). He has not erred in any way. He has simply finished his report and is dismissed in the most demeaning of ways. In another story, Adrian works behind the scenes in a bar that serves the vast music world of Nashville. He is floating through life without focus because all there is for him is an endless progression of days in climate controlled and fluorescent lit rooms where he never sees the sun or moon save for those moments when he is traveling between work and his apartment. His life decisions come as reactions to things that he feels are happening to him, the unplanned birth of a daughter he no longer is allowed to spend time with and the suicide of an old friend. There is no agency to these characters’ lives, just the urge to keep surviving barely from one day to the next.

     The outdoors and the natural world become even more cut off from the characters in Phoenix. That world is one of great hostility, a hellscape where people are cast if they commit the sins of falling into debt too deeply or losing their jobs. After all, this is the bare desert, where temperatures often stay above forty degrees celsius for nearly half the year. To lose one’s job is to become homeless and to live in the endless grinding heat that does not relent even at night. The only solace these characters find is within a clearly defined pattern of drinking: 

You drank to reach a place where rules didn’t exist. You became a child. Do that too much though, you get labeled an alcoholic. So, have fun, but not too much fun, or they’ll treat you like a villain. (57)

It is vital in this world to follow these rules because being cast out leads to fates worse than death like Jada who must leave her toddler daughter hiding in an alley as she prostitutes herself or an unnamed homeless man who lives near the protagonist of another story:

During the days he sweats and broils in the desert sun, talking to himself in long, unintelligible monologues. Sometimes, he lies on the sidewalk, so hot it scalds his skin, and crawls, his nails scraping long white streaks in the sidewalk. (61)

To play by the rules for the working class in this city is to live a life of great blandness, but it is better than the hell that waits for people who do not, people who are cast outside and punished for not fitting in.

     I found this look at how the world has changed intriguing. I do not know what I was expecting this vision of the South and Southwest to be, but it is not hopeful, and it is not inspiring. It reflects the current housing and wage crisis that seems to be affecting every aspect of life in the United States.

John Brantingham 16th September 2021

Spinning To Mars by Meg Pokrass (Blue Light Press)

Spinning To Mars by Meg Pokrass (Blue Light Press)

Meg Pokrass’s Spinning to Mars is a kind of non-linear novella in flash that keeps circling back to romantic relationships that aren’t making it and clearly were never meant to be. Pokrass comes out of a tradition that includes Stewart Dybek, Pamela Painter, and Robert Olen Butler, each of whom are masters of flash fiction and who understand unsatisfying relationships. In Pokrass’s collection, we keep coming back to two people who don’t quite understand each other and don’t really seem to want to but would rather retreat into a world of books and cats.

     Each flash story captures a moment in the life of two people who might or might not be the characters from the previous stories. It is never explicitly stated that this is the same woman often circling back to the same relationship, but we do see patterns repeating again and again. Throughout, it is familiar in that she captures what keeps us from satisfying relationships in our own lives, which is mostly the distance they intentionally keep from each other insuring that they will never understand the other’s life. Pokrass is a master of the novella in flash and uses it to its full purpose. Although each piece is well crafted, because they have been arranged as they are, the statement of the collection is that we ruin our lives in depressing patterns that we never break out of. She seems to be saying that if we had a little critical insight into those patterns, we would be able to find greater meaning in our loves and lives.

     Running through the collection is also a discussion of the awkward ways that people express themselves physically as they move into middle age. In this collection, people let themselves go, stop caring that they are near other people. In “Separation,” a wife is leaving her husband. “After packing your third bag, you find yourself staring at his penis which pokes out the side of his shorts when he lies down” (40). This would seem to be a violation, but there is a friendliness built on this kind of physical intimacy. She is leaving him for a reason, but their bodies have become comfortable. Of his penis, she writes, “It has always been friendly. You’re going to miss it” (46). Awkward bodies and closeness because of that awkwardness flow through this collection. These people have lost their inhibitions as they have entered middle age, and it is comfortable and even nice. This emotion is captured best perhaps in “Classified,” where a woman meets “one of the saddest men on earth”:

    A smile obscured his sadness. His belly poked out of his shirt and he pushed it back with his hand.

    She knelt and smoothed the dog’s ears. The dog had rancid breath and she liked it. (51)

The belly, the rancid breath, and the hand are what matter here. They humanize these characters, make them relatable and likeable. She uses the awkwardness to make them attractive.

