Reviews of the Ephemeral

Posts Tagged ‘Ian Chung’

‘The Ruins’ by Danny Broderick

In Novella on September 20, 2013 at 7:43 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

Published as a Kindle Single on Amazon by Dead Ink, Danny Broderick’s The Ruins is a short story whose impact primarily derives from how it subverts the reader’s expectations regarding certain storytelling genres. The narrative begins in media res as a sort of spy thriller: ‘The woman was stripping the prisoner, tying him to a chair’. Already though, little details in the language prime the reader to expect a twist somewhere. Talk of ‘Fanatics’ gives way to a focus on how the prisoner ‘stretched his muscled body against the rope’ and the sexual frisson of how ‘the hard spike of [the woman’s] heels scrap[ed] concrete as she opened [the door].’

The Ruins by Danny Broderick

The hint of BDSM at this stage of the story suggests a shift into 50 Shades of Grey territory, a genre admittedly very much in vogue at the moment, as publishers seek to capitalise on that trilogy’s mainstream success. However, Broderick’s story appears to be building up to something more complex. As the dominatrix, whose name will later be revealed as Estrella, goes to the bar to have a conversation with Paco the barman, it becomes clear that what is being played out is a very specific fantasy scenario, for which she is ‘earning good money’. Nevertheless, Estrella is also coming to terms with losing the battle against time: ‘Saw a face getting older. Recognised the skin drawn tight around cheekbones and eyes where the lines were visible’.

Although The Ruins quickly establishes Estrella up as a compelling character, the problem is that the rest of the story then essentially continues to dwell on the fantasy scenario and how it plays out, as Estrella does her job and escalates the violence against her client, climaxing in her carving her name into his skin with a blade. Granted, through the intermittent conversations that Estrella and Paco have, there are suggestions that the portrayal of the transactional relationship with the prisoner is to be interpreted as a form of social commentary:

‘“The dreams you had and the plans you made are all dead,” she told him. “Gone with the collapse of the new city you thought they were building around you. So you have only what you have and must make your life here. In these empty ruins. The world did not transform itself around you. Your bar never did miraculously relocate itself to the centre of a new world. And what do you have? The poor workers, the unemployed, the drunks and hustlers. Who you tried to move on in anticipation, who you denied entry to, and who are now back through the door.”’

At the same time, there are issues of power and control at stake here. When Paco tells Estrella, ‘Give him his victory. It’s a game’, she counters that ‘it’s more than a game’, insisting that she is no ‘whore for hire’. However, given the space of a short story, there is perhaps also too much going on, thematically speaking. (It is hard to avoid seeing the Spanish setting of the story as yet another intentional level of meaning being encoded.) This is not really intended as criticism—since The Ruins is an intriguing piece of fiction in itself—so much as an observation that Broderick’s layered storytelling might be even better served by allowing the story more breathing room, given how its internal genre shifts already successfully confound preconceived notions of how the narrative should play out.

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‘The Monster Opera’ by Nancy Stohlman

In Flash on September 4, 2013 at 1:20 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

Following on their first flash novel, Matthew Ankeny’s The Rink, Bartleby Snopes Press is releasing a second title in the series, Nancy Stohlman’s The Monster Opera, ‘a flash novel in two acts’. Structurally, Stohlman’s work mixes operatic libretto and sheet music with production reviews, wrapped up within a self-reflexive narrative that centres on a forbidden story. Or as the writer character of Ursula Leonard announces in the ‘Overture’, regarding The Monster Opera, ‘I hate this story. I hate the Muse. […] Now it’s a bastard deformity. Not an opera, not a novel. I wish I’d never written the first word. I had no idea what kind of monster I was growing.’

The Monster Opera Nancy Stohlman

The first act of this flash novel thus consists mainly of the interactions between Ursula and the opera singers that she has come to stay with, tenor Libretto Santiago and soprano Magdalena Santiago (née Basco), as Ursula is seduced into writing their story. Libretto demands Ursula’s loyalty in exchange for giving her the story, offering her a final chance to ‘leave this place, leave [his] bed, leave this house and find [her]self another’. Right after she agrees to pay the price, the narrative interrupts to warn Libretto:

This is the final moment before the story changes hands, the moment your ego has done you in. You’re too infatuated to think straight, you find the prospect of becoming a character romantic and appealing, you want to be immortalized in words, you want to feel that your story is worth taking. Later, when it’s too late, you’ll forget that you gave it willingly. I warned you.

The story in question is akin to a living organism, casting its pall on the Santiago household, or as Ursula writes, ‘The whole family suffered from sad sickness.’ It is literally transmitted from Libretto to Ursula through a bite, continuing to gestate inside her: ‘The Forbidden Story grew inside of me. My breasts were stretched and sore. […] The story was growing stronger; it was swelling, transforming.’ It gradually becomes clear that what is being transmitted is really a poisoned chalice, in that it confers preternatural talent on those it infects, since Libretto received it from his father and went on to become the world’s greatest tenor, but ‘he [also] felt the monster stir’ inside him. In the case of Ursula, she writes, ‘The monster lives in me, wants to escape, wants to take over my body and mind.’

The final piece of the puzzle slides into place at the end of the flash novel’s first act, with the appearance of The Traitor, who also demands the deadly gift from Libretto. It is quickly revealed that The Traitor is in fact Ursula’s husband, Hugo, seemingly written into existence in the role by the Forbidden Story’s manipulation of Ursula (‘It’s growing on its own now’). In its second act, The Monster Opera shifts into a more surreal mode, as the walls between fiction and reality begin to break down, and the Forbidden Story writes itself towards a gruesome end for all involved: ‘The poet writhes and expels the story she is not allowed to write […] rotted, bloated chunks of paper that leave a strong odor.’

What is most fascinating about Stohlman’s work is how freely it shifts back and forth between different artistic forms, the whole package compressed into the length of a short story. Given its usage of sheet music, it would have been interesting to see an e-book produced that incorporated performances of those songs, in a similar fashion to what happens in Superbard’s The Flood. However, while Stohlman herself has acknowledged the potential of The Monster Opera as a performance piece, having done a staged reading with composer Nick Busheff and a small cast, she also sees it first and foremost as a written work. In that respect, The Monster Opera is a bold attempt to carve out a space for the flash novel as a distinct category within the fiction landscape. In doing so, the work also raises questions about how art forms like opera can sustain an existence today, as well as the sacrifices demanded of those involved in the act of creating art.

‘The Rink’ by Matthew Ankeny

In Flash on August 15, 2013 at 7:45 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

Bartleby Snopes, already named by Flavorwire as one of the 10 online literary magazines everyone should be reading, is now branching into publishing flash novels. This also comes after the magazine launched Saboteur Award-nominated Post-Experimentalism, a special project billed as ‘the world’s first issue of Post-Experimental fiction’. With this new flash novel series, Bartleby Snopes Press looks set to continue breaking down genre boundaries. To get an idea of what to expect, here are the guidelines from the website: ‘Make us feel like we’ve read a whole novel (but in about a tenth the time). […] We view the flash novel as more than just a longer story. Don’t think of it as a collection of flash stories that make up a novel. We want the depth of a novel in under 10,000 words.’

True to that description, Matthew Ankeny’s The Rink clocks in at around 2500 words, but spans the lifetime of its protagonist, Kay, in six sections bookended by descriptions of the titular ice skating rink. It opens in late fall, and before the reader is even introduced to Kay, Ankeny begins with the image of the many skaters in the rink moving in concert, circling counterclockwise. Only then does he home in on Kay and her friends, just another group coming into view. Within the wider flash novel, the effect is to highlight that what the reader gets is a story that is uniquely Kay’s, but which could also just as easily have been that of any of the other skaters in the rink at that moment.

The Rink Matthew Ankeny

This section also introduces the metaphor of the rink as the arena in which lives play out and leave their literal and metaphorical marks. The girls attempt to skate as slowly as possible, so they ‘push off and begin with small pats of the skates, light scrapes against the ice, hooves tapping the surface of a frozen tundra, children testing the water’. The hint of romantic intrigue offered up by the characters of Sandi and Rob in this section is also paralleled and developed in the next, where Kay and Kent’s date ends in a re-enactment of younger Kay and the other girls skating hand in hand in one line. Except this is a calculated move by Kay (‘She could hold him; she could support his fall. But she doesn’t.’) to create an opportunity for the couple to fall down in a tangled ‘heap of legs, arms, torsos, hips, skates’.

From here, The Rink alights at subsequent points in Kay’s life, skipping marriage and heading straight to when her daughter Jolie is six and going ice skating for the first time at the same rink, then jumping forward to Kay and Kent’s separation. In this fourth section, Ankeny returns to the image of the crowd at the rink and the solace it offers to Kay: ‘There’s peace in moving through crowds. It’s a community of silence; it’s kinesthetic speech, spatial connection, the flow of bodies through space. She felt closeness as she whirled herself around, edging through and behind and beside.’

