Ringing Out the Bones

Ring out the bones of the old year with the medullan melodies of Rob Plath’s Skeleton Sutras (40 pages, Epic Rites Press, 2016), a wickedly entertaining series of grim anti-fairy tales/parables. One of the sharpest collections you should have read all year, Skeleton Sutras pulls beauty from ruin in blunt, finely carved prose poems in which Plath chisels language (excuse us) right to the bone.

Start the New off with the Old.

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A Good Read of Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine

Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine

By Diane Williams

131 pages

McSweeney’s 

2016
‘Flash fiction’ can mean anything from a few clipped sentences to a few short paragraphs to a few brief pages, with narrative as the clearest literary line separating it from prose poetry. Flash fiction means there is still a story, no matter how short and sharp the arc may be. It could be the span of a life jammed into the tight jar of a paragraph, or the climax sliced from a larger backstory and spread out on its own, or a sprinkling of scenes. But the reader will still get some open and closure, implied or otherwise. The author will still work with imagery and rhetoric to suggest actions, ideas and consequences beyond the air-tight strictures.

The flash fiction of Diane Williams in Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine showcases all of these traits. But her stories somehow manage the weightier task of also being character-driven.

Many of these characters remain nameless, as if caught in tableau. Sometimes, Williams will peg an identity to them, but more for tone and colour than symbolism. Almost all are at a sudden point where they face a marked change in their lives. Some adapt as quickly as the word-count ends while others seem set to struggle far beyond the time it will take for the page to yellow. The reader may not know much about them, but will witness the import of their key moments and situations. This is flash fiction as the drama of epiphany.

“Specialist” presents the ultra-condensed ‘life-flashing-before-the-eyes’ of a very self-wrapped consciousness condemned to a fresh hell of external-awareness. “The Poet” evokes a surreal tragedy in two packed paragraphs. “Perform Small Tasks” is a mini-masterpiece of obfuscation, where drama is hidden behind a mind fussed with daily minutiae. “Girl With a Pencil” is a creation myth sketched with short strokes as the main character’s dark self-prophecy is shaped by a stark maternal presence.

Behind numerous facades (of forced passion, rigid consciousness, contrived fashion) everything is, of course, not fine. The thread that joins the stories is, in fact, threads coming unwound: relationships ending (or never quite weaving together), lives snipped short with unanswered questions and unresolved issues. The false declaration of the title, that sounds like a petulant child giving in with reluctant pout, melds with the overall, overwhelming effect of the relentless narratives. The substantial amount of character and drama that Williams packs into the book can overwhelm the reader, as the number of small tragedies add up to the emotional weight of an epic.

But, while brief, remain profound snapshots of life where things can change in a flash.

Snap to it.

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A Read (and re-read) of re/translate

​re/translate

By Stephen Hines

40 pages

Bottle of Smoke Press

2015

Let’s say that language is an abstract, subjective system of signs, with different languages built in different systems. Let’s add that poetry may involve a warmer, more musical system, but one that is still built in an equally subjective way atop the first set of signs. The act of translating verse from one language into another, then, can be like arranging a whole new song in a completely new genre. Or, at least, giving the original an extensive remix.

At first read, re/translate isn’t quite that musically inclined. Poet Stephen Hines suggests he is working in the spirit of the time-honoured kids’ game of “Pass it On”, where a phrase repeated at one end of a line-up comes out the other end processed into linguistic hamburger by the giggly minds of early learners. But playing this game with poetry offers a bit more adventure than spitting a phrase along from one ear to the next can.

Here, the phrase is a full-grown piece of literature, and the processor, an on-line translation system. Hines’ rather unpoetic technique is to run the text of a previously-published poem of his (“revision”) through a translation algorithm numerous times, from English to, say, Russian, then back to English. He reveals the transformation, then moves on to the next language, and the return to English, and the further remix.

Although Hines claims not to have tinkered with or edited the translations, the results have a surprising flow. Through the accretion of idiosyncrasies from each language, the words gather additional meaning from translation to translation, like a well-worn piece of luggage building up a facade of travel stickers. 

And it’s a battered piece. For Hines, language is an almost physical medium, and reading his work becomes a visceral experience. The text takes an anoraphic pounding, such as when, in the initial poem, “these words [become] raw from rereading/raised bloodred from rereading”. Hines’ style is prosaic, direct and merciless.

