By Ray Greenblatt
Lydia Davis is a successful novelist and highly praised translator of Proust and Flaubert among others. She has also written poetry, but I find as well poetics in her short short stories, many of which can be read as poems in themselves. To show these traits, I will concentrate on her more recent collection of stories Varieties of Disturbance (2007), which was nominated for a National Book Award.
The building blocks of most any poem are imagery and rhythm. Let us observe and listen to ORDER about a house aging: “The doors will not shut; the floorboards separate and the clay squeezes up between them; the plaster walls dampen with rain; bats fly down from the attic and invade her wardrobe; mice make nests in her shoes.” The house certainly comes alive in its decrepitude.
The piece HEAD, HEART is even shaped like a poem:
Head tries to help heart.
Head tells heart how it is, again:
You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But
even the earth will go, someday.
Heart feels better, then.”
Poetic devices are strong like personification and the repeated “h” sound to tie words together.
In HAND we see our hands in a different light: “Beyond the hand holding this book that I’m reading, I see another hand lying idle and slightly out of focus.” Again, not only is the image strong but also the rhythm.
Davis in few words brings out human character as in FOR SIXTY CENTS. Davis looks at the happenings inside and outside a cafe: “The company of the people inside, who are laughing and turning endless variations on one rather cruel joke at the expense of a little balding red-headed woman sitting at the counter and dangling her crossed feet from the stool, who tries to reach out with her short, white arm and slap the face of the man standing nearest to her.” Notice the “ands” and participles that continue the rhythm of the extended thought. ”Turning endless variations” is a marvelous phrase.
This man gains dimension in only a few poetic words in A DIFFERENT MAN: “At night she hardly recognized him: a pale man, a gray man, a man in a brown sweater, a man with dark eyes who kept his distance from her, who took offense, who was not reasonable. In the morning, he was a rosy king, gleaming, smooth-cheeked and smooth-chinned, fragrant with perfumed talc, coming out into the sunlight with a wide embrace in his royal red plaid robe.” Davis does not hesitate to repeat words for emphasis—“man,” “who,” “smooth.”
It is often difficult to separate Davis’ writing techniques because they mesh so fluidly. THE SENSES uses imagery, but the underlying philosophy is so true: “Many people treat their five senses with a certain respect and consideration. They take their eyes to a museum, their nose to a flower show, their hands to a fabric store for the velvet and silk; they surprise their ears with a concert, and excite their mouth with a restaurant meal.”
From GOOD TIMES: “The good times might multiply perhaps as rapidly as the square of the square, or perhaps more rapidly, like mice, or like mushrooms springing up overnight from the scattered spore of a parent mushroom.” Images like squares, mice, mushrooms are used, but is the intellectual thought more dominant?
Here is another short short story THE BUSY ROAD in toto:
“I am so used to it by now
that when the traffic falls silent,
I think a storm is coming.”
Davis often uses first person to give immediacy to the thought.
Here is one more complete story SUDDENLY AFRAID stressing emotions:
“because she couldn’t write the name of what she was: a wa
wam owm owamn womn”
This lacks capitalization as well as a final punctuation mark; truly modern poem techniques.
ABSENTMINDED also deals with the realities of life: “You think about how living with a cat and the demands of a cat make you think about simple things, like a cat’s need to come indoors, and how good that is. You think about this and you are too busy thinking about this to let the cat in.”
Ironies are built into so many of Davis’ stories as in THE FELLOWSHIP. Here someone is applying for a position: “When you have truly learned what it is to be patient, so much so that you forget all about the fellowship, then you will receive the fellowship.”
We must not overlook Lydia Davis’ sense of humor. It often keeps her more brutally honest topics afloat. Her sense of comedy runs throughout these stories, so we will examine just a few. Davis talks about her supposed 94-year-old mother in A MAN FROM HER PAST: “Though her body is old, her capacity for betrayal is still young and fresh.”
Here is the entire COLLABORATION WITH FLY:
“I put that word on the page,
but he added the apostrophe.”
Understatement works well where little suggests more.
One more complete story INSOMNIA:
“My body aches so—
It must be this heavy bed pressing up against me.”
This almost sounds like a one-liner from an old comic, like Milton Berle or Bob Hope. However, the title suggests something more serious.
And finally the short story CHILD CARE. The father is in a bad mood and so is the baby. The father knows it is his turn to take care of the child and that he must do something. Davis renders a storyline and characterization as well as irony and humanity. The last line is: “Together they watch The Odd Couple.”
Lydia Davis has re-fashioned a relatively new literary genre, Flash Fiction, putting her own unique stamp on it. Yes, fiction tells a story, but by employing poetic techniques it can be an even more supple and evocative form of literature, no matter how brief.
You can buy the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Varieties-Disturbance-Stories-Lydia-Davis/dp/0374281734
Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018. Ray Greenblatt has two books out for 2020: UNTIL THE FIRST LIGHT (Parnilis Media) and MAN IN A CROW SUIT (BookArts Press).