John D Robinson is a UK poet: his latest publications are ‘The Pursuit Of Shadows’ (Analog Submission Press 2018) ‘Hitting Home’ (Iron Lung Press 2018)
Baptism of Sorts
Cliff Saunders has an MFA in Creative Writing from The University of Arizona. His poems have appeared recently in West Trade Review, Pinyon, Serving House Journal, CURA, Rumble Fish Quarterly, SurVision, and Snow Jewel. He lives in Myrtle Beach, where he serves as co-coordinator of The Litchfield Tea & Poetry Series
By Charles Rammelkamp
“In those years I still believed in magic,” the schoolgirl narrator of the story “Bulldog” tells us after she has been informed by the boys in the schoolyard “no girls allowed” when she tries to participate in a game of handball. That night she dreams about her transformative powers. The stories in Nicole Rivas’ collection, A Bright and Pleading Dagger, winner of the 2018 Rose Metal Press flash fiction chapbook contest, brim with magic as young women cope with their powerlessness in the face of the abracadabra of love and ambition. So often, the magic lies in the contradictory pull of toughness and tenderness, as if the collision of the opposites creates a spell all its own. Emblematic of these opposing impulses is the image that concludes the story, “The Butcher,” in which the girl protagonist takes on her father’s butcher job. She routinely brings scraps of meat to the feral cats in her neighborhood. “…the cats slip and turn around her calves like warm and eager lovers, ready to strip the butcher of everything she has to offer them.” There is so much violence implicit in this image, yet so much affection.
Or again, take the conclusion of the story, “The Comedienne” (note that Rivas uses the obsolete term to identify a female comic), a story in which a young woman is effectively ostracized from a party after she makes a crude joke; she accidentally breaks her mimosa glass on the handrail going out, getting shards of glass stuck in her palm. Rivas writes about the pieces of glass that Sam, the protagonist, has removed from her hand, “If she arranged them one way, they looked like a dagger. If she arranged them another way, they looked like a halo.” Murderer or angel, sinner or saint?
And yet another example of this DNA-coiling of the yin and the yang, comes at the end of the story, “The Woman on the Bus,” when the narrator observes, “Though you know it’s unwise, you will continue to love and hate him until you can no longer tell the difference between the two.” In this story, the protagonist, “you,” is a young woman on a date with a man who clearly annoys her. Yet when he gets food caught in his throat and she has to perform the Heimlich maneuver to save his life, she speaks to him “in the soothing voice of a mother.” The woman is taken by surprise to hear herself, “the way it leaps out of your throat like a warm blanket.”
In all twelve of the stories that make up A Bright and Pleading Dagger these same contradictions are at play (or war), and the result is magic. “Gretel’s Escape,” which plays on the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, may be the most magical of all. In this version of the story, the brother and sister are – surprise! – lost in a deep dark forest and they come upon a ruin. Sound familiar? Only, Gretel discovers a charred hardback (it’s apparently Grimm’s Fairy Tales) in which she reads about her brother and her being duped by a witch in a candy house. The witch tries to eat them, they get away, a lesson is learned, blah blah blah. Gretel’s reaction? “She was tired of being simultaneously lost and bound to fate.” She tries to ditch her brother, but she’s ultimately resigned to her fate. The story ends: “Gretel exhaled sadly, knowing Hansel would find her again, once upon a time.” Once upon a time. The love and the resentment are both so nakedly apparent.
Indeed, the fairy tale, with its implicit magic and its didactic moral message is the perfect genre by which to understand Rivas’ flash fictions, except that she turns it on its head: there is no moral; there is no bright distinction between “right” and “wrong” and “good” and “bad.” There is savage and there is compassionate, there is violent and there is kind, but they are never separate, only barely distinguishable.
These are all stories about girls navigating through some bizarre #Metoo world, at once victims and agents of their own fate. The teenage girls in the title story are picked up by some older hillbillies in a truck near Savannah. We don’t know what happens to one of the girls, Jada, who wanders off with one of the men when they park in a field miles from town, except that she’s apparently uninjured, but the unnamed narrator is sitting in the truck with her guy who masturbates while talking to her about scifi thrillers. Gross. Jada meanwhile quits her job and the narrator never sees her again. In the story, “Death of an Ortolan,” the young narrator is drawn into a relationship with Penny, her gynecologist, a woman more than twice her age. How can this not be exploitative? But the narrator seems to know what she’s doing.
