an author’s dream come true: a generous, thoughtful review of small, fierce things

an author’s dream come true: a generous, thoughtful review of small, fierce things

A review of small, fierce things by Andrew Hamilton at maryjournal.org
A review of small, fierce things by Andrew Hamilton at maryjournal.org

This morning, my colleague, publisher, and fellow scribbler Jason Buchholz emailed me to ask if I had seen the review of my recent book of flash fiction, small, fierce things in Mary: a Journal of New Writing.

I had not.

As the writers out there know, and most readers probably don’t, the publishing world is not what the shelves at Barnes and Noble might imply. If you are not a Stephen King or a JK Rowling, (which 99.9999999999999% of us are not) finding a publisher for your book is not the domino that sets the rest in motion: it is only the first step. The next is a lonely, shameless, and grueling campaign of self-promotion and self-marketing through any and all means, such as selling your book out of your backpack, bringing your book to local shops to see if they are willing to sell on commission, posting relentlessly into the general cacophony of social media, begging your former teachers to consider teaching the book, inviting yourself to open mics and readings, and hoping your family, friends, and people from your writer’s group are not the only people who read it. In my case, I had the help of Achiote Press and my colleague Jason, who showed up at my readings, blasted his own social media to promote my work, and as this post shows, was out there looking for reviews of my book in his spare time (when he isn’t working full time, raising a child, co-running his small press, and writing his own novels.)

How does one get reviewed if you are a small, fierce mouse and not a large, visible elephant? You beg. You send out email queries and never hear back. You mail out free review copies to anyone who will take one, and then pass out after holding your breath for a few months waiting to hear back (while sheepishly googling your book title to confirm that no one has reviewed it.)

Then you give up.

And then, if you are really really lucky, a kind soul not only reads it, but reads it closely, and writes their observations down, and publishes it. In my case, that kind, generous, thoughtful reviewer is Andrew Hamilton at maryjournal.org.

I don’t know Andrew, but I would like to say this: writing book reviews for small presses is the literary equivalent of volunteering to get up and sing your heart out to an invisible crowd who may or may not be there, and who may or may not be paying attention. Most reviewers of fiction are not paid for what they do… except in review copies, a very small per-review stipend ($25-$50 if you write for say, Publisher’s Weekly) and the author’s undying gratitude (even negative reviews sell books). Book reviewers, in my opinion, work harder than the authors themselves… putting their craft and art into a piece of writing about someone else’s piece of writing. They are the (mostly) unsung heroes of the publishing world. Those who do have high visibility, like NPR’s Maureen Corrigan, give solid but eventually predictable and repetitively-styled reviews as bookends (yup) to Terry Gross’ show Fresh Air. If you are everyone else, you are competing to be read by an audience terminally distracted by the sheer white noise of the net. And don’t get me started on the reviewers who treat reviewing as an exercise in cynical showboating.

So, if you’ve read this far, please doff your hat to those book reviewers out there who do this work as a labor of love, a masochistic reflex, an unspeakable kindness, or whatever it is that makes them kind enough and crazy enough to donate their precious mental resources in this act of service. Andrew Hamilton, and maryjournal.org, thank you. 

chasing the river

chasing the river

chasing the river

chasing the river

they told lucky he was special, and he was. he could leap higher and run farther than other dogs. he learned to fetch. he carried in the newspaper. he sat up and rolled over and played dead when someone pointed their finger at him and said Bang! he could open doors and turn on lights, and he could play cards.

at first it was only war, and he only won by cheating, but everyone forgave him because he was young and cute, and war was a game mostly of persistence and chance, and lucky was nothing if not persistent.

he stayed up late when the uncles came over and learned to play rummy and blackjack. he learned to play whist and bridge and hearts from grandma and an auntie who chain-smoked Pall Malls. he learned egyptian rat screw and slap and go fish and crazy eights. he learned to play bullshit and he was so good at it no one would play it with him anymore.

in fact he became so good at cards and was so intense and annoying an opponent, always bluffing and yet somehow always perfectly in earnest, and not above clearing the room with devastating farts he blamed on the cat if he felt his luck had turned. soon, he found that all the decks of cards in the house had gone missing.

