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Book Review: Goldfish Tears

Goldfish Tears
Written by Curtis Ackie
Pouting Bear, 2012
ISBN 9781471086861

Curtis AckieCurtis Ackie
’s short story collection, Goldfish Tears, transports readers into surrealist landscapes painted with mostly stunning detail.  While there are some nominal flubs that take the reader back to reality, most of the collection keeps the reader believing in Ackie’s world—a world where the sun forgets to rise one day, a husband builds a machine to “correct” his wife’s appearance, and a woman wakes to find that her stoop has dissolved into absolute nothingness.  The premises of Ackie’s stories are wrought with potential.  The climaxes aren’t always grand—which is a good choice that keeps the stories grounded, despite their bizarre beginnings.  The endings are not always as succinctly approached as I’d prefer, but they are satisfying nonetheless.  The book also contains a series of illustrations from Lorena Matić, complimenting the book’s tone with snapshots of individual scenes.

Most of the stories are written in present tense, hurtling the reader directly into the inciting incident.  From a linguistic standpoint, you can tell that Ackie is fresh off a poetry collection as he writes these stories, inserting a number of poetic devices into his prose—alliteration pops up everywhere and some pieces have a distinct lyrical quality.  His environments are clear and he finds precise ways to describe otherworldly occurrences.  For example, in handling the surrealist elements in “The Colour of Nothingness,” Ackie writes these vivid lines:Goldfish Tears“She runs her hand along the doorframe and then sticks the left one out.  Gobbled up by the colourless nothing, the digital pentad ghosts out of sight, but the sensation in her wrist suggests the invisible appendage still exists.  Unnerved, she pulls her hand back in and waggles her fingers about in front of her face to make sure all is in order; four and a thumb, normality.”

This simple scene helps depict that which is literally undepictable—Ackie describes the look of “nothing” through a character’s curiosity about the blank void on her porch.  Her sensation is captured by the description of a phantom limb, but it isn’t overdone.  And rather than bluntly describing her worry with some overused platitudes, Ackie shows the character’s somewhat vexed thoughts through her actions.  The character counts her fingers to make sure they are all there, and this simple action clues the reader into her state of mind.  Ackie does this all with active text and a keen awareness of how his character is behaving.  He lets his characters make choices within their worlds rather than simply having the worlds exist around them.

However, there are a few moments when this breaks down.  In some instances of character action, Ackie loses his bead on the character’s motives and they come off as detached character sketches.  The characters are occasionally said to “see” the environment or “hear” a sound in a generic, explanatory way.  This takes the reader back to a place of observance rather than engagement with the world.  These simple phrases tend to damage the beautiful language highlighted in “The Colour of Nothingness.”  In some settings, these descriptors are useful in conveying a character, but in Ackie’s surrealist realm, I think it pulls the reader too far out.  In these instances, the reader is aware that this is just a story on a page—it shatters Ackie’s otherwise adept world-building.  But that is a picky thing to gripe about, since a lot of the stories retain the active presence that Ackie’s tales demand.  The immediacy of his present tense POV and the penchant for lyricism across the book keeps Ackie’s stories connected to the reader.  Goldfish Tears is a solid collection of short stories from this poet and novelist.

Review by James R. Gapinski
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Chapbook Review: Visiting Writers

Visiting Writers
Written by Ravi Mangla
Uncanny Valley Press, 2011

Ravi Mangla’s chapbook, Visiting Writers (Uncanny Valley Press, 2011), consists of 23 pieces of flash fiction.  These pieces each describe a chance encounter with a famous writer—removed from the trappings of academia or pop-culture consumption, these slices of life peer into the characters of Flannery O’Connor, Vladimir Nabokov, Charles Bukowski, Grace Paley, and other notables.  Mangla’s chapbook wants to provide fun little glimpses into humanizing moments—in the candid space, the writers behave in ways that give sly glances into the idiosyncratic quirks that may or may not have shaped their own writings.  It attempts to link art and artist.  Unfortunately, in many of the pieces, it comes off as too obvious.  I appreciate that each piece is resolute in its brevity, but ultimately these short visits into the lives of famous authors don’t use their few phrases to any advantage.  The journey comes off as somewhat contrived, as each reference to a new author reads more like a library manifest than a story.

That said, I also appreciate the way Mangla tries to keep things low-key despite the misplaced high-brow platitudes.  Bits of humor keep things light, such as the following two-sentence piece: “At the DMV I waited in line behind Gordon Lish.  He wanted a custom license plate but couldn’t settle on the right combination of letters.”  It’s a neat little nod to Lish’s reputation as a meticulous wordsmith.  The collection is full of these inside jokes for well-read audiences, but the end result of these little gems doesn’t have staying power—it just reads like a laundry list of winks from Mangla that become almost expected and anticipated by the end of the chapbook.

