Short stories are very good for you

I’m always drawn to a book of poems when I heard it has a great sestina. And Joyelle McSweeney’s experimental lament TOXICON AND ARACHNE delivers. The poems, including a cycle of sonnets, deal with bodily toxins as well as suffering and environmental destruction. Then the book finishes with poems about the death of the poet’s infant daughter.

Her work has a driving style that is driven by sound, similar to Michael Laly, while also engaging with the established lyrical forms and the proper literary field of allusions. The pieces are also topical.

The joystick’d boys sink arrows into the ozone.

If we can’t have bees we’ll have drones.

Sometimes a line is re-mixed by ear:

like fruit loops the beak of a toucan
or fish hooks the mutilated pelican

One of the two exceptional sestinas in this collection is about the disappeared Mexican students.

McSweeney’s poems also have an element of decay and decomposition, or a sense of leaving things to nature/chance/entropy, in the form of evocative pseudo-typos that almost approach flarf: “rainment,” “doggrowl,” “Like a dog returns to her thesis,” “urne-buriall.”

These poems go right into the muck at the same time as they evoke classical forms. The grief flows through, careful and multidimensional, and yet delivered in a jaunty rush of language. Achingly beautiful collection from this year.

I want to look so young it would be foolish to think about having kids after all, I have my whole life ahead of me! I could get an MFA!

I attend the MFA thesis reading as a faculty member (of course) and cheer on our small brigade. Afterwards I want to text my friend to come to the graveyard with me so she can watch my back while I press my face in the mud in front of my baby’s grave.

Stephen Dixon is a writer I’ve inexplicably delayed getting around to even though his work is right up my alley. The title story is outstanding: an attempted suicide on the 14th floor of a NY apartment building triggers 14 story lines, the paragraphs all running together whereas an author would typically use space breaks, with the characters ignorant of all the connections. And we delightfully note that this book holds 13 stories, and considering that sometimes a building will renumber the 13th floor to 14…

Ther other standout in the collection is the Pushcart-winning “Milk is Very Good For You,” a piece of erotica narrated by Richard Richardson, in which all the dirty words are systematically misspelled, and the hedonistic escapades of mom and dad and the babysitter are interrupted by the children’s wailing for more milk. Disturbingly pure.

His writing is clear and tight, transparent not only in terms of narrative but for all these underlying algorithms and chain stories–for situations that in some cases are truly horrible and morbid.

Another collection of urban stories, by a cosmopolitan author from Chile. Bolaño is too obvious a name to drop here, but I do think Ramón Ríos is interested in failed, disaffected people in similar ways. She is plugged into the political crises that are very specific to her generation of Chileans, after what Bolaño’s experienced. Both are masters of the story in which nothing happens yet everything culminates and vibrates with significance; you have to wonder how these pieces are holding themselves together. Most of them are very short, only the middle three stories are plied out. On the surface the action is simple, but the scenes are weighed down with memory.

As he descends the stairs, he’s met with the occupations his father used to threaten him with, like a line-up of ghosts: this-beggar reading tarot cards on a bench in the square. This-numbskull selling water bottles on the corner of Atlantic and Nostrand. This-busybody reading a book, sprawled out on the sidewalk, covered with that blanket that this-guy, this-animal, stepped on yesterday as he made his way home from work on East 11th. This-guy stumbling, feeling the city’s pavement under his back. Dirty streets scorching in the sun.

Ramón Ríos chooses amazing details that just plant you in a particular time and place, like upper Manhattan in the early 90s, in “The Object.” There’s a tension between realistic and fantastic modes of narrating the same content. That story moves from a tense and tirade-heavy event with Gordon Lish at Book Culture (the 80’s realism plus the cult of the sentence vibe) out of the bookstore to outside—”we can breathe.” Then we’re leaving Manhattan on a bus, the prose gets more fabulous and “magical realist”: 

Outside, space has twisted into folds, a spiral where our very breathing grants it those multiple universes. The city fades away with every block: the city of shortage, poverty, excess, the centripetal force of fantasy, the void where bombs and fish rain down.

“Invocation” is an ambitious and fascinating two-column story that runs like a libidinal interview between two artists with a past. (The only other two-channel prose piece I can think of is the one in DICTEE by Theresa Cha.) This long story has the best and worst elements of the book. There’s a generous quotation of and reference to critical theorists which I don’t like to come across in this way in fiction, though it is pretty seamless as far as that goes. At the same time there is amazing imagery and transformations in the narration—like if Djuna Barnes were in this trend of feminist theory-driven fiction. The entire “Obituaries” sequence is amazing, capped off by the punk rock lamentation “Dead Men Don’t Rape.” I also loved “Extermination,” which complements Sturgeon’s “It” and the swamp thing mythos, while also working as an allegory that happily and wonderfully marries politics and artmaking.

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