everything leaves its river of scent, and the cards had their particular perfume of the oil and sweat of many fingertips, the cheesy odor of bad snacks and beer and poor sportsmanship. he followed this river to find them stashed in a cupboard near the takeout menus and snuck off to his doghouse with them to play solitaire and concentration.

it was not long after this that a series of tragedies befell lucky s family. grandpa died and the uncles left for their beach trailer in mexico. the older sister shaved off all her hair, got in a pickup truck, and drove west, saying she might be able to remain on the edge of nightfall forever if she could just drive fast enough. father, who had left a long time before, continued his haunting by omission- only now his ghost seemed to take up more space since everyone had cleared out. mother’s light, always the moon and the sun around which everyone orbited, had been eclipsed by the exhaustion of loss, and working three jobs, and there was still never enough money.

this was not the way things were supposed to work out, and none of it made sense to lucky, who could no longer create laughter and good feelings by fetching and opening doors and turning on lights and chasing the miniscule red-eyed fruit flies that ambled directionlessly around the kitchen. left alone while mother was on the night shift, he went on long walks, wandering parts of town he hadn’t known existed, chasing the scent of cards.

it was easy, really- he found the games of hold ‘em on stoops and in kitchens and in bars. he won a hand, and then another. at first, the delight at seeing a dog play at all, and then play so well, made the players generous about losing. but as lucky won again and again, things got serious. again and again his cards surfaced on the river, and they called him a fish and a donkey. he think-bluffed, and sandbagged and hollywooded, and won the pot until there was nothing left, but when he tried to gather up his winnings they laughed and threw him out and said it didn’t count because he was a dog. but lucky was nothing if not persistent.

on the long walk home, he saw the future becoming golden. he would come home with stacks of money clenched in his jaws and lay them on mother’s pillow. there would be no more cheap toilet paper. there would be artisan toast with irish butter for mother, and there would be cat food for him- as much as he wanted. he would tell father’s ghost to become accustomed to the sensation of the temporary, as the light of the house would soon be restored, and she would call in all the wanderers, and fill the house again so that there would be no room anymore for what-ifs or could-have-beens.

one day at the end of the summer, a man knocked at the front door. lucky knew why the man was there, but made a show of barking, scattering the pile of unopened mail on the floor in front of the mail slot. mother was upstairs in bed- but he knew she wouldn’t come down. her light had burned very low, but all that was about to change. the man at the door carried the scent of the river. lucky opened the door. the man hung a golden horseshoe charm on his collar. we’ve heard about you, the man said. he invited him to play in a tournament. he would have backers. it would be televised. he would have a chance to make a name for himself. I already have a name, lucky thought, but it didn’t matter.

under the hot lights at the tournament, he saw that he was not alone. there were other dogs at the table, in fact, they were all dogs. he could feel mother’s eyes on him through the camera. knowing she was watching, he gave it all he had.

when he began to lose, he lost absolutely. he lost like he ate. he lost like he breathed, he lost like he won. he lost like a dog. he threw himself again and again into the river, but came up again and again with the bottom end. he busted until he was buried, while all around him the other dogs flopped and cardracked and checked the dark. none of this mattered to the backers, who had bet canines, which was a winning hand no matter what.

still, lucky pursued the scent of empty potential, which never grew cold: he chased after the red and the black, the high and the low- the pull of the river that was everywhere and nowhere. if he could speak, he would explain that the river is like the light. you can bask in it, and you can drown in it, but you cannot hold onto it.

but lucky was nothing if not persistent.

small, fierce things would like to come home with you

small, fierce things would like to come home with you

collage of covers

small, fierce book covers

small, fierce things, my new book of illustrations and stories, is sold out! However, if you would like to special order a copy,  contact me!  

 

I am delighted to announce that in conjunction with Achiote Press, my new book is ready for purchase!  There are 50 handmade, hand-sewn copies ready to slide, crawl, scurry, bound, leap, wing, flutter, slink, creep, dig, and nose their way into your mailbox. All you have to do is click the button below and decide how many small, fierce things you want!

