By Charles Rammelkamp
In the story “Plink!” in Robert Scotellaro’s new collection a man stands at a window, mesmerized, watching diamond-like hailstones falling out of the sky, pelting the asphalt, the sidewalks, the sides of cars. “Then it stops. The way magic often does.” That’s an apt description of the sixty-eight marvelous little stories, ranging from a couple of paragraphs to no more than three pages, that make up What Are the Chances? First of all, they do feel magical, with so many strange characters, often costumed, popping off the page, snaring your attention – like hailstones – and then the payoff, the flash that makes “flash fiction” flash fiction, the sudden illumination of character or scene. And then the story stops.
Stories like “Mr. Nasty,” “The Cleaning” Girl,” “Bad-Boy Wannabe and the Cephalopod Empire,” and the single-paragraph, “Death’s Late-Night Walks,” among others, feature characters in dress-up; the German word maskenfreiheit – signaling the freedom conferred by masks – come to life. In “Mr. Nasty” a man flirts with a hired birthday party performer, who is dressing up as Snow White, the entertainment at a party for his daughter, while aware of the watchful eyes of his mother-in-law and wife. Nothing comes of it, of course, but the tension is like lightning. Similarly, the Bad-Boy Wannabe watches his devil’s mask blow away from his head in a breeze, exposing him, while he tries to impress a girl in a squid mask, the two sharing a joint. But, unmasked now as he is, she is out of his league. The cleaning girl dresses up in her employer’s jewels and furs while the homeowners are away, fantasizing the luxury, only to get a bad scare when the doorbell rings, sure she’s busted. However briefly, we feel all of these characters’ illicit feelings, the lust, the covetousness, the fear.
Although some of the stories are truly grim, ominous, like the title story in which the protagonists come home to find their home robbed and a lethal butcher knife displayed on the bed, or “The Pencil,” in which a schoolkid hides in a bathroom stall while a shooter guns down his classmates, most are funny. They feature likable schmoes to whom we can all relate, walk in their shoes – in their masks – indeed. In “Those Eyes in the Rearview,” a man gets into the Uber he’s just called. “I saw his eyes in the rearview. They were red and crazed.” The driver tells his passenger that he’s just killed a man he caught sleeping with his wife, and the passenger is his hostage. Like the passenger, we feel our blood pressure rise, our pulses race; only, two-thirds of the way through the story, the driver “pulls off his mask,” reveals he is an aspiring actor and was just having the passenger on. “That was some top-notch acting, right?” he boasts. “Come on, give me that.”
In the story, “Flatware,” we encounter a similarly bizarre situation in which a man is sure his home is being broken into and stabs a fork into the neck of the “intruder,” only to learn that the intruder is the brother of his neighbor, come to retrieve a ball his nephew has knocked over the fence into the protagonist’s yard. A comic rush to the emergency room follows, the protagonist taking full responsibility. When they return, the protagonist apologizes again (and again), shakes the man’s hand, returns to the kitchen where he’d been eating his Chinese takeout (hence, the fork conveniently in his hand when the “burglar” came in), “wondering if I should call Tina at her sister’s, where she always went after one of our big blow-outs.” In a flash, then, we see the backstory, why this guy was on edge in the first place.
In the story, “Wise Sunglasses,” the lonely unnamed female protagonist collects sunglasses – her mask. In an aside, Scotellaro writes, “The heart-shaped pair were Pete’s favorites. ‘My Lolita,’ he’d say, though she was far from it, and he’d find the real thing soon enough.” That’s about all we hear about “Pete,” but in a flash we intuit the protagonist’s loneliness, the betrayal at its base. She’s wearing her owl sunglasses when the story concludes, “not feeling the least bit wise.”
In “A Disadvantage of Momentum” we encounter Phil and Nan, post-surgery in a hospital room where Phil lies, recuperating. At their weekly session with a couples counselor, Heidi, they’d been told to “spice it up” after they’d become empty-nesters, the last kid off to college. Nan goes along with one of Phil’s adolescent fantasies, while they are driving home from dinner, her face in his lap, but a sudden fender bender at a stoplight results in a bite too deep. Nan asks Phil, “Anything left?” “Enough,” he replies. The story ends:
They heard some laughter and watched as shadows gathered behind the curtain, grew. Then a hand reached in and swung it open.
Of course, some stories are better than others. I’m not going to rank all sixty-eight, but every one of them does pack that flash punch. Robert Scotellaro is a master of this form. It’s magic!
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/What-Are-Chances-Robert-Scotellaro/dp/1950413268
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.
By Byron Beynon
By Neil Leadbeater
Inculpatory evidence has, in its title, a legal reference frame which underscores the gravity of the subject-matter. Tabios presents the evidence. It is up to us, the readers, to draw our own conclusions.
The cover photograph of the author wearing her mask is a sombre reminder of just how contagious this virus is. Traditionally, masks were worn by actors as a means of transferring the wearer into a different character. More recently, they are considered to be a form of deception, a facade that obscures the truth. With regard to the present global pandemic we view them as a necessary part of everyday living. The covering over the nose and mouth is not without a cruel irony for we are short of breath due to polluting and dangerous pathogens and we are muted in expressing the truth because certain sections of society are fuelling us with misinformation, the so-called “fake news” that endangers us all. Wearing masks, we all lose a little of our facial identity and, to those who are hard of hearing, and who rely on lip-reading, our means of communication.
Four poets and translators have collaborated on this volume of ten poems by Eileen R. Tabios. John Bloomberg-Rissman has written an afterword and commentary on them, Natthaya Thamdee translated them into Thai and Susan M. Schultz provided useful feedback subjecting one of the poems to her Oulipian N+7 process in which a writer takes a poem already in existence and substitutes each of the poem’s substantive nouns with the noun appearing seven nouns away in the dictionary. This added a surreal touch to what many of us feel is a surreal situation. Some notes about issues that arose in the course of translating the poems into Thai are included at the end.
