short stories

I Have The Answer by Kelly Fordon

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By Laura Hulthen Thomas

The title of Kelly Fordon’s new short story collection confidently asserts I Have the Answer, but these thirteen sparkling, insightful stories answer intimate conundrums about love, identity and relationships with ever more complicated questions. Teens on the cusp of adulthood grapple with phantom limbs and the true meaning of exorcism and faith. Vanished husbands, re-imagined as pale imitations of the men they once were, provoke their partners’ scrutiny rather than closure. To their skeptics’ surprise, “crazy” characters who claim to have all the answers actually prove they do. As characters seek peace and acceptance in offbeat, unexpected ways, Fordon reveals that finding the answer more often means asking the right question.

Learning to ask questions rather than live with dead-end answers drives many of the stories’ plots. In the collection’s opening story, “The Shorebirds and the Shaman,” an affluent freelance designer battles a self-imposed isolation after her husband’s untimely death. Fordon deftly choreographs Corinne’s rage and loneliness into humorous moments that pick at her wounds before healing them. When a friend tricks her into attending a weekend of New Age therapy, Corinne’s emotional journey from outrage and skepticism at a shaman’s dubious medium act is both funny and heart-wrenching. The story ends with Corrine’s moving repossession of her life, not by burying her dead, but imagining her husband resurrected through the therapeutic group role play she’d dismissed: “Whatever they’d had…It was worth study.” Corinne’s recovery from acute grief is like the reluctant migration of the Lake Erie shorebirds she and her husband once studied: “It’s the fact that they can’t see across that stymies them…It literally stops them in their tracks until they’re so cold they have no choice but to brave it.”

Some of Fordon’s characters don’t seek to question their lives so much as find a way to tell a different story about both the past and the future. In “Jungle Life,” a young man repeatedly interviews his Alzheimer’s-stricken father about a buddy’s fate during a WWII recon mission, only to hear a new version every time. As the son wonders which version is true, he also comes to realize that picking the truth is more his own choice than his father’s. In “Get a Grip,” an architect whose her husband leaves her for another woman is visited, or rather crashed, by her crazy neighbor. Mary Keane, the neighbor, imagines a coffee klatch with Maura’s husband Howard, Oprah and Thomas Jefferson. “Are we going to participate in the politics of cynicism or the politics of hope?” Mary Keane demands of Maura, who hadn’t yet known she’d been struggling to answer this very question. This comic resurrection echoes the plot of the collections’ first story, but while Corrinne’s role-play revealed what was eternal about her marriage, seeing Howard in the company of his betters prompts Maura to remember that his complaints about her faults had long hidden her desperate wish for him to leave. When Mary Keane pantomimes throwing the imaginary Howard out of her house, Maura holds the door wide open.

Who tells the story, and which version of the truth they offer, are beautifully examined in “Devil’s Proof,” when a Catholic school teen’s fear of Satanic possession collides with her coming of age questions about sex, love, and danger. When Marie learns that the 70s cult classic “The Exorcist” was based on a true story, she worries over the film, which was shot in Georgetown, her home: “I’d grown up with a Catholic fear of the devil, but I had no idea that he could just decide to lodge inside a person against her will.” Her father’s comment that he believes devil possession is “very rare” strikes her as less of a reassurance than a comment on her parents’ fraying marriage. Seeping through the story’s wry, muted humor is a sobering contemplation of the various ways places and people have possessed and are still possessing others. Fordon expertly uses rich details of an historic Georgetown school campus to suggest the conundrums of privilege: “The (Senior) Lodge… was rumored to have sheltered runaway slaves during the Civil War. The leaded glass windows still sported names and dates (the earliest: 1802) etched into the panes with former students’ engagement ring diamonds.” Fordon leaves it to the reader to question whether the names etched with diamonds would use their status to protect, or to oppress. Later in the story, an ambiguous sexual encounter poses more brutal questions about the true meaning of permission and desire, and whether consent is arbitrated by the devil outside of us, or within us.

