If F. Scott Fitzgerald stopped writing in 1940, and the movement subsequently classed as “confessional poetry” emerged in the late 1950s, what kind of legacy might the modern writer extract from this kind of heritage? Take Fitzgerald’s themes forced through the turbulence of Plath (who plays a role here, later) and, let’s say, Ginsberg (who also plays a role here, later). The year is 1931, and seeking real life solace, Fitzgerald published “Babylon Revisited,” a story of a father seeking to obtain custