Wanda Coleman, Jazz & Twelve O’Clock Tales, Black Sparrow Press (2008)
Wanda Coleman is a poet who is known for drama. She’s a provocative slam queen, a former soap-opera writer, and an outspoken critic who doesn’t shy away from controversy (notably, she slammed the highly regarded Maya Angelou in a 2002 review of A Song Flung Up to Heaven ). In her new collection, Jazz & Twelve O’Clock Tales, Coleman chocks 13 short stories full of drama—arguably melodrama—played out by victims, has-beens, and down-on-their-lucks in an examination of what people look like in pain.
There’s an emphasis on atmosphere, a distinct bleakness about the terrain her characters inhabit. Set against the backdrop of Los Angeles—her hometown and longtime muse—her characters amble through a “depressing spectacle of dilapidated pastel A-frames and gritty-gray public housing projects with shabby roofs, junk-filled lawns, unmendable fences, and dented primer-splatted jalopies blooming on the blacktop.” The tone is set by the opening story (ironically titled “Joy Ride”): a two-pager about a pair of young couples driving home from a holiday, who nearly run over a mewling baby in a gunny sack on the street. This opener represents much of what’s to come—pieces that present the sorrow of each main character, but don’t delve too deeply; they are sketches of how to stoically live with a trauma or an unsolved mystery.
Characters are what Coleman has going for her—a washed-up musician, a widowed secretary in debt, and a convict all struggle with lives that are out of their own control.
In Jazz’s final story, a woman asks herself: “How can pain be glorious?" The answer: "It is the epitome of living. When living things experience pain, it brings their life force to the fore. The skin turns radiant. All that is strongest, worthy, and most beautiful rises to the surface and trembles before the eye.”
- Kate Soto
Diane Williams, It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature (FC2, 2007)
Often when a Diane Williams story begins it seems the reader has come too late. What happened just before we opened the door? An affair begun or deflated? A glass of wine upset on someone’s pants? Or something absolutely hideous that we can’t even begin to imagine? Many of the pieces in Williams’s new book—It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature—begin with lines like “I drank a warm soup solution after,” and “I can’t be expected to remember his privates—a pink head or yellow head.” It’s a dizzy-making way for Williams to begin and delicious in its dizziness.
Tender-Hearted consists of one novella, “On Sexual Strength,” and forty-one stories Though the novella is itself composed of short, titled chapters, the narrator, who is as puzzling as ever a Diane Williams narrator has been, is nonetheless one distinct voice, and a guide to domestic intrigue involving adultery neighborhood dogs, and death. Thus: Enrique, a fur salesman, whose own wife sits in their house staring at her crystal ball, covets his neighbor’s wife, Blanche, who tells Enrique she wants “to feel like a young girl again who marries.” The characters here are allied by their middle class ennui, and events share an anarchic slapstick. And then there’s the sex. I’ve never seen another writer do anything like what Williams does with sex and marriage:“I was undressed and listening to soft music. My wife was pleasant and smiling. She has pin veins in her legs that I especially like. My reason for loving her has been brought under control.” And: “Blanche, who is a big-busted woman, neatened herself. I do not know why, but in my big kitchen back then, almost from the start of her visit, I was thirsty for embarrassing moments.”
In Williams’s world nothing is still—or if it is still, then it is so momentarily, precariously, and never to be so in the same way again. Beyond the perplexing narrators and their concupiscence, their clambering, their head colds—on the level of language, there is constant movement, constant surprise. In this, her writing is funny but also dangerous: kinetic and happening, as if the world is about to unravel in our hands.
- Danielle Dutton
Chavisa Woods, Love Does Not Make Me Gentle or Kind (Fly by Night Press, 2008)
In Ian Watson's "Immune Dreams," a character has the posterior pons of his brain removed; without it, "the mechanism that stops nerve signals from the dream state being passed on as commands to the body" would be eliminated, and he would physically act out his nocturnal imaginings.
Similarly many of the pieces, in Chavisa Woods' new short story collection, Love Does Not Make Me Gentle or Kind, show characters acting in sleep-scapes.
Most gripping are stories that, like real dreams, institute close connections between reality and fantasy. In "The Bell Tower," Woods brings a deftness and lightness of touch to a situation seemingly impossible to depict. A young woman falls in love, and mates with a bull buffalo. Scene after scene that might have been ludicrous is made magical. The two "elope," taking her lover's herd with them. The narrator comments, "He was the only leader I ever fully trusted, and the only lover I have ever kept. When I became tired, he carried me on his back. When I was injured, he licked my wounds."
Not all of Woods’ stories contain fantasy. Some are straightforward, observant realism, usually telling the stories of young girls, often social-outcast lesbians, raised by abusive fathers and ineffectual mothers. Pieces such as "The Smallest Actions" chillingly describes the kind of temporary amnesia younger children experience when an abusive dad passes through a period of parental affection
In Woods' most striking manipulations of form, she presents texts that are purely realistic, until the very last paragraph, when they brutally swerve into fantasy. "Mr. Bunny," for instance, describes a man who is eagle-eye alert to evidence of disrespect. It would be classified first-rate realism if not for a sudden burst of fantasy in the denouncement.
Juliana Spahr, The Transformations (Atelos, 2007)
If any poet could make a nearly imperceptible turn to fiction, it’s Juliana Spahr. Her experiments with slick, seemingly clear sentences and nearly flat, nearly transparent language in previous works are not far removed from the language-play in The Transformation, though it’s now in the service of story. This makes sense, for the novel as a genre is particularly open to the patterns of connectedness (linguistic, social and natural) that Spahr is increasingly adept at making visible.
The Transformation is a “barely truthful story” of the author’s romantic and professional life in Hawaii. It’s a web of ambivalences: the sympathy for anti-colonial movements while being a colonizer, the feelings of perversion in an unconventional relationship, and the anxieties of writing from and about a place that is not one’s own.
All of this is reframed by a return to NYC, where the events of 9/11 deepen the patterns of connectedness. And on the level of the personal, the ambivalence of every day life in the wake of an oncoming war provokes paranoia and an obsessive urge to map the nearly infinite actors in the nearly inevitable movement of social and ecological disaster. The Transformation is a sharp and urgent novel.
- Steven Zultanski