Review of Christina Seymour’s FLOWERS AROUND YOUR SOFT THROAT

Flowers Around Your Soft Throat
Christina Seymour. Structo Press, $5.00 chapbook (15p)

The ten poems in Christina Seymour’s debut chapbook, Flowers Around Your Soft Throat, raise everyday suburban life to the level of the sublime using alliteration, neologisms, and a rich palette of literary and artistic references.

Seymour, who teaches creative writing at Maryville College in Tennessee, built this collection on the scaffolding of “A Song of Loves,” her prize-winning entry from Structo’s 2014 psalm contest. An imitation of Psalm 45, the poem transmutes the psalmist’s effusive praise for the Hebrew king into a celebration of domestic life with a partner: “Your garments smell like our years— / open dresser, quiet nights”. The psalm’s opulent language mostly appears here in the negative—“My hairbrush is not ivory or gold”—and in gentle denials of the psalm’s directives to forget ancestors and focus on offspring. Rather, the poet moots the possibility of self-regeneration without procreation: “Instead of my parents, we will be the children / whom we remake and remake for each earth, each time.”

Review of THE BEST SMALL FICTIONS 2016

The Best Small Fictions 2016
Ed. Stuart Dybek. Series editor: Tara L. Masih. Queen’s Ferry Press, $14.95 paperback (148p) ISBN 978-1-938466-74-8

Best Small Fictions 2016 collects 45 super-short stories that stand out for their structure, voice, and character development—all in spite of often extreme brevity. Together they cover a huge range of subject matter and occupy various points on what editor Stuart Dybek, in his introduction, calls a “continuum of infinite gradations that spans the poles of fiction and poetry.”

The opening story, Rosie Forrest’s “Bless This Home,” is an example of just how much can be achieved within a few pages. The prose, echoing Daniel Woodrell, evokes a hardscrabble country existence wreathed in woodsmoke. The teen narrator’s no-nonsense speech quickly establishes her in relation to her mother, her mother’s pretentious boyfriend, and the bearded tenant down the hill. “When something is forbidden, the four winds conspire like a pack of wolves,” she confides, setting up for the terrifically transgressive final paragraphs.

Point-of-view is crucial in small fictions: it must be established immediately, and it helps if it’s an unusual perspective—like that of a Venus flytrap observing a household’s upheavals (Janey Skinner’s “Carnivores”), or of potential names gathering around a baptismal font (Alberto Chimal’s “The Waterfall”). Sometimes a concrete identity isn’t necessary, though: when James Kennedy’s “World’s Worst Clown” fails to cheer a dying five-year-old,  readers learn no more about the narrator than that s/he takes the clown home from the hospital and sleeps with him. David Naimon’s one-paragraph run-on, “Past a Roar Completed,” uses dialect and neologism to craft a strong voice even though all we know is that these characters are in a boat, taking a different route to normal down the river.

Review of Sequoia Nagamatsu’s WHERE WE GO WHEN ALL WE WERE IS GONE

WHERE WE GO WHEN ALL WE WERE IS GONE
Sequoia Nagamatsu. Black Lawrence Press, $16.95 paperback (166p) ISBN: 978-1-62557-944-7


               Reading Sequoia Nagamatsu’s recently released short story collection, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone, is like reading a dream. The stories themselves, inspired by Japanese folktales, science and pop-culture, are at times wondrous, at times absurd, and always imaginative. But as a whole, too, the collection has a keenly ethereal quality, as the stories flow into one another and echo back and forth across the pages.
               Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone begins with monsters. Or rather, it begins with a transcript, as two unidentified eye-witnesses give a personal account of a Godzilla attack. From here, the reader is taken on a journey of monster discovery in “The Return to Monsterland,” in which scientific classifications blend with wistful letters and field notes are paired with gorgeous, literary vignettes. This melding of forms and genres continues throughout the collection, as readers find within the pages everything from a recipe for a “Placenta Bloody Mary” to “Ten Things You Should Have Known Before You Died,”—an advice manual for the dead which, sadly, the living are unable to read.

The Future as Past: Review of Tara Deal’s THAT NIGHT ALIVE

THAT NIGHT ALIVE
Tara Deal. Miami University Press, $15 paperback (113p) ISBN: 978-188116-360-2


            In the iconic ending to The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald writes, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”  In That Night Alive, the future quite literally becomes past, as the primary narrative—a woman facing her impending death in an unnamed dystopian future—moves backwards through a series of journal entries from December 24 to a year earlier, November 20.  We begin with the narrator’s mysterious disease that has a specific death date of December 25, then we move backwards to her travelling to cities like Tokyo and Paris, her move to a luxury tower apartment in New York City, her job as a crypto-reporter, and all the way back to her struggle as a young writer, moving from city to city and from one crappy apartment to the next.  While most of the journal entries are quietly introspective, they are peppered with references to the world in which the narrator lives, including the shadowy governmental figures who intercept her for the task of crypto-reportage; the various foods and activities that are banned, like croissants and novel-writing; the most recent outbreak of disease number 28; and the occasional poison wafting through the air.  Although these details create a pleasant sense of atmosphere, the primary narrative thrust is the protagonist’s desire to create something of lasting importance and beauty before she dies.

Review of Matthew Fogarty’s MAYBE MERMAIDS & ROBOTS ARE LONELY

Maybe Mermaids & Robots Are Lonely
Matthew Fogarty. Stillhouse Press, $16 paperback (214p) ISBN: 978-0-9905169-4-1

Flash fiction can be a tough thing to get right. Too little information, and the stories are fragmentary, leaving the reader adrift in the world created by the author, wondering what could’ve been. Too much and, well, it isn’t flash fiction. Matthew Fogarty’s debut flash collection, Maybe Mermaids and Robots Are Lonely is the perfect balance between the two. The stories are tight, the word choice on-point, and hardly ever are you left lacking at the end of a piece.

The title story is, in short, like Wall-E, but better. Fogarty makes us feel for both of these characters, the mermaid and the robot, in ways that Pixar wishes they could. Sure, there isn’t a Randy Newman song playing in the background, but that’s what Spotify is for if you really wanted it. The story is a love story, but it also deals with what many of the stories in this book—pieces filled not only with mermaids and robots, but Princess Zelda and zombies, and a whole cast of others—deal with: possibility. “Wherever it is they find each other, he has to believe in the possibility, because if this isn’t possible, what is?” This is the heart of this book, it seems, as in story after story, Fogarty grapples with what it means for something to be possible. What, in this world, can be real, can be believed, and what can be made to be believed.

Review of Lex Williford’s SUPERMAN ON THE ROOF

Superman on the Roof
Lex Williford. Rose Metal Press, $12 chapbook (39p) ISBN 978-1-941628-06-5

The best connected story collections work on two levels. The individual stories stand alone, leaving you satisfied and thinking. But when linked together, they are even stronger, calling back to previous stories, answering previous questions, and offering new ones. Lex Williford’s Superman on the Roof, winner of the Tenth Annual Rose Metal Press Short Short Chapbook Contest, offers this connectedness in concentrated form. The novella-in-flash is comprised of ten stories, each 1,000 words or less. Through great economy, Williford tells the story of loss, grief, and the cycle of violence one family endures. Each short is narrated by Travis, the oldest son of four growing up in 1960s Texas, and each deals with the death of the youngest son Jesse. These are not stories of his death but of the days and years after, full of the sucker-punching details of family life made harder by the death, which is always present and never addressed. It’s these vivid moments that make the collection stand out. Children running naked from their kiddie pool into the street to please their father.

Review of Sarah Rosenthal’s LIZARD

Lizard
Sarah Rosenthal. Chax Press, $17 paperback (80p) ISBN 9780986264054

Lizard stalks
images so vivid
they cut. A
friend in fuschia
saying let’s try
a new process.
(Lizard’s wearing
orange, it
compliments her
natural green.)
We’ll argue. (It’s
more elaborate but
that’s the gist.) It
will make our ideas
better.
            I like the
streaks on you,
tour toned
commitment

Bay Area poet and editor Sarah Rosenthal’s second full-length poetry collection, following Manhatten (Spuyten Duyvil, 2009), is Lizard (CHAX Press, 2016), a sequence of untitled, short-lined lyric sketches that accumulate into a book-length suite. Deft and quick, the poems in Lizard allow Rosenthal such speed and accuracy in movements both small and sweeping. As she writes: “I eat my sister. No / one cares because / we’re not pronouns, / says Lizard. We’re / not names. I’m not / Lizard and this is / not a magic act. This / is real, tongue so / long and muscular, / toes scaling verticals, / third eye parietal [.]” Utilizing the lizard as part character and part spirit-animal for the poems, she is able to write through fact, fable and metaphor, held together through a central figure that, as she writes: