I met Joanna Ruocco at her release gathering for The Mothering Coven. After her reading, she gave me a copy of the latest issue of Birkensnake. She’s one of the editors there and she told me that she had bound the book herself. It’s a lovely object that was both blowtorch-singed, and sprayed, I think, with some kind of toxic (is there any other kind?) fixative.
Birkensnake 2 opens with Michael Stewart’s “The Children’s Factory,” a beguiling short short with no shortage of underlying menace. The factory’s machines here are “run by tiny hands. In the bowels. In the guts. In the very intestinal tract of it…” and the “Devil only knows what their great machine does—other than wheeze and breathe.” Though it easily works as a standalone piece, it also felt like it could be a fragment of a much larger narrative.
An excerpt from Danielle Dutton’s novel A World Called the Blazing World follows. It’s about Margaret Cavendish, a polymath who lived in England in the 17th century. Besides being Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne she was a prolific writer who wrote poetry, philosophy, prose romances, essays, plays, and she also wrote a proto-science fiction novel, The Blazing World. Dutton is a wonderful stylist who writes sentences to luxuriate in:
The trip to Oxford was made in the dead of night. Kisses on the lawn at St. John’s Green. A perfect summer gloom of vegetal bravado: peonies, bugloss, native beetles singing.
Then someone cleared his throat—and Margaret saw she was in an alternate universe whirring far into space: African servants, poets, dogs in silken caps, platonic ideals, sparkling conversation, aristocratic ladies “half-dressed, like angels,” and ivy-coated quadrangles with womanizing captains, dueling earls, actors.
Blake Butler offers another one of his slipstream journeys in “From now on all I’ll talk about is light”. In a place where “children’s eyes made prisms,” the narrator relates:
The second year I shot a beam out of my eyes: radiance earned purely from my fury over Sister—her whole eyes not quite what whatever—and perhaps concerned slightly for my hymen, undulating, which in the night would keep me up, ragged, counting my inhale, waiting on the rheum. At my emission the children moaned a little, rattling their hands, their own eyes lit as if in midst of replication, one thing I’d taught at last, at least—though in their eyes the light would quickly rupture or make paisley and I would sit us down to practice wishing.
With its strange, internal (or is it infernal?) logic, its assonantal phrases, and bobbing rhythms, it almost doesn’t matter where this story goes. It’s all about the journey, taking in the lay of the land, the mind’s ebb and flow.
Fighting off the inclination to parse out what the five forms are in Rhoads Stevens’s “Five Simple Sentence Forms” is easy when you encounter a paragraph like this one:
I lost. I woodshedded my boat design for three weeks before I decided it was time to try it on a man-made lake. The lake was murky and designed by a man named Murphy. Murphy once cooked my father a meal—one that consisted of manioc and rooster heads. My father considered the coxcombs toothsome.
You know that story “Pop Art” by Joe Hill? It’s about an inflatable boy. (See a beautiful adaptation of it HERE. ) When I read the first sentence of “Matt Briggs’s “Knot” (“I was made out of string”) and the immediate sentences following it I thought I was going to get a similar kind of story with more refractive, language-y elements. The story unravels, but not in the way that I thought it wanted to. Anyway, while it seems undeveloped, reads more like a vignette, Matt Briggs’s “Knot,” is still an imaginative piece that has some gorgeous passages like this one about starfish
wrapped in weeds and kelp. They had more than just five arms. Some of them had six or eight or twelve arms. The arms were long and curled around the starfishes’ bodies in elaborate sweeps. They were orange and brown and russet. The gulls let out piercing cries as they hunted the helpless starfish. Each gull emitted a sound at a regular interval, and their cries overlapped and multiplied creating a jarring, pulsing agitation that spread over the entire beach.
There’s a lot of strangeness in Christopher Boucher’s “Strange Animal: Three Stories.” The narrator in “Cage” dates a woman who “kept her brother in a cage.” A man is foiled by a burrito wrapper in “Strange Animal.” Things get hairy in “Hairy,” a story about a hirsute woman and her suitor.
Caren Gussoff offers a fine cyberpunk junket in her story “Correspondence.”
Matthew Pendleton’s “Someday on Planar Surface” is the longest story in this issue. A world is created in which “the outside,” “the ahead,” and “the behind” are palpable things that encroach, enclose, poke, and threaten. It’s a bizarre world with its own logic:
He continually valued the goods in the tray. All together he had been expecting six pounds. There’s six pounds here and there’s six pounds there. Now even if he got six pounds with no lip it wouldn’t account for the distance of his delivery, the way back. Not the real costs maybe, but time, that meant something, made him feel tired. He found a seat and thought of resting there, maybe for several days, letting a morning catch him up, maybe slowly coming across a morning he could participate in. Everyone so half-collapsed all the time with the goods on them, it takes a different mind to think there are things around him saying: it is OK, what happens happens, then it manages into a sort of multi-dimensional puzzle, and solves itself too quickly to see; some voices could describe this sort of thing, when he was most optimistic, or in need of it, optimism, which required a clear view of the ahead, with only the known and surmountable obstacles.
That was when he was sleeping, most optimistic – removed from the world – but when awake he had the idea, it went like this: if I can create of my time a physical artefact, might it be sold and act as leverage for a perpetual sales walk ahead, and the tray and contents, its mass of profit increase boundlessly, grow heavy, bend the web of the world, and then he would see the edges of things wiped out (the certainty of profit causing the certainty of the ahead)?
Miles Klee’s “Dogfight” is a clever story that will make an excellent companion to Sean Lovelace’s “Charlie Brown’s Diaries: Excerpts.” I especially enjoyed this section:
Visions of engaging the Beagle. Stacks his oddly human teeth in towers, shakes into life the invisible gun. We set the sky ablaze, weave black zigzags across golden dusk. He climbs to a stall and plummets past, black ears trilling, face blank canvas, lifts goggles to reveal all-pupil eyes. Awake in pre-dawn, remember Mannie Red is his own worst foe. A yellow bird alights on the windowsill, speaking spells. Outside, Red stares at toy plane—jammed just out of reach in skeletal tree.
Evelyn Hampton’s “Sag: A Saga” is full of recursive sentences that eddy along in wonderful rhythms and internal rhymes, assonance, and alliterative flair:
We were married in a garden of stone, a few flowers, fewer hours each day after, until darkness was our only and every hour, and every light in our home had to be brightly on. There was something the matter with his vision—he saw far, but only into himself, where he found himself looking back and laughing.
There’s the flight of f’s in “few flowers, fewer,” the rhyming of “flowers” and “hours,” of “our” and “hour,” the assonance of “with his vision,” and the lolling quality of connecting in “himself looking back and laughing,” its assonance and alliteration the perfect ending to a serpentine sentence.
“Tumor Flats,” by Joyelle McSweeney,” is also filled with great sentences:
I wore a standup collar, fake hair, I had a velvet repel, I was shooting up life by the spoonful, but then my grind grew a rind that grew bitter and bitterer till my gears just went rust. Now I’m practically incarcerated in my recliner, glimming the smear world through a rip in my sack. But through this nick in my glass I spy the bright world, the little kids heavy with knowledge, their necks stalked, they need a constant tumor tutor to hold their throats open, check the lines that change their fluids, run the chemical baths.
From her expressive usage of the comma that helps these sentences to tumble along to the various repetitions and rhymes, McSweeney is, as always, an engaging stylist.
Birkensnake 2 is available for free HERE.
I always find white text on a black background difficult to read so it’s all the more reason to get the fuzzy fine-looking object in your hands. You may purchase it HERE.
John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.