The magic and the just plain weird aspects of these stories (In “The Staring Contest” a young woman speed dates – and falls in love with – “the oldest man in the world,” who dies sitting across from her) add up to a dark humor that takes the edge off the savage undercurrents, but the sheer menace just around the corner makes these stories extremely potent. This is a collection you will read straight through.
You can find the book here:
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore, where he lives, and Reviews Editor for Adirondack Review. His most recent books include American Zeitgeist(Apprentice House) and a chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts ( Main Street Rag Press). Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from FutureCycle Press.
By Stephen Page
A couple of years ago I traveled with my wife to my home state Michigan, north of the city of Detroit. We were to stay there during the last week of March and the first week of April. The last few times I went to Michigan it was either in June, August, or October. And even though I grew up in Michigan, I had not been to Michigan in March or April in quite some time. I packed a couple of cotton sweaters and a rad waxed-cotton motorcycle-style jacket with a picture of Steve McQueen imprinted on the lining. It had no snap-in wool lining and I thought that I would not need it. After all, March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. Right? As the plane carrying me and my wife was descending for a landing in Detroit Metropolitan Airport, we looked out the fuselage window and saw what looked like at least three inches of snow on the ground. The pilot came on the air and announced that the wind chill was 5 degrees Fahrenheit. I looked at my wife.
The shuttle bus drove us to a car rental and we chose to pay for a mid-size car. The cashier told us we would get a Ventura. We stood outside shivering, clenching our teeth, hugging each other while we waited for the valet to arrive with the car. The valet drove up in front of us in a brand new Charger. He said he took one look at my cool jacket, and new I would need a sporty ride. I thanked him and gave him tip. We leaped in the vehicle, drove to the first shopping mall we saw alongside I-94, ran inside, and bought wool sweaters, down jackets, Detroit Lions beanies, and gloves. Sorry McQueen, you would have looked very cool in that new Charger.
Driving to my sister’s house, I remembered that when I was a kid I walked one mile every day to school and one mile back. Sometimes during January or February, no matter how many layers of clothing I wore, the cold bit all the way down to the marrow of the bones. The cheeks on my face felt like they had been scorched with ice. And then the cold would grip my lungs and heart and I thought I was going into cardiac arrest.
Reading Jack C. Buck’s “Gathering View” harked back those times. I had again forgotten that winter in Michigan can last well into May. Mr. Buck has kindly reminded me. I wish I had read this book before that expedition with my wife. Winter in Michigan is either chilly, cold, freezing, polar, bone-chilling, face-peeling, or heart-stopping. There is no warm, cuddly, soft-fleeced March lamb. Mr. Buck encapsulates this face-blistering phenomenon in his vivid collection of short poems. In his book, warmth comes only in human contact, literally and lovingly. His succinct poems paint the grandeur of Michigan in all its beauty—rivers, lakes, forests, flora and fauna. He also alludes to the Michiganders penchant for football. The book is divided into three sections: one is the late autumn and first few months of winter (including references to football); two, the long bitter middle of winter; and three, the ending of winter and the beginning of spring (which can still be quite nippy). In this book, Buck has produced empathetic poems about loneliness, solitude, and those ever-saving Persophonic graces, acts of humanity.
You can find the book here:
Stephen Page is the Author of The Timbre of Sand, Still Dandelions, and A Ranch Bordering the Salty River. He holds two AA’s from Palomar College, a BA from Columbia University, and an MFA from Bennington College. He also attended Broward College. He is the recipient of The Jess Cloud Memorial Prize, a Writer-in-Residence from the Montana Artists Refuge, a Full Fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center, an Imagination Grant from Cleveland State University, and an Arvon Foundation Ltd. Grant. He loves his wife, reading, travel, family, and friends.