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“To Miniaturize is also to Conceal”: the recent work of Vik Shirley, Jessica Sequeira, Christina Tudor-Sideri, and Kyle Coma-Thompson & Tristan Foster (Sublunary Editions)

To bid farewell to a difficult 2020 and welcome a more hopeful 2021, David Vichnar of Equus Press has penned a series of mini-reviews covering the best of contemporary independent small-press production, each instalment dedicated to three of their most recent & interesting titles. In the third instalment, the focus is on Seattle-based Sublunary Editions & its 4 titles from 2020. 

Sublunary’s mission statement, with a tip of the hat to César Aira’s quip that “the longer a book is, the less literature it has,” is to focus on “brief forms of literature” since “they are most often overlooked, or most likely to be seen as insubstantial, mere curiosities.” This might—after the past hundred years that gave us, among much else, Ulysses, The Recognitions, Gravity’s Rainbow, Mulligan Stew, The Tunnel, Infinite Jest, Jerusalem, and The Combinations—sound like provocation & exaggeration, but holds true even for a figure like Joyce, whose Giacomo Joyce is the most overlooked, because the most minor, of all his works.

As editor-in-Chief & founder Joshua Rothes, author of excellent Art of the Great Dictators(published by the aptly-named A Contrived Press), told 3:AM Magazine in an interview, the chief convenience of putting out small formats is that Sublunary Editions can afford to publish in print, on good-quality paper, with monthly mail-outs to subscribers for whom “something physical on [their] coffee table is a much better reminder to spend some time reading something than an open tab in a browser.” The broad array of writers and genres Sublunary publishes, then, is “about breaking down hierarchies and categories, the quickest way, in my mind, to greater diversity.” The diversity of the four books covered here is not to be disputed: generically, they run the gamut from poetry & short narrative to fiction to essay. Their commonalities, however, are equally striking: condensation (none exceed 125 short pages), fragmentation, use of quotation & mottoes, as well as concern with certain shared themes.

The back cover of Vik Shirley’s Corpses describes its 30 mini-paragraphs as “moribund miniatures […], capturing the triviality & quotidian horror of being human.” Corpses is furnished with two mottoes by Simic to the effect that “each one of us is a synthesis of the real and unreal” and Kharms on having “achieved a tremendous fall […] I’m a living corpse,” and opens with the powerful line, “Corpses dangled from hanging-basket hooks around the village,” the sort of image one usually finds invoked in Thirty-Year-War chronicles. Corpses is a part-surreal, part-post-apocalyptic, an Irish-wake-meets-the-Mexican-Día-de-los-Muertos, Kafkaesque series of vignettes of a world inhabited by corpses, whose most wondrous feature is its complete lack of wonder at the goings-on. There’s the occasional hint at attempted sense-making, as in the opening segment with “the reality show getting all of this”, the “disappointed private investigator” in vignette 24, and the simile with Pompeii in paragraph 25, but otherwise the macabre grotesquery goes unexplained. 

That these are prose poems is brought home by Shirley’s attention to semantic slippage & paronomasia—as in the sixth section’s pun on “corpse” and “collapse”, or in 29, where “corsets by candlelight” turn out to be “open caskets”. She also lets the occasional metafictional self-reference slip in, as in section 7 which riffs on Gertrude Stein, “‘Corpses were corpses were corpses,’ the old man sang, but the fact that he was still singing after death put his theory into question.” Or when in segment 15—“‘A forest of corpses’, ‘a lake of cadavers’, ‘a sky of stiffs’, the poet didn’t really know where she was going with this.”—she introduces the topic of poetry and the attendant notion of “dead” metaphors into her moribund text.

Shirley is at her best where she’s at her most surreal: with “mass graves” full of corpses desirous of “lacquering” in order for them “to shine” in section 9, “stepping stones” that turn out to be “frozen corpses” in segment 11, or the “corpse coated with yogurt” with “several birthday cake candles inserted into the cold and hardening flesh” in the following paragraph. The miniatures, wry in tone & absurd in presentation, call for a consideration of the limits of living & unliving, the humous & posthumous, the poetically banal & the banally poetic.

The back cover of Sequeira’s booklet introduces it as “small portraits through time,” and answers the question of “Why the palm?” with the simple shrug, “Why not?” As mentioned by Rothes, reading this one gets the feeling the palm is both essential and accidental to Sequeira’s project of writing a “luminous history”, one which “seeks to make connections beyond the surface level of great events & statistical data.” What goes beyond events & data is “a symbol, any symbol, as a seed to create anecdotes” (1). Her “poetic” history of the palm—her “book of palms” (57)—starts with “the small and everyday, the particular and peculiar” (1). 

Sequeira’s brief story-kernels take the reader on a veritable journey “around the world in fifty-seven pages.” From a “Healer, Yemen” (2), the fast-cutting of Sequeira’s narrative montage takes us around the globe (from Iceland [4] to Thailand [13] to New Zealand [27] to Nigeria [30] to Lebanon [32] to Australia [40] NYC [49] to Chile [55]), to places and persons both historical (Judea [9], Prince Nevsky [11], Katherine Mansfield [27]) and fictional (2 pages each spent in the company of two nameless soubrettes in Mozart’s Idomeneo [19-20] or with a delightfully blasée Duchess of France [22]). The motif of the palm is present in all of these, whether the centrepiece of the action, or a barely noticeable part of the décor.

Punctuating these wonderfully diverse vignettes are italicised essayistic asides on questions regarding history, writing, translation, & specifications re Sequeira’s notion of luminosity. Given that the palm tree was “a Greek symbol representing the recurring nature of time” (17), it makes sense for Sequeira’s project to have grown out of questions regarding history:

What if you were to treat history not as a battlefield, a site of combat, but as a being that you love; what if you were to approach it stroking the tender places behind its ears, speaking to it in low tones, keeping your eyes wide open and looking with trust at its intentions? (7)

This “open” & “trusting” relation to history allows one to experience its luminousness, its “glow”:

Human glow: Blood cells in the cheeks that create a blush.

Animal glow: Neon cells that produce phosphorescence, as in the jellyfish. […]

Linguistic glow: Often called poetry, with the lyric as tightest possible density.

Historical glow: The repetition of a symbol, personally chosen. A microcosm iterated with contextual variations to illuminate larger material.

“Luminous” is not to be confused with “enlightened”, since “enlightenment comes from the outside and implies progress,” whereas “to be luminous is to generate affections and affiliations from the heart, belly and bowels of a situation in time.” As opposed to the Enlightenment’s “love affair with reason,” luminous history prefers “to take as its premise a playful first move […], one that is felt to be important by the historian herself” (29). Sequeira—herself a translator & a commuter between Santiago de Chile & Cambridge—identifies translation as the underlying principle of history: “The greatest translator, of course, is History. Time does not move in a progressive way’ rather all moments touch and communicate as a gleaming network” (44).

The strength & beauty of Sequeira’s style lie in her peculiar metaphoric ability to blend the abstract with the concrete, the scientific with the poetic, the technological with the biological. As in the section “Honey Bees”, where the pollen of meaning is translated from technology to history to anecdote:

We draw on technology; we use search tools; information is unavoidable. But these are only resources. To write a luminous history of the palm, we must compose and order the anecdotes ourselves. […] As honey bees visit the flowers of the palms, carrying pollen from one anecdote to another, seeking out nectar and translating it. (37)

Despite its extreme brevity, Sequeira’s “Book of Palms” affords us a glimpse into “the great cycles of growth, death, and rebirth,” with the palm standing as “one instrument that can encompass the problematic labyrinths of dominion, desire, domesticity, and devotion” (57).

The two mottoes prefacing Christina Tudor-Sideri’s Under the Sign of the Labyrinth—“The wound is past all cure…” (Ovid) & “… and she needs the torn-apart God who is the labyrinth” (Blanchot)—introduce the central topics of her own piece. The four parts that comprise Tudor-Sideri’s little but important book—“Anamnesis”, “The Mad Forest”, “A Painless Wound Does Not Crave Healing”, & “Death Assemblage”—are all variations on the central riffs, dealing with trauma, the body, mythology, & the labyrinthine quality of writing the self.

Tudor-Sideri’s writing is reminiscent (& I mean this as a compliment) of Daniela Cascella’s Signed, & the two authors share more than affiliation with minor literature[s], an avid interest in translation, & their non-English background (Cascella’s Italian, Tudo-Sideri’s Romanian). More importantly, theirs is a special type of writing combining personal memory with scholarship, critical commentary, fragments of theory & thematic expositions—what could be term “re-search fiction” (the hyphen as in “search again”). Cascella’s Singed deals with the reconstruction of a library after the fire, & with her narrative subject’s own muteness; Tudor-Sideri’s Under the Sign of the Labyrinth deals with the traumas of (East-European) history, the vicissitudes of personal memory, & the possibilities of healing through writing. Both however treat fiction within the same ficto-philosophical framework:

The history of how my philosophical framework came into existence is a graveyard for all that was not and will not be. I have buried there all ideas, thoughts, and hypotheses that did not serve the purpose of uprooting myself, or always being in motion. […] To find oneself before the real with the despair of the agnostic or the certainty of the gnostic is to think that the thirst for the primordial life and meaning of the word can be quenched as effortlessly as throwing a wet blanket over a small fire. (38)

Romania enters Tudor-Sideri’s picture inconspicuously, at first: through such motifs as an “album with pictures of communist leaders” (13) or “cassettes of strangers reading the words of Cioran, Bacovia, Eliade…” (32). Only gradually does one identify the rural setting as East-European, only bit-by-bit do “tuberculosis sanatoria” change into “preventoria” for “1940s children” (33). Trauma, wound & healing occupy the first part of Tudor-Sideri’s book, from the opening statement that “trauma lives in the body” (7) via such koans as “a sublime process of wounding and healing—the world itself” (18) to the end of Part II, where a healing becomes possible via creativity, undertaken

in order to uncover a kinder reality than the one I was thrown into. Abuse becomes incident, bruises andlacerations become rose-covered wounds […]. My dead become the corpses of flowers. At the end of all poems intimate connections are revealed to us. (56)

Presiding over the first half are two important Greek concepts, anamnesis (cf. the constant feeling that “it has happened before” [12]), & thanatocoenosis. According to the dictionary, this biological term latter describes a collection of dead life forms that are found together after interacting as a community within an ecosystem (e.g. embedded fossils at a single site). This is primarily linked to “the voices in the head” experienced by the narrator, but is also a perfect metaphor for literary intertextuality.

The second half opens with the image of “labyrinth designs on coffins” (61) & revolves around two other Greek notions: dehiscence—“the bursting open of a wound; when the edges of a wound are no longer able to meet” (68), & tachypsychia—“the condition which alters our perception of time either by lengthening it, slowing it down, or contracting it” (108), both of which describe aspects of the narrator’s coming to terms with trauma. “Mythology” is identified with “the reality of humanity” (75), and the many textual labyrinths within Tudor-Sideri’s book house many a Minotaur:

I think of past connections and whether the inner journeys of the people I once knew have ever truly intersected with my own. Have their trials brought them face-to-face with their Minotaur or are their labyrinths guarded by the same creature as my labyrinth? (65)

As should be clear by now, Tudor-Sideri’s “re-search fiction” is not only valuable for the data of its research, but for the linguistic quality of its fiction. The trauma of language, what it contains & what it excludes, is foregrounded everywhere here, from an early abandonment of mother tongue—“for I knew of no other way to retreat from language” (17)—to a metatextual admission that “I have been pulling words from this text even before writing it” (52), to a wonderful coupling of De Rerum Natura on how “nature prompted man to shun a wound” & Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen on how “we cut wherever we want—I my reverie, you the manuscript, the reader his reading” (71), and onwards to a concluding meditation on the Romanian word înrâurit, “influenced”, which comes from râu, meaning “river” (94). Here, Tudor-Sideri’s exoticisations come hand in hand with ignoring the poetry of her adopted English “home” – weirdly enough, an opportunity is missed here to consider a similarly poetic etymology in the Latin “in-fluere,” to “flow in”—a cognate of “flumen”, “river”. But throughout Tudor-Sideri’s exertions, language is both at its most economic & concise, as well as condensed & complex.

The final section is devoted to the central topic of the project, “writing of the self,” on which subject Tudor-Sideri comes up with this memorable point: “To write of the self is to be seduced by  every anomaly, to bend it to our will and liking; it is to rebel against all truths” (121). Which is ultimately the difference between all historiography & fiction, or science & art: the former always after extracting generality & universality, the latter going for the specific & the unique. Self-writing is also where the two central motifs, the wound & the labyrinth, also ultimately converge, & do so beautifully:

To write of the self is to write not the story of one’s journey through the labyrinth—it is to write the labyrinth itself. To write of the self is to write in the shape of a wound that never stops opening. (125)

926 years is a collaborative project by two writers who have purportedly only met via email & in the 17th issue of The White Review: the Louisville-based Kyle Coma-Thompson, & the Sydney-based Tristan Foster. According to the book’s witty annotation, between the two of them, the writers “track the pattern of probable lives and fates that co-exist between them, from Korea to England, Senegal to Argentina.” Their conclusion: imagination “offers more than mere consolation for the difficulties of living.”

926 Years takes its motto from a January 1, 1942 diary entry by Victor Klemperer: “It is said children still have a sense of wonder, later one becomes blunted.—Nonsense. A child takes things for granted, and most people get no further; only an old person, who thinks, is aware of the wondrous.” The slim book contains 22 single-page-long pieces of micro-fiction which sketch situations—as meaningful as banal, both repetitive & unique—in the lives of 22 different characters, with the name & age of each protagonist providing their titles (e.g. “Chaplain Blake, age 60”; “Sebastian, age 30”; “Marty Fantastic, age 81”). The ages—if one does do the math—adding up to a total of 926 years. In Joseph Schreiber’s words, this book is “a sideways glance into 926 cumulative years of human existence”.

To call the stories, as does the annotation, “linked” is to speak conceptually rather than in the literary terms of plotline connections or thematic analogies. These 22 characters have never met, lead very different lives, & face situations of a highly variegated kind. They are as disconnected by place (geographic location) & time (age) as they can be: perhaps these vignettes take place simultaneously, perhaps sequentially, perhaps partly both. Perhaps they are all set in the weirdly distanced & isolated year of 2020, perhaps they are atemporal. 

Distanced & isolated is the 47 year-old Larry Hoavis, pondering in the backyard of his native town the looming radio towers, darkly distant:

Why does it feel lonely, sitting and watching? Nature in its subtle power and monotony, pre-Internet to the core, unconscious of its enormity. No one. No one even knows he’s here. The house at his back. Divorced. His ex elsewhere , how he loved her, hurt her, himself. Why’s it beautiful, why’s it comforting, that no one knows? The crickets bleeping in the grass around him, the corn growing before him. Far lights pulsing like heartbeats, waiting for lives and bodies to grow around. Loneliness, it’s inarguable isn’t it? Crowns a person like some kind of common wisdom. Then overthrows him. (16)

Some stories are thusly wistful & poignant, others are informed by a Lynchian surreal humour, as in the “Minda, age 35” vignette, which concerns a couple of hippies who after the birth of their child eat its afterbirth, only to find out that due to a mix-up they ate the “wrong slime,” becoming “cannibals” thereby (19). Following a victory in a year-long suit, they get “the rights to the afterbirth, which, by this time, mind you, is A YEAR OLD” (20). Laugh-out-loud stuff.