As Kay’s story starts to draw to a close, the reader is offered a glimpse at Jolie’s fourteenth birthday, which also takes place at the rink. In keeping with how Ankeny echoes images throughout The Rink, Jolie is also ice skating with her friends, while Sandi and Rob make their reappearance. When the birthday cake is passed around, Kay is described as ‘passing them out like memories to those with an appetite’, a salient reminder of how the rink serves to tie Kay’s past and present together. To bring things full circle, the final section dealing with Kay’s life story thus begins, ‘The women held hands like they once did.’ Yet it also underscores how time has changed and marked them: ‘Now, they were more dignified, if less graceful. It was the gray lining at their hair’s root, under the dyes.’ The reader is informed of Rob’s death in passing, but Sandi already has another hockey player in her sights. Then Kay and Sandi skate out of the story, but nevertheless, ‘[t]he rink holds them there like a white, lacy band’.

At this point, one might argue that The Rink does not give us the full course of Kay’s life, since Ankeny commences her narrative in medias res. However, the bookending sections that only describe the rink might be thought of as proxies for birth and death, since Ankeny has tracked the full autumn-to-spring life cycle of the rink itself. Essentially, the rink’s story is Kay’s story, but it is also the stories of everyone who has ever skated there, but these can only be captured for as long as the ice stays frozen. The Rink thus culminates in a poetic meditation that showcases the effectiveness of the rink as metaphor for the ultimate transience of our lives:

There is one final skate where the ice takes the last impressions, the scrapes and edges carving into the clear surface, giving last depth, a final calligraphy of curves. […] each skate carves deep, leaving its mark, a fossil of itself. Then the rink is left to thaw and the ice melts into puddles and the marks on the ice turn into nothing more than drops of water that dissolve into air, the skaters long gone, their effort turned to vapour.

‘Sea of Trees’ by Robert James Russell

In Short Stories on August 7, 2013 at 3:00 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

Sea of Trees, Robert James Russell’s debut novella, takes its name from Aokigahara, the Japanese forest that is also the setting for the novella’s narrative action. Aokigahara has become notable for the number of suicides that take place in the forest, and the primary narrative of Sea of Trees follows Bill, an American college student, and Junko, his Japanese girlfriend, as they move through the forest, attempting to locate any traces of her sister Izumi, who went missing there. This central story is told in alternating fashion with other vignettes that recount the circumstances leading up to other Aokigahara suicides.

Sea of Trees

This structure, which nests what are effectively flash fictions within the longer novella, is one of the key strengths of Sea of Trees, in terms of how it helps with the pacing of the Bill/Junko narrative. According to Russell, in the course of his writing, what emerged was a conscious decision ‘to break [the narrative] up so it wouldn’t be too monotonous’, as well as to provide some breathing space for the reader: ‘I also think, since that is the main narrative, breaking up particularly tense sections with another story, giving your mind a rest, makes you think more about it and process what you just read, and that helps the story progress in a much smoother way.’ What is also interesting about these vignettes is how fully formed most of them read on the page, whilst seeming capable of being expanded into longer narratives of their own. This possibly serves as a parallel to the knowledge buried within Junko that is steadily revealed to Bill, as the characters delve ever deeper into the forest depths.

In this sense, Bill functions as a proxy for the reader, both of whom are kept wondering as to Junko’s real motivations right until the novella’s shocking denouement. Yet even at that point, conventional narrative closure is denied to us, since we learn about the painful truth that overshadowed Izumi and Junko’s lives from a final vignette – rather than as part of the main Bill/Junko narrative – that is itself derived from a journal given by Junko to Bill. Arguably, this renders the Bill/Junko narrative into a vignette of its own, one which speaks of the internalised logic of suicide and its inexorable, terrible consequences.

What holds this delicate structural balancing act together is Russell’s assured command of language. The writing in Sea of Trees displays both clarity and economy. Consider the very first paragraph of the novella:

She touches the bark of a tree, traces it with her fingers like she’s familiar with it, seen it before. I see her only barely through the endless green, slivers of her that pop into view for a moment. I stop and take a drink of water, hot and tired, but force a smile, pretending as if I’m enjoying this as much as she seems to be, just in case she’s looking.

In just three sentences, Russell has already foreshadowed the events of the rest of the novella. Junko is here being linked to the tactile, to the concrete signs and evidence of Izumi’s presence in Aokigahara that she has come here expressly to find, whereas Bill is portrayed as being concerned with the surface, with what can be glimpsed. Even then, he does not grasp the full picture, since he ‘barely’ sees ‘slivers’ of Junko ‘for a moment’. In that final clause, ‘just in case she’s looking’, the seed is also laid for the main source of conflict between the characters throughout Sea of Trees, i.e. Junko’s accusation that Bill does not truly understand why they are in Aokigahara and what they have come to do.