Throughout the collection, Fordon’s sly humor about middle-class perks—Costco, grocery delivery services, trendy psychotherapy, binge shopping—bind together the women who both rue and rely upon these props. In “Tell Them I’m Happy Now,” a mother of three young kids proves her dedication to home and hearth through hectic renovations and redecorations, including painting her daughter’s bathroom a garish Barbie-pink, complete with a Barbie mural staring down the toilet. Crazy neighbor May Keane proclaims that her mother “…went to the land of Costco, where all of her dreams come true.” These women’s devotion to the comforting, if blinding, pursuit of privilege is comic, but not played for laughs. Fordon neither judges nor questions these material quests and coping mechanisms, but allows the women’s shared experiences of grief, loss, and love to wade through their stuff. With humor, wisdom, and a dash of crazy-making, Fordon’s deft, lyrical writing and gentle yet pointed comedy create endearing, realistic characters looking for the very answers the reader hopes to find.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0814347525/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0

Laura Hulthen Thomas heads the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan’s Residential College, where she teaches fiction and nonfiction. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Witness, Epiphany, The Cimarron Review, and many other literary journals. Her short story collection, STATES OF MOTION was a finalist for a Foreword Reviews Indie Award.

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The Middle Ground by Jeff Ewing

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By Charles Rammelkamp

The characters in the nineteen stories that make up Jeff Ewing’s new collection, The Middle Ground, all seem to be trying to come to terms with bleak realities for which they bear some responsibility but whose fuzzy dimensions go way beyond their grasp. Indeed, as the story “Coast Starlight” begins: “Clifford could have been anyone, though no one from around here.”

In the story, Clifford, who may be a con man after all, fills a waitress’s mind with fantasies of movie stardom. Elena. Elena’s daughter asks her, “Don’t you wish something exciting would happen to you just once?” Elena remembers Clifford, then. Elena is married to the dull but reliable Matias. When she makes an impulsive trip to Los Angeles (aboard a train called the Coast Starlight) in a half-baked plan to pursue the dream of stardom, only to return to the stoic but forgiving Matias, you’d think there might be a moral here, like something out of The Wizard of Oz.  “No place like home.” But no, at the end Elena, if somehow wiser, is still indecisive, hovering ghost-like in the middle ground.

What is the middle ground? In the eponymous story, another one in which a parent and child clash over dreams, Ewing writes of the son, “He was one of those who can’t think any further than the negation of things. No nuance, no middle ground.” In the middle ground there are no clear answers to the situations people find themselves in. Maybe this, maybe that. Some of this, some of that.

Indeed, several of the characters in these stories deal with an unexpected celebrity that seems to shine a light on their lives, but only in a confused and upsetting way. The little girl Anna in “Lake Mary Jane” who is bitten by an alligator while she is swimming becomes a fleeting figure of interest, and she is forced to consider events in a new light. “When the gator had bit down, it was just a thing that was happening to her.” Then come the doctors, the reporters. Her dad and a character named Emily (mother? sister?) react in complicated ways. Finally, somebody shoots a gator in the lake they claim was the one that bit Anna. But her reaction? “All she knew was it had left its mark on her, which is what love does.”

In the first story, “Tule Fog,” the narrator remembers his high school girlfriend Lisa who became a celebrity of her own, giving motivational speeches, selling books and DVDs, on the subject of “Moving On.” She clearly moved on from the narrator, who feels stuck in his bleak California town where “no one anywhere, not even the dead, will wish they were here.” It should be noted that Lisa dies in an airplane accident near Lake Tahoe. “It took over a year for the wreckage to be discovered….”

Similarly, in “Coast Starlight,” as she’s finishing her shift at the diner, Elena comes upon another waitress, Shelly, flipping through a National Enquirer and, “tsking and shaking her head” at the shenanigans of the dubious famous people whose shenanigans are detailed in the scandal sheet.

“These people got everything you could want, and nine times out of ten they piss it away,” she said.

Elena asks her coworker, “You think it’s different here?”

“Jesus, yes. Are you kidding? Nobody’s got anything to piss away.”

It’s strange and perplexing how right there in the middle ground where nothing is clearly one thing or another how events will make you feel your insignificance. And certainly this seems to be the great challenge for so many of the characters in these stories, this urge for a meaning to one’s life. The very title of the final story in this collection, “Hiddenfolk,” gives a hint to the great trials most of these characters face. “Dick Fleming is Lost” gives another, a story in which the protagonist, George, becomes obsessed with the whereabouts of a former classmate, who has gone missing.  “Maybe Dick Fleming would be found,” the story concludes, “and maybe he wouldn’t. Either way he was no longer alone.”

The stories in The Middle Ground are bleak but thought-provoking and end with the same ambiguity with which they begin, though indeed there is always a kind of resolution. Nothing ever quite ends “happily ever after,” but the characters all reach a kind of self-understanding that makes their destinies easier to accept.

You can find the book here:

https://www.amazon.com/Middle-Ground-Stories-Jeff-Ewing/dp/1775381307

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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House 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 Future Cycle Press.

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The Conduit and other Visionary Tales of Morphing Whimsy by Richard Gessner

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By g emil reutter
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Welcome to the strange world of Richard Gessner where words and images matter. Gessner provides the reader with fresh images, use of words and stories that may or may not be about what they appear to be. Surreal? Maybe. Or they may just be reality in disguise. 
 
The Zoo-Bray is located in the basement of a library. Those kept in the basement, (dark?), are writers of every kind. Parking-ticket scribblers face classical versifiers—Subpoena makers face street poets to produce spontaneous legal writs–… The forgotten face the immortal–. All of them are kept under the watchful eye of the zoo-breeder who wanders through the maze of hallways listening to the congress of burgeoning tete-a-tetes caught up in an infectious meld of snowballing ideas. He tells us at the center is an incubator where the pairs of the most promising writers chosen by the zoo-breeder are placed to mate and give birth. Gessner tells us the zoo-breeder decides what books make it to the upper shelves and what ones do not. Now the story could be viewed a surreal or a thinly masked critique of cookie cutter MFA programs.
 
Gessner gives us a wide ranging group of stories such as Excerpts From the Diary of a Neanderthal Dilettante. The Conduit a tale of a man stabbed in the heart seeking refuge in a pipe:
Moving down the windy concrete tunnel, listening for his arteries drain, he leaves a red carpet for the assailant’s knife. Millennial scorpion stinging itself drowning in cesspools of regeneration. Hug, wide, longer than all seeing memory. The pipe sparkles with light, twinkling with blood hitting the cold air. The strangeness of the travel of the man in the pipe with dance callers, ancestors, wedding rings looping, ego dust and random chaos. Weird images carefully crafted by a writer who has earned his chops. 
 
    He gives us hermits, a unicyclist, arbitrators, a man in a couch and so much more wrapped in unnatural situations. Gessner looks at the world through distorted glasses and yet as the reader moves through this work all comes into view. Such as in this flash fiction piece, The Pelican’s Tonsils: 
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    A psychiatrist stands in the ocean, wearing his patient’s galoshes, waiting for barnacles to adhere to them.
    His framed doctor’s degree has escaped from his office wall and taken up residence inside the pouch of a pelican sitting on a far off rock jutting from the ocean.
    In the stark wetness of the pouch, the lettering from the degree wears off getting stuck to the pelican’s tonsils. When the pelican dives for fish its tonsils wiggle, rearranging the lettering from the doctors degree.
    In order to restore his official identity and career, the psychiatrist affects a man of action stance, preparing to swim out into the ocean and give the pelican a tonsillectomy—but the barnacles clustering on his patient’s galoshes keep him anchored to the shore as he attempts to swim—the crustaceous ball and chain keeping him forever split!
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Gessner is a master of imagery, metaphor, of the unnatural setting and has produced a fantastic collection of bizarre stories that are equally disturbing and fantastic.
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g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories. You can find him here:About g emil reutter
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Home of the Brave – Stories in Uniform-Edited by Jeffery Hess

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By Stephen Page

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With Home of the Brave, editor Jeffery Hess puts together a collection of short stories about people in the U.S. military.  The period covered is from World War II to the present.  Although many of the stories refer to war, very few depict actual battles.

Let me reiterate that these are stories about people—humane stories, humanistic statements, reports about humanity.

This book will appeal to almost every reader, civilian and military alike.  Jeffery Hess does a fine job in choosing stories that have empathetic characters, hard-hitting human drama, and convincing plots.  The tales stick with you, the reader, long after you read them.   Some of these stories will shock you; some will hit you right where you live.

A portion of proceeds from each book sold is donated to USA Cares.

Read more about the book here: Home of the Brave

Read interviews with the editor: Mary Akers Blog

This book may be purchased here: Amazon 

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Stephen Page is the  author of “A Ranch Bordering the Salt River.”. He can be found at

https://smpages.wordpress.com/

 

The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova

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Review by g emil reutter

The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova begins with the short story Unstiching. Grudova lures the reader in with a line of normalcy, One afternoon, after finishing a cup of coffee in her living room, Greta discovered how to unstitch herself.  However, there is nothing normal in this collection of 13 short stories that stay with the reader long after finishing the book. There is a haunting darkness in all of the stories and a cast of characters set into miserable conditions. Characters transform in startling ways.  Grudova’s Waxy is a perfect example. It is a story set in the future or perhaps in the past. Women are subjected to training for factory work, supporting men, working jobs that scar them. They are used for money and sex, easily discarded. The value of human life is non-existent as babies are disposed of in casual and disrespectful ways. Everyone has to be registered with the government and if you leave your job or living arrangement they will track you down. A woman without a man is considered an outcast.

Throughout the stories the characters eat tinned food, have body disorders such as incontinence and anorexia. Most of the male characters have no loyalty abandoning family at will. The character, Paul, in the story, Mouse Queen, is such a fella. He is a philosopher of sorts and prior to his wife giving birth to twins, he takes off.  The wife abandoned turns into a wolf, raids local stores and once when returning home realized her babies were gone. Had Paul returned to take them or did the wolf eat them? There is a weirdness to each story, a surrealism that is haunting, grotesque.

The subject matter of this collection is thwarting yet Grudova writes surrealism well; in fact is a master of it. She has created a world no one would want to live in yet when one begins the book it is difficult to put down. It is not a book for the faint of heart for in its surrealism Grudova writes of the decay of society. I could not read the book straight through as I often do for after each story I had to ask myself: What just happened? It is a challenging read. Do you dare?

You can find the book here: http://coffeehousepress.org/shop/the-dolls-alphabet/

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g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories. You can find him here:About g emil reutter

WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF’S POETICS

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By Ray Greenblatt

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In this twenty-first century Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) is one of the most famous authors in the world. Her many works have been analyzed; movies based on her life and writings have drawn enthusiastic audiences. Woolf wrote novels and short stories. Her non-fiction included letters, diaries, biographies and book reviews. However, I am interested in what we might call her “fantastical prose,” a form very close to the prose-poem. I have discovered these random pieces in two of her collections, MONDAY OR TUESDAY and THE DEATH OF THE MOTH.

I – MONDAY OR TUESDAY and Other Short Stories (1921)

By definition a short story must have a character or characters, or at least some personified thing, in which we see various human qualities. Also, this personage must go through a series of actions in order for some changes in character to take place. It would be even more enriching to the story to observe a vivid background against  which these movements occur.

We can open our discussion of Woolf’s poetic writing with BLUE & GREEN, a prose piece that comes closest to a poem. It can be quoted in its entirety:

Green

“The pointed fingers of glass hang downwards. The light slides down the glass, and drops a pool of green. All day long the ten fingers of the luster drop green upon the marble. The feathers of parakeets—their harsh cries—sharp blades of palm trees—green, too; green needles glittering in the sun. But the hard glass drips on to the marble; the pools hover above the desert sand; the camels lurch through them; the pools settle on the marble; rushes edge them; weeds clog them; here and there a white blossom; the frog flops over; at night the stars are set there unbroken.  Evening comes, and the shadow sweeps the green over the mantelpiece; the ruffled surface of ocean. No ships come; the aimless waves sway beneath the empty sky. It’s night; the needles drip blots of blue. The green’s out.

Blue

The snub-nosed monster rises to the surface and spouts through his blunt nostrils two columns of water, which, fiery-white in the centre, spray off into a fringe of blue beads. Strokes of blue line the black tarpaulin of his hide.  Slushing the water through mouth and nostrils he sings, heavy with water, and the blue closes over him dowsing the polished pebbles of his eyes.  Thrown upon the beach he lies, blunt, obtuse, shedding dry blue scales. Their metallic blue stains the rusty iron on the beach.  Blue are the ribs of the wrecked rowing boat. A wave rolls beneath the blue bells. But the cathedral’s different, cold, incense laden, faint blue with the veils of madonnas.”

Green: where are we? It might be beside a tropic ocean: parakeets, palms, sand, rushes. But marble and mantelpiece disturb our focus. Is the viewer in her living room, perhaps imagining a seaside scene. “The green’s out” is an awkward sentence, for what purpose?

