There are 4 sections in this collection of poetry/prose poetry/flash, each apparently repping a writer's residency that the author went on. As such, t...moreThere are 4 sections in this collection of poetry/prose poetry/flash, each apparently repping a writer's residency that the author went on. As such, the work is as diverse as the various settings. You get a real Kafkaesque take on Eastern Europe, with surreal imagery such as colored floats representing dreams floating up from Vienna. Some of the floats represent love or lost love. In the Hong Kong section, there's a move to narrative poetry that sort of reminds me of Prufrock, with an alienated narrator stumbling along the frontage area of Victoria Harbor trying awkwardly to connect to someone, and it is his inner world narration of others that reveals his longing and lonliess, even though he apparently has $$$ and can dine at the fancy restaurants overlooking the harbor. The Martha's Vineyard section seems to return to surreal and almost gothic themes, which includes visits to Jim Belushi's grave and other cemeteries where grapes ripen on marble headstones The Hawaii section returns to the childhood traumas experienced by the narrator while living in Honolulu, as well as reflections as an adult when returning to visit his parents/siblings. Very intense work here.
This book is a Finalist for the 2014 San Diego Book Award in Poety, and contains the winner of the Honolulu Weekly Poetry Prize ("Damien's Tears") and the Jodie Stutz Memorial Prize awarded by Humboldt State University.(less)
I don’t always know from watching what is gymnastics and what is dance. Listening doesn’t always tell me which tunes are country and which are rock or...moreI don’t always know from watching what is gymnastics and what is dance. Listening doesn’t always tell me which tunes are country and which are rock or even pop. All the same, as sure as Gymnopedies is ballet, I know what is beautiful. I know what reaches me, and what changes me. Square Dancing at the Asylum is beautiful even when it turns angular and confrontative. It reaches me like fog through open windows, inescapably. And I don’t even try to resist the change in myself Wright effects with these bolts of flashing literature.
Why would I expose myself to art if I were going to reject its constructive power?
Kirby Wright calls his pieces “flash fiction.” Would any reader feel differently about them if he called them poems, prose poetry, or just very short stories? I think serious readers would not. The pieces are poetry because they are aesthetically whole and they depend on all the significant qualities of language, not just the defined meanings of the words. They are very short stories, since that only means each one can be read in basically no time. Are they prose poetry or flash fiction?
Easy question. Yes!
What is far less easy is to keep yourself from being entirely consumed by the seven “books” in the volume. Even the names of the books recited in order suggest something more than the naming of “sections” in a collection: Desire, The Burbs, Confinement, Creature Comforts, Slaughterhouse Flies, Notes From the Front Line, and Nothing Ever Changes.
The major characters—all gunning for you—include a lifelong mental patient, cannibals, an abusive father, a narcissist mother, a possessive big brother, and a helpless kid sister. There are countless other characters that will haunt and taunt you ever after too, including one who will make you think twice about any poems you ever try to write yourself: “The Queen of Above Average Poetry.”
Prose poems have been around for at least 150 years. Oscar Wilde was a master of the form. Flash fiction, more than anything, seems to be a newish (1990 or so) name for the same form, probably meant to place fewer demands on the writer about the intense, poetic use of those higher and more subtle qualities of language. Wright didn’t need the softer definition. Throughout Square Dancing, there is rhythm and multiplication of possible meaning, words provide color, and sounds convey emotions. Nonetheless, Wright is smart enough to use the newer name for his work: flash fiction.
It is not possible to know and probably not reasonable to guess what a writer “thinks he is doing,” ever. We cannot see what he is looking at, know what he is thinking, or sense the feelings that move the creator of art in any form, especially literature. We can, however, be moved by his language. Here’s an example: in “Earthquake Weather” you’ll read, “humming Iran’s National Anthem at intersections.” That plugs into my heartbeat, and gives it a new rhythm. Even completely out of context, the syllables stun. Or, try this one from “New Jersey” as both an intense use of language and an ultra-sharp image: “Neighbors laugh, cough, conduct seizures of sneezes during family reunions.”
There are, all through Square Dancing at the Asylum, endings that surprise (or even shock) the reader, but they never feel contrived. Before you even read the book—I know you’ll want to read it—try to think how this ending of “Hurricane Irene” is a direction-changing surprise: “The breeze makes him feel he as though he’s really there. He sees a woman standing at the water’s edge, searching for something in the waves.” Heart-stoppers can crop up anywhere in this collection. You won’t understand why this is so important until you read your way to it, but burn this “Messages From the West” line into memory: “After crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, the man adjusts his rearview mirror while speeding home to Michigan, his convertible top down.”
Whole novels blossom in your thoughts or dreams after you read a few hundred words. The pieces do not appear as Cliff notes. Instead, each piece is clearly the crystallized result of powerfully and passionately compressing every meaningful thought and syllable into almost no space, giving meaning so concentrated it is dizzying.
There are echoes throughout Square Dancing at the Asylum to remind you of Wright’s memoirs, his earlier poetry, and even his speculative fiction (The End, My Friend). You don’t have to be familiar with these earlier works to enjoy the new volume, but this is a collection that—if it is your introduction to Wright—will send you in search of his other works. First, though, stop and enjoy the prose here, or the poems, or flash fictions. Doesn’t matter. Turn the pages slowly. Give yourself time to think and care about what you’re experiencing as you read. The meaning and value will grow to fill all the time you are willing to give them. (less)
This is a sort of prequel to THE HUNGER GAMES, that is, what happened to society to get us to that point. The main characters are pregnant Evo and Ton...moreThis is a sort of prequel to THE HUNGER GAMES, that is, what happened to society to get us to that point. The main characters are pregnant Evo and Tony and they flee the suburbs of Southern California for "the Northern Territories," and end up at a secret lake in Oregon. The chapters have an episodic feel because new dilemmas are constantly threatening this 30-Something couple in their quest to find safe haven in a world that knows no rules. I actually found this more compelling than THE HUNGER GAMES because it shows society deconstructing and gives a good overview of the invading Phoenix Army forces and how that army clashed with the Coastal Townships from San Diego north to Seal Beach, Oregon. The read is very edgy but the presence of animals such as Sudzy (Evo's pet cat) and the dog Cosmo help take some of the edge off. However, I would say this is definitely a PG-13 read. There's an exploration of what it means to be in a Utopia here when Evo bounce between the sustainable outpost of Nirvana in the Mojave and then the cultish Malpaso near Carmel. A good feeling here of being on the road, with almost movie-like shots out the window of a Land Rover. Then we end up at a sort of River Runs Through It-type feel when the couple reaches their final destination at the secret lake and help establish a ragtag commune at an abandoned lodge. Tony learns to put food on the table by becoming a trout fisherman and Evo works the garden and gets great at canning. But the peace and quiet is shattered when warriors show up to get revenge for Tony's past indiscretions. This is a fast compelling read by a good writer.(less)