Sentences and Fragments: Prathna Lor’s VENTRILOQUISM and Myriam Gurba’s WISH YOU WERE ME

Okay, I know, weekends are terrible times to post things on the Internet, and apologies to the Big Other crew for posting like twenty million things in one day. But, moving on:  I’ve been meaning to buy Prathna Lor’s little chapbook from Future Tense for a while, but it wasn’t until I went to the site to buy Myriam Gurba’s that I snapped it up. I want to talk about each of these in terms of this study of sentences I’m doing here.

Prathna Lor’s Ventriloquism

There are about 40 little prose poems in this chapbook, and many of them are only one sentence long. For example, one of my favorites, “Wind Instrument”:
“If you blow into a bird holding its wings slightly tilted toward the sky you will dramatically alter its register.”

What I like about this sentence is that it really isn’t a fragment necessarily, because there’s nothing larger surrounding it. All we have is this single sentence, so it must stand alone. But there are questions I feel could be answered, not that I want the answers, and not that I’d want the poem to answer them. Actually, I like that the poem makes me ask questions, and this, for me, is the experience of reading a single-sentence poem. The questions I have are: Who would do this? Who would think to do this and have the expertise to know to tilt the bird slightly? Why is it important to know that its register will be altered dramatically? At first, I thought maybe the speaker is some sicko. But on second thought, maybe it’s a scientist or naturalist. Maybe it’s important to know this fact about birds for some reason. So, what I’m saying is, this single sentence is very suggestive and effective. It is, in fact, a fragment, but it is also pretty complete.

What this means is when we look at fragments, does it matter what’s around it? What surrounds it? Can the fragment stand alone when we examine it? And does this help to relieve some anxiety about reading poetry? A line can just be a line, read all by itself, much like this single sentence is read by itself. Then the line gains context by what surrounds it. You put those lines together and come away with a different experience, just as we would if we knew whether the speaker of this poem is a twelve-year-old boy or a forty-year-old scientist. It would also be interesting to know in this case if the scientist were trying to help or save birds or just performing experiments for some other, more sinister reason.

Anyway, my point is:  reading this single-sentence poem has helped relieve some anxiety I have about reading poetry. And, you know, it’s interesting because the sentence could go so many ways — it could be funny, goofy, off-the-cuff, or it could be creepy and sinister, or it could be scientific. I like this, that there are so many potential readings of a single sentence.

And this seems the advantage of fragments over whole poems or stories. They can suggest in ways that the entire complete piece isn’t. A whole story or poem answers questions. A single sentence or a fragment makes you ask questions. So it seems like this could be used to some kind of effect.

Similarly, Lor also has this single-sentence poem, “Floating Image”:

“A king slowly lowers himself onto a cock.”

Is it a penis or a bird? Because it’s in this book about this other bird mistreatment, you have to wonder. Could be funny, or could be weird, or could be plain fucked up. What’s cool is that it’s up to the reader to determine.

All right, so not all of the poems are single sentences. Here’s the longest one, which appeared in Everyday Genius, “Bibblebabblesquawk” (again, “squawk” there makes you think of birds. Oh man!). The whole poem is here, but here are two consecutive sentences from inside the rest:

“I tell her I throw buildings off cliffs, sever wild animals and attach them to fruit — sometimes cars or trees. Fucked enough to look like I ate a cunt with my elbows; you know, the saying, what a lark!”

The whole poem is a must-read, but let’s look at these two sentences — alone, and then together. These sentences are clearly situated in the unfamiliar, the world of the abnormal, or bizarre. Yet, we have details that are familiar — buildings, cliffs, animals, fruit, cars, trees. It’s how these things are pieced together that makes the meaning strange. Add to this cunt, elbows, saying, and lark, and we’re just farther along in the insanity. But this is the joy of reading this poem. You just have no idea what’s next.

This is different from the single-sentence poems. After reading those, I just have questions. The sentences are suggestive, make me think and wonder. Here, though, there is a larger world I have to try to understand. A character I get to see for more than a single thought or confession. Here, I have to try to understand the world, the character, the images, the trajectory. Or maybe I don’t. Either way, there is more to try to grasp, more to work with. And this is the joy of reading this longer poem.

Ultimately, and because I’d never read anything by Lor before this collection, I’ve come away with a better understanding of what to expect if I were to encounter more. Probably in store for prose poems, probably in store for longer and shorter works, probably in store for surrealism. All stuff I like. So, sign me up.

Myriam Gurba’s Wish You Were Me

Gurba’s collection from Future Tense is way grittier, nastier, dirtier. For example, “Amazon Abortion,” a single-sentence poem goes like this:

“A piranha up your pussy.”

There are a few short stories here, but mostly we’re dealing with prose poems and tiny little lineated poems.  Here’s a prose poem, “My Grandma Told Your Grandma, ‘I’m Gonna Set Yo Ass On Fire!'”:

“I have a good grandma and a bitch grandma. Lots of people have a bitch grandma. She looks like a normal old lady, except she’s a total cunt. If you don’t believe I have a bitch grandma, and you think I’m an exaggerator, consider that my bitch grandma told my sister, when she first got out of the hospital, ‘You could’ve used some more time at the Fat Farm.’ My sister was being treated for anorexia.”

See what I mean? Gritty. Nasty. Hard.

How about this excerpt from the story, “Boyfriend”:

“‘My boyfriend’s got a huge freckle on his dick!’ I told my best friend. In her bedroom, I drew a pencil sketch of his penis. I diagrammed exactly where to find his freckle and labeled it, ‘Dick freckle.’ I colored his penis peach with her colored pencils. She colored the freckle auburn.

“At school at lunch, she and I talked about ‘the freckle.’ In the back row of English, she and I whispered about ‘the freckle.’ On the phone, she and I giggled about ‘the freckle.’ Eventually, ‘the freckle’ became ‘the herpe.’ The herpe became ‘the herp.’ His and herps.”

Gurba may be funny, but she’s also getting at serious stuff. And this is where I’m drawn. I wish there were more of the serious stuff sometimes, but I also get it, that it’s the humor that lightens otherwise pretty dark moments. While I find the humor surprising, I have to admit at times I could use less of it. But I think that’s just me as a reader, personally. I hate when reviewers just go and state things like, The dark humor in this book just comes off as [fill in the blank]. It’s not like this for me. I truly believe that there are a lot of readers that are the right readers for this collection. And I believe this collection, both of them, both Gurba’s and Lor’s, should be read by many, many readers. I hope these readers will discover these chapbooks, and read them, and love them, and discover that in fact they do like poetry, they do like reading.

It seems to me that there are probably a lot of kids in junior high and high school English classes bored to death and wanting to stab their eyes out reading Dickinson and Frost and whoever else is being taught. If only more of Lor and Gurba were being taught to young students. Think how literature would change for so many people, so many kids.

What did you start reading when you started reading, when you became a reader? I read Dean Koontz and Stephen King and R. L. Stine and Christopher Pike, you know? Trash and fun. If someone had given me Lor or Gurba, I would have devoured them. I mean, I was a reader, and I still hated English classes sometimes. I’m sure that something has to change in our English education system, and, to close this post, I think Lor and Gurba are part of the answer.

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