Blue: we are more sure now of the ocean location: beach, water, boat, wave. This connects with the “green” stanza. However, the striking final line is no longer connected with home: “But the cathedral’s different, cold, incense laden, faint blue with the veils of madonnas.” What could this shift mean? This is indeed an imagistic prose-poem with little overt meaning.  Are the sea and fish sacred? Is the home as well?

The sentences could be readily arranged into poetic lines of two stanzas.

The prose piece of writing MONDAY OR TUESDAY is even more stream-of-conscious. This time it is about real life, but without characters or plot. A heron in flight frames the writing by appearing at the opening and closing:

“Desiring truth, awaiting it, laboriously distilling a few words, for ever desiring –(a cry starts to the left, another to the right. Wheels strike divergently. Omnibuses conglomerate in conflict)—for ever desiring—(the clock asseverates with twelve distinct strokes that it is midday; light sheds gold scales; children swarm)—for ever desiring truth. Red is the dome; coins hang on the trees; smoke trails from the chimneys; bark, shout, cry ‘Iron for sale’—and truth?”

This prose-poem captures the busy—if not dizzying—daily life of an Edwardian city. Today’s poetry uses simpler words; Woolf employs weighty wording such as: asseverate, conglomerate, laboriously, divergently. “For ever desiring” becomes a refrain to discover the motivation for all this urban turmoil. Parentheses and dashes connect series of words, phrases, even sentences to replicate this activity.  As in the last mentioned poem, semi-colons could rope off individual poetic lines.

Rather than the sea or city, THE STRING QUARTET explores what emotions music can stir in a person:

“’But the tune, like all his tunes, makes one despair—I mean hope. What do I mean? That’s the worst of music! I want to dance, laugh, eat pink cakes, yellow cakes, drink thin, sharp wine. Or an indecent story, now—I could relish that. The older one grows the more one likes indecency. Hah! hah! I’m laughing. What at? You said nothing, nor did the old gentleman opposite . . .But suppose—suppose–hush!’”

“The boat sinks. Rising, the figures ascend, but now leaf thin, tapering to a dusky wraith, which, fiery tipped, draws its twofold passion from my heart. For me it sings, unseals my sorrow, thaws compassion, floods with love the sunless world, nor, ceasing, abates its tenderness but deftly, subtly, weaves in and out until in this pattern, this consummation, the cleft ones unify; soar, sob, sink to rest, sorrow and joy.”

“The green garden, moonlit pool, lemons, lovers, and fish are all dissolved in the opal sky, across which, as the horns are joined by trumpets and supported by clarions there rise white arches firmly planted on marble pillars . . . Tramp and trumpeting. Clang and clangour. Firm establishment. Fast foundations. March of myriads. Confusion and chaos trod to earth.”  The alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia are powerful.

The audience member—we can suspect Woolf—has mentally floated far away on the music, because a string quartet does not consist of horns, trumpets nor clarions.  Her soul and her thoughts are truly stirred. We can only wonder if with discreet flashlight she jotted down these lines. Or did Virginia Woolf have a compendious memory that would hold all these feelings until she arrived home.

In A HAUNTED HOUSE you might detect two ghosts, but they live up to their wispy personas, not developing, only remaining ghostly observers.  If a plot exists it is nebulous: the ghosts return to see if their past home is intact:

“’Here we slept,’ she says. And he adds, ‘Kisses without number.’ ‘Waking in the morning—‘ ‘Silver between the trees—‘ ‘Upstairs—‘ ‘In the garden—‘ ‘When summer came—‘ ‘In winter snowtime—‘ The doors go shutting far in the distance, gently knocking like the pulse of a heart.” “Heart” becomes a key word for Woolf because it leads to love.

“Stooping, holding their silver lamp above us, long they look and deeply. Long they pause. The wind drives straightly; the flame stops slightly. Wild beams of moonlight cross both floor and wall, and, meeting, stain the faces bent; the faces pondering, the faces that search the sleepers and seek their hidden joy.” Certain words stress the ghostly couple’s quest–stooping , long, faces.

“’Safe, safe, safe,’ the heart of the house beats proudly. ‘Long years—‘ he sighs. ‘Again you found me.’  ‘Here,’ she murmurs, ‘sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing, rolling apples in the loft. Here we left our treasure—‘ Stooping , their light lifts the lids upon my eyes. ‘Safe! safe! safe! ‘ the pulse of the house beats wildly. Waking, I cry ‘Oh, is this your buried treasure? The light in the heart?’” Can you detect  subtle rhymes at work in that passage?

