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Whenever I open a new book of poems, I am torn by twin currents of hope and dread; hope that there may be something fresh, meaningful, transcendental inside, and dread that it will be more pretentious nouveau pointlessness. Is that too strong a characterization? Not if poetry is the cornerstone of your (with a nod to Forrest Gander) faithful existence.
As C.K. Williams said in “Whacked,” good poems should whack you and “bad poems can hurt you…you know you are, wasting time, if you’re not being whacked.” So it was with deep pleasure that I slowly read through Troy Jollimore’s new book, Syllabus of Errors (112 pages; Princeton University Press). I was thoroughly whacked by these poems, and as Jollimore studied with Williams in the hazy past, I think he’d be proud. From the first lyric, “On Birdsong,” one is captivated by Jollimore’s unapologetic embrace of complex thought, of humor, doubt and praise. Often, the poems move from logic through the fantastic to the affirmative. The poem “On the Origin of Things” starts:
Everyone knows that the moon started out
as a renegade fragment of the sun, a solar
flare that fled that hellish furnace
and congealed into a flat frozen pond suspended
between the planets. But did you know
that anger began as music, played
too often and too loudly by drunken musicians
at weddings and garden parties? Or that turtles
evolved from knuckles, ice from tears, and darkness
After a few more elegant twirls, the poem becomes a love song:
…and that my longing
for you has never taken me far
from that original desire, to inscribe
a comet’s orbit around the walls
of our city, to gently stroke the surface of the stars.
Many poetic and philosophic references infuse these poems. Jollimore’s first book, Tom Thomson in Purgatory, which won the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award, was at least in part an homage to John Berryman. The series of forty-two linked sonnets shows us a sad, slightly comic everyman, an update to Berryman’s Henry. In his second book, At Lake Scugog (an unfortunate title for an excellent book), Jollimore’s Tom romped though part of the book, but Jollimore also played with other forms—pantuom, terza rima, and rhyme, in general.
Diane Williams has remained on the edge of American experimental short fiction for the last twenty years. Known for her compact, oblique stories and her extraordinary use of non sequiturs, Williams has written seven books of stories and was an editor at StoryQuarterly before starting the NOON literary annual. She has been lauded by authors Jonathan Franzen, Sam Lipsyte, and Lydia Davis. And her latest book of remarkably potent short fiction, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine (136 pages; McSweeney’s), not only keeps her on the forefront of the form, but also redefines its parameters.
In an interview with HTMLGiant.com, Williams said: “The sentence cannot be overemphasized…neither can a fragment of a sentence or any syllable of a word. The writer either exploits the language for maximum effects or she does not.” For the forty stories in Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, this sentiment holds true: Williams renders every single word like a prism of implication, and she stretches the space between sentences as wide as chapter breaks, while the sentences themselves somehow read like stand-alone stories. The density of her writing warrants a closer reading than most fiction because it also reads like superb poetry, just casual and fluid and lilting between verse and improvised speech.
Above all, this collection expresses a viciously recursive self-awareness through its narrators and characters (including Williams herself, who shows up by name in at least four of these stories) who attempt to fulfill the stories they tell themselves.
I met Lucia Berlin in 1977, the year her first small book appeared, but it wasn’t till I published her collection Phantom Pain that we became great friends (Tombouctou Books, Bolinas, 1984).
Lucia was working at Alta Bates Hospital then, in Berkeley, at the switchboard and in the waiting rooms. Hospital work suited her. She was interested in extremities, in gossip, in contrary people with serious complaints, who also felt relieved to be alive. It was hard, low-paying work. She would have preferred to be writing, but she almost never said so. She did produce several new hospital stories (“Emergency Room Notebook”, “My Jockey,” “Private Branch Exchange,” “Temps Perdu,”) during this time. I imagine her composing them at night and on the weekends, and then stealing time at work to edit. We often spoke of stealing time, as though it were a necessary concomitant of creation. All but one of these pieces went into the new book of 15 stories and a play.
The title, Phantom Pain, refers to the haunting ache an amputee feels for a missing limb. The phrase neatly sums up Lucia’s work for me. Many of her best stories transform life’s fleetingness and loss into deeply felt—yet comedic—memories, more real than life, without coloration or emotional distortion. The haunting ache they deliver to the reader is tempered by tenderness and bemusement. Her style may appear to be offhand, an accretion of detail. It is anything but.
Poet and songwriter Larry Beckett has been embarked on a quixotic project, retelling the legend of the famed, semi-fictional logger Paul Bunyan (not to mention his “blue-eyed ox,’’ Babe) in ways that capture the barbaric yawp of olden times in a voice that speaks to our current culture, and implicitly, paralysis of spirit.
Bypassing empty debates about the pros and cons of “American exceptionalism,” Beckett flat out launches into the introduction of this hero of a thousand faces:
Out of the wild North woods, in the thick of the timber
And through the twirling of the winter of the blue snow,
Within an inch of sunup, with the dream shift ending,
A man mountain, all hustle, all muscle and bull bones,
An easy winner, full of swagger, a walking earthquake,
A skyscraper, looking over the tallest American tree,
A smart apple, a wonder inventor, the sun’s historian,
A cock-a-doodle hero, a hobo, loud, shrewd, brawling,
Rowdy, brash as the earth, stomping, big-hearted, raw,
Paul Bunyan lumbered and belly-laughed at the stars.
Admirers of, say, John Ashbery, may stop here, but the rest of us can stick around for the ride of Beckett’s Paul Bunyan (96 pages; Smokestack Press), a roiling picaresque, described by the publisher as a “modern epic in ‘longwinded’ blank verse.”
Kristopher Jansma’s first novel, “The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards” (Viking), was the winner of the 2014 Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award and a finalist for the Prix de l’Inapperçu, as well as a Barnes & Noble Discover Pick and an ABA “Indie Next” Choice. His work has appeared in Electric Literature, the New York Times, the Believer, The Millions, and other publications. His novel “Why We Came to the City” will be published by Viking in February. His story “Chumship” appears in the Winter issue.
“Chumship” lays out the friendship between two boys, Clark and the narrator, through high school and into college. The narrator is in thrall of droll Clark, who has an innate gift for spinning fictions, including a plan for hatching an imaginary girlfriend as a ploy for getting an actual one. Funny yet tender, Jansma’s story makes the most of its theme about the lies we tell others and ourselves. The following is an excerpt.
Heather Altfeld’s first book, “The Disappearing Theatre,” won the 2015 Poets at Work Prize, judged by Stephen Dunn. Her poems have appeared in Narrative Magazine, Green Mountains Review, Poetry Northwest, Okey-Panky, among other publications, and in ZYZZYVA No. 92 and 99. Her poem “Letter to Galway from Tahoe” is in ZYZZVA No. 105.
Addressed to the late great poet Galway Kinnell, who directed the poetry program at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, the speaker of the poem finds herself seeking the ear of Kinnell, who has died only months ago. “I turn to you because I think you were one of the ones a little like me,// for whom terror and beauty were like the green languages of birds/ we longed to interpret, and felt, if we could not do so,/ that we had failed.” The following is the poem in its entirety.
Loneliness is palpable among the stark emotions of Beijing artist and poet Liu Xia’s Empty Chairs: Selected Poems (Graywolf Press, 118 pages), The collection, translated from the Chinese by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern, spans from 1983 to 2013, and shudders under the weight of political and psychological violence: the 1989 Tiananmen massacre; the multiple (and current) imprisonments of Liu Xia’s husband, poet and activist Liu Xiaobo; the eleven-year sentence of her younger brother, Liu Hui. At the center of these circumstances sits Liu Xia, who has been living under strict house arrest since her husband received the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. Despite the state’s vast stronghold over the lives depicted in her poems, Liu Xia’s writing occupies a uniquely bitter, interior space—an investigation into madness and its characters rather than into political players. Empty Chairs is a book about the objects that remain when companionship is stripped away, about the fight to keep a body relevant when faced with “無”—without; lack.
Empty Chairs moves through three decades of poetry chronologically, with the month and year noted after each last stanza. The chronology allows us to experience Liu Xia’s obsessions in an ever-present past. In “Poison” she writes, “Van Gogh’s ear sends me an urgent message / that the earth is about to collapse…the weather forecast on TV / and Kafka’s crazy eyes.” We follow her repeated yearnings for “the bird” that always escapes her; there are skeletons, the dead eyes of children, and anthropomorphic dolls. These allusions and images confuse our sense of the real as we watch them focus into almost tangible characters within the walls of Liu Xia’s home. They become her company, offering her quietude in their humor, crudeness, and believability. “You have a strange pet,” she writes in “Transformed Creature,” “…When you’re alone, / it will lie in your lap, / preoccupied.” But the images often become nauseating in their darkness when we realize the picture of madness the objects describe.
Heather Monley’s fiction has appeared in Crazyhorse and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and her story “Town of Birds” won the annual Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest. Her story “Paddle to Canada” appears in our Winter issue.
Though under 2,000 words, “Paddle to Canada” is a rich and nuanced telling of a family’s breaking apart, and how we wonder if our happy memories from the past were truly that, and how me carry the weight of experience. The following is Monley’s story in full.
Paul Madonna writes and draws the weekly series “All Over Coffee” and is the author of “All Over Coffee” (City Lights Books) and “Everything Is Its Own Reward” (City Lights Books). His work has been published internationally in numerous books and magazines, exhibited in galleries and museums, including the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and the Oakland Museum of California, and he is a contributing editor to ZYZZYVA. His story “The Snake That Always Bites My Ass” appears in the Winter issue.
Though known as an artist, Madonna also writes fiction, such as his story “Hero,” which was published in ZYZZYVA No. 100. “The Snake That Always Bites My Ass,” which is also accompanied by Madonna’s art work in the Winter issue, is set in Thailand among ex-pats. The following is an excerpt from it.
Lauren Alwan is a staff contributor at LitStack, a literary news and review site, and her fiction has appeared in StoryQuarterly, the Alaska Quarterly Review—and next spring—in the Bellevue Literary Review, for her story “The Foreign Cinema,” which won the Goldenberg Prize for Fiction. Her essay “Eldorado” appears in the Winter issue.
Set in the mid-1970s in Northern California, Alwan’s writes of the time she was a young woman, building a house with a boyfriend in Siskiyou County. This slice of memoir isn’t just about that, of course. It delves into the culture of people trying to live off the land, the harsh realities of rural life, and what it means to have a home. It also thoughtfully examines her relationships with her father and with her boyfriend (whom she knew she’d never create a life with, despite their house). The following is an excerpt from “Eldorado.”
Austin Smith, who lives in San Francisco, is a Jones Lecturer at Stanford and the author of four poetry collections, including “Almanac,” which was published by the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets. His poems and fiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Threepenny Review, and in ZYZZYVA Issues No. 83 and No. 100. His story “The Cave” appears in the Winter issue.
Relating the arrival of a new kid to a small farming community in Illinois, “The Cave” centers around its young narrator going to the boy’s house for dinner one evening. But around that event, which leads to them exploring a cave at night, is an examination of a child’s rural life, one not immune from the hardships true for children everywhere, including the menace of bullies. In the following excerpt, our narrator talks about the red-headed twin sisters who, for whatever reason, decide one day while getting on the school bus to single him out for their cruelty. The following is an excerpt from “The Cave.”