Bryan R. Monte
AQ25 Summer 2019 Book Reviews
Susan Lloy, Vita: Stories, Now or Never Publishing, ISBN 978-1-988098-76-0, 151 pages.
Jennifer Clark, A Beginner’s Guide to Heaven, Unsolicited Press, ISBN 978-1-974021-44-0, 124 pages.
Unexpectedly and delightfully, Amsterdam Quarterly received two outstanding books in the post, one fiction and one poetry collection, by past AQ contributors. I would like to pass these books onto AQ’s readers, without reservation, as worthwhile additions to their summer holiday reading lists.
Amsterdam Quarterly’s readers will find something both familiar and new in Susan Lloy’s most recent, short story collection, Vita: Stories. One thing that will be familiar is that four of this book’s stories, which were first published in AQ from 2015 to 2018. Whether Lloy is discussing struggling writers and real estate in Canada’s maritime provinces, the grittiness and the increasing cost of maintaining an urban space to live and write, mental health issues or her characters attempts at a life in Amsterdam, her situations and characters are always memorable.
In this collection’s first and title story, ‘Vita’, Lloy deftly describes the mind of a dying man, Arthur, who recollects revels and romance from decades ago, which he relives through medicated dreams. Arthur states somewhat disappointedly that the reported film that flashes before one’s eyes at the end of life is more like a reedit made ‘from scraps on the floor put back together with the plot and characters all mixed up in one last fusion.’ He has flashbacks of meeting women at concerts, ‘corrupted by percussion and screaming guitars,’ in his younger, wilder years, then comes back to the present and discovers soup left by his housekeeper, Hazel. Hazel also brings Arthur Berlin Alexanderplatz and ‘I, Claudius and all the Cassavette’s films, with sagas of murder, poison and treachery;’ at his request ‘to remember New York when it was down and dirty.’ And the story’s final paragraph which describes the man running through a field of red poppies, trying to catch a woman called Daleighla, as he feels ‘everything little piece of me making a break for parts unknown’ is one of the most subtle, yet powerful descriptions of dying I’ve ever read.
Vita also includes two stories about frustrated and financially strapped writers who have spent their life savings for a place of peace and quiet in the country, but don’t find it without doing things they wouldn’t normally do. In ‘That Screaming Silence’ Edie escapes from a noisy, working class, crime-ridden, neighbourhood in Montreal to the quiet Nova Scotian countryside to write. However, she soon discovers her anti-social, criminal neighbours constantly make noise playing music on boom boxes and/or repairing cars. In addition, under the cover of night, they dump waste on her property, which she doesn’t discover until spring when the snow melts. Edie tries to make peace with these neighbours, but they don’t change their noisy ways so, in the end, she is driven to take a desperate measure.
In ‘Sailor’s Rest’, Olive, another writer who escaped to the country, discovers she can’t live alone when a tree comes crashing through her uninsured house during a storm. Coincidentally, her friend Uta, has to get out of Montreal, and a local sailor, Gerald Blackburn, and his cat, Harriet, can no longer live on his boat alone and all three are looking for a place to live. Due to the financial pressures of home repairs, Olive must invite all three into her home even though Uta is a Hare Krishna, Gerald is a womanizer, and Harriet likes to claw Olive’s Persian and Afghan carpets and furniture. It also sets the neighbours tongues wagging with two single women and one single man under the same roof. However, Olive makes her peace with it because it keeps her, as a homeowner, financially afloat.
Other themes explored in this volume’s stories are health and sanity in “Voices’ about a woman, who sees a young male, subway suicide and then jumps from a roof wearing a dress and heels, ‘Mademoiselle Energy’ one of the most realistic stories I’ve read recently about an locked, observation ward and its schizophrenic residents, and ‘Layla Was Here’ about a repressed female artist whose inspiration comes primarily from the poetic voice in her head. In each of these stories, Lloy is not just an observer. She takes you directly into the minds of her characters in a way that is sensitive and accurate.
Something new in Vita compared to But When We Look Closer is Lloy’s interspersing of short, psychological, horrific vignettes, which sometimes read as prose poems and/or exercises in characterization, in-between some of her ‘longer’ short stories. These include ‘Mama’, ‘Monster’s Laugh’, ‘Underground Thoughts’, ‘Rubber Rage’, ‘Wishful Thinking’, ‘Abode’, ‘Mammaries Speaking’, and ‘Capture’. ‘Mamma’ includes the voices of a teenage and/rebellious son or daughter, and his/her mother, who has emotionally withdrawn. ‘Monster Laugh’ is about a monster in a mirror, who haunts a woman to have plastic surgery and in the end cover her mirror in red velvet. ‘Underground Thoughts’ is about a woman, who is hypersensitive to the sound of another woman snapping gum on the subway and who wants to ‘knock it out of her mouth,’ but is prevented from doing so from a sudden crushing influx of passengers. A departure from Lloy’s human psychological narratives is ‘Capture’, which is about the thoughts of a captured, baby elephant. This last story shows Lloy’s versatility and willingness to experiment. I hope she continues to experiment with narrative techniques and subjects in future stories and books.
