Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Mathias Svalina, _The Viral Lease_

IMAGINE MY CHAGRIN when, after reading The Viral Lease, I went to shelve it and discovered that my copies of Creation Myths and Why I Am White were AWOL. I had lent them to someone, obviously, but to whom? My straining-to-be-polite inquiries in several quarters yielded no answers. Loath to be without my favorite chapbooks of the 21st century, I re-ordered them, re-received them, and re-shelved them... only to have one of the people I had previously badgered confess sheepishly that she had cleaned her apartment and, what do you know, discovered she did have my Svalinas after all. They are now safely on my shelf again, worthily companioned by themselves.

The Viral Lease feels like a single poem to me, in fourteen sections of a page or slightly less apiece. Most of the poem is in distichs, but about halfway through it starts opening up into longer breaths. Like its predecessors, it is frighteningly funny or funnily frightening -- certain lines, like certain sentences of Gary Lutz, prompt a chuckle that is frozen a sliver of a second later as the image that inspired the chuckle reveals a disturbing or unnerving side: "The tattoo on your arm / of your own name crossed out."

War occupies a lot of the background here -- but which war? "Give me the war // under the cornfields // & denim." Are we in Iraq or Nebraska? The answer: yes.

"Give me the war" is the first of the poem's many urgent but obscure imperatives, which persuade us that they need to be carried out even without our knowing what carrying them out would entail:

Burn new June / to blanket.

Dock the cotton / in war night.

Seal the melding /for a bitter war & tongue / a rat dazes.

Remove those roots / of the hand become a cage / for the wren.

Wear the plugged night / of plugged ears.

Wherever we are, it's cold ("Snow packs your knees / to zeros") and full of dangers ("Carry the bodies / from the classrooms, / limp arms dangling / fingers in the mulch"), but tiny kinds of help occasionally beckon ("I will warm your frozen hands / in my cold hands"), and perhaps sheer alliteration will see us through a gauntlet of terrors:

The war has broken
& bruised wider

than eyes. Your branch

is broken.
Your brother is a breath.

Knit the nine uses:
joan or cattail;
jane or leaded;
washed of virtue
or face;
under face
beyond the face

broken by the throat's
red gag,

broken by the bomb
beneath the black cloth
of a man's

The Viral Lease is about as dark as its embossed black cover (nice design job, by the way, from the folks at Small Anchor Press) but its imagination and exuberance somehow make one feel that all is not (yet) lost.

What excellent news it is that Mathias Svalina has a full-length collection due any minute now ("Fall 2009") from Cleveland State University Press. I may buy two, one to lend out, one to keep safely on the shelf.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Sheila Heti, _The Middle Stories_

I WAS IN the middle of the McSweeney's Books edition of The Middle Stories -- and in fact the copy I acquired was from the somewhat collectible run with hand-embellished photographs attached to the cover -- when I learned that the author was not at all pleased with the McSweeney's edition, which not only deleted stories from the Canadian Anansi Press edition but also rearranged their sequence. Fortunately, I was able to attain an Anansi edition with a minimum of trouble and recommenced at the proper beginning.

The original order is more effective, I think. There is a faux-naïf tone Heti often draws upon --the deadpan, matter-of-fact tone in which fable and fairy tale narrate deeply disturbing events -- and indeed the stories towards the beginning of the book have frankly fairy-tale elements (frogs giving courtship advice, women living in shoes, family members who are dumplings). Those closer to the end, however, are a little more urban, a little more realistic, more likely to have such proper names as "Dubrovnik" and "the Roman church." The fairy-tale tone in which the profoundly unsettling is told calmly and patiently, without any particular effort at emphasis, persists in the latter stories as well, to telling effect.

I don't whether Heti would care for the comparison, but the mood of the book struck me as like that of Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block, which has the same faux-naif tone applied to very serious topics. Weetzie Bat is a YA book, though -- The Middle Stories might work for fans of Weetzie Bat who have passed the age of 18, let's say.

Why the title? The stories are not the work of Heti"s "middle period," since it is her first book. I wondered whether it has to do with most of the stories not only starting (in good story fashion) in media res but also ending before any marked kind of closure has been achieved. The stories are all "middle" in another words -- a circumstance that would induce much lip-gnawing among Weetzie Bat fans, it now occurs to me....