Reviews of the Ephemeral

Archive for the ‘Kindle chapbook’ Category

‘On How The Cockroach, After Having Died…’ by V. Campudoni

In Kindle chapbook, Short Stories on March 25, 2012 at 12:38 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

V. Campudoni’s illustrated short story – On how the Cockroach, after having died, and after a short conversation with Saint Peter, entered the Gates of Heaven – is a sort of modern-day Socratic dialogue, in which a humble cockroach is pitted against a sanctimonious Saint Peter. As the proverbial keeper of the pearly gates, Saint Peter offers various excuses to deny the cockroach entry to the kingdom of Heaven, even as he lets through a succession of figures who appear to contradict the very logic of those excuses, e.g. he first insists that to enter Heaven one must be as tall as himself, and then permits someone shorter than him to pass through the gates. Saint Peter’s pompous manner comes across most clearly when he tells the cockroach, ‘I will miss you greatly. Our time together shall not be forgotten. Moments like these are to be treasured like gold, savored like wine, captured like a smile on canvas. […] You have enriched me and I shall never be the same.’ The exchange is later parodied after the cockroach has persuaded him to bring out ‘the smallest, tiniest, portion of bread’, which it then proceeds to lavish with extravagant praise, hailing the moment of charity with the same words that Saint Peter has already used.

On How The Cockroach

As charming as the dialogue between the cockroach and Saint Peter is, the overall story is not without its minor problems. On the one hand, the increasingly ridiculous reasons Saint Peter provides do make for some amusingly polite exchanges with the cockroach. Yet on the other, their repetitive nature also somewhat belabours the clearly evident point being made about religious hypocrisy through the story. Also problematic is the manner in which the cockroach eventually does make it through the gates of Heaven. Proceeding in ostensibly Socratic fashion, the cockroach succeeds in convincing Saint Peter that ‘if the perception that [they] are standing outside of the gates is indeed not reality’, ‘the alternative must be that [they] are standing within the gates’. The trouble is, of course, that the assertion depends on the assumption that perception and reality must always be ‘Completely different’, eliding the possibility of their coincidence. For a story whose exchanges otherwise rely on sound logic, however absurd the premises from which that logic is derived, this sleight of hand feels disingenuous.

Perhaps though, this is simply taking too seriously a story that calls for a healthy amount of suspension of disbelief in the first place. The overall point of the story—exposing the nature of our prejudices and the unreasonable lengths to which we will go in order to justify and maintain them—still remains valid. The stylised black-and-white illustrations also complement the story, being somewhat reminiscent of the kind of comics one might encounter in The New Yorker. It is worth mentioning that On how the Cockroach… might be thought of as a brief introduction to Campudoni’s only other published work, a novel entitled Wendal, His Cat, and the Progress of Man. This was originally issued in print in 1994, but has now been made available for the Kindle alongside On how the Cockroach…

Advertisements

‘Anatomically Incorrect Sketches of Marine Animals’ by Sarah Dawson

In Kindle chapbook, online chapbook, Pamphlets on October 20, 2011 at 9:42 am

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

Since this is a review of a chapbook designed for the Kindle, in the interests of full disclosure I should mention that I have never owned one. Nor do I plan to, no matter how shiny the various companies make their e-readers. (To be fair, I do read on my iPhone, but mainly stuff on McSweeney’s Small Chair app that has been specially formatted for it.) I probably own enough books to start my own library lending service, and though my bookshelves at home and at university are groaning under the weight, I would not have it any other way. This is less a case of my hating the digital revolution, and more a case of my remaining largely indifferent to this aspect of it.

 

Frankly, the experience of reading Sarah Dawson’s chapbook, Anatomically Incorrect Sketches of Marine Animals, has not changed my mind about e-books. This, however, has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the poetry or its presentation, both of which are excellent. On her blog Poetry After Ink, Dawson states that her goal was to self-publish a group of poems she was proud of. As for choosing the Kindle format? In her own words, ‘I kept reading that formatting poetry for Kindle was close to impossible, and I wanted to prove it wasn’t.’ I read the chapbook on both the Kindle for iPhone and for PC apps, and I have to say that whatever Dawson did in terms of formatting (details in this blog entry), it works perfectly, e.g. line breaks are preserved when resizing the text.

 

Turning to the poetry, there will always be those who remain sceptical about the quality of self-published work. This is not the place to rehash the debate, apart from registering my assent to Dawson’s comment that ‘[t]he ideas that digital formats cheapen poetry, and that all self published writers are terrible are self perpetuating’. Far from being terrible, Dawson’s poems are lyrical observations, shot through with imagery that is tactile and visceral. The opening poem, ‘Barceloneta, May 2010’, is short enough to quote in full:

You were mining breaststroke – the universal

sign for swimming. Found the beach, whilst I was

 

watching silken laundry sea that lapped the

pillars. Beneath, fish were sewn from thousands

 

of silk scraps – seams that faced out, unhemmed

loose threads, labels, that you ached to cut

 

they brushed each other; coats they ached to shrug off

 

There is a patterning of sounds in this poem, an ebb and flow to the manner in which they appear, go away, reemerge in new configurations. The image of the ‘silken laundry sea’ introduced in the second couplet regulates the rest of the poem’s sounds. The fish become transformed into ‘silk scraps’, as if they have merged with the sea at an essential level. Yet when the poem performs its own merging by pulling in the ‘m’ sound from the first couplet, a curious moment of linguistic play occurs. Pronouncing a word like ‘unhemmed’ presses the lips together, but the meaning points to something coming undone. Cleverly, ‘seam’ is also linguistically janiform, since it can mean both a junction and a fissure. The tension between these two impulses, to join and to separate, is caught up again by the last line, where ‘brushed’ echoes ‘breaststroke’ in the first, even as the fish are still trapped in ‘coats they ached to shrug off’. It is inconceivable not to acknowledge such patterned economy of language as deserving admiration.

 

Another example of Dawson’s craftsmanship occurs in ‘Lug worms, rag worms’. On her blog, Dawson mentions that this poem began life as a pantoum, which she subsequently edited down. The version that appears in the chapbook has been pared down further, and while no longer recognisable as a pantoum per se, still does something interesting in the way bits of the repeated lines seemingly ‘burrow’ into each other, like ‘worms’ moving through the ‘sand’ of the poem. As the poem comes to a graceful finish, ‘Plucked from / our burrows, now exposed, our frayed threads / antagonize each other’, the compass of its central metaphor expands to connect worms and people in the same predicament, the threat of being ‘exposed’, of being made vulnerable. Where a lesser poet might have worked in a pun on ‘bristle’ and linked it with ‘antagonize’, Dawson’s use of the unrepeated ‘exposed’ stands out as a moment of subtlety.

 

Earlier, I stated my lack of interest in e-books. (At least when it comes to buying my own reading material. I read plenty of digital stuff for reviews!) To reiterate, this has never been a value judgement, but purely a question of personal preference. Perhaps then, the highest compliment I can pay Dawson’s chapbook in closing is to say that had it been published as a physical chapbook, I would have happily bought it, which is what I normally do anyway when I read something I like online that is also sold in hard copy. As it stands though, in the case of Dawson’s chapbook e-reader converts certainly have one up on people like me, and I am glad to admit it.