Ultimately, what Russell attempts is not so much to explain why Aokigahara manifests this curious appeal as a suicide destination or why the people committing suicide there make that choice, but rather to simply present this without judgement as an ongoing phenomenon, leaving readers to come to their own conclusions. On the whole, Sea of Trees makes for a confident debut and an enjoyable read, and I am looking forward to whatever Russell comes up with next.

[ED: Readers interested in Russell’s work should have a look at the literary journal Midwestern Gothic, of which he is co-founder, and Ian’s interview with him here]

‘Microtones’ by Robert Vaughan

In Pamphlets on August 7, 2013 at 11:52 am

 -Reviewed by Ian Chung

Microtones-book-cover

In music, microtones represent intervals that are smaller than the traditional semitones of Western music. In that sense, they mark that which falls outside our conventional categorisations. In a similar vein, Microtones, Robert Vaughan’s début chapbook from Červená Barva Press, focuses on the interstitial, whether this involves capturing emotions that cannot be boiled down to one-word descriptions, or blurring the lines between poetry and prose. Or as the Harry Partch epigraph to Microtones puts it, ‘This is my trinity: sound-magic, visual beauty, experience-ritual.’ Gathering together a number of works that have already seen publication in literary journals alongside new pieces, it makes for a handy introduction for newcomers to Vaughan’s work.

The chapbook opens with ‘Outlaw’, a piece that compellingly demonstrates how Vaughan’s language is able to grasp and convey our inner psychological complexity:

‘I slice my pinkie while he watches me chop carrots in his kitchen.
He’s told me endless reasons why moving in would benefit Starr and me.
He’s a good man. Wouldn’t hurt us. I know this, I believe him. But my scars run deep.’

That opening image of injury carries over into ‘my scars run deep’, which already sets up a tension between giving emotional commitment just one more try and thinking that it cannot be worth the risk. The shortest line of the piece, ‘This curmudgeon’ acquires a level of ambiguity because of this. Is it a term of endearment, the sort of half-joking insult that is born from familiarity? Or does it bear genuine criticism, even a degree of self-loathing that ‘this outlaw’ is the person ‘who makes you laugh’ most? By the end, it seems that resignation has set in too: ‘I watch my future run down the drain.’ So there is a lot of emotion packed into this piece of writing that totals less than 100 words.

Elsewhere in Microtones, Vaughan also displays his humorous side. In ‘Part of Life: Two Ways’, the reader is treated to two perspectives of a single event, with the humour arising from the resultant discrepancy. Consider the difference between ‘The teacher released the deformed creature’ and ‘The teacher let the deformed creature go’. While both might seem equally neutral, the latter becomes inflected with regret when the final lines of its section read, ‘The creature didn’t stir, not a peep. I started to salivate. Would it taste better with cumin or cardamom?’ In ‘Bed’, Vaughan derives a sort of bathetic humour from lines like ‘I have a bachelor of arts in folding laundry. I’m certifiable in the tai chi of scrubbing china’, while mixing in some double entendres for good measure: ‘Escort Sammy the sword swallower to church each Sunday’, ‘Each prick a museum piece’.

Whether he is writing about a man who cannot feel anything in his left leg and ‘nearly passes out, not from the pain, but from the lack of pain’ (‘Sometimes He Feels Like It’s Numb’), or two ex-military women pregnant by the same now-deceased man, one telling the other not to smoke (‘Buried’), or a man mourning his father, who ‘just this time, […] won’t barrel down a back road at one hundred miles an hour, straight into the side of a quarrelsome train’ (‘Wrestling with Genetics’), Vaughan’s particular gift is for clarifying the pathos in extraordinary things happening to ordinary people. That he succeeds in doing this by balancing brevity and levity demonstrates a mastery of short-form poetry and flash fiction that shows how length is by no means a prerequisite for achieving depth in one’s writing.

Interview with Robert James Russell (Sea of Trees)

In Conversation, Novella on August 6, 2013 at 2:00 pm

-Robert James Russell spoke to Ian Chung

Author Bio: Robert James Russell is a Pushcart Prize-nominated author and the co-founding editor of the literary journal Midwestern Gothic. His work has appeared in Joyland, The Collagist, Gris-Gris, Thunderclap! Magazine,, and LITSNACK, among others. Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing, 2012) is his first novella.

Robert James Russell black and white

What inspired you to set Sea of Trees in Japan, and specifically, in Aokigahara?