Jennifer Clark’s A Beginner’s Guide to Heaven includes poems in different meters, lines lengths and subjects all of which wrestle with the theme of the real boundaries between the corporal and spiritual and the very small and the very large. Its approach can be seen most clearly in her poem, ‘If You Could Stand on Saturn’:
A speck of light we are
A smudge of brilliance
Amidst ever expanding darkness
This poem reminds me of William Blake’s ‘To See a World in a Grain of Sand.’ Only in Clark’s poem, our 21st-century, non-sustainable, earth-bound civilization is that grain of sand, as seen from Saturn, a ‘not yet even a blue marble’.
A Beginner’s Guide to Heaven is divided into three parts: ‘In the Beginning’, ‘The Holy Family’, and ‘In the Meantime’ with inter-related themes that bridge these physical divisions. In the first section, Clark sometimes confuses the natural with the human world such as in her poem ‘A Field Guide to Crows and Widows’. This poem compares crows to women who can or who had to live without men. Clark warns of the damage widows could cause if they ever flocked together, like crows. In ‘Like the Parents They Never Knew’ Clark reports the mating habits of an unspecified arthropod, her sensuous description, seeming to bridge for a moment, the difference in mating between the two worlds:
The moment his feet touch her silk
She shudders and shudders, feels her weight
Three times his size, she is golden, her abdomen
can hold a thousand eggs. He shudders.
Clark reveals some of the mystery and the fierce beauty of the natural world in this poem. In its last stanza she describes the male’s death, offering up his life, after the impregnation, for the future of his progeny and species.
The first section also contains poems about the speaker’s youthful Catholicism including the nuns with their strict discipline in contrast to a forgiving, living Christ riding the breasts in ‘Fourth Grade Place Settings’. In ‘Grieving the God of My Youth’ Clark depicts the parishioners struggle with the Vatican II replacement of a dead, crucified Christ up front versus a representation of the living, risen, Christ: ‘A piece of art, it makes you think’ (the speaker’s mother’s words) brought by the new priest, that is taken down and again replaced by the crucified Christ: ‘eyes-closed-can’t-hold-you-now-I’m-busy dying Jesus’ once the new priest retired. In ‘On Good Friday, Walmart Wants to Save You’ in the section three, shopping for bargains is described as America’s new religion due to superstore’s abundant variety and slogans such as ‘More Easter for your Money’ and ‘Live better’.
In section two, Clark addresses subjects such as Alzheimer’s, ‘Zombie Mommy’, mothers-in-law and their antagonism, and other domestic problems including families and our unfortunate genetic inheritance such as skin problems in ‘Psoriasis Siren’. ‘I Want A Church’ in section three uses metaphors of a boat for a church and sailors for priests, brave enough to step onto dry land and ‘chisel watery souls with love.’
Life specific to the Midwest is also covered by some poems in the first two sections. For example, Clark’s explanation of which part of the ‘hand’ of Michigan where she grew up is described in ‘A Concise History of Michigan Cartology.’ Homeless or lost people are also described in ‘Cotton Candy Lady, Corner of Fifth and Wood.’ ‘The Trouble with Reading in Your Hometown’ describes the advantage and disadvantage of small towns where ‘everyone knows your business’. And driving during the harsh, changeable weather is described in ‘Winter Kudzu of Kalamazoo’.
References to popular culture and its influence on Clark are made in ‘Castaways’ (Gilligan’s Island), and in ‘Longing for Dynamite Days’, (Road Runner and Tweetie Bird comics). The American obsession with materialism and holding onto things is discussed with wit and humour in ‘What We Do With Our Stuff’ along with what her mother-in-law saved from her partner’s childhood years in ‘Lists’. The subject of space is also addressed from a radically different perspective in Clark’s concrete poem, ‘How to Become a Virgin, which is in the shape of a woman’s pregnant belly. Here the poet affirms that anyone can conceive something great, they just need a ‘space’, no preconceptions, a source of impregnation or ‘irritation’, to be ‘patient’ and the foreknowledge that what they bear will not make them ‘lucky’.
‘Oberon, Rock of the Ground Where Sleepers Be’ is a nod to Shakespeare and to a Michigan beer that’s sold seasonally and signals the return of spring in a part of the country that can be snowed under anytime from October to April. It joyfully affirms: ‘We’ve survived another winter. We’ve survived each other.’ This makes a good ending for this collection of poems about faith, courage and hard-won happiness from America’s Midwest, familiar territory presented from a new perspective. AQ