Many stories are thematically engaged with the subject-as-multitude motif. “G.W.W., age 54” concerns a woman who spends a lifetime getting engaged to prison inmates, just at when she has reached her fortieth engagement, with forty different purses containing forty different ID’s & identities. “Lew Wade Wiley, age 55,” tells the tale of the suicide of a Prudentia company heir who collects other people’s lives by having them brought to his suite & relate

…their worst fears, desires, the messy embarrassments of their commonalities…these he worked into undead monotone prose, the diary of Lew Wade Wiley, and so lived fuller than anyone who’d opened a newspaper to read those advertisements, wrote to that listed address, knocked at his penthouse door. (27)

Reviewing 926 Years for Biblioklept, Edwin Turner notes how the adjective “undead” in the passage above fits into “a resurrection motif that floats through 926 Years, whether it be the lifeforce of currency or the proverbial powers of cats to cheat death.” 

These multiple narratives of a “multiple-personality order” reach a literalised climax in the penultimate instalment with “Marty Fantastic, 81”, described as “eighty-one-year-old darling with ten faces (one for each lift)” & who is “plagued by identities—who to be tonight, Peggy Lee, Rod Stewart, Cole Porter, Journey?” (51) Marty “do the police in many voices”, but his own death is only one & his. But perhaps not, perhaps it points elsewhere, connecting to another place. 

When searching for the stories’ interlinkage, Schreiber was similarly at a loss:

One imagines each author taking turns, challenging the other, triggering the next effort. Perhaps there were complex rules, elaborate algorithms. Perhaps a roll of the dice or a measure of blind faith. […] Entering one world after another, spaces filled with souls that seem somehow disconnected from their lives—from their jobs, their relationships, their health, or from the simpler beings around them—a curious reader might be inclined to look for points of reference loosely linking one story to the next.

Turner even summoned the ghost of the novel:

After reading it twice, I don’t see 926 Years so much as a collection of connected tales, but rather as a kind of successful experimental novel, a novel that subtly and reflexively signals back to its own collaborative origin. [… The two authors] have never met in person. And yet they share a common language, of course, and other common cultural forces surely shape their prose. 

One kind of these stories’ cohesion is the stylistic one: “the same melancholy voice seems to narrate all these pieces” (Mario Galeano). The sentences of these vignettes are short, & usually spring from the first-/third-person sphere of the free-indirect-discourse. Another kind of cohesion is the pragmatic one: the “effect” of this stories leaves one humbled, aware that “there are 7.8 billion live people in the world, each with their own story” (Jyoti Verma). 

But if the socially-distanced 2020, happening in quarantine & via Zoom for so many of us, was the year of “distance connections” & of “connecting the unconnected,” of loneliness en masse hitherto unseen, the great connector among these might indeed be their exploration of “the creative potential of people’s native estrangement from themselves and each other.” Wildly imaginative, complexly interlinked, & generically innovative, 926 Years offers an arresting image for this loneliness in multitude & connectedness in distance early on, in story no. 3:

Much as the geese and other such birds at the beginning of winter months fly south towards more temperate climates, it’s the nature of human beings to move in unconscious arrow formation as well. They take turns, leading the pack. The burden of cutting resistance through the air, something they share. Others fly, you see, in the wake; and that is why they form a V. The wake makes for easy flying, particularly at the furthest, outermost edges. The ones in the rear work less, conserve strength, eventually make their way towards the top of the V, tip of the arrow, then when it’s time and the leader has tired, assume the vanguard position. It is written into them by instinct to share the effort, burrowing southwards through the sky; that nevertheless sky we all live below. (5)

It is good news for all small presses that their flock was joined in 2019, by the rara avis Sublunary Press. Our shared wake makes for easier flying.

My next instalment will be devoted to Expat Press.

© David Vichnar, 2021

About Equus Press

EQUUS was established in 2011 with the objective of publishing innovative & translocal writing.

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"Modernity today is not in the hands of the poets, but in the hands of the cops" // Louis Aragon
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“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?…we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us” // Franz Kafka, letter to Oskar Pollack, 27 January 1904
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