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Julia Matthews

‘As One Fire Consumes Another’ by John Sibley Williams: Each Poem a Sermon

John Sibley Williams poetry book As One Fire Consumes AnotherThe poems in John Sibley Williams’ latest book, As One Fire Consumes Another (82 pages; Orison Books), are verbs: they implore and demand, they connect and recall, they cry out and they quietly walk away. The collection, winner of the 2018 of the Orison Poetry Prize, maintains a generational sense of story — an understanding of family that is dense in time and broad in scope as it considers both the immediacy of human relationships and the distance of the natural world. Williams is as acutely focused on the wide arcs of historical violence and injustice as he is on everyday detail, lending each poem a sermon-like quality.

Williams’ meditations on some of life’s greatest questions take form as he relates honest perceptions of the world around him. There is a sense that the poet is exercising restraint — each poem is something like a paragraph, constrained within margins of identical width. The sentences themselves are spare, presenting each thought without superfluous explanation:

In the dark of a man’s fist pressed to chest.

Couch clothed in ghost-white sheets like a fishing village in winter.

Next time, use a Sharpie when listing your demands to god.

The collection reads as a sort of offering, inviting the reader to find connection and understanding where they might. And there is a sense throughout these poems that fragments form a whole –– in Williams’ frequently staccato use of language, and in his choices to revisit themes from multiple perspectives and leave visible his edits and revisions. Here are some choice examples:

To tell a body you are not my house, then to furnish it with walls & fire anyway

There is a breeze here that carries a hint of smoke from older crosses

Love feels out of context among so many dead & thirsting things.

What he heard reply from deep within the absence the night before he leapt, unbirdlike, isn’t much use to us now, the dead or the living.

In that last fragment, the seemingly despairing sentiment that often permeates this collection is tangible. But it’s not desperation but rather frankness that characterize Williams’ confrontations with death, loss, and communal pain. Moreover, the titles of the three series he divides the collection into –– Harm, Keeping the Old World Lit, and We Can Make a Home of It Still––suggest a possibility of rectification, or at the very least a forward momentum. Like the smoking aftermath of fire, Williams leaves room for renewal. His poetry itself is part of this project. The poem “Fallow as That” begins, We are out divining fish from dried riverbeds again. With this line Williams encapsulates every poet’s task, and in this collection he sets to work.

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‘Aug 9—Fog’ by Kathryn Scanlan: Glazing the Mundane with Meaning

Kathryn Scanlan book Aug 9—Fog Kathryn Scanlan’s Aug 9—Fog (128 pages; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) is short and sweet — to be read in one afternoon, then reread many afternoons over. Existing somewhere between fiction, collage, and found poetry, Scanlan’s book is composed of sentences the author pulled from a stranger’s 1968 diary, which she won in an Illinois estate auction. As Scanlan’s authorial voice blends with that of the diary owner, the two meditate together on the passage of everyday life. While reading Aug 9—Fog, I was reminded of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead in the effortless way Scanlan glazes the mundane with meaning. Scanlan forms a collage out of the diary, which was kept by a woman in her eighties, and turns it into a series of slim vignettes that trace the seasons of a year. The book’s perspective is akin to looking out a kitchen window, observing the changing weather and the coming and going of characters:

Mildred papering. Vern took a fish down to Bayard for his birthday. Daffodils and pussy willows out pretty.

Sure pretty out. Sure grand out. D. making a new piecrust. All better.

There are certain works of poetry or prose that carry such an irresistible mouthfeel that I have to whisper along with the words as I read them, and this book offers a perfect example. The abbreviated voice of the diary’s author does not elaborate for the sake of explanation or grammar, and begins to give the impression of a lovably stylized character. Her words are almost childlike in their simple colloquialism, proving irresistibly relatable:

Jar broke, she canning tomatoes. Our apples not a bit nice. So spotted.

Scanlan’s arrangement of the author’s words render a tender and human portrait of old age, relating daily experiences of illness, hobbies, care from family members, and loneliness. One of the book’s most salient themes is the physical body and the fragility of its health. There are delicate passages in which family members wash the aging author’s head, and there are oppressive passages in which characters grieve disease and death. Scanlan’s authorial focus on seasonality and emergence suggest the hope of turnover, but it is difficult to shake the author’s uncanny details of daily life after loss.

Ever where glare of ice. We didn’t sleep too good. My pep has left me.