Translation, though, rips the poem from his grasp. When, a few versions in, the poem returns to English from German, it has been tuned more lyrical: “Rereading these words makes swollen/saturated beads, raw red raised/wounds.” By the time the last version is reached, landing from Bengali as “Format”, the text is a minimalist knot of potential meaning that seems exhausted by all the efforts, gradually collapsing at the end into the infinity of a hanging conjunction:

“Words,

For

Or”

Of course, there are other variables at work in this literary experiment (which translator is used?; which languages are chosen and in which order? etc.). But the satisfaction from the results, the way in which the collection actually hangs together as a piece of literature rather than just the raw products of an experiment, comes from the dramatization of language as a constantly mutable system. Here, meaning is as much layered on as also dug up, with the reader rearranging their approach to the poem with each fresh presentation: a remix and a new genre from each mouth to each ear.

Go to the front of the line.

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Dusting Off: King Dork, the novels

(An occasional series in which we dust off some slightly older but relevant material that has been sitting on the shelf, metaphorical or otherwise)

The (notionally) youth-oriented King Dork series is an example of art imitating art. Author Frank Portman is (slightly) better known as “Dr. Frank” of long-running punkers MTX (aka The Mr. T. Experience), a band (mildly) famous for blending romantic angst, pop culture references, witty wordplay and breezy, loudly anthemic musicKing Dork and King Dork Approximately feature angst-ridden young rebels who favour anthemic music told via a snappy mix of pop culture references, witty wordplay and breezy prose. These are entertaining stories that also happen to be smart interrogations of youth culture and the art it is based in. Throughout the books, our anti-hero, Tom Henderson, tries to make sense of his world and Western youth culture while looking at, but not necessarily using, best practices from classic rebellion-based books (Catcher in the RyeBrighton RockNaked Lunch), and a large ‘desert island disc’ list of music (from at least AC/DC to Nirvana). It all sounds ordinary enough, but Portman brings just the right mix of irony and earnestness to the production to offer something to those of the younger demographic who are navigating adolescence (a bit too seriously), and those of the older set looking back at those days with some (undue) nostalgia.


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A Read of Fante Bukowski

Fante Bukowski
By Noah Van Sciver
Graphic Novella
80 pgs
Fantagraphics Books
2015

The most direct leap to satire is through the cartoon frame. Take a figurative blowhard, morph him or her into a literal one through exaggeration of specific physical traits, push ’em out et voilà: instant ridicule.

In Fante Bukowski, Noah Van Sciver blows the parodic target of a struggling, self-centered, and self-stylized writer up into a bearded buffoon with all the pretension and faux-suffering accoutrements – albeit a genuinely earnest one who still retains some soul.

Twenty-three year-old would-be poet Fante Bukowski (née Kelly Perkins) presents a figure familiar to anyone who has been driven to pen/pencil and/or typewriter/keyboard by the existential need to express themselves, but with no real idea of what that self is, past a template of their favourite writer. The protagonist here is, obviously, going for the stylized Skidrow Bard image his namesake, the poet Charles Bukowski, created for himself, with a little John Fante-spice on top. However, this Bukowski lacks the actual talent and, having just (perhaps ill-advisedly) quit his dad’s lawfirm, actual experience of living a back-alley existence.

Narcissistic would-be artists aren’t exactly slippery targets. But Van Sciver isn’t interested in barn-broadside shooting practice. His characters, while flaunting the requisite exaggerated traits, and despite being literally two-dimensional in this graphic novella form, also show more depth than stooges in a drawing room farce. Van Sciver is more interested in exploring the growth of the artist figure, rather than in excoriating artists.

“[H]ighly-respected” literary agent Ralph Bigsburg is played partly for pretension but also as an honest (if hyperbolically) exasperated foil for runaway, untamed and untrained enthusiasm. Fante’s new girlfriend, Audrey, is a writer with an actual publication track record and alternative press image (razored-bald head and razor attitude) but reacts to his primitive approach to literary rebellion with delighted amusement rather than scorn. Fante himself, who beer-sweats the same youthful naievte as anyone who has first cracked the spine of a Black Sparrow Press book, is more sympathetic symbol than simple strawman. And Fante’s main barroom companion, an utterly banal example of someone whose simple dreams have let him down, meets an utterly banal but tragic end, in a scene that punctures any pretension and lets the dirty realism whistle sharply in.