Life, a pulse, the heart, and love. The ghost couple recall their love and search for it in the present living tenants of their house. This theme of the search for love will become a central one for Virginia Woolf in most of her future writing.

II –  THE DEATH OF THE MOTH and Other Essays (1942)

One year after Virginia Woolf’s death in 1941 and twenty-one years after her first collection of short fiction, her husband Leonard published a book that included some pieces which did not fit the definition of essay. Again, they resembled poetry parading as prose, i.e. prose-poetry. An essay is a discussion of a central topic proceeding logically from point to point. Woolf has a topic, but rather she flows with feelings that shadow logic. Many of her writing qualities are still embedded in these later pieces, but her theme of living life and loving fully becomes clearer.

In EVENING OVER SUSSEX Woolf seems to hover like a spirit over the countryside. As a poet often does, using personification she compares Sussex to a woman: “Evening is kind to Sussex, for Sussex is no longer young, and she is grateful for the veil of evening as an elderly woman is glad when a shade is drawn over a lamp, and only the outline of her face remains.” Now the human comparison shifts to: “The freckle of red villas on the coast is washed over by a thin lucid lake of brown air, in which they and their redness are drowned. It was still too early for lamps and too early for stars.”

Woolf is not attempting to analyze Sussex as an essayist would do step-by-step. This prose writing is like a lyric poem, which attempts to catch and hold a single impression. Here beauty of a landscape, or even a person, is momentary: “The fields are mottled, marbled—one’s perceptions blow out rapidly like air balls expanded by some rush of air, and then, when all seems blown to its fullest and tautest, with beauty and beauty and beauty, a pin pricks; it collapses.” Notice poetic word repetition.

At most she predicts the future for Sussex, and the world in general, in her conclusion: “’ I think much grossness will have evaporated. Things will have been scorched up, eliminated. There will be magic gates. Draughts fan-blown by electric power will cleanse houses. Lights intense and firmly directed will go over the earth, doing the work. Look at the moving light in that hill; it is the headlight of a car. By day and by night Sussex in five centuries will be full of charming thoughts, quick, effective beams.’”  Fanciful, positive and poetic ideas! Especially with a world war looming.

We could theorize that the piece THE DEATH OF THE MOTH is an intellectual analysis of the natural functions of life and death. However, any structure is minimized by effective use of poetics. As this prose-poem opens: “Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths; they do not excite that pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossom which the commonest yellow-underwing asleep in the shadow of the curtain never fails to rouse in us.”

For Woolf the moth held a spirit like any living thing: “That was all he could do, in spite of the size of the downs, the width of the sky, the far-off smoke of houses, and the romantic voice, now and then, of a steamer out at sea. What he could do he did. Watching him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body. As often as he crossed the pane, I could fancy that a thread of vital light became visible. He was little or nothing but life.” Yet, the life force in a moth is as powerful as the same life force in a human being.  Notice her poetic usage of a connector and the verbs: “One is apt to forge all about life, seeing it humped and bossed and garnished and cumbered so that it has to move with the greatest circumspection and dignity.”

In the conclusion, Woolf wants us to even witness the moth’s death, as we must all experience our own and loved ones’ deaths: “It was useless to try to do anything. One could only watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings.; nothing, I knew had any chance against death.”

STREET HAUNTING is sixteen pages long but still not an essay nor even a short story. Not one character is developed nor is there a plot. The structure is composed of wandering observations, which Woolf makes poetically and beautifully. She employed this technique long ago in the 1921 collection when she became a ghost in A HAUNTED HOUSE or concertgoer in THE STRING QUARTET.

STREET HAUNTING has a sub-title: “A London Adventure” but that adventure becomes various forms of lifestyles she collects as she strolls:

“The hour should be the evening and the season winter, for in winter the champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are grateful.”

“The evening hour, too, gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow. We are no longer quite ourselves.”

“Here under the lamps are floating islands of pale light through which pass quickly bright men and women, who, for all their poverty and shabbiness, wear a certain look of unreality, an air of triumph, as if they had given life the slip, so that life, deceived of her prey, blunders on without them.”