Details: Each books is 5″ X 5″ and 70 pages long. They are printed on acid-free coverstock, hand-sewn using fishing net that I found washed up on the beaches of Svalbard (yes, the North Pole!) Each book has a unique cover created from  found textiles and photographs, and contains 12 stories and 28 pen-and-ink illustrations.

Here is what some wonderful people have said about small, fierce things:

L.J.’s Fierce revels in the often queer intersection of the human and non-human worlds, with a focus not so much on the digital world (which we might now have come to accept), but on the animal: how the harmonica might make a rooster berserk, or the way a man whose frown “seemed permanent” might appreciate eye contact with a porcupine for “the way it had come to be there in his hands.” This book is a series of anti-selfies: off-kilter moments full of wonder, not presentation; this is not a window display but a corridor of funhouse mirrors. You might look the same when you’re finished, but something inside will be different.

Evan Karp, founder of Quiet Lightning

In LJ Moore’s small, fierce things, feelings you never thought to name become animal, donning flesh, fur, spikes, feathers. Nightmares walk and secrets play the banjo. These very short stories, written simply and without guile, vibrate with power and mystery, celebrate the authority of ambiguity. What does this mean? Moore has a way with last lines that feel unexpected but inevitable, lines that pin her characters to inescapable fact but open up a world of feeling in the reader, a simultaneous shrinking and explosion of possibility. These tales dance at the edge of fantasy but are never twee, never merely fanciful. They are too serious, too much about the sad predicament of being human, to be reduced to the whimsical, though it is clear that Moore is enjoying herself, letting her characters speak for themselves in awkwardly charming ways. The animal drawings that accompany the stories preceded them, according to Moore, and the stories came about as illustrations of the drawings, rather than vice versa. The drawings are sharply rendered, slyly funny, with more than a hint of the bizarre. They, along with the stories they fueled, bring to mind Flannery O’Connor’s famous line, The Truth Shall Make You Odd. I think Moore would be okay with that.

Sarah Fran Wisby, author of Viva Loss, and The Heart’s Progress (forthcoming from Plain Wrap Press)

Cats bring prey to feed their young and LJ Moore must be part feline because her small, fierce things sustains us. In words and illustrations, Moore brings the wilderness of the imagination to our front porch. It’s a bloody gift, still warm. Good kitty.

Tupelo Hassman, author of Girlchild

“As its name suggests, small, fierce things offers world in miniature–finely tuned observations that break open upon contact, secrets within secrets, hidden worlds that lie at the borders between the natural world and human consciousness. Wondrously illustrated and carefully wrought, LJ Moore’s work is a strange and uncanny delight.”

Colin Dickey, author of Afterlives of the Saints, and Cranioklepty

Each story in this collection reveals an unexpected and mesmerizing portrait that spins with the exquisite energy of dreams. Populated with all manner of creature-guides, and ranging from the far north to your grandmother’s bathroom towels, small, fierce things is a constellation of bright marvels not to be missed.”

Stacy Carlson, author of Among the Wonderful

 Not convinced yet? Read an excerpt.

Interested in the process of how this book was made? Scroll down!

Outtakes from the making of small, fierce things:

small, fierce things take over my bed
small, fierce things take over my bed
small, fierce things getting together
small, fierce things getting together
sewing the spines of small, fierce things
sewing the spines of small, fierce things
small, fierce books
small, fierce books
small, fierce things: my new book of stories and illustrations

small, fierce things: my new book of stories and illustrations

After a long hiatus during which I recovered from the incredible experience of traveling to the Arctic Circle and sailing aboard the Antigua with an incredible group of people, I have been busy doing something new: illustrating and writing a new book.

As of yesterday, I completed the first draft and am very excited to be doing the layout and getting it ready for binding. Yes, you read that right, I am binding it myself. Thanks to Stevie Ronnie, a poet from the UK that I met in the Arctic, I now know how to make my own books. With the support of a local literary press (more on that later!) I will be hand-binding a first run of 50 books which will be available for purchase in early 2014. I will give you all the details when they are ready. Each book will be made with unique “found” materials… including handmade papers, textiles, photographic prints, and other ephemera. Each book will have a hand-stitched spine, using fibers I recovered from fishing nets that washed ashore on Arctic beaches.  The book is called small, fierce things, and will contain 12 stories accompanied by 28 pen and ink illustrations.

To give you a sense of the book, here is an excerpt of one of the stories in small, fierce things.

Please check back mid-January for news on when the book will be available!

the gentleman in the white coat

driftwood

Sigbjørn is Norwegian, though when he arrives to work in the coal mines, he is a newcomer to the hardened group that has already labored several winters together. He is not one to try to ingratiate himself, which is taken by many to mean he is either proud or simple or both. After a night of drinking, they try in their way to make him belong to them, suggesting various nicknames until, in a fit of backhanded alliteration, someone jokes “Sig the Swede,” and the insult sticks. After the explosion, he moves from Longyearbyen to a shack on an isolated stretch further along Isfjorden. He begins again there as himself, Sigbjørn.

Behind him, a ghost lives on. The men who survived the blast entertain the new men who come to swing the dead men’s picks in the dead men’s boots by telling them the story of Sig the Swede, who was burnt so terribly in the coal fire he could not bear for anyone to see his face, and so now lives where only snow and sky can look on him.

As spring and then summer wane, Sigbjørn watches the sun swing lower and lower in its parabola until each day is one long twilight. In his mind he calls the days days and the nights nights, but they have long ceased to have anything to do with light or darkness. He lives in the shack with only occasional visits from the gentleman in the white coat for company. The gentleman in the white coat is no gentleman at all, but large and hungry and abusive of friendships. He, like Sig the Swede, is one story to others and another to himself. The gentleman in the white coat likes to make himself Sigbjørn’s guest without having been invited. He endeavors to eat up precious stores and provisions, and the shack’s rugs and furnishings. He would devour Sigbjørn himself if allowed. His hunger has a magnitude to which it is difficult to draw comparisons, and when this hunger overtakes him, Sigbjørn is forced to scare him off with a torch or explosives or a shotgun blast.

Still, the vagaries of the gentleman in the white coat are preferable to what troubles Sigbjørn most: collecting enough fuel to keep himself alive through the polar night. He brought no coal with him. Coal belongs to Sig the Swede, and only without it can he be sure he is Sigbjørn. It seems fitting, in his darkest moments, that Sig the Swede had ended in fire, as Sigbjørn would unquestioningly die of ice.

But there is another thing he can burn, to remain himself: he gathers it along the beaches of the fjord. It gives itself to him in the continual darkness, revealed in its particular shade of gray in a landscape of gray. It is a gift sent from his home, a distant coast thick with stands of spruce and larch and pine. Dying first, then washed into the sea, it floats across the brow of the globe in drift ice. It begins this movement toward him long before he leaves home for the mines, long before the birth and death of Sig the Swede, even long before he had become Sigbjørn the first time.  Salted and bleached, it comes ashore to him now, gnarled, altered, full of fire.

My travels with Huginn and Muninn

My travels with Huginn and Muninn

Odin on his horse Sleipnier. His ravens, Huginn and Muninn, at his side. Artist: Gerhard Munthe (1849-1929)Today I am officially announcing that the title of my book in progress, formerly titled digital gothic: a spellbook for the new sorcerer, has been claimed by its rightful muses and will now be titled “Huginn & Muninn: a digital gothic.”

I also want to tell you a strange little story about how this book has come into being over the past two years. I will let you decide what to make of it, but I believe, personally, that the exhausting adventure/struggle that is writing a book is not merely a personal act. I think it’s a collusion, and I don’t think you necessarily get to choose who hijacks you and insists you tell their story.

In the case of this book, my hijackers (or guides as I like to call them), are Huginn & Muninn. Never heard of them? Neither had I. In Norse mythology, they are a pair of ravens that accompany the god Odin. They fly out into the world(s) and bring back news of what they have seen.  Their names translate to “thought” (Huginn) and “mind” or “memory” (Muninn). Odin’s relationship with these ravens is described in Scandinavian poetry from before and up to the 13th century including the Prose Edda, Poetic Edda, the Heimskringla saga, and in the work of a group of Icelandic poets called the skalds. I have not read any of these works, nor did I know about Odin being associated with ravens before they came to me in a dream. Though I have to admit I can relate in a very strong way to this image of a skald, composing poetry in chains after being captured by King Óláfr Haraldsson.

Bersi Skáldtorfuson composing poetry while in chains after being captured by King Óláfr Haraldsson.Not to be melodramatic about it, but being chained by the neck is an apt depiction of the internal landscape of most poets. This is why we cannot handle our liquor and why people tend to avoid our taste in books and movies.

So yes, in case it slipped by you where I tried to hide it at the end of paragraph 3 above, I was approached by Huginn & Muninn in a dream. At the time, I knew nothing of who they were. You see, I have had a lifelong obsession with ravens. For my 12th birthday I had a raven tattooed across my left arm, shoulder, and back. (FYI: Every birthday has been my 12th birthday since I turned 12.) So ravens were not an unknown subject to me. I know the connotations Poe has given them, I know that they are scavengers, I know that their intelligence is on par with a dog’s (really a human’s but we don’t like to admit to these things), and that ravens live in family groups and can live for 70 years. In myth I was aware of raven as a trickster god, and in the Northwest native traditions is seen as a prometheus figure, having stolen the sun and brought it down to give warmth and light to human beings.

A Nunivak Cup'ig man with raven maskette. The raven (Cup'ig tulukarug) is Ellam Cua or Creator god in the Cup’ig mythologyThen something happened.  I was out walking at night. I was listening, for the very first time, to Virtual Boy’s Mass.  I began to see things in my head, to connect internally to a time when I slipped in and out of such “seeing” quite easily- my early teens and twenties. A time when the plasticity of reality was still very much accessible to me. We are all magicians when we are young, but we don’t know it because we don’t know that reality actually solidifies as you get older. We don’t even have a way of understanding what the hell that means until it’s already happening. Before you think I am waxing sentimental, let me clarify: youth is not some precious, innocent state. I’m not forgetting the self-centeredness, short-sightedness, vanity, or naivety that are all rampant during that time, but I was remembering the  effortless and absolute belief I had at a younger age that I could apparently influence the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces, which happens to be the first definition of magic. I think most teens and people in their early twenties think in that rational-magical way. It’s how new things happen.

The thought that came to me, and the memory that immediately followed, was that I had once known how to travel into other worlds. Not the ill-advised and oft-regretted world of vodka shots. Not the blank room full of cats-in-hats behind the TV or inside the endless hypertrails of the internetz, but that portal that opens when you close your eyes and listen to certain kinds of music.

** I would like to note here, that the thought came to me, and then the memory followed. Odin’s ravens, remember, are called Huginn (thought) and Munnin (memory). Hindsight is interesting, isn’t it? Huginn and Muninn sit on Odin's shoulders in an illustration from an 18th century Icelandic manuscript

I credit my mother for this revelation about music as a door to other worlds. When I was about nine or ten years old, she once told me to lie on the floor and close my eyes and listen to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkries, and wait for pictures to come into my mind. “What do you see?” she asked me.

At first I saw the blood vessels in my eyelids, and then the phosphenes that swirl and houndstooth in flexing patterns behind your eyes when you are still “looking” but can’t see. And then I saw a bird… a white bird being chased through a storm by a black bird. I saw a battlefield. A war. All of it unfolding, happening as I watched. Not a thought, not a memory… just happening. Closing my eyes and entering that music was like stepping off the edge of the outside world into an equally vast inside world. This inside world, the one accessible through music, was unlike the world of dreams, or the world of deliberate imagining… it took me with it where it was going, not where I directed it. I did not know then that this simple act- to let go of the self and travel in this way- is the heart of the creative process. Disappearing the self is what all creative acts require, and  ironically, it becomes more and more difficult to do this the more your “self” accumulates of the daily world.

