TOKENSby John Yau, Bruce Seymour, Ray Abernathy, and Nicolle Elizabeth
Anatolia and Other Stories
Black Lawrence Press
From Dubai to Japan to Boston to Brooklyn to Romani Gypsy grandparents, the stories in Anatolia and Other Stories (Black Lawrence) are varied and, conceptually, architected on an intriguing premise. The first story, “Dubai,” reads like a Malamud folklore legend/Flannery O’Connor hybrid. Atmospheric and grim. Narrative voice leading toward a sense of traditional oral history storytelling, winding its way toward a brutal demise. Dubai feels like a pressure cooker through Shivani’s lens; he describes the city’s movement through construction in a tangibility we hear repeatedly throughout the work. The breaks for prayer surrounding and defining the day combined with the sounds of workers actually banging on steel to install the city’s ever-growing landscape. The work itself is, interestingly, an allegory for the move toward modern life and the end of the Bedouin ways. On both a subtextual and explicit level, Dubai is delicately written and incredibly entertaining. “After 35 years of living in Dubai as a guest worker, Ram Pillai, prone often now to a weariness of the bones, if not yet an ache of the heart, is leaving Dubai.” Our opening hello.
The stories within the collection are broad ranging in tone but the ones which shine most are told from the first person perspective, as is the case in the story, “Go Sell It On The Mountain,” (not to be confused with Bob Marley and the Wailers’ song, “Go Tell It On The Mountain)’. The story, set in a summer writing conference, makes reference to just about every writing program, every big name teaching writer and every work in the cannon. I particularly enjoyed the “Grace Flook from Sarah Wilson” reference, for no reason. The short is painfully on the mark for what can and does happen at a summer writing conference. By the end of the story, two faculty members are fired, a student has gone missing, the “Middlebury” Police are questioning workshop members one by one, all in the name of comedy for the reader. It smells like young broke writer existentially wanting recognition and the story is straight up enjoyable reading. Imaginative, informed, at times brash, Anis Shivani will go far.
Unbridled Books, 2009
Thirty-one: “The maximum number of days in a month, the length between menstrual cycles…the thirty-first name of Allah.” And the number of good pages in Masha Hamilton’s latest novel, 31 Hours.
Short chapters bracket the sequential events of Hamilton’s characters through 31 hours leading up to “9:07AM in New York, on the ninth day of the eleventh month” It is at that time a series of suicide attacks will occur at seven stops along the New York subway system. 31 Hours follows the life of one of the attackers, Jonas. Together with his divorced parents, Carol and Jake, characters include the childhood friend turned lover Vic, the cowardly terrorist planner Masoud, Vic’s younger sister Mara, and the homeless and semi-clairvoyant Sonney.
Jonas is at the pinnacle of pre-adulthood confusion and ripe for recruitment. Maturity however, may never come as he decides to face the “indestructible strength of death. On his terms, he thought. His own terms.” The repeat-a-line alludes to Jonas blowing himself up with a tailored vest full of explosives.
The story gears up during the second half, but the toll of Hamilton’s initial adjective-fiesta makes it a high price to pay. The book’s strength begins with the descriptions of Jonas’ dealings with Masoud, the son of a wealthy Middle Eastern family whose brother died because of American involvement in the region. It is here that Masha Hamilton uses her gifts, providing smooth descriptions and prose that flows nicely. The richness of detail in 31 Hours pertaining to the Middle East is similar to that of her other work. For example, “Afghanistan: An Essay,” which is anthologized in For Keeps, (Seal Press, 2007) describes a riveting experience among a group of women in that country.
The story ends somewhere between 8:37a.m., which is the last marker noted at the beginning of the final chapter and 9:07a.m., the detonation time. This missing last few minutes forces us to create our own ending. Does Jonas pull the trigger? Does the character’s hesitation at filling his pockets with nails to cause maximum collateral damage mean he will have further hesitations? Will he be stopped by the police? By the semi-clairvoyant vagrant? The estranged father? The caring mother? The distant girlfriend? Will he abort when he sees Vic’s younger sibling on the train he is about to destroy? Will the other six attackers fulfill their missions? Hamilton’s unresolved finish is bold, but left me with 31 questions.
Going Away Shoes
Workman Publishing, 2009
Jill McCorkle hasn’t published a work of short fiction in eight years, so I’m reading Going Away Shoes with an attitude, wondering if she is A-OK and are her jumbled up stories with digression after digression and lots of hidden little Southern Gothic-y nooks and crannies still A-OK? What’s wrong with this book? Shit. She must have saved the first story, the title story, from eight years ago because it’s better than OK (don’t know about the A, but it’s definitely OK) because it’s about Debby, who’s chained like a pet monkey to her comatose mother’s bedside, which is a lot like my sister, who’s tethered to my mom in a nursing home, so I definitely identify here. And “Please Release Me, Let Me Go” isn’t just my favorite song of all time, it’s my mother’s favorite song of all time. Then there’s a story about a little orphan girl who keeps drawing pictures of her granny’s titties, then one about a single mother and her two little boys, who keep chanting, “Blood. Guts. Puke.” The mother is such a goody-goody she invites her ex and his wife and her former in-laws over for a Christmas Eve visit and her septic tank overflows (and, Lord, haven’t we all been through that!) And then there’s “Rosemary Looney” about how Jimmie and Ann connive to get Rosemary accused of child abuse and thrown out of the house by their father, who eventually finds another wife who is not at all as fun as Rosemary Looney, and then Jimmie goes through three divorces, three among many in Going Away Shoes, which is a whole lot about women who want to leave or who have left, hello big-shot reader! What’s wrong with this book? Seven more stories and three hours later, I start looking for page 259, only to find there isn’t one, which is the only thing wrong with these stories or this book or with Jill McCorkle: they are too much, it is too short, and eight fucking years is too long.
Silenced Press, 2009
Call it synchronicity or, if you wish, the chance meeting of a potato and a stick of dynamite in the Infinite Seminar on Poetry. Today, in the mail, I received the latest issue of Jubilat, published by Robert Casper, with Guest Editors Cathy Park Hong and Evie Shockley, and a first book of poems, e.s.p. by Michael Leong . Just to be clear—I got Jubilat for free and I bought e.s.p.. The first thing I read was an essay “‘It Must Change’: Wallace Stevens and the Digressive Ars Poetica” by Srikanth Reddy, in Jubilat. Although I didn’t know it at the time, Reddy’s essay seems to me to be the perfect introduction to Leong’s e.s.p. because a number of observations he makes about Stevens also illuminate Leong’s project: “Perhaps no writer since Ovid has so obsessively documented the metamorphoses of our fluent mundo as Stevens.” The documenting of change, and its inevitability, is central to Leong’s poetry.
The first poem begins: “Suppose I wrote it in chalk.” Consisting of an untitled list of italicized speculations about language and its communicative power, Leong begins each line with “Suppose…” “Suppose I sent it telepathically” or, later on, “Suppose I had telekinesis and could drag the point of / that pencil over that sheet of paper to make a series / of marks which you could then interpret as signs.” With generous amount of humor inflected by a self-mocking tone, Leong points to possible worlds, but he knows he can’t get us there.
Writing about Stevens, Reddy astutely points out that “[a] poetics of change, then, serves no particular political ethos exclusively,” and goes on to say “the digressive ars poetica declines to propound any particular form or agenda for art.” He could just as easily be describing Leong’s poems, which meditate on poetry with a zinging humor, as well as repeatedly subvert conventional meaning through puns and word play: “I will ask you politely about proper conjugation.” Open to Surrealism’s penchant for lists, sensitive to the absurdities both prevalent and almost hidden from sight, as well as being attuned to the kind of outrageousness that can only be achieved in language, Leong channels call and response boasting and mixes it with a dark humor:
“I’ll break your abacus but I’ll repair your sextant
I’ll clean your whisper dish and always respect
The orientation of your compass”
The fact that Leong is Asian American adds a refreshing dose of edginess to “abacus” and “orientation” that never devolves into essentialism. Like Reddy, he recognizes that assimilation and essentialism—whether defined by the experimentalists or by what Ron Silliman calls the “quietists” —are ideologically riddled, aesthetic traps to be negotiated and subverted. A poet and translator —check out I, the Worst of All (blazeVOX, 2009), his translation of the Chilean poet, Estela Lamat — Leong goes his own way: Open to trying out all kinds of modes and methods, he is beholden to no one.