As satires go, Fante Bukowski is more gentle Horatian than barking Juvenalian. Van Sciver uses stark, simple drawings and a very earthy colour palette. These subtle tools ease the reader into Fante’s abrupt awakening to a more expansive existence after his failures in the artistic urban jungle quickly grind him down. An ending which marks, perhaps, his real beginning, as both artist and individual.

Read more on Fante Bukowski (and more from Fante Bukowski).

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Reading (A Vandal’s) Confession

Vandal Confession
Mitchell Gauvin
Now or Never Publishing
153 pages
2015

The romance of the road has long entranced the more rebellious side of the North American literati, though the ditch on the side of the post-Beat literary highway is crowded with Jack Kerouac’s poet-hobo descendants, stranded on their own would-be quixotic destinies. So, literally, is Xavier Bernard, the burnt-out-before-his-time narrator of Mitchell Gauvin’s Vandal Confession.

The On the Road echo may be a faint one here, but it is an apt shotgun partner for the reader who meets Xavier in transit with his friend Felix in Felix’s beat-up Jaguar. The pair stalls on a nondescript rural route in a nondescript part of Central Ontario and, to kill time while waiting for a tow, Xavier hands Felix a copy of the autobiographical novel he has been working on, based on his own nondescript life cruising the boundaries of the Greater Toronto Area.

Vandal Confession, though, is actually an anti-road novel. As the post-Gen Xer/pre-Millenial unheroes wait for assistance on the side of the highway, Xavier’s meandering recount of a standard suburban life takes over. In typical Late-Slacker fashion, he is all snark, nicknaming his nondescript residences (his boyhood home, “Slanty McGee”; his later bachelor pad, “Whitey McConcrete”) and casually tossing off interactions with a set of interchangeable directionless friends and hapless authority figures.

Subtle angst riffs with his constant cultural observations. He notes that “[w]hen built, Whitey McConcrete proposed that living further from the ground translated somehow into being worthy and unique. No one foresaw plumbing problems, flooding fountains, elevator malfunctions – the hamsters in their little wheels would go hungry.” He describes his father as “full of movie quotes and recanted scenes, mementos to simplified truths and rewritten familiar stories that were increasingly irrelevant. He thought he was speaking sincerely of sacred teachings and essential social lessons, but watching Rambo never taught anyone life lessons; watching Wall Street never taught anyone how to do business; although watching Crocodile Dundee will teach you why no one likes the 1980s.” 

These observations may not be the stuff of philosophy but serve double-duty: showcasing Xavier’s sitcom-sidebar wit while also turning out the lining of a consciousness nurtured by Friends rather than the literary Canon.

At the lightly-balanced centre of this short book is a tension between creative and destructive impulses. Xavier’s desire to build meaning into his life and give it some sort of direction is evident from the names he’s tagged his homes with, to the fictional liberties that, as Felix points out, glare vividly from various sections of the manuscript. But Xavier can’t quite hide (or doesn’t quite want to hide) a latent impulse to violence that fractures his milquetoast image. Bold acts of arson (the literal vandalism in the book), threats to old acquaintances with firearms, and spray-painting over the truth (the figurative vandalism) are at odds with his placid self-portrait, and start to twist the reader’s perception with what has gone on before.

As a confession, this vandal’s is couched in a compact hymn to early 21st century existential angst rooted in the detritus of pop culture. But this isn’t about the artistic impulse so much as what can coil behind it. Reconciliation comes with a sinister change of tone when Xavier doesn’t smash the mirror but, rather, welcomes another image of himself into his own confession in what seems an ominous acceptance of his darker side.

Which enforces the notion that you should always be wary of who you pick up at the side of the road…

Pull up here.

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A Flash of Unbroken: A Journal of Prose

Unbroken: A Journal of Prose (Jan/Feb 2016 issue)

So simple and straightforward, but still substantial, Unbroken connects a rich read in brief stories, flips of imagery, and quick hits of literary vandalism. A mix of pictures and prose laid along short, sharp arcs of narrative and verse, with the concrete poured in-between. The collection seems to sort out its own internal rhythm: word into word; sentence through sentence; paragraph and paragraph. Or, you could just scatter them all over, and pick up each one on its own.

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