From academia to Armageddon, these works will challenge you
Special to The Seattle Times
Some writing will carry you along like a lotus-eater with pure lulling escape, and then there are the others: pieces of prose that demand fierce, total mental engagement of the kind that make tables overturn in Paris cafes and compels revolutionaries to topple secret cabals. Or maybe just inspire you to turn off your TV for a while.
Two Northwest anthologies, "The Clear Cut Future" and "northwest edge: fictions of mass destruction," provide this kind of intense reading. Both collections feature established writers such as Rebecca Brown, David Shields and Emily White, as well as up-and-coming talents who have fewer publications but strong voices, experimental bent and narrative courage.
"The Clear Cut Future" is the heavyweight of the two, and not just in its sheer 512-page volume. Tightly written poems and short stories about existential love and loss mingle freely with essays about corporate sharks, architecture, botanical excursions and artists' memoirs. There are no intellectually weak links, but some definite highlights include Pravin Jain's description of Enron's deal-making culture; Brown's bittersweet depiction of the unraveling of artist Helmi Juvonen in "Finnish for Pearl"; Patrick Bissell's Gertrude Stein-like sentences in "The Sweet Gift"; and Charles D' Ambrosio's "Degrees of Gray," an essay that gleams as it dissects Richard Hugo's poem of the same name.
Poetry in "The Clear Cut Future" comes from an interesting array of sources, including "The Artifact" by Frances McCue, director of Hugo House; "Pacific Bell" by Grant Cogswell, co-author of the monorail initiative; and "Versions" by Sam Lohmann, a recent high-school graduate.
But the poems aren't the only purveyors of visual images. In addition to Hooverville sketches by Juvonen, the editors included a series of photographs of professional snowboarders by Ari Marcopoulos; a video still of a Seattle police officer; Robert Adams' black-and-white photos of clear-cut forests; and colorful gouaches by Michael Brophy called "Chinook Jargon."
By contrast, "northwest edge: fictions of mass destruction" smacks less of academia and more of Armageddon; each work included in the anthology chronicles the character's own mini-apocalypse. Here you see more artistic experiments: a piece that stylistically imitates a tickertape; something that might be a short story, predominantly composed of white space; and highly disturbing photographs (retouched?) of nude bodies' scars and stitches. Be ready for sexual content, drug references and completely alternative-sentence constructions.
Sometimes the irony is self-referential, such as with Elizabeth Shé's piece about a battered woman artist whose fame is made on her abuse, and Bennett Huffman's "debris of an automobile giving birth to a blind horse biting a telephone," which is less surrealist romp than you'd expect from the title and more an exploration of camera angles in a real and figurative sense.
Likewise, the reader is asked to both avoid and confront themselves as the Desperate Lonely in "Hazard Statements" by David Pinson; consider how boys will be boys in a chilling story by Fern Capella called "my own bed"; and sympathize with a weight lifter's dual vision of himself in "I am portable."
Michael Kroetch's narration of a woman whose job is to re-assemble the bodies of politicians after catastrophe a la Odai and Qusai Hussein has perhaps one of the best sentences ever: "The loved ones of the exploded need to be able to have closure." Other highlights include David Shield's short story "homeland security: a tale for children," where a young boy realizes for the first time that the truth isn't enough.
Despite being constructed along themes, both "The Clear Cut Future" and "northwest edge" are hard collections to characterize: too many strong voices, too many quirks, too many excursions into multiple genres. Each piece spikes off into its own direction. But spiky moments have their uses — there's no complacency while reading either of these collections.
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