     There is a reason that Meg Pokrass’s work is gaining in popularity right now and so many people are reading her. It is powerful and human. Through these flashes that are sometimes only a sentence long, she is able to get down to what is truly human in all of us.

John Brantingham 24th July 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

River of Love by Aimee Medina Carr (Homebound Publication)

River of Love by Aimee Medina Carr (Homebound Publication)

Aimee Medina Carr’s debut novel River of Love follows the lives of indigenous young people in the 1960s and 1970s as they try to live in the Red Canon area of Colorado along the Arkansas River in a region that is dominated by powerful white people. She references and draws on thinkers and writers as diverse as St. Augustine, Rainer Maria Rilke, Eric Clapton, and dozens more, and it seems to me that this is a book that only could be written by someone who has read broadly and brings the associations of a lifetime with her. It is a far reaching book that looks to the experiences of a small group of kids but uses them to talk about our shared experience. What drew me in the most, however, was how Carr was able to use the experience of love for individuals, the natural world, and humanity to give us a path forward through those times and experiences that threaten to destroy us.
There is a level of nostalgia for the 1960s and 1970s that a lot of people have for that time. It is placed there, of course, by those who were young then, but I think anyone can identify with it, and so many of us have experienced a period in our lives when we were idealistic and everything seemed possible. Carr makes the point that these are not false memories. We might grow into cynicism, but it is the cynicism that is naive, not the hope. Her characters find a place of natural beauty and revitalization where they can find a space outside the confines of the social world along the Arkansas River, and through this repeated setting, she is able to make an argument as to how the natural world can bring out honesty and directness. It is the way to find love and a place where falseness is stripped away, especially the falseness associated with social convention. This is my favorite aspect of this tremendous novel, and I found myself lingering over these passages that brought me back to hope as a way forward.
The point of the novel, if a novel can be said to have a point, is the exceptional power and need for love. It can be summed up emotionally for me in one paragraph:

Love is the beginning, Love is the middle, and Love is the end, we will be judged only by how much we Loved in our lifetimes. Love gives life its meaning. Life gives us this one chance to Love (292).

Love here and in many parts of the novel is personified or maybe it takes on a god-like role, and that is one of the messages of it. Love is a powerful entity capable of changing us. It is perhaps the only thing that can change us for the better so Carr spends a good deal of time examining the different aspects of love and how they can be played out.
River of Love is not a novel to be rushed. I am a fairly fast reader, and I found myself needing to slow down to allow the emotion of the novel to work through me. I went back over lines and scenes to internalize what she was saying. I love what she is saying, and I agree with it. Nostalgia can be a force for stagnation, but that’s not what this is. She is looking back at a time that was meaningful to give us a way forward.

John Brantingham 18th February 2021

Five Ghost Stories by Dennis Callaci (Bamboo Dart Press)

Five Ghost Stories by Dennis Callaci (Bamboo Dart Press)

Dennis Callaci’s Five Ghost Stories is a book that I think could only have been written in quarantine. In five very short stories, Callaci explores the way that so many people’s interior worlds, or at least mine, have changed. This kind of exploration might have felt overwhelming. After all, we are still in the midst of the lockdown. However, it was refreshing. Fiction has the ability to let us know what we are not alone in the world, and that our pains and joys are shared. Callaci’s book did this for me.

I find myself often going into an interior space these days where I replay odd memories of my youth, meditating on things that I had forgotten but had a strange power when I was young. Callaci does so as well, developing a kind of David Sedaris approach to memory albeit intentionally without humor. So, in one of the stories, he writes a story of memory, two brothers putting together a model, the emotions of two children bent on finishing a project becoming all consuming. And that memory becomes powerful to the author and reader in the moment, reminding us that while the passions of youth might seem silly and strange now, when they were happening, they truly did matter to us. They were important and part of our formation. He discusses these early relationships with family members in all their complexity, laying out vignette memories and allowing us to draw out meaning for ourselves.

In ‘The Cemetery Calendar of Days,’ he creates a kind of alternative universe where a creeping disease and its political impact has created a world of tension where communities feel that they have to patrol to keep themselves apart from others. In doing so, he captures this current alienation that I am feeling as well. It’s not just that the characters in the story are self-isolating; it’s that they are creating a social climate that divides them even farther. This sense of alienation spills into the next story where the main character tries to help a woman the way his father used to help people. Her car has a flat tire, and he wants to change it for her, but she does not speak English, and he does not speak her language. She does not even roll down her windows for him though because our world is often terrifying, and she is frightened of him.

