Alex Green’s collection of short prose is aptly titled Emergency Anthems. Brooklyn Arts Press wisely bills the book as a collection of “Short Fiction/Prose Poems,” leaving elbow-patched professor types to duke it out over finer genre distinctions. Alas, I regularly cling to genre like it’s a life-raft in wild waters. The stories/poems are presented as block paragraphs with justified left and right margins. The majority of these shorts don’t feature any traditional narrative arc, no building and releasing of tension. Without the floatation device of genre, the word “Anthem” feels like an appropriate designation for Green’s short bursts of prose. Alex Green’s collection of short prose is aptly titled Emergency Anthems. Brooklyn Arts Press wisely bills the book as a collection of “Short Fiction/Prose Poems,” leaving elbow-patched professor types to duke it out over finer genre distinctions. Alas, I regularly cling to genre like it’s a life-raft in wild waters. The stories/poems are presented as block paragraphs with justified left and right margins. The majority of these shorts don’t feature any traditional narrative arc, no building and releasing of tension. Without the floatation device of genre, the word “Anthem” feels like an appropriate designation for Green’s short bursts of prose.
Most of the bursts are written in a second person, declarative voice: “Because you are so far behind, you decide to take your marriage Pass/Fail.” To be clear, these aren’t the type of “anthems” you’ll be blurting out on karaoke night. They tend toward melancholy. The piece “Emergency Anthem,” a sort of title-track for the collection, leaves the reader on a sad downbeat. “[. . .] the weatherman you went to high school with said the big storm was going to be bigger than he thought. You held her hand and waited for the rain and thought how terrible it is that we remember so much.” The fifty short-shorts read like the breathy final words of summer on the California coast: lovely, sad, and shark infested.
The pieces are, at most, loosely connected through recurring images and words. A magician makes multiple appearances, surfers abound, relationships are shaky, tennis instructors hustle country club patrons, and everyone seems to have bad joints (as in elbows and knees, not marijuana or public houses). If Emergency Anthems can be said to have a thesis, it likely comes in the piece “Night Shift Superstar”:
It’s been a terrible summer so far but at least everyone died quickly. Across the street at the Meseneja resort you see the nightwatchman juggling flashlights. Their beams glide through the darkness like the leftover parts of a good idea; the hiss before they fall back into his hands, a voice whispering, California.
Growing up in small town Oregon, I was raised with a not-so-subtle suspicion of all things California. If a driver rolled through a stop sign, it was a “California stop.” If the weather was unbearably hot (rare in the Willamette Valley), California was behind it. Because of something to do with complicated plate tectonics, California would someday fall into the ocean. We eagerly anticipated this split. We too, “whispered California,” fueled by some ridiculous regional animosity. This collection whisper’s California throughout, speaking into existence a semi mythical environment, “On the back porch, fractured ska leaks from a broken speaker; the shadow of the roof on the pavement looks like the outline of California on a treasure map.” This is the opening line of “West Coast Dub,” a short appearing mid-collection. It appears the term “West Coast” refers to the state of California, exclusively.
Though there is no conclusive pot of gold, no X-marks-the-spot for readers to cling to, the characters Green portrays in quick, efficient strokes are surprising and compelling. Meeting them, if only briefly, is a reward of its own. The aforementioned magician offers some advice: “If you’re a decent magician, [. . .] when you die people will miss you. But if you’re a really great magician, they’ll always think you’re alive and in the middle of the best trick of all time.”
This magical sense is present throughout Emergency Anthems, even as the book seems to move from one small tragedy to another. The magic is sustained by tempering the melancholy with occasional humor, though slightly dark. This humor is on display in the book’s final short, “In the darkness of his office the doctor tells you that you’ll never see orange again.” A strange malady, indeed, and one that asks readers to explore the borderland between the comic and the tragic.
The warm waters off the California coast, like Green’s short-shorts, are teeming with sharks. Okay, maybe not teeming, but I’ve always wondered how surfers deal with the real knowledge that sharks may be beneath them at any given moment, waiting to rip them to shreds. Some of these pieces reach out and grab you unexpectedly, leaving you with a lingering feeling that maybe you’re missing something. I did find myself wondering, at times, how (and even if) these pieces were working together in-concert. Sometimes the titles felt slightly stuck-on to the piece, and the pieces occasionally felt haphazardly arranged. But the teeth of these poems can grab you in an uncommon way, and they leave a lasting mark.
The unique world of these pieces has, I hope temporarily, bled into my own. I don’t know what Green’s magician looks like, but everywhere I see people who might be the magician, performing the greatest trick ever. When I see a face I half recognize but can’t quite place, it’s the magician’s face. Since reading Emergency Anthems, whenever I tune my car radio while waiting at a stoplight, every unintelligible snippet of vocal-static has become a voice whispering California.