John Bloomberg-Rissman gives a chilling factual account of events (from November 2019 to June 2020) relating to the spread of Covid 19, the nature of the virus, and the attempts that are being made to curb its spread. His essay focusses on the complete denial, by certain sections of the population, that there is any need to take any precautionary measures, such as the wearing of masks and social distancing, at all. The account then widens to incorporate other global issues that are equally serious, if not more so. He lets the keepers of the Doomsday Clock sum it up: “Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers – nuclear war and climate change – that are compounded by a threat of multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond.” Will we never learn? It seems that a proportion of the human race is hard-wired to self-destruction.
The ten poems in this volume employ a range of different styles appropriate to their subject matter. Two poems, for example, are written in the reverse hay(na)ku form (a sequence of tercets comprising lines of three words, two words and one word each) and there is also a poem written in couplets, and a list poem. In others, there is some experimentation with the way the lines are presented on the page, the size of the typeface and, in one poem, one or two words are typographically represented by a strikethrough to give an additional meaning to the text. Several poems are dated by month and year of composition. Interestingly enough, the year 2020 is adjusted to 2563 in the Thai translation to accommodate the Buddhist calendar which is 543 years ahead of the Gregorian calendar.
In the opening poem we are reminded, among other things, of the power of the word and how a single word, (corona), when it suddenly acquires a new meaning can change our perception of it forever, and that poetry has the power to foretell, to warn, of things to come.
The subject matter in this volume goes wider than Covid 19: ‘Regret’ focusses on the environment, ‘Triggered’ on hunger, ‘Not My First Mask’ on xenophobia and racism and ‘What I Normally Would Not Buy’ on panic buying, consumerism and survival. This is not just physical survival but also survival from domestic abuse.
Tabios uses food in this collection as a metaphor for survival. Food, in its various forms, appears in at least seven of the ten poems. We cannot survive without it. Witness the panic buying that took place as soon as news of the outbreak spread. Maslow was right when he included it within his hierarchy of basic human needs (although he seems to have overlooked toilet paper altogether).
Deception is another theme that weaves its way through this collection: things are not necessarily what they look like or what they seem to be. In ‘Sudden Asian Prepper’ Tabios uses references from hair colouring and make-up to illustrate her point about the deeper issues of deception, not just those that are follicle or skin-deep, but ones to do with race, misinformation and denial.
dye for turning
for double-lidding eyes,
Eyelid tape and other similar products are hugely popular in places like Korea where having “double eyelids” is considered to be ridiculously desirable.
Despite the gravity of the subject matter there is dark humour at work in some of these poems. Take ‘Faith in the Time of the Coronavirus,’ for example, which opens with these lines:
The President proclaims
-nay, guarantees! –
BETTER DAYS AHEAD!
WE SHALL BOUNCE BACK
HIGHER THAN BEFORE!
I respond faithfully
with an item I’ve never experienced:
a box of 100 MREs*
My tastebuds cringe –
[*Meals Ready to Eat].
‘Kapwa on Covid’ opens with a quotation from Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’. So much depends upon that word. If we can stem the virus, if everyone can adhere to social distancing, if there is another wave, if an effective vaccine can be found, if the virus mutates…different trajectories will ensue. There was a framed copy of Kipling’s poem in our home when I was young. I used to read it often and I can still recall the opening line: ‘If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs…’ In it, the speaker advises his son about how to perceive the world and life’s challenges so that he can both learn from his experiences and resolutely overcome barriers. It is something we all need to do in these difficult times.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014), Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017), Punching Cork Stoppers (Original Plus, 2018) and Penn Fields (Littoral Press, 2019). His work has been translated into several languages.
g emil reutter is the book review editor for North of Oxford. He can be found here: https://gereutter.wordpress.com/about/
By g emil reutter
I am not a fan of the oppressive government of Cuba where there is no vote, no guarantee of freedoms we here in the United States take for granted. As with all the revolutions in the last century based on Marxist philosophy the Cuban revolution devolved into a cult of personality. Unlike the others, Russian elitism and Chinese embrace of corporate identity to support the establishment as opposed to utopia, Cuba did establish two elements foreign to other Marxist revolutions. Cuba established an outreach of medical care for the poor and rural and a literacy campaign to educate the population.
The United States began to assert care for the elderly and unemployed with Social Security and Unemployment Insurance under Roosevelt, morphed into Johnson’s Medicare and Medicaid and finally the Affordable Care Act under O’Bama. Yet health care remains out of reach for millions of Americans. For profit health care seems to dominate the nation as drug companies charge outrageous prices for medicine although most all appear to be produced overseas at cheap rates. Health insurance rates remain high. Political attacks on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid continue even as the programs continue to assist millions and for those who have forgotten we do pay our share for these programs through taxes.
Fitz provides a fascinating read of the history of Cuban health care and its outreach to the poor and needy. It is one of only two bright lights of Marxism in Cuba and coupled with the literacy program should be deemed replicable in other nations throughout the world and yes here in the United States. Health care and literacy are basic human rights.
Through a series of essays, Don Fitz lays out the amazing story of Cuban health care from its infancy, elimination of disease on the island to the export of health care to poor nations around the globe. In this time of corporate and university medical systems control of health care in the United States; the lack of basic health care and hospitals in rural areas, unaffordable care in urban areas, Fitz’s essays are timely and an essential read.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Cuban-Health-Care-Ongoing-Revolution/dp/1583678603
g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories. He can be found at: https://gereutter.wordpress.com/about/