Five Ghost Stories reminded me often of the work of Meg Pokrass, flash fiction pieces that capture a moment in time and the emotion of it, and like Pokrass’s work, Callaci’s draws us into those moments to show us that what seems mundane truly does matter. 

John Brantingham 18th January 2021

Life, Orange to Pear by John Brantingham (Bamboo Dart Press)

Life, Orange to Pear by John Brantingham (Bamboo Dart Press)

John Brantingham’s newest book, Life, Orange to Pear, begins and ends with fruit.

I’m not spoiling anything for you. It’s right there in the title. It’s also, surprise, about life–how it begins, ends, and everything in between. The simple act of eating fruit in the opening and closing scenes of this book poses the idea that we can find comfort in the simplest moments so long as we choose to look for it. This book proposes that we must appreciate simplicity while we, at the same time, grapple with complexity and existential terror.

Written in a casual, second-person voice, Orange to Pear follows the life and fatherhood of a very flawed but well-meaning part-time college professor and father who also happens to be a functioning alcoholic. Using this voice, this book argues that there are no easy solutions. Instead of groping for answers to the Problem of Evil, or whether we’re defined by our flaws, or how much we doom our children to repeat our lives, this story offers something else–an unadulterated, almost Christ-like empathy.

It also, however, demonstrates how even human beings with the best intentions can be ineffective, destructive, and self-sabotaging. How sometimes people will use any excuse to enact the destructive behaviors at their core. How passivity, over-intellectualizing, and destructive behavior masquerading as self-care can be paralyzing. That certain patterns of living leave a person completely adrift, wondering and hoping instead of acting. The narrator (and by extension the reader) is often left not knowing if he’s done his best. The story reaches a conclusion on this, and it’s carefully crafted, but I won’t summarize it. I can’t. Like many of the things that matter in this world, it can’t be retold, only experienced. One of the gifts of this book is that it revels in uncertainty while also being clear, direct, and brief. Brantingham captures what life is like moment-to-flawed-moment as we scrape (often unsuccessfully) for meaning, importance, and decency–and how painful, divine, and silly these moments can be.

The narrative centers around the flawed narrator’s connection to his daughter, Cyndi. As the story evolves, the uncertainty this man faces as his daughter, despite his every attempt to slow her down, grows up and then eventually outgrows him. This is the archetypal coming-of-age story from the unusual perspective of a broken parent–a man who drinks through breakfast, seems only marginally employed, and who never, ever, refers to his wife by her name. He makes mistakes in pursuit of what he thinks is right–and what he believes is right coincidentally serves to allow him to indulge himself.

At one point, he makes an indirect, not very collected attempt at confronting an acquaintance (who is proudly showing him the taxidermized foot of an elephant that has been made into furniture) about wealth inequality, gleefully burning an important social bridge for his wife:

And as you walk out your daughter beams at you for the first time in a long time and it makes you want to storm out, which you do, as well as anyone can storm and also stop off by the bar for one more glass of the good stuff.

He’s done the right thing. Maybe. He’s done it to earn the pride of his daughter, who finds the man abhorrent, but one can’t help but notice that he’s also getting another drink out of it. He’s–in the true mindset of an addict–earning another drink.

These characters have the simultaneously empathetic and pathetic qualities of Kurt Vonnegut characters. They’re whole, flawed, and alive in a way that lets us one feels their own aliveness. By the time you’ve reached the end of this book you hate the narrator. And you love him. You regret all of his mistakes and realize why they were so important. You wouldn’t undo them even if you could because you’ve found something divine in them.

Bamboo Dart Press are also publishing Dennis Callaci, Stephanie Barbé Hammer and Meg Pokrass in their fiction series.

Scott Noon Creley 11th November 2020

In The Country of Last Things by Paul Auster (Faber & Faber)

In The Country of Last Things by Paul Auster (Faber & Faber)

Over the next few weeks I shall be teaching some aspects of literary dystopia to sixth-formers at a school in Kent and it has prompted me to re-read Paul Auster’s terrifying vision from 1987, In the Country of Last Things. This itself acts as a prompting background to a review I am starting to put together for Lou Rowan’s wonderful magazine from Seattle, Golden Handcuffs Review. The review is of Leslie Kaplan’s book-length poem L’excès-l’usine (Hachette 1982) which has been recently translated for Commune Editions by Julie Carr and Jennifer Pap under the title Excess – The Factory.
The word dystopia is derived from the Greek for bad (δυσ) and (τόπος) place and deals with a community or society that is undesirable or frightening and is, of course, a direct opposite of the world conceived of by Thomas More in the early sixteenth-century book Utopia. The opening paragraphs of Auster’s novel take us immediately into a world of the unsafe:

“These are the last things, she wrote. One by one they disappear and never come back. I can tell you of the ones I have seen, of the ones that are no more, but I doubt there will be time. It is all happening too fast now, and I cannot keep up.
I don’t expect you to understand. You have seen none of this, and even if you tried, you could not imagine it. These are the last things. A house is there one day, and the next day it is gone. A street you walked down yesterday is no longer there today. Even the weather is in constant flux. A day of sun followed by a day of rain, a day of snow followed by a day of fog, warm then cool, and then today, in the middle of winter, an afternoon of fragrant light, warm to the point of merely sweaters. When you live in the city, you learn to take nothing for granted. Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing that was before you is suddenly gone. Nothing lasts, you see, not even the thoughts inside you. And you mustn’t waste your time looking for them. Once a thing is gone, that is the end of it.”

Leslie Kaplan’s poem is divided into nine circles and the echo of a medieval Florentine legacy cannot be ignored. In this world “You move between formless walls” and become aware that as there is no beginning and no end “Things exist together, all at once”. One of the immediately frightening introductory statements to the First Circle is quite simple:

“Inside the factory, you are endlessly doing.

You are inside, in the factory, the universe, the one that breathes for you.”

There are some interesting literary forbears to this dystopian world of Paul Auster and one is prompted to return to the world of Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit, 1844, where he describes a hidden neighbourhood in London called Todgers:

“You couldn’t walk about in Todgers’s neighbourhood, as you could in any other neighbourhood. You groped your way for an hour through lanes and bye-ways, and court-yards and passages; and never once emerged upon anything that might be reasonably be called a street. A kind of resigned distraction came over the stranger as he trod those devious mazes, and, giving himself up for lost, went in and out and roundabout, and quietly turned back again when he came to a dead wall or was stopped by an iron railing, and felt that the means of escape might possibly present themselves in their own good time, but that to anticipate them was hopeless.”

Or one might accompany Alice into her Looking-Glass World of the 1870s:

“The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things – but the oddest part of it all was that, whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty, though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold.”

Alice’s response is one of astonishment at this surreal world and she exclaims “Things flow about so here”! Anna, the narrator of Auster’s novel, responds more bleakly and with a sense of quickly-learned experience:

“The streets of the city are everywhere, and no two streets are the same. I put one foot in front of the other, and then the other foot in front of the first, and then hope I can do it again. Nothing more than that. You must understand how it is with me now. I move. I breathe what air is given me. I eat as little as I can. No matter what anyone says, the only thing that counts is staying on your feet.”

The translators of Leslie Kaplan’s poem added a shrewd and highly perceptive conclusion to their work:

“In writing L’excès-l’usine, Kaplan was wary of using an overproduced or too-familiar language to convey the workers’ experience of capitalist production. The usual discursive practices would only pervert, not reveal, her subject. A stripped-down language was needed, freed from the forms and expectations of discourse. Rather than being descriptive or explanatory, the poem’s language would be suspended, with objects and events seemingly let loose from their context.”

I now look forward this autumn to writing a full review of Kaplan’s poem for Golden Handcuffs Review. Thank you Lou, and I look forward to meeting you at this coming weekend’s Tears in the Fence Festival!

Ian Brinton, 9th September 2018

A Tale of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation edited by John Freeman (OR Books)

A Tale of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation edited by John Freeman (OR Books)

This anthology of 36 essays, short stories and poems concerned with addressing the financial inequalities, systematic injustice, entrenched racism and oppression, poor treatment of immigrants and increased mechanisation possesses a depth of shared experiences within an impassioned plea for a more emphatic ethics. This begins in the editor’s introduction with calls to look beyond the statistics of broken America to the wider human cost and need for a greater ‘bandwidth of care’.

Rebecca Solnit’s essay ‘Death By Gentrification: The Killing Of Alex Nieto’ concerns the shooting of a young security guard by San Francisco police in 2014 and shows how his past and Latino identity were used against him and how this relates to the gentrification of the victim’s neighbourhood. Solnit, known here for Wanderlust: A History of Walking, produces a memorable account of the events, trial and aftermath for the Nietos, with minimal English and Spanish, and neighbourhood who came together for one of their own.

Manuel Muñoz in ‘Fieldwork’ writes of his dying father who migrated from Central America to pick lettuce and cotton to support his family in jobs that are now vanishing. The poet, Juan Felipe Herrera recalls the unnamed and undocumented workers searching for ways out. Many contributions pivot around travel. There is a sense of the contributor’s ability to fly, as in Julia Alvarez’s ‘Mobility’, and the circumscribed social and economic mobility, language barriers and difficulties faced by the majority of Americans.

Natalie Diaz contributes one of the strongest poems, ‘American Arithmetic’. She points out that Native Americans constitute less than one per cent of the population yet 1.9 per cent of all police killings.

In an American city of one hundred people,
I am Native American – less than one, less than
whole – I am less than myself. Only a fraction
of a body, let’s say I am only a hand –
and when I slip it beneath the shirt of my lover,
I disappear completely.

Displacement and loss of sustainable employment and community permeate the anthology as facts of life with many contributors seemingly echoing Freeman’s notion that the solution lies ‘between us, not above us’ and not with governments. For example, in Joyce Carol Oates’ short story ‘Leander’, a white woman visits an African American church hosting a Save Our Lives protest and experiences a sufficient range of emotional and psychological pulls and uncertainties that she contributes financially to the cause and finds an elevated self-consciousness. Anne Dillard contributes a concise flash fiction calling upon artists unable to create on some days to work in a soup kitchen, give blood as part of a good day’s work.

There is an undertow of laying bare inequality without developing a narrative arc beyond precarious employment or having to sell blood plasma to survive, as well as a tendency to nullify raw experience and anger for sophistication. Notwithstanding, this is an important and nuanced anthology.

http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/talesoftwoamericas/?utm_source=Tears%20in%20the%20Fence&utm_medium=review&utm_campaign=Tales

David Caddy 16th October 2017

Gordon Lish’s Cess: A Spokening (OR Books, 2015)

Gordon Lish’s Cess: A Spokening (OR Books, 2015)

In contrast to Alexandra Psaropoulou’s All The Stars, which I wrote about yesterday, Gordon Lish’s book, rich in language play, employs a loquacious first person narrative in two extended notes before and after a list of select vocabulary. It is implied that the narrator is loosely based on the author self, although this is more of a ploy to draw the reader more closely into the narrative world with its frequent call to check the factual details of the narrative online.

The first note delineates the biographical details of his mother and her sisters, Jewish immigrants from Austria, based in New York, and his own situation at Mills public high school, at Millbrae, California. Finding himself without a job and having to support a wife and three children he wrote to his winsome Aunt Adele asking for work not dissimilar to hers. Apparently, in 1963, Lish was refused tenure at the school due to his association with the Beat writers he published in Genesis West and Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady of the Merry Pranksters. The narrator’s aunt worked as a section leader in cryptology for the National Reconnaissance Office and replied with a long list of words with the instruction to solve this and perhaps we’ll talk. There follows 165 pages of rarefied vocabulary and the quest to find some links between them to solve the puzzle.

‘Into The Cesspool’ makes play on ‘cess’ meaning a tax or levy before herding readers into the full on verbal play of a ‘cesspool’. Here is a random sample of the list:

DERISORY
STEREOPHONY
VALETUDINARIAN
MONISM
PHATIC
NEGENTROPIC
SUMMATE
SPECULARITY
ACTANTIAL
DEFERRAL
REGIME
CLASSIFCATORY
SYNTAGM
DOXA
LOCUTIVE

On first glance some connections and associations emerge, a succession of words from severable to spall about breaking apart, and then there are words that are variations of more common words. Soon one is lost in the Collins or Oxford English Dictionary placing words into sets of words, the ponderables and possibles, both repeated, that make up the list. The selection is seemingly isolated from context until one picks up on the repeated use of interpellate, mischance, perchance, orison and onton, which is not in the dictionary, as a sign of humour and the list becomes a way into Adele’s character. Adele, the spy and cryptologist has a predilection for words from a range of discourses that can be at a stretch connected to a cesspool, cloaca being an archaic word for sewer and so on. She has a wicked sense of humour beginning her list with ‘FLUSH LEFT’ and ending with ‘ALL SMALL CAPS’, which turn out to be the key to the puzzle. ‘Flush’ here is employed for all its meanings and has a neat comic touch.