“How beautiful a London street is then, with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree-sprinkled, grass-grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally and, as one passes the iron railing, one hears those little cracklings  and stirrings of leaf and twig which seem to suppose the silence of fields all round them, an owl hooting, and far away the rattle of a train in the valley.”

Then the shops: “The carnal splendour of the butchers’ shops with their yellow flanks and purple steaks; the blue and red bunches of flowers burning so bravely through the plate glass of the florists’ windows.”

“They lie close to those shop windows where commerce offers to a world of  old women laid on doorsteps, of blind men, of hobbling dwarfs, sofas which are supported by the gilt necks of proud swans; tables inlaid with baskets of many coloured fruit; sideboards paved with green marble the better to support the weight of boars’ heads; and carpets so softened with age that their carnations have almost vanished in a pale green sea.”

“Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

Woolf is skillful at combining nature and human imagery. She concludes this poetic piece by saying that to know all types of people and their vitality is the keenest kind of pleasure: ”One could become a washerwoman, a publican, a street singer. And what greater delight and wonder can there be than to leave the straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men?”

I mostly allowed Virginia Woolf to speak for herself because it is nearly time to conclude the review; and vividly, originally, elegantly does she write poetic prose.

In her prose-poetry Virginia Woolf has explored the love of house, music, city, nature, love of life itself. However, most of her life she was pursued by a figurative “water wraith,” which drove her to an early death. In contrast to the other written pieces we have explored, I offer the prose-poem OLD MRS. GREY which deals directly with death:

“There are moments even in England, now, when even the busiest, most contented suddenly let fall what they hold—it may be the week’s washing. Sheets and pyjamas crumble and dissolve in their hands, because, though they do not state this in so many words, it seems silly to take the washing round to Mrs. Peel when out there over the fields over the hills, there is no washing; no pinning of clothes to lines; mangling and ironing; no work at all, but boundless rest. Stainless and boundless rest; space unlimited; untrodden grass; wild birds flying; hills whose smooth uprise continue that flight.” Is Woolf hinting at heaven?

“The fire looked like a small spot of dusty light feebly tying to escape from the embarrassing pressure of the pouring sunshine.” A striking poetic image.

An old woman has come to the end of her life and can go no farther now nearly blind: “And now at the age of ninety-two they saw nothing but a zigzag of pain wriggling across the door, pain that twisted her legs as it wriggled; jerked her body to and fro like a marionette. Her body was wrapped round the pain as a damp sheet is folded over a wire. The wire was spasmodically jerked by a cruel invisible hand.”

All that the woman could see out her front door: “The morning spread seven foot by four green and sunny. Like a fling of grain the birds settled on the land. She was jerked again by another tweak of the tormenting hand.”

The image of the wire used in washing is continued. She only wants eternal rest but life forces will not allow it: “So we—humanity—insist that the body shall still cling to the wire. We put out the eyes and the ears; but we pinion it there, with a bottle of medicine, a cup of tea, a dying fire, like a rook on a barn door; but a rook that still lives, even with a nail through it.”

By definition poetry capitalizes on rhythm, imagery, intensity. Prose does not: fiction spins out a tale, while an essay analyzes a topic. No writer of short stories or essays would have time or use space as Virginia Woolf did in her poetic musings. Yes, when she wanted, her stories and novels, her biographies and reviews were clearly shaped and developed. Yet she was also a poet who—oddly to us perhaps—chose never to publish even one chapbook of poetry.

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To learn more visit: http://www.virginiawoolfsociety.co.uk/index.html

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Ray Greenblatt has written articles for: English Journal, Sea Change, Drexel Online Journal, Joseph Conrad Today, Bookmark Quarterly, Sunstone Press. He is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal and teaches a Joy of Poetry course at Temple University-OLLI

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Publication Will Resume in January 2017

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North of Oxford is on a December break and will return in January 2017. Submissions of book reviews, commentary, interviews etc. remain open and we hope to hear from you.

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We wish all a fine holiday season and a great new year!

We Are Now Open For Submissions

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Submissions:

Submissions of book reviews, essays, and commentary are welcome. Send your submission for consideration of publication in word doc with any images or photographs attached , Include a brief bio. All submissions are to be sent to:  sahmsguarnieriandreutter@gmail.com  Please note in the subject line of the email- submission- your name. Our response time should be less than two weeks.