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Tag Archives: Meg Pokrass

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

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

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