As always, thanks to you, dear reader. Without you we would perish You remind us of this every year. This frantic world needs you more than ever. Keep the faith.~~ Bill Henderson, Introduction
I have a small framed print hanging in my bookshelves: “Out of chaos, brilliant stars are born.” It’s supposedly Hexagram #3 from the I Ching, though the way Chinese philosophy is so often distorted, I’d want to verify that with an expert. I like it, regardless of its authenticity. And it’s often true of art: times of intense political and social upheaval supposedly lead to new expressions, new purposes for art, new generations of artists. I don’t know if that’s true of the present moment, but this volume, particularly the first half, was outstanding. Then again, I’ve never met a Pushcart I didn’t like.
Often, as I write these posts, I used the text of the story or poem to write about other things, whether it’s hair or current events or Kabbalah. It’s really a matter of what strikes me about a piece: sometimes technical aspects are what stand out, and sometimes the content is all I can see. And sometimes, particularly with poetry and the more advanced aspects of prose, I just don’t have the technical knowledge to recognize or address form.
I often worry that I should be writing more about technical issues, craft: the meter of a poem, the point of view of a story or its narrative structure. But I think I’ve finally made some peace with that. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, to be analyzed; it’s there to be enjoyed, and to inform other areas of our lives. Maybe a story nudges awake an idea from long ago, and now I’m more able to grasp it. Maybe a poem shapes a thought I’ve been having, helps me develop and redefine a vague impression, gives language to what was ineffable. That’s worth noting, even if it has nothing to do with meter or pacing.
For my particular tastes, this volume was very much front-loaded: a high proportion of the initial pieces were knock-my-socks-off good. I won’t deny that craft had a lot to do with this, but content played a significant role as well. I loved encountering Walter Benjamin “in the wild”, having studied his ideas in a more academic setting via a couple of recent moocs. Ditto Kabbalah. I felt like a family’s reaction to a floating sneaker said far more than the fun tone implied it would. I called on my local librarian to help with some minor research into a phrase that appears in Paradise Lost as well as Hamlet, and again reflected on how history is never dead, it just keeps re-revealing itself to us over and over. I thought about freedom vs. responsibility, and how each looks from the other side.
I saw distinct real-life connections, particularly to the refugee crisis, and over the course of this six-month read, saw it evolve from something happening in Europe, to something happening right here. I’d like to think I’m a little less helpless to do anything about it as a result of these encounters, but I’m not sure that’s the case.
The front-loading had a consequence, of course: the last few weeks have been tough sledding. It isn’t that I didn’t enjoy anything – on the contrary – but that sense of “wow”, the discovery of something brilliantly imaginative or unexpected, no longer appeared. Combined with the grim content of so many of the later pieces, I began to feel burdened. I hope I can encounter these writers, maybe even these pieces, again, when my expectations are lower and my resilience is higher and everything doesn’t remind me of children crying for their parents.
There are simply too many “favorites” in a volume this large to list them all, but I’ll single out a few, pieces that struck me as extraordinarily imaginative and/or effective. “Catacombs” by Jason Zencka just kept becoming a new story with every paragraph; his change of voice is brilliant. Cecilia Woloch’s “Reign of Embers” still rings in my ears, and I suspect it will for some time. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Anthony Wallace gave me an incredible workout on aesthetics, and brought in much of my recent mooc study. Steven Stern’s “The Plate-Spinner” skillfully walked a think line between reality and fantasy, with a self-propelled narrative. “Float” by Reginald McKnight kept me charmed while revealing something important. Christopher Kempf’s “Michaux State Forest, New Year’s” was at once beautiful and horrifying, days of future/past. “Freedom” by Rachel Cusk used small details of setting in important ways. “My Dear Master Liszt” by Ben Stroud combined art, psychology, and history in an unexpected setting. Jamie Quatro’s “Belief” was a joy to read, a down-to-earth, reality-based meditation on religion that kept away from polemic and sentimentality to delve into the heart of faith. And though I wasn’t initially blown away by the final story, it keeps coming back to me in new ways. That often means something; I wonder if I’m still working on the lens to read it properly, if some day I’ll pick up a tomato and find myself sobbing, undone.
And now it’s time for something a little different, a summer project to keep me blogging until BASS rolls around next Fall. In about six months, Pushcart XLIII will drop, celebrating 2017 in literature from the small presses. If chaos does generate great art, it’ll be spectacular. 2018 could be even better. Let’s hope there will be readers to enjoy it.