It’ll bubble up,
And smashed against the cafe floor,
— Would you like to schedule an appointment?
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The world is ending soon, my love. In two
days’ time, tectonic plates will chatter teeth,
collide, muss up the golden mean, imbue
God’s weariness with fractures underneath
the sinking sea. I want to take an old
approach—dear Noah and his ark, infused
with elements of television: bold
and artificial roses grown, tokens used
to pair off passersby whose urge to pro-
create ensures our race’s breath. Relieve
me, knead me, slip and drag me into co-
existence. Skip the rite, forget to grieve.
Ignore the trembling ground and seizing foam;
I’m waiting in an empty house, alone.
By Fiora Elbers Tibbitts
Fiona is a senior creative writing major at Walnut Hill School for the Arts.
Artwork by David Gordon
Brendan Constantine. Calamity Joe. Pasadena, CA. 2012. 109 pages. $17.95 ISBN 13978-1-59709-176-3
Calamity Joe, the kaleidoscopic soup that is the most recent collection of LA-based Brendan Constantine’s work, is, to put it frankly, a work of beauty. It is a walk that traverses the so-called “Legend of Joe”, a funky disgruntled man who works in a failed lab-rat research facility and holds Socratic dialogues with himself and a variety of macabre characters, such as a nine-fingered girl. This book is creepy, kinesthetic, outlandish, surreal, and downright funny – in an ironic, self-referential way – beginning with the very title of the first section:
“What is done out of love lies beyond good and evil.”
“Friedrich Nietzsche was stupid and abnormal.”
This is a book of psychological warfare and chained beauty, calamities in hilarity, matched with down-to-earth honesty that emerges from the most inconspicuous landscapes. From conversations with God to celebratory search parties, Joe, the collection’s main character, is confused and befuddled by his personal crises. In the second section, the first thing that he cares to tell his audience is about how when he joined a search party, he “dressed all wrong” and that “there was no cake”. A peculiar man, indeed! I cried out, left in a spot between tears and laughter, the bridge over normalcy laced with bouts of sadness.
Calamity Joe is the kind of book that you could read for eternity and still be caught off guard by. Even as your mind settles into familiarity with the quip-y and poignant language, it is still a master fencer, dancing with its rapier like a maddened Cossack. One of my favorite pages I held in my lap for at least an hour while driving through the Mojave Desert, watching the Kern County mini-metropolises bounce around in stagnation over the dusted plains, entitled “Nobody’s daddy but my own”. The poem is a collection of Craigslist listings, with the usual sense of bizarre-ness and pizazz that the book trademarks from its first pages:
“Want to watch TV? Me – 96 5’10”/interested in soup, lawn chairs, love./ You – ageless, faceless, unnamed”
Alternative and awkward, entertaining and deep-sinking. I caught the eyes of a road urchin while reading the poem in the back of a car – a sunburned man with wispy electrified hair and sapphire blue eyes smoking a cigarette while sitting on an ATV (the epitome of sketchy skeez-ball) – and I thought that perhaps he would be the perfect mate for Joe’s Craigslist finds. For Joe and my roadside attraction, however, the spicy babushka is too far away, and so they are doomed to loneliness and petrification.
Calamity Joe is quirky, clever, and just past the level of standard comprehension. Reading it is a worthy tour through the mind of a breathtakingly beautiful poet, and it sticks and jams itself into an unknown, and yet not entirely unfamiliar, niche of even the most cultured of poetic brains. Constantine is a wily son-of-a-gun – and if you can, you should buy his book.
Miranda Mellis. None of this is Real. San Francisco, CA. 2012. 115 pages. $18.00 ISBN 978-0-9814975-4-9
Miranda Mellis is of the breed of writers who I like to call “zippy” – page after page collides with one another like an existential car crash wherein instead of airbags, the drivers are sprayed with neon acrylic paint. The result is a reader (aka myself) who, following the end of one of the short stories in None of This Is Real , is suddenly filled with a violent urge to recreate the Scottish charge on Hadrian – to paint myself blue and run down the mountains screaming, waving an enormous stick. Except, unlike the Scottish berserkers, I wouldn’t have a real cause except for the confusion of my own psyche, and subsequent frustration.
None of this is real. I am carried away in a two-story Victorian house by the branches of the trees that surround me, dragging me up beige pinstripe wallpaper on crooked hands to deposit me who knows where. Or maybe this is just the front cover. Actually, it really is just the front cover of this bizarre little bundle of plant fibers coated in plastic. See, what this book really is, is something different – not the actual story lines (mildly fantastical) or the writing style (it follows standard conventions of imagery, voice, et cetera), but rather, the way the stories are presented. Abnormally constructed characters with normal characteristics do normal things in ways that are also normal but are presented so that you have to second-guess their normalcy. In other words, nothing is very unreal, you just think that it is until you realize you’re wrong. Bizarre indeed.
In one of the stories, I found myself attempting to discover reality on the gentle curve and tumultuous waves of my face. For you see, perhaps:
“We would walk right to the edge of high cliffs, a small crowd marveling at the vista. Beautiful? Opaque[…]My body was rejecting meaning, or so it seemed. At the very least, I had learned to refrain from complaining. Or even speech. In not speaking I became a plateau.”
A plateau, then, perhaps – where my nose would meet my ears on a flat plan and would rise above my neck where the words in my lungs struggle to haul themselves up the cliffs of my trachea. But once again, none of this is real. None of this is real, but perhaps, you would think there would be a straight narrative somewhere in this multitudinous collection? I’m afraid you would be wrong. Or, if not wrong, disappointed. You see, as I quickly discovered after reading the pages of the work’s namesake story, “None of This Is Real”, Miranda Mellis is zippy. Zippy, do you understand? Zip-zap-ziggy-zaggy-zop. You think your finger has found its definition, but then the little letters run off of the microfilm machine and you have to chase them all the way over to the trash can, only to figure out that they aren’t what you’re actually looking forward. Elusive little epistles. O, the protagonist of this story, goes to get an MRI during one of the many erratic sections. This is what he is told:
“You have developed a growth, she said. O thought it looked like a kite or a feather. No, the doctor replied, it’s nothing like a kite or a feather. It’s rigid, cartilaginous, more like a fin[…] Ignoring him, the doctor got out her pendulum. Was he born with the errant flap or not? Where did it come from? Was it an organism, a mutation? The pendulum reading was indeterminate.”
I wasn’t aware that the origin of errant flaps growing at the base of my skull could be discovered through hypnosis. I don’t expect my protagonist to be like this: “In the same way that he spoke with enthusiasm about astrological signs while what he habitually felt was a droning confusion punctuated by political despair, so too did O seek hypoallergenic pillows when he meant to be writing his encyclopedic, world-historical novel.”
Now, the true question for a potential purchaser/reader: Is the thing actually any good? You, you dodgy reviewer, what is your criticism? Should I even bother? Why are you taking your time dilly-dallying around the point? You see, the true answer to that is that I don’t know, and I don’t think that it really matters. Sure, read it, why not? You’ll probably giggle as much as I did while doing so. Or don’t. Your life won’t be incomplete.
After all, none of this is real.
When I own a gun I can shoot the snakes right off the ground. Pick them off when they slither out of the grasses, collect their bodies and sling them over my shoulders like belts of ammo. I’ve been in Texas forever, collecting rattlesnakes like clues, but they’ve never told me anything. Creeping up on them where the grass grows high, jump on their backs and slice off their heads before they can twist around and bite you. Stick the knife in and rip through the scales, direct as silver, though you’re only using steel. I carry them home in the red dusk, when it’s too dark to see the snakes flicker in the grass. More likely they get you than you them if you’re killing in the dark.
When I was six, my dad bought me a plastic toy gun. Orange-tipped, with rounds of caps like plastic flowers. He bought it at the hardware store, and whenever he went back for replacement drill bits, he’d buy another pack of caps. I’d shoot almost all of them, until I had one round left, which I’d save until he bought another set or left for good.
I’ve killed a lot of rattlesnakes. I don’t know how many. I started when I was eight and haven’t stopped since. I’m thirteen now. You can’t see them when you look out at the grass from the porch. It looks like a wasteland, flat and lifeless. But I haven’t run out of snakes in five years. I don’t even have to walk far to find them, behind my mother’s house where their thick bodies coil in the dust. I thought they would be gone eventually. I thought if I just killed enough of them I could wipe out the species. Or at least scare the rest of them out of Texas. But I guess I should know by now that you can’t make anything go away. Things leave if they want and stay if they don’t. Doesn’t matter what you do.
My dad left when I was seven and three quarters. Nearly two years after he bought me that cap gun. Nearly two years of saving the last round, but it was only a precaution, really. I never thought I wouldn’t get any more. But then he packed his worn-out shirts and jeans in two plastic drugstore bags, the red Thank Yous gleaming absurdly down the bulging sides as he slammed out the front door, screaming “Fuck you!”
The first time I killed a snake was at the 1974 Rattlesnake Round-Up. Everyone in Sweetwater goes to it. A hundred some people in white aprons with dark purple blood smeared across their cheeks, hands clutching the limp carcasses of snakes like ice cream cones. I killed my first snake, sliced its head clean off and gutted it with the same knife. Tore its body straight down the middle the way the barber from Main Street instructed, as he stood over the cooler of beer and 7Up, cleaning the dried blood out from under his nails with a toothpick.
After my dad left, my mom lost about half her body weight. Looked like a stork with her skinny legs and a throat that always looked too tired to eat even if she tried. Flaps of skin hanging from her chin to the tendons in her neck, which always seemed over-stretched, like it might collapse, crushing her windpipe till she gasped like a fish out of water and died contorted on the floor with her face mottled blue. I dream that a lot. My mom dying like a fish.
I can’t imagine dying though I’ve tried till it made my chest ache. The closest I came was the summer of 1978, when a snake bit me on the inside of my arm. It was the only time I got bit. Jumped on its back, but my grip on the knife was loose, and the snake swung its head round at me before I could cut it off. I screamed till my voice cracked and cried though I was twleve years old. My mother came running ‘cause I was only a few yards out from the back porch and got me to the hospital in my dad’s old pick-up truck, so I never saw my life flash before my eyes like they say you do. Or maybe I did, and I just couldn’t tell the difference between the grass plains and red dust sliding past the car windows and that lightning synopsis of my life, since they’re really just the same thing.
My parents moved to Texas from Nevada, where my dad worked at a hotel in Las Vegas. He said it was no place to raise a kid, so they went to Lubbock while my mother was pregnant, then Sweetwater once I was born, though she didn’t want to. I think about how the Texas dust is ingrained in my skin in a way that soap and water can’t wash off and how the desert has curled up inside me with the other things that eat me from the inside out. But my parents aren’t even from here, and still the place is in my DNA as much as they are. No one ends up where they were born, but somehow I don’t think I’ll ever get out.
When I was bit, I had to stay in the hospital four days. Rolling Plains Medical Center, second floor. I mostly just remember it being dark and feeling like I was in a movie. People think of hospitals as white, but this one was a disappointing beige, with blankets the sick yellow of pus. It was the same hospital I was born in, and I thought it would be symbolic to die there too, but I didn’t. I wrote my name on the bed post, ‘Boyd Fortin’ in silver Sharpie, then wished I hadn’t. I didn’t want to trap myself in there. Maybe I had a premonition of my return without realizing, and that’s why I wrote it. But when I went back a year later it was gone.
I found my old cap gun the night before I left in my closet. I wrapped it in the apron from my first Round-Up, the one I wore every time I killed snakes, but didn’t need anymore. I wanted to do something symbolic, burn or bury it like a corpse, but those things are always meaningless. I look for symbols everywhere, but mostly I just believe in chaos. Everything’s a mess, spinning in space towards a black hole, a great empty cavity like the one in my liver that forced me back to this hospital. And the whole universe is moving so fast, the earth spinning and the cells disintegrating in my guts, but you wouldn’t know it, in this cinderblock room where everything seems still. They repainted the walls. Still beige.
They found the tapeworm three months ago, a few days before my thirteenth birthday, which I spent in an X-ray machine. I’d been nauseous for weeks, living on ginger ale and children’s Tylenol ‘cause my stomach hurt too bad for anything else. At the time, I thought it felt like needles stabbing my side, but now I imagine tiny teeth chewing at my liver. There’s a hole there, and lots of pus. The doctor showed me the slides. Gray smudges of organs around a skinny white slash that dictated my future. That’s the worm, he said, watching my face as I nodded.
If everything really is pointless, and I think it is, I wonder why the snakes are still here. If I look carefully, I can see them out the window from my hospital bed. It hurts, propping myself up on my elbows enough to look over the sill, but if I’m sick anyway, it hardly matters. They blend in with the dust, but I’ve learned what to look for. Flickers of sunlight on the scales, slight stirs of grass. And if they’re out there, alive, and I’m in here, dying, I could prove that the world is ruled by chaos, ‘cause I could kill them. I could slice their heads off and gut them. I could if I could only lift myself from this bed. But sometimes, I think that worms and snakes aren’t so different, and then I wonder if there is such a thing as fate.
Jacinta Bunnell. Sometimes the Spoon Runs Away with Another Spoon. Oakland, CA. 2010. ISBN 978-1604863291
Sometimes the Spoon Runs Away with Another Spoon
Recently, a family member was confronted with an odd request for a niece’s Christmas gift. The constraint, though she felt it was completely warranted, eliminated most popular toys, books, and movies. Her sister-in-law had asked that she purchase a gift that was, “genderless.” Having recently looked through the pages of the coloring book Sometimes the Spoon Runs Away with Another Spoon, a book written by Jacinta Bunnell with the intention of providing parents with a vehicle with which they may discourage the establishment of gender roles among young children, I suggested the book as a gift for her niece. Realizing that most of the content would be lost on the three-year-old child, I decided to experiment with my slightly older four-year-old brother, Mark.
Sitting cross-legged in the center of my living room with the sound of Modern Warfare Three humming in the back round, I removed the coloring book from my bag. Enamored with the sound of guns and falling helicopters, Mark did not at first seem interested in the book. I asked him if he wanted a present, then handed him the pink and purple covered activity. He did not immediately dismiss it, but asked me who the people on the cover were. We began to flip the pages and he laughed at the silly illustrations of dancing monsters. I found a page I thought was fitting, captioned with, “Enough war, tonight we dance,” and asked Mark what was happening in the drawing. He immediately said, “He has a sword,” ignoring the disco ball and the boy with a large afro.
Watching as he flipped through the pages of the book, laughing at the odd depictions of princes and monsters, I realized that Mark had a few of his fingernails painted. I asked him why he painted his nails, to which he responded, “Because I wanted them to be pretty.” My brother has been raised in quite a conservative household; it was odd to me that my father should allow him to paint his nails. I had often heard my father say to him, “Mark, those are for girls,” in response to his asking for certain items like heeled shoes. From this experience with Mark I came to the conclusion that I do agree with the author that gender roles are forced upon children, but the book’s implication that children fall into those roles only when influenced I must disagree with.
Accompanying the many hilarious illustrations is a page of questions which many adults may have some difficulty answering. This book is taking a step forward by exposing children to images of both boys and girls engaging in interesting and genderless activities, though I feel it was ineffective in its purpose do to the fact that children confronted with the book would not understand the message. This book takes on a relevant topic. Jacinta Bunnell has raised questions that I do not usually think about. This book could be a great tool in the fight against disempowering gender rules.
Nick Blinko. The Primal Screamer. Oakland, CA. 2012. 122 pages. $14.95 ISBN 978-1-60486-331-4.
Rearing his avant-garde head from a sea of psychological torture and anarchy, Nick Blinko, of the eighties British punk band Rudimentary Peni, has constructed a semi-autobiographical tale accompanied by his own bizarrely intriguing pen drawings. In The Primal Screamer, the story follows the transformation of Nat Snoxell from a quiet yet tormented soul into a still tormented, still suicidal but at least almost-famous punk-rock star that manages to survive the adolescent merry-go-round. Told through Nat’s psychiatrist, Dr. Rodney H. Dweller’s journal, the story’s plot is delightfully rich and the images and events described in Dweller’s journal entries intriguing and fanatical. However, a majority of the actual prose of the book lacks the macabre poetics that the plot sets up the reader to expect.
The book begins with a telling of Nat’s first visit to Dweller’s office, where he ends up after a nearly successful suicide. The reader is intrigued by the mere shock value of the situation, and continues to read the descriptions of the various lengths Nat has gone to, including using the jaw bone of a dead animal to slash his veins. Searching to rattle his readers, Blinko goes on to write that, “Nat had hacked away at his wrists but, he claimed, become too bored with the murderous task to finish the job. Lacking this passion, he had returned home, where his mother found him when she got back from her part-time work.” Who wouldn’t keep reading about someone who finds suicide as boring as watching paint dry?
After the initial fascination, however, the reader’s interest begins to wane — as much of the rest of the book is written in a detached first-person that makes the reader flatly disinterested. While the plot that the narrator describes appears to be interesting, the format handicaps the reader’s ability to truly enjoy the bizarre images being described. Instead of constructing prose that incites the reader to feel the intensity of the imagism, the writing relies instead upon goofily bolding any word that Blinko hopes will make it sound important:
“Nat’s fantasy fear here was that an evil nun lurked menacingly behind a tree, waiting for him. We found no such thing, so Nat pointed out that the towering trees had faces in their branches.”
While having a tree populated by nun faces is cool, weighing it down with bolded text and detached prose makes it lamer than a donkey with laminitis. To its credit, however, the book nearly makes up for it all with the final journal entry, which describes a torturous dream of Dweller’s:
“A grotesque with a hollowed out head and titanic green fungus sprouting vigorously, visibly growing where the brains should have been, was shuffling among us. Creatures of predatory inclinations snapped at the morbid growths; indeed, all and sundry soon partook of the pickings.”
Perhaps if Blinko were to write a novel of surrealist nightmares, it’d be worth picking up before bed for a little roller-coaster ride through hell. As for The Primal Screamer, nick a copy from a friend to read the last six pages and look at the pretty drawings of malformed fetuses, leichenwagens, and distorted heads being strangled by ribcages.