The setting came to me before the story did, actually. I had read an article about Aokigahara and just found it fascinating – a place where the trees grow together so closely, where there are hardly any animals and that has this long and macabre history of death. As a setting – even as a character, which I think it ultimately becomes in the book – it was just too fascinating to pass up. So I did a great deal of research, read as much as I could about it as well as the epidemic of suicide in Japan, and the story formed around that, defined by a place just so magnetic and mysterious and eerie. As the story came together, it became about more than just death, but about relationships and communication (specifically the breakdown of communication in its many forms), and anchoring all of my stories in Aokigahara was the perfect way for me to do that: the fact that it’s very real, and all of the things that happen there – people killing themselves regularly, groups of people coming in to look for them, others there to collect their valuables – is far more unsettling than anything I could have imagined.

The main narrative of the novella is alternated with other short vignettes, recounting the stories of other people who chose to end their lives at Aokigahara. What prompted this structure? Would you ever consider expanding any of them into something longer?

Well, a couple things prompted it: When I first started writing the story, it was just the Bill/Junko narrative, and while that was the basis for everything, and their dynamic very important to what I was trying to say, I found that I really needed to break it up so it wouldn’t be too monotonous (you can only have so much walking around in a forest). I also think, since that is the main narrative, breaking up particularly tense sections with another story, giving your mind a rest, makes you think more about it and process what you just read, and that helps the story progress in a much smoother way. The vignettes ended up becoming some of my favorite elements of the book, truthfully, and are as important to me as the main narrative. I don’t strive to answer questions about why people commit suicide, or offer any solutions, but to open up a dialog about it, using the forest as a character, a mythic place they feel drawn to. And it is in these vignettes, I think, that you start to really grasp the magnitude of the place, the cultural reasons why people may choose to kill themselves, and you’re able to apply that to the Bill/Junko story – so some of the subtext becomes text and helps you understand Junko’s state of mind.

As far as expanding, it’s an interesting idea, but I probably wouldn’t. One of the reasons I tried to keep the vignettes short was so as not to dwell too much on death – I tried really hard to strike a balance of just enough characterization and death. Too much of the latter and I think it would have been too distracting. Too much of the former and you sort of forget the place of mind the characters are in and it loses its focus.

Could you say something about the process of getting Sea of Trees published with Winter Goose Publishing? Was there any particular reason you chose them?

I had actually submitted another book to them, and while they liked my writing, the book wasn’t quite their style, so they asked if I had something else. I did – Sea of Trees – and they were quick to respond with an acceptance. I ultimately chose them because from the very beginning they showed me an enthusiasm about the book and working with me that was very refreshing. Being in publishing myself, I’ve seen what some publishers don’t (or can’t) offer – some so bogged down that they can barely pay attention to their writers – so it was great to find one so eager and that so obviously loved books and writing and sharing all of that with an audience. That was very important to me, and really, it’s been an absolute honor working with them.

You are one of the brains behind Midwestern Gothic, and now, MG Press. Some time ago, I also reviewed the first publication from MG Press, Scott Dominic Carpenter’s This Jealous Earth, and interviewed him. What led to your selecting Scott’s work for publication? More generally, what sort of work are you looking for at Midwestern Gothic and MG Press?

Scott’s collection stood out to us as the exact thing we were looking for – not only is he wildly talented, but the stories are diverse and represent, even if not physically set in the Midwest, our sensibilities here. Part of our mission is not just highlighting people living here in the Midwest, but how the culture sticks with you no matter where you go – I’ve heard so many stories from folks who move away and can’t quite get the Midwest out of their systems, which fascinates me. I think that’s prevalent in Scott’s writing, and a testament to the uniqueness of the region. Moreover, his stories contain a breadth of themes and images – a little bit of everything – which we found works well with a collection to keep people reading. If every story was the same, for instance, I think it would be a much tougher sell/read. Last, his work was polished: it came to us in a wonderful state, fully-fleshed out, which I can’t tell you enough is very important when submitting.

In general, I think a lot of what I stated previously goes for what we’re looking for in Midwestern Gothic – stories don’t necessarily need to be set here, but be recognizable as Midwest-influenced. We don’t care if the story is light or dark, we just want real life, and this portrait we’re trying to paint of the Midwest is, ideally, represented by various voices, various stories and experiences, to better flesh our home. So as long as there is some connection here, even slight, we want to read it. I think I can say that the only thing we’re not specifically looking for is genre fiction – we have published some stories with slight genre bends to them, but nothing overtly so. The idea again is that we want to see real life here, good, bad and ugly, and while genre fiction is great and there is a place for it, we feel reality is interesting enough and really want to get to the bottom of that.

What is your next project as a writer and/or editor, and could you share something about it?

Well, we’re in the midst of working on our next MG Press title (a novel), which we should be announcing late summer/early fall – a lot of our energy is going into that right now, in addition to prepping Issue 11 of the journal, which is a Creative Nonfiction issue (our first foray into CN). Personally, I’m shopping around a new novel that I’m really excited for. In addition, I’m in the midst of a short story deluge (writing and submitting), so that’s been taking up a lot of time too.

