If the unsettling cover art is meant to hint at the contents of this thick annual print issue of PANK, I'm at a loss as to the meaning of the hint, even after reading through to the very end. I'm not sure if that says more about the nature of the artwork, or the disparity of the work within. The pages hold prose poetry, visual poetry, and flash fiction, as well as more traditional poetry forms and longer short stories, and virtually everything in between. In the truly liberating fashion of contemporary experimental literature, PANK does not require its writers to classify their work, or if it does, it chooses not to disclose those labels within its table of contents. This can be refreshing, or occasionally annoying.
In the first short-short, Deb Olin Unferth's “The Man Who Says Shhhhh,” the gatekeeper of the Sistine Chapel finds inspiration in Michelangelo's mistakes. It's an admirable start to the issue. A little later on comes a striking story by Rob Roensch entitled “The Customer,” in which a cashier describes his reaction to a violent act that occurred in the store where he works and the resulting connection he feels to a customer. This recollection segues to a memory from when the narrator was a teenager at a party and failed to act to save a girl who was in trouble. In the narrator's mind, these events link together to define him. In the final section of the story, the narration switches to second-person and places the cashier back in the store at a later date. It ends in a storm: “A flash of unearthly light. A snap of pure silence. The sky is black.” This story lingered in my mind for some time afterwards.
Neal Peters' story “Sulfur” also held me rapt, as it charted the swift rise and decline of a teenage relationship that meant more to one of the participants than it did to the other. The subject matter brought to mind any of dozens of young adult novels I've read, where often the same themes are hashed out, but the magic is all in the telling. Peters tells it well.
Amber Sparks delivers an intriguingly difficult to classify piece called “How to Be Modern: A List Found on the Floor of the Last Century.” It's a list of instructions or advice, sort of channeling the sentiments of a very random and free-spirited commencement address: “Weep through dreams and hours, but crack jokes, too; your humor is small and cruel and you have finally perfected your timing.”
Ben Jahn's terse prose ironed out in the short paragraphs of “The Long Acre” sketches a razor sharp slice-of-life portrait of the denizens of a trailer park perched near a raging forest fire. Jahn expertly captures the slow desperation and inevitable tragedies occurring around the narrator.
In a way, this collection is far too long and deep to read from cover-to-cover without taking time to reflect and perhaps skip around to follow your reading instincts. I had no such luxury, but that is how I would advise a reader to approach it.