We spend so much time arriving in and occupying our bodies. It’s all we think about. No wonder we get trapped. And the trick of the writer, unlike the dreamer, is to walk the slippery, crazy edge between this world and all the others– because the whole point, dear reader, is to bring things back….. for you.Odin enthroned with weapons, wolves and ravens.

So that night, walking through Golden Gate Park and listing to music in the dark, I began to see a vision in my head of a record spinning. And the record– this tight spiral line on a hard piece of stamped vinyl– was a code. If you have the right needle, that line becomes a song. Without it… you might go your whole life not knowing what that round piece of unremarkable plastic held– an entrance to another world. That night I went home and wrote: a magical circle, the first poem of the book. And then that night I had a dream that I was inside a giant Victorian house that suddenly ripped it’s foundations out of the ground, spread its eaves and took off into the sky. I was standing in the window, holding on for dear life and watching all the other houses in the city straining to get loose and take off. We entered a fogbank, and I couldn’t see anything but vague lights, and then I heard a very distinct sound next to me… feathers being blown in the wind. That’s when I saw the two ravens– one was surrounded by a cloud of black fire, and the other had wings entirely composed of hollow flutes that made chords and tones and music as it flew. They were both hanging in the air just outside the window, guiding the house out of the fog. When we emerged, we were over the Golden Gate Bridge, and heading for the open sea, only I wasn’t in the house anymore. I was a third raven. When I looked back, the house was still flying along, dodging in and out of the support cables of the bridge, along with some other houses. Through the windows, I could see people asleep in their beds, with no idea what was going on.

That dream gave me the seeds of the poems a candle, waking the dead, and gate crashing. It also made me want, more than anything, to get back in that dream. To be able to follow the ravens wherever it was they were going.

KutkhIf you think I sound nuts, consider this: do you dream? How often are you able to remember your dreams? How often do you remember the dream just as you were waking up, but then lost it because you had another thought/started worrying about something you had to do/remembered you forgot to buy milk… and “poof” can’t remember the dream. Only that it was something strange, or important, or disturbing, or wonderful. You might grope for a few moments, trying to get it back, but the harder you try, the further it slips away. Sometimes you remember them, but when you speak them aloud or write them down… it is impossible to get across the sensation of significance in them. Sure, some dreams are just the regular old processing of anxiety and worry… or bits reassembled in a new and hilarious way. I had a dream, for example, that I was promoted to a new position in my job, they threw a big party for me, then when I got the piece of paper with my new job title on it, I discovered that I had been “promoted” to the job I already have. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the underlying feelings that brought on that Dilbert-esque dream. I’m not talking about those sorts of dreams… I’m talking about the ones that come every once in awhile. The ones that are not like dreams at all, but travels.

I’m here to tell you something: they are travels. You can go or not go… you can dismiss them and they will fade. Or you can pay attention, and dig deeper, and maybe go into territory you didn’t know existed. It’s just like the thread of song on the vinyl record. You would never think a piece of plastic could contain a song, just like you’d never think a dream could contain another world.

We are taught, at least in the culture I was raised in, that conscious control of our thoughts, actions, lives… deliberate decision-making with a very specific, intellectual part of the brain, is the highest form of self-control. The problem with this is that “doing” and “thinking” aren’t the same at all. I would even argue that you can’t really successfully do them at the same time. Doing is flow, and when you think “about” flow, you lose it. Creativity is very similar: it is the conscious act of relinquishing your self-consciousness. It is somewhere between dream and awake. The hard part is trusting it, and going with it. You can’t always dream yourself back into the dream… but once the ravens have appeared, you don’t really need to dream them anymore. That’s when you can sit down and enter the music, enter the creative headspace, and wait for them to appear… Corvus_corax_arizona

I’m nothing if not curious, but I also rely heavily in my writing, on looking up things. If an idea appears in my work, I’m off to wikipedia, (Jung’s collective unconscious made manifest) to find out what people say about it. No subject is safe– physics, otters, politics, molecules– it’s all part of the continuum, and it’s all stuff to know and steal language from. So of course, I went looking into the ravens… and I found Huginn & Muninn, (or they found me).  Check out what the page has to say about theories of their origin:

Theories

A modern reconstruction of the Raven Banner

Scholars have linked Odin’s relation to Huginn and Muninn to shamanic practice. John Lindow relates Odin’s ability to send his “thought” (Huginn) and “mind” (Muninn) to the trance-state journey of shamans. Lindow says the Grímnismál stanza where Odin worries about the return of Huginn and Muninn “would be consistent with the danger that the shaman faces on the trance-state journey.”[20]

Rudolf Simek is critical of the approach, stating that “attempts have been made to interpret Odin’s ravens as a personification of the god’s intellectual powers, but this can only be assumed from the names Huginn and Muninn themselves which were unlikely to have been invented much before the 9th or 10th centuries” yet that the two ravens, as Odin’s companions, appear to derive from much earlier times.[11] Instead, Simek connects Huginn and Muninn with wider raven symbolism in the Germanic world, including the Raven Banner (described in English chronicles and Scandinavian sagas), a banner which was woven in a method that allowed it, when fluttering in the wind, to appear as if the raven depicted upon it was beating its wings.[11]

Anthony Winterbourne connects Huginn and Muninn to the Norse concepts of the fylgja—a concept with three characteristics; shape-shifting abilities, good fortune, and the guardian spirit—and the hamingja—the ghostly double of a person that may appear in the form of an animal. Winterbourne states that “The shaman’s journey through the different parts of the cosmos is symbolized by the hamingja concept of the shape-shifting soul, and gains another symbolic dimension for the Norse soul in the account of Oðin’s ravens, Huginn and Muninn.”[21] In response to Simek’s criticism of attempts to interpret the ravens “philosophically”, Winterbourne says that “such speculations […] simply strengthen the conceptual significance made plausible by other features of the mythology” and that the names Huginn and Muninn “demand more explanation than is usually provided.”[21]

So…. I thought… perhaps I am a little nuts. But I am clearly not the first poet to have been hijacked by the ravens of thought and memory… so who am I to break with tradition?

Huginn & Muninn by Guy HobbsThere is also something else: two years ago when I started writing this book, a google search of Huginn & Muninn revealed little more than a wikipedia page, and a few scattered pages on folklore. In the ensuing time, they have invaded the consciousness of artists all over the world. Try an image search of their names. Suddenly, I am not the only one dreaming about these ravens.

I can only hope I am up to the home stretch… of pushing through the daily grind to meet them, and to relay back this story that I’m stealing? borrowing? witnessing? in these other worlds. I know it will not let me go until I do… and frankly, I don’t want to let go of it either. It feels good to be able, finally, to fly in this way I always knew I could.

Here is How it Happens, Spencer Dew (Ampersand Books, March 2013)

Here is How it Happens, Spencer Dew (Ampersand Books, March 2013)

This is How it Happens, by Spencer Dew (Ampersand Books, 2013)

Irony’s chokehold on fiction is beginning to crack, and Here is How it Happens.

It happens in art school in Ohio. It happens in a greasy spoon on the highway at sunset, and again just before dawn. It happens not in spite of, but because cinnamon-apple is not in alphabetical order, household products kill, and killer bees are on the way. It almost happens on a dryer during the permanent press cycle. And it never happens the way it is supposed to.

Billed as fiction, but with lyricism borrowed from poetry, a California Sea Lion tranquilizer dart, and a day-glo orange hunting cap with earflaps, Spencer Dew‘s debut novel, Here is How it Happens, tracks a group of art-school sophomores in a small Ohio town.

Armed with scalpel-sharp wit and dwindling hopes, its characters have grown up in a culture saturated by a propaganda of naive optimism, oversimplified morality, and cookie-cutter trajectories: fall in love, get married, work hard in a fulfilling career, be satisfied and happy. Presented with a very different reality- parents lost to mental illness or alcohol-fueled absurdist beach parties; a tuber-like populace eating their way through chain restaurants; love that fizzled early and quickly descended into obligatory ritual- these characters have responded the way a real generation of young people has responded: by falling into a numbed, cynical detachment. Every moment turns into an opportunity to chain-smoke, huff paint thinner, or pillage someone else’s box-wine while quipping mordant slogans like, “Faith is a bit clichéd,” and “The kitsch of the past is the discourse of the future.”