What question do you wish I had asked, and could you answer it?

What is your spirit animal?
I wish I could say something ferocious like a lion or a black bear or an alligator, but I’ve taken a lot of online tests and I always seem to get a crow or morning dove. And those tests are always right.

[ED: Ian’s review of Robert’s collection, Sea of Trees can be read here]

‘XZ #1 Noir: Singing the Necessaries’

In online magazine, Website on June 30, 2013 at 3:25 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

XZ is a new online fiction project from Annexe, whose aim is ‘to dissect various genres of writing, film and drama by reconstructing them from the ground up’. This first issue looks at the genre of noir, featuring a six-part collaboration between Eley Williams, John Boursnell, Akiho Schilz, Komal Verma, Jack Swain, and Ben Gwalchmai. According to editor Nick Murray, the writers were given ‘only the bare essentials needed to keep the story cohesive’. While it is possible to extrapolate which elements or details were specified for the writers, I think it might have been useful if these had also been made available to readers of XZ.

Singing the Necessaries, XZ 1

Of the six writers, Williams, Schilz and Verma are the ones whose sections most closely tread the path laid out by the noir genre. Williams has the responsibility of laying the groundwork for the story, and does so admirably with an opening paragraph written in the second person, where the reader merges perspectives with the protagonist in a series of instructions for a routine concerning a bottle of whiskey and a glass. So by the end of this section, we have our detective, Sam Grayle, our mysterious woman, Eve Butler, and a murder to solve. Schilz’s section then gives us our detective’s confrontation with his narrative nemesis, Eric Strathray, which winds up with Sam trapped in a fishing boat in the next section, written by Verma.

These three segments of perfectly serviceable noir are complemented by slightly more experimental takes on the genre. Boursnell’s section bridges Williams’s and Schilz’s, as our detective travels from his office to a club licensed to a certain Strathray. What is striking about it is the filmic quality of the writing. Laid out like a free verse poem, this section is divided into three stanzas, each consisting of a series of actions. One can almost imagine how the camera would pan and zoom in a film version of Boursnell’s section, and the effect is to inject a sense of constant movement into the narrative. Swain’s section then forms a sort of coda to the main narrative that ended in Verma’s portion, taking the form of an ‘Extract of debrief of Acting Agent in Charge Michael Banner’. It helps to clarify how and why our detective was double-crossed, which Gwalchmai’s concluding segment also does in the form of a poem, containing moments of humour (‘a Grayle of Butlers’), self-reference (‘You should have warned me / reader’), and enjoyable wordplay (‘you should have warmed me / to the killing by flagging / the flogging that follows’).

On the whole, XZ #1 comes across as an interesting dissection of the noir genre, a sort of variation on the game of exquisite corpse. I am keen to see what this method will produce when it is brought to bear on other genres (the next issue will explore Gothic horror). Having said that, I personally found myself feeling ever so slightly cheated by the end of the story, due to its brevity. Certainly, as Murray notes in his afterword, the characters in Singing The Necessaries ‘have been given lives and motives, both written and implied’. Yet there is perhaps too much that has been left oblique, or at the very least, a lengthier story would have helped to create more reader investment in these promising characters.

‘Two’ by Jesse Glass

In Pamphlets on June 10, 2013 at 9:29 am

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

51+8FeJC1UL._SY300_

As someone unfamiliar with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, the publisher’s description of Two as ‘a two-part L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E excavation of the rhetoric of history’ gave me little in the way of direction as a reader. Two, as the name suggests, consists of two long poems. The first is titled ‘Poetic Fictions: A New Age Dawns At Longshoreman’s Hall, San Francisco, June 11, 1964!’, which the back cover informs me is a reference to the book On Bread & Poetry: A Panel Discussion With Gary Snyder, Lew Welch & Philip Whalen (Grey Fox Press, 1977). Once again, this is less illuminating than might be expected, unless you are already familiar with that book, or at least with the work of Snyder, Welch and Whalen.

Having said that, there is still something compelling about the experience of reading ‘Poetic Fictions’, questions of comprehension aside. At first, I tried working out whether each of the four characters (the three poets plus panel moderator, Jack Nessel) had distinct personalities or ways of speaking in the poem, but I quickly gave up because it felt, at least to me, beside the point. If Glass is ‘deconstruct[ing] the post-modern fable’ of that 1964 reading, ‘to reveal arcane power structures’, I assume this will become clearer to me once I have acquired the requisite contextual knowledge, as mentioned above. For the time being though, I am happy to take the occasional flashes of interesting language and imagery:

‘Walk out of your skin’s
Gypsum embrace
If you gotta mambo.

One place is as good as (m)any.’

On the other hand, ‘The Hero I Evoke’, the second long poem, feels much more accessible, despite playing similar typographical games. It is clear that this is primarily a function of its underlying subject matter. According to the back cover, ‘The Hero I Evoke’ is a ‘re-working of the Gilgamesh story as told in the light of America’s Iraq interventions and the current world economic fizzle’. A good deal of punning is involved, as demonstrated in a line like ‘GodblessusMall will save us hard-earned tax dollarz’:

‘& he placed

the net-worth

of everything in an Awk

& when the waters

o’ finance rose & froze

we crawled in among

the shadows of this

gawd-damnd Awk’

At the end of the day, Glass’s Two is one of those works that needs to be read in order to appreciate what the poet is doing, in the sense that its linguistic complexity resists reduction to a few paragraphs in a review. Although I found it difficult, even frustrating at times, to work out what Glass was saying in Two, there is value, I think, in being forced to confront and engage with poetry that lies outside one’s comfort zone. Two certainly proved to be a challenge to me as a reader and a reviewer. However, I also came away from it feeling excited that here was someone working with language as a material in ways that would never have occurred to me. For that, The Knives Forks and Spoons Press should be commended for publishing work like Glass’s.

‘Slouching Towards Pakistan’ by Jack Foster

In Pamphlets on June 5, 2013 at 9:07 am

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

 slouching

The title of Jack Foster’s Sweatshoppe Publications chapbook, Slouching Towards Pakistan, calls to mind the final lines of W. B. Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’: ‘And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?’ Reading Foster’s forward to the chapbook, those lines acquire greater resonance when one realises that the chapbook deals with the American drone strikes in Pakistan, begun during the Bush administration and intensified under Obama. Foster writes that this chapbook is inspired by the poetry of witness, hoping that it ‘serves as a call to think more deeply about how we wage war’. So by the end of Slouching Towards Pakistan, the question readers ought to be asking themselves, American or otherwise, is what we have allowed to be unleashed on our world, ostensibly in the name of securing it.

The sequence begins with ‘Prologue’, which recounts how ‘the art of war immediately began / to forget its own sense of intimacy’. This is exemplified by how the strikes in Pakistan are carried out using unmanned aerial vehicles, which do not permit ‘men [to] observe light leaving vacant eyes or record / the breath of the dying’. The poem possibly overplays its hand with lines like ‘Now, we turn tail and retreat / back to bunkers and white tiled offices – it’s easier that way’, but perhaps someone needs to be stating the painfully obvious, if the alternative is otherwise going to be silence on the issue.

The next poem, ‘A Father Leaves in the Morning’, then introduces a theme that will recur throughout the sequence, namely the conundrum of reconciling being a military man and a family man. Our attention is drawn to how any resulting dissonance is most readily perceived by immediate family members (‘I, his only witness’), and in case there was any doubt about the titular father’s complicity with the American administration’s ‘war on terror’, the next poem is titled ‘A Father Drives to Arlington’, i.e. home of the Pentagon. ‘A father, home out of sight, sheds one skin / for another’, which conveys the psychological distancing that parallels the physical distance of ‘Somewhere in the world, news / headlines tear through today like a Gulf’s tumid / body, losing shape and image by the time they hit foreign shores’.

Another thematic thread running through Slouching Towards Bethlehem has to do with the terrible beauty of the drones. The Yeatsian connection is perpetuated in a poem like ‘Hatching Drones’, which traces the electronic birth of a Predator drone. The poem’s opening, ‘The will of others trickles down / to subordinates’, carries over the theme of the preceding poem, ‘Passing the Buck’, in which ‘Orders are belayed down the chain of command’. Yet in spite of the apparent abdication of responsibility in such a system (since there is always someone else one can blame), technology has also allowed us to create ‘Birds of Paradise for the New World Order’. The poem marvels at what the drones have been designed to be capable of, but nevertheless ends by noting that their existence is purely utilitarian and wholly unnatural:

‘By the time migration is completed, mission
accomplished, their only option is to slowly soar
back home to sit in hangars – trading in daylight’s warmth
for the cold and the mockery of artificial lighting.’

