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Darling Endangered

The old adage, good things come in small packages, rolls off the tongue easily during times when economy is in fashion: smaller cars, tighter budgets, and fuel-efficient homes. Lately, the scarcity I feel regards time. So when a batch of uncorrected proofs of lyrical shorts arrived in the mail, I thrilled at the brevity of their roughly 7 x 5 inch shape, the ample white space on the pages, and the thin way they slid into my purse, at the ready for checkout lines, dentist chairs, and half-hour lunch breaks. This month, I’ve come to understand that good writing comes in small packages, and that a mere few lines can pack a potent narrative punch.

The old adage, good things come in small packages, rolls off the tongue easily during times when economy is in fashion: smaller cars, tighter budgets, and fuel-efficient homes. Lately, the scarcity I feel regards time. So when a batch of uncorrected proofs of lyrical shorts arrived in the mail, I thrilled at the brevity of their roughly 7 x 5 inch shape, the ample white space on the pages, and the thin way they slid into my purse, at the ready for checkout lines, dentist chairs, and half-hour lunch breaks. This month, I’ve come to understand that good writing comes in small packages, and that a mere few lines can pack a potent narrative punch.

In Darling Endangered, a new book of lyrical short fiction by Carol Guess published by Brooklyn Arts Press, sixty-one brief scenes expand the boundaries of the quick print space they take up on paper. They are grouped in sections, reminiscent of chapters, with place titles such as “Central High School of Needle Trades,” “The Ruined Garden,” and “Second Left in a Town of Right Turns.” By the third page, I knew I was in for something beautifully strange, like a painting that haunts me long after I’ve left a gallery and gone home—one I hope to stand before again, because it draws me close enough to want to get closer. It was sentences like these:

Surrogates shoved children on swings, hoping chains would make astronauts of us all.

Love came later than I would have liked. Came with a price. Came with prey and dominion. Came to stain my floor vermillion and my back door with torque.

Come nightfall children drop books to win kickball—no, they’re kicking a soft-spoken boy.

I was provoked by childhood and ballet, frightened by accidents and stray dogs. I felt a chill in the presence of abandoned buildings, broken girls, and littered landscapes, then suddenly warmed; love emerged, and a nearby sea.

Willing to assume that one nameless protagonist journeys an obscure cover-to-cover arc, it made sense to me that the girl in the opening pages would become the reminiscent woman in the end, her distant voice delivering sharp descriptions wrought with longing, inviting the reader to feel as if embers smoldered in the chest:

Cell phones are just earmuffs fuzzy with the static of a new century. You’re pimping polyester like the 80’s were yesterday. Maybe retro’s where it’s at, holding onto holding on. I’m not thinking about toy guns when I tell you what I want. You’re at the far end of the farthest corner of the road. You’re a girl where girls don’t go.

Randall Brown, flash author and founder of Matter Press, called these fictions word-nests. How apropos. I call them a city of story cocoons on the verge of a great transmigration.

Next in my tidy pile, gardener and muse-seeker Charles Goodrich sketches minute miracles out of quotidian moments in Going to Seed: Dispatches from the Garden. Fifty-two pithy prose poems reveal the poet’s devotion to existential glimmers in singular observations, mostly in his garden. They are often about the nature of growing old, though his messages are light-handed and even his subjects are micro: river midges, teeth, and bees that “bang,” “buzz,” and “shamble.” The world he describes brings to mind some certain beauty that otherwise could go unnoticed: how a neighbor planting a tree with babes in arm is the same neighbor who will one day “lie sleepless, stiff with fear, as the tree limbs groan and scrape at the roof on a stormy December night,” or how

Sticking to ritual makes things tick. Ask the robin sitting on her nest. Ask the lilac beginning to bud. Ask me. Or better yet, take this shovel and help me plant these spuds. You dig the trench and I’ll set a seed potato every two feet in a row.

This poet’s ritual is in drawing an outer landscape into clarity until it merges with an inner understanding, then filtering it back through the garden where

Damn. The squashes have crossed paths again.. . . How far apart do I have to keep these plants? Some vegetables have no shame.. . . Listen, you’ve got to be tough to grow vegetables. Tough, smart, and a little bit mean. Because plants are headstrong and narcissistic, prey to all the sins of the flesh.

The poet Goodrich writes, “A garden isn’t a cosmos, just one if its dreams,” then leads us to his plot of soil, his mirror of humanity, a maundering path through the universe.

Though two writers could not create more dissimilar tones, both Guess and Goodrich succeed in telling a great deal with few words, allowing world enough and time (to borrow from seventeenth-century poet Andrew Marvell) for reader interpretation. After reading, I did not feel as I usually do, that hours had eluded me, but instead that the world had slowed. Good things come in small packages. I wonder; perhaps small is the new big.

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