The joke may be on the reader as one skips to the final note, which is a tour de force of narrative ebullience. The narrator is considerably deepened and extended into a maniacal loudmouth. The sentences are rich in rhythms, asides and resonate with biographical detail creating a memorable persona. The reader tends to look back on the long list as a conceit, a way into the deeper layers of language, and wants more engagement with the nature and uses of language. This then becomes the point of the list an insistence on grappling with the use of words within lived experience and literature. The final note succinctly illustrates this with its combination of a probing, quizzical tone and continual search for the right word. The narrator drew lessons from his Aunt and her witty and joyous list. Who would not like to discover more about such words as fent, spall, fard, slub, doce, pelf, frit, sot, ort and orse?

Cess: A Spokening has a power and pointed veracity as a language game and fiction of distinction.

David Caddy 11th August 2015

Rebels, Beats And Poets by Jim Burns (Penniless Press Publications, 2015)

Rebels, Beats And Poets by Jim Burns (Penniless Press Publications, 2015)

This sixth collection of informative essays and reviews showcasing Jim Burns’ encyclopedic knowledge of twentieth century bohemianism contains thoughtful insights into the current scene and is by no means set in the past.

His first substantial point is that literary criticism by highlighting a few writers and poets from the Fifties and early Sixties overlook the wider social and cultural circumstances and sheer excitement of the period through an excess of analysis. Burns opens out the artificial boundaries and distinct categories of official criticism to reveal a more confused, floating world of writers and poets, little magazines, small presses and the ephemera of bohemia. Here we glimpse through essays on political rebels, beats, jazz musicians, poets, writers, filmmakers, artists and photographers a somewhat looser field of connection and relationship as well as a deep enthusiasm to move forward to a better place. Underlining this is the contention that minor figures may well yield as much social, cultural and literary insight as some of the major figures. Burns is quite clear in understanding that, for example William Burroughs, whilst linked with Allen Ginsberg through friendship, is clearly drawing upon very different sources and techniques. His essay on Cities Of The Red Night portrays Burroughs as a moralist with the power to shock, provoke and disturb, employing humour, visual effects and shifting action from within the American tradition of outlaws and pirates.

His second provocation concerns the role of the little magazine. He echoes Samuel Beckett’s publisher, John Calder’s point that the Fifties sowed the seeds that sprouted in the much vaunted Sixties, and examines the world of Merlin, a short-lived little magazine in the Parisian bohemian world of the Fifties, which drew attention to Beckett’s writing. Merlin subsequently spawned a publishing house, which published editions of Watt and Molloy. In the essay, ‘What Will You Read Tomorrow?’ he laments the passing of the ‘alternative’ bookshops, which grew out of Sixties unrest and offered reading matter far removed from the big publishers and distributors. Given the decline of the independent and second hand bookshops, the narrowing range of Waterstones and Borders, and the fact that the Internet cannot always supply writing that is beyond the ordinary and fashionable, Burns sees a vital role for the little magazine as an outlet and resource. He writes:

And it seems to me that little magazines, for all their problems,
are a way of providing us with a system of exchanging ideas and information about the overlooked and the unusual. Isaac Rosenfeld once said of little magazines that they were outlets for ‘a small but vigorous and very vital, active and conscious group which knew fairly well the sort of thing it stood for even if it had no specific programme and whether or not it had any political allegiance.’ He also
said that one of the characteristics of a conservative age is ‘the shrinkage of extremes’ and he added: ‘I am used to thinking, because of my upbringing, of the writer standing at one extreme from society; I mean, of course, the serious writer, the conscious writer, then, as a man who stands at a certain extreme, at a certain remove from society.’
He asserts that the little magazine could provide the variety missing elsewhere, and the reassurance that there are other dissidents who don’t believe the big publishers and mass markets can supply everything that the imagination needs to keep it alive and alert to the world.

His essay on David Gascoyne’s life reminds the reader of the importance of the Parton Street Bookshop in Bloomsbury as a gathering place for young poets and their readers. It was there that Gascoyne met George Barker, Norman Cameron, Geoffrey Grigson, Roger Roughton and others, as well as where he bought imported surrealist publications. From there he would walk to Zwemmers Bookshop in Charing Cross Road to chat with Ruthven Todd and compare their imported stock. The key is that Gascoyne had a range of places to increase his reading and knowledge.

There are other fascinating essays on a range of subjects from the Paris-Amsterdam underground, Surrealistic Prague, to Henry Miller, B. Traven, and the Edward Dorn / LeRoi Jones correspondence, as well as the extensive Beat Scene interview with Burns by Kevin Ring from Spring 2014. This compelling volume of essays is a joy to read and contains much information and material that is hard to find.

David Caddy 13th April 2015

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