Yet Foster is ultimately interested in the human impact that the drones have, and thus the second half of the sequence retraces the father’s steps, as he makes the reverse journey home from Arlington, ‘After a day’s worth of work’ (‘An Uncertain Path’). We are offered reminders that ‘It is hard to say what exactly happens / beneath a foreign skyline’ (‘Before the Aftermath’), and a gloomy prophecy that ‘Nothing will change for years to come’ (‘Untitled’), even as the mere fact of something like the drones means that the nature of human existence has been fundamentally changed, whether for the deployer or the deployed against. This idea is recapitulated in the poem ‘Afterword’, subtitled ‘Predators of the Future, a Cautionary Tale’, in which Foster asks ‘who will house the drones of tomorrow’.

However, at the individual level, for the father, ‘concepts resembling human feelings swell’ on ‘The Road back Home’. The most poignant moment in Slouching Towards Bethlehem then follows in ‘A Father Returns in the Nighttime’, as he ‘scrapes his hands and chest with pumice / stone, as if to destroy every atom / every fiber’. In this poem, Foster cuts to the heart of the matter, looking beyond the obvious devastation caused by drone warfare to the impact it has on the people who are, arguably, just doing their jobs. For them, the real human tragedy comes in the form of their children, children who have to live with the knowledge of what people like the father do on a daily basis:

           ‘This time, too, does not belong
to him – his skin, like steam, rises into midnight’s
density, and fills the house with lingering
pain. This time belongs to me – my burden,
my secret, my time alone with my father.’

Lakeview: International Journal of Literature and Arts #1

In Magazine, Saboteur Awards on May 29, 2013 at 11:50 am

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts is a new literary magazine published by the Writers’ Forum at Sacred Heart College, India. At the risk of sounding overly glib, the preceding sentence encapsulates what I found most problematic about this literary project, namely its lack of focus. It almost feels as if there are two versions of Lakeview competing for one’s attention. The first aspires to the ‘International’ portion of the publication’s title, featuring an advisory board drawn from all over the world and publishing work from prominent writers like George Szirtes and Hanif Kureishi. The other comes across more like a college publication, right down to publishing the winning pieces from competitions run by the Sacred Heart Writers’ Forum. This is not to say that either approach to creating a literary magazine is better, but rather that Lakeview might have done better to settle on one or the other, at least for its first issue.

Lakeview

This sense of excess and/or confusion also extends to some of the work in the magazine. An extended sonnet sequence like Sofiul Azam’s ‘Time and Memories’ is admirable in its ambition, and contains interesting turns of phrase like ‘the living iceberg’ and ‘the verb of each and every folly’. Yet it also contains plenty of what feel like filler lines, e.g. ‘With Coldie, I turn cold, hot with Hottie’, which likely would have been edited out in something shorter. Or consider a story like Prathap Kamath’s ‘Jacoba Came to Conquer’. Although the title essentially gives away the story’s twist, the core of the narrative has the potential to make salient points about the nature of post-colonial hang-ups and the complex position of Anglo-Indians in Indian society, and for the first half, actually seems to be heading in that direction. Instead, the main narrative pay-off consists largely of a cringe-worthy seduction scene: ‘A tongue entered his mouth like a snake and probed its fleshy insides in a coiling motion. […] His hands ran over a field of soft mounts and shrubby valleys, and in an oblivious abandon his body danced to a hitherto unknown rhythm.’

However, there is still enjoyable writing on display here, especially in the trio of Sudeep Sen, Hanif Kureishi and George Szirtes, whose work opens the issue. Sen’s ‘Banyan’ is a sequence of delicate images, tracing ‘what is revealed’, ‘As winter secrets / melt’. Kureishi’s ‘Weddings and Beheadings’ is a surreal tale of filmmakers who are forced to film beheadings, which are then ‘broadcast everywhere, on most of the news channels worldwide’. In its stately rhythms and triple rhyme, George Szirtes’s ‘The Voices’ demonstrates the argument from his Poetry Foundation essay that ‘[r]hyme can be unexpected salvation, the paper nurse that somehow, against all the odds, helps us stick the world together while all the time drawing attention to its own fabricated nature’. Lakeview also has paintings and photography interspersed throughout the issue, with the paintings by Bijay Biswaal and Abdul Saleem being particularly noteworthy.

Thus on the whole, the debut issue of Lakeview is a mixed bag, but also demonstrates potential to grow as a literary endeavour. While the magazine’s eclectic selection of material offers something for almost any reader (besides poetry, short fiction, paintings and photography, there is also an essay on gendai haiku by Alan Summers and an interview by Chief Editor Jose Varghese with Jewish American author, Michelle Cohen Corasanti), this means it is also frequently unclear whom its target audience is. That said, growing pains are almost a given for any new publication. Hopefully, as more readers, and therefore potential contributors, become aware of Lakeview, it will have an easier time fully living up to the ‘International’ portion of its name, as well as figuring out precisely what sort of magazine it wants to be.