This first chapbook from Ravi Mangla has an ambitious premise, but it doesn’t meet expectations.  However, Visiting Writers represents a step toward a more cohesive authorial voice for Mangla.  There is evidence of Mangla’s attention to detail throughout the chapbook, and even if the chapbook fell flat for me, I imagine that some of Mangla’s stylistic choices will evolve and serve him better in his next collection.  All writers grow and learn as they revise their work, listen to critics (or ignore them as necessary), and reflect on past projects.  I sometimes wretch when looking back at my work from five years or even five minutes ago; Ravi Mangla’s piece is fine-tuned enough that it doesn’t force this gag reflect, but it still misses the mark.  So this brutal review aside, Mangla may be an author to watch.  Visiting Writers was contrived, and it almost used its premise as a crutch—hiding behind its literary references while failing to impress on its own merits—but when Mangla steps into his next project, the undercurrents of craft in Visiting Writers could come to the surface in an amazing way.

Review by James R. Gapinski
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Chapbook Review: Dream-Clung, Gone

Dream-Clung, Gone
Written by Lauren Russell
Brooklyn Arts Press, 2012
ISBN 9781936767120

Lauren Russell’s Dream-Clung, Gone spends many of its lines transporting the reader to specific instances in time, ruminating on the details and underscoring bizarre observations that still seem natural when paired with their realistic counterparts.  Her observations are uncanny and relatable—some on a general level and others on a region-specific level that speaks directly to New Yorkers.  But the dreamscape of Lauren Russell’s Dream-Clung, Goneisn’t one of flowery ostentation; her tone is grungy, and her word choice flirts with the vernacular.  She uses lean images, opting for a swift uppercut of quick images rather than a drawn-out ballet fit only for a sesquipedalian.

Dream-Clung Gone

Some of Russell’s images are deliberately caught in the haze typical of post-dream remembrance, solidified as a theme early on with her poem “Fame,” wherein the speaker proclaims “Fame is to wake up and find your dream transcribed on Wikipedia.”  The poem continues to circle this hilarious thought, but her levity becomes stoic at the end, as the dreamer’s remembrance destroys its own core: “In the dream called Fame, there are a hundred and nine contributors. / If the dreamer weights in, it is always at the risk of awaking.— / OneHundredandTen 15:34, 11 Apr 2011 (UTC)”  And thus the poem ends, characteristic of Russell’s style: both witty and mundane, fun and bleak.

Other poems talk—or shout—at other recognizable moments from the life of every poet, or dreamer, or human being.  As aforementioned, you won’t find flowery bits with their lofty venerations: the other poems range from a clever look at the lover as “artifact,” to complaints about supposed-smooth-talking guys on the subway, to a prose poem that plumbs the depths of what black coffee can teach us about personality.

Lauren Russell has an eye for life; she sees little things throughout New York, finds their beating, oozy, sticky hearts, and renders them crisply.  Dream-Clung, Gone isn’t overdone, nor is it underdone.  Lauren Russell’s poems show us the sidewalk with as much uncommon wonder as the Ben Katchor’s drawings in Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, but she does it entirely with words.  Her writing provides a vivid, smart mock-up of 21st century urban life, complete with all its fraying edges and occasional non sequiturs.

Review by James R. Gapinski
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: Glimpses

Written by Neila Mezynski
Scrambler Books, 2011
ISBN 9780578081410

GlimpsesNeila Mezynski’s recent book, Glimpses, pre-dates her chapbook Yellow Fringe Dress (which I reviewed last month).  It was released in 2011 by Scrambler Books, so its publication date isn’t exactly ancient, but the book itself contains a blend of old and new work from this prolific poet.Yellow Fringe Dress, by contrast, contains more new material, and its ebb is collective in nature.  Glimpses is a hodgepodge of different selections—but this isn’t a major problem throughout most of the book.  Mezynski told me that the older pieces were left in because they are “sincere work, which seems to make a difference.”  She added “[the poems] are my kids”—a sentiment that most writers can appreciate.  Still, in some cases the old and new clash—there are two distinct tones running through this book, and they don’t always gel.

So, when it is gelling, what does Glimpses do as a collection?  It doesn’t have the same extended narrative arc as Mezynski’s newest book, but it approaches the thin (or perhaps thick) line between poetry and prose with Mezynski’s usual prowess.  This collection seeks to infuse poetics into fragmentary, micro-fictions.  It is a hybrid piece from a poet who thrives in this arena.  Unlike some of her other works, this book contains almost no deliberate structure.  It represents prose poetry in its true form—playing with syntax and diction within the confines of a paragraphed structure.  It’s an interesting experiment that pays off through the breadth of Glimpses.

Though Glimoses doesn’t have the unified arc that I enjoyed in Yellow Fringe Dress, it doesn’t need it most of the time.  This book achieves what it sets out to do.  It provides a good overview of Mezynski’s style, and it offers a series of individualized poems that let the reader pick up this book for a lengthy read or a single-page exploration.  There are minimalistic forays into microcosmic characters—like the allegorical poem “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Stay.”  And there are lengthier narratives that appeal to the fiction-lovers among us—like “The St. Francis,” a story detailing the eclectic, glib, and somewhat comical happenings of the title hotel.

It has a little something for everyone. Occasional fumbles in flow are overlookable in this installment of Mezynski’s work, since most of the individual pieces can stand on their own.  Glimpses is still available from Scrambler Books.

Review by James R. Gapinski
© 2012, All Rights Reserved