Aug 9—Fog is fascinating, particularly to young writers still making sense of form and genre, since Scanlan’s authorship is editorial: the words are not her own, and yet the book and its plot are her artistic creation. Her prose pursues an object of fascination and presents it with the language most fitting, regardless of convention.

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‘People I’ve Met From the Internet’ by Stephen van Dyck: Delight in the Details

Stephen Van Dyck memoir People I've Met From the InternetStephen van Dyck’s People I’ve Met From the Internet (151 pages; Ricochet Editions) is the ultimate memoir for the Information Age: a series of extraordinarily personal vignettes derived from a data spreadsheet. The book spans 11 years and takes place in multiple states, mostly roaming the arid space between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Los Angeles, California. It reads like a grand road trip in the age of dial-up Internet.

The book’s earliest pages take the form of a table divided into columns like “REAL NAME,” “SCREEN NAME AT THE TIME WE MET,” and “X=TIMES MET OR DAYS SPENT.” When starting the memoir, you might assume these would be pages to skim, a visual stunt to bring the reader into a digital headspace. However, the data becomes a form of narration unlike any you may have encountered before. The reader becomes a detective and decoder: the simple entry “x99+” under “X=TIMES MET OR DAYS SPENT” reveals a long-term relationship, and entries like “watched Survivor at his apartment” clues you into the context of the early aughts.

Van Dyck’s memoir proceeds as a repetition of this list, but this time with annotations, and each successive entry generates a jarringly precise depiction of coming into one’s sexuality at the advent of the social web. Throughout the annotated entries, the men and women van Dyck meets online often play as much of a role in his adolescent development as his father and mother, guiding him into his burgeoning sexual identity. After the loss of his mother, and aided by the sometimes inept but unfailingly kind support of his father, van Dyck sets out on his own, following a connect-the-dots map from AOL user to AOL user around the country. Exploring glowing gay landscapes—in the blue light of computer screens and beneath the rosy warmth of Southwestern sunsets—van Dyck meets tops and bottoms, otters and bears. He acquaints himself with adulthood in strangers’ apartments. Throughout, van Dyck’s writing is unnervingly relatable; his explicit depictions are vulnerable, candid, and human:

When we started to have sex, Luke asked if I had wiped…As I lay on my side, Luke wiped my ass. Luke told me I needed to wipe properly. Inspired by Luke’s bowl of lubes, I filled my pockets each time I went to MPower or the Under 21 Group, and slowly amassed a collection of my own. 

Van Dyck’s prose mirrors the dataset the book begins with: a linear presentation of facts. The details he includes are both mundane and mosaic, and as he lists them the story coalesces. In this way, through frank snapshots of the people around him, a dynamic portrait of an evolving artist is rendered.

When the memoir catches up to the present and entries start to occur in real-time, alongside commentary on van Dyck’s self-doubt regarding his writing project, the text becomes something like conceptual art:

I wondered later if I met Robbie because I knew it would be a good story. I was starting to have this question about many of the guys I was meeting. Or was the list project giving me an excuse to do what I already wanted to do?

In People I’ve Met From The Internet, we share in van Dyck’s struggles at the bleeding edge between life and art, and wonder what to make of the man behind the experiment. Perhaps the point of it all, his book seems to suggest, is simply to delight in the details

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Q&A with Chia-Chia Lin: ‘The Unpassing’ and Making Sense of Absence

Chia-Chia Lin author photoChia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing (278 pages; FSG) is the haunting story of a year in the life of a Taiwanese immigrant family living in rural Alaska. The novel, told through the eyes of ten-year-old Gavin, observes the disintegration of the family after tragedy leaves them raw. With prose as stark and spare as the Alaskan shores and forests she precisely details, Lin conveys an intimate and understated account of trauma, beautifully rendering the internal world of each person affected by a shared loss.

Gavin has a sister who squirms away from her background by changing her name from Pei Pei to Paige; his father, who was an engineer in Taiwan, works as a plumber and stashes liquor in the corners of the house; his dissatisfied mother fishes like a bear in the river by moonlight; and younger brother Natty openly struggles to comprehend what’s happened to them. Lin’s depiction of poverty and dysfunction is as unflinching and sincere as only a child’s perspective could render it.

The Unpassing is a penetrating narrative on the difficulty of finding footing in a new country and how a family scatters in the wake of this change. Lin, whose short story “Hinterland” appeared in Issue No. 95, spoke with ZYZZYVA about the novel and her process as a writer.

ZYZZYVA: The novel revolves around the experience of loss and the attempt to make sense of absence. Does the title, The Unpassing, refer to this theme? Since this word doesn’t appear in the dictionary, what does “the unpassing” mean to you? 

Chia-Chia Lin: Absences have always called out to me. Something was once here, and now it is not. What is left behind? It’s not merely an empty space or a void. There is something real and tangible enough that it’s able to muscle into your daily life and crowd out other concerns, or consume air and attention and change the dynamics of the room. I wanted a title that reflected this contradiction—that something or someone who has left your life (passing away, passing out of it) could also, at the same time, re-enter your life with a brute, overwhelming force.

Linguistically, “un” words are also just fascinating to me. Unknowing something or unspeaking something is essentially impossible. These words are often accompanied by the word “can’t”; you can’t unknow something, you can’t unspeak something. You can’t go back to the place where you started from. The word itself takes up more room than it used to, now that it’s got this appendage. But it’s not a mere negation or an undoing. It’s a different creature altogether.

Z: The novel is framed around the Challenger disaster, as well as other events like the Exxon Valdez oil spill. What inspires you to incorporate such landmark events into your fiction? Do they help to ground your narrative in a time period, or do they serve more as symbolic elements?

CL: When I was writing The Unpassing, I was interested in interiors. So the book’s attention is directed inward, at the insides of things: at the connective tissue of this family, at the contents of this rickety house on the edge of a spruce forest, at the private thoughts and bodily experiences of a child. Altogether, this can make for a rather claustrophobic reading experience, and I recognized during the writing of this book that I needed to provide a little breathing room. Although it’s not my natural mode, I decided to go big not only in the setting (Alaska) but also in the markers of where we are in time. So we have these events that rock not just the family but the whole country. It was a way for me to provide just a touch of balance—to give a little context but also to break up the intense introspection here and there and to give glimpses of a larger world.

I never intended to make these events symbolic; that’s the sort of thing that happens almost against my will when I write. Side by side—the Challenger explosion, the family’s implosion—resonances just start to appear. My efforts are usually in the other direction, actually: to make things less overtly symbolic. I have a fear these days of being heavy-handed.

Chia-Chia Lin novel The UnpassingZ: You capture the voice and perspective of your main character Gavin as a young child so effectively that it is often difficult to remember he is recounting the events of the novel from adulthood. Who can we imagine he is speaking to?

CL: That’s a really interesting question. The events Gavin recounts take place mostly over the course of a year, and he is much older when he tells this story—several decades older. What I imagined was that he was rather lonely in his adulthood—at one point I had very precise details worked out about his age and profession and living situation, which I later cut from the novel—and that he viewed this particular year (1986) as a kind of turning point for his family. So he’s telling the story with a heightened intensity and awareness that every decision, every event, has long-term repercussions for his life and for his family. But whom is he telling? I’m not sure. Sometimes I think it might be the single person in his life he feels close to (someone we have not met). Other times I think it’s really anyone who will listen.

Z: ZYZZYVA previously published your short story “Hinterland,” which is also set in rural Alaska. Your description of this liminal geography in both pieces is sparing yet vivid, and always detail-oriented. What draws you to this setting in your work?

CL: I wrote that story nearly 15 years ago. I had just finished an internship in Anchorage, Alaska. The story is set in the interior—specifically Denali National Park, where I went backpacking several times. I tend to think of that story as being set in a different world from my novel, which takes place in South-Central Alaska—a more populated, more temperate, and less wild landscape, where the house is as much a setting as the outdoors. On the other hand, I do think I was using both landscapes to explore ideas that felt especially urgent during the time I spent in Alaska, such as the challenges of navigating the outdoors and self-reliance. There’s also an elusive quality I was trying to put my finger on—the feeling of your everyday concerns falling away, or being pared back to just a few vital ones, and the way aliveness resounds in that setting. I hope I gestured at these notions in my novel—it’s hard to know what you’ve created. I suspect I was much clumsier in my attempts in the short story (which I have not reread in the years since—I find it impossible to return to old work), but I am glad to hear you felt that some of the landscape’s singularity was evoked.

I suppose I was also fascinated, in both works, by the fact that Alaska has so much mythology associated with it, and the strangeness of writing one’s own story against that huge backdrop, and how small and large one can feel at once.

Chia-Chia Lin graduated with an MFA in Fiction from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where she received the Henfield Prize. Her short stories have appeared in The Paris Review, Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, and other journals. Her first book, The Unpassing, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in May 2019. She currently lives in Northern California. You can read her short story “Hinterland” in ZYZZYVA Issue No. 95

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