This territory would instantly become tedious if the author were offering us only smart-alecky, ironical humor as a reason to read this book. But Dew is not a coward: he, like his protagonist, Martin, is a circumspect hunter out to bullseye the target on the dummy-deer in the Walmart sports-supply department, proving that it rests directly over an empty place that should contain a heart. One of the book’s principle characters, Kim, is the art “star” of the group. Rewarded with droll accolades by her teachers and held up as an example before other students, she is a vulture incapable of not creating art out of every waking experience, including those of her friends. She is the ultimate in righteous self-obsession, and is Dew’s acknowledgment that aloofness and abstraction is no better answer to the dark night of the soul than cleverness and self-destruction. But for a group of young people whose lives already feel as if they are nearly over, what is the answer? An overdose? Giving in to expectations and marrying the person you should love, but don’t? Cultivate the thickest skin possible? Concede futility and pursue one of many paths to zombiehood?

Rather than remain in the safe buffer zone of intellect, Here is How it Happens takes a brave step out of the realm of cynicism toward the infinitely more risky territory of tenderness. Dew does this best when he is not padding his good work with lyric flourish. Though there is plenty of heady, well-crafted language here for those who need the illustration of metaphor to solidify the underlying emotion, “a storm of blood light, clotting the sky,” the most powerful moments are simple and guileless, like the night Martin comes home to the attic dorm room he shares with Eddie, whose art takes the form of painstaking miniature dioramas of famous political scenes like the mass-murder at Kent State. Eddie, who has been working for hours and is covered with paint, puts a comforting hand on Martin’s shoulder, leaving a smudge:

“He dabs at my jacket with one of his rags, the rag smelling of heavy turpentine, blotched with military-tone paint.
‘It’s okay,’ I say. ‘Please don’t try and fix it.'”

 

Here is How it Happens
by Spencer Dew
Ampersand Books, March 2013

Huginn and Muninn: a digital gothic (part 8- the sinking lure)

Huginn and Muninn: a digital gothic (part 8- the sinking lure)

 

Part 8: the sinking lure: [Playlist: Ellie Goulding: Lights Instrumental]

 

the anglerfish sinks

her lure winks off                      on

 a lightning bug
wil o wisp
yellow sea star

shrinks
to a pinhole flash
and nothings-out

quiet floods
into the would-be time

for mercy to wink
and leap for sidelong dreams                 a near-escape

                               but form is skin-tight want
insisting thought
clench down to bread and blood:

so slow and painful to be things

given arms or legs or wings
worse still
re   membered

 as a burnt-out light might
toss a phantom flare
toward the thought of night

 absence is thing-shaped
and the more disfigured
the more distinctly felt

what was  what was  what was  what
was      still describing to the missing limb

 a clenching fist

O Reader! I had you in my mind
to share the life of our common body
not bounded by finite skin      

believed we two as sorcerers
might cast ourselves into other worlds
as winged spells          and thereby make        in borrowed form                             

a home of dark winds
no frightening place to those whose
feathers           each a glistering facet

might catch the many beams like a lighthouse crystal
returning through the veil
one focused light

but the guides are lost
and any acrobatic
sleight of mind            is stripped
when

                                    the phone rings and
a voice breaks

a falling father body crashes through

the knowing mind          a grown child asking y y y y
all times and all selves come slamming home

when the split sides of the air collapse
in thunder

holy stranger                    ghostly Z who rises
from the juncture

featherless        mindless
bodiless            X

in this no place

no light to see light crushed

            by fire into dust and bits of bone
packed into a named and numbered box

            paid for at the appropriate office

            and carried to the passenger seat of the car
buckled in for the

 tremble of final air
squeezed out in a thread of breath

so fine a mist
ruptures

into a

            fiery particle

a light visible only to you
the stranger       the reader
who gently insists

the pages of years
still left to smoulder
a music in our flame of living

emptiness and cold ignite
between doorway and threshold

into a black, bird-shaped light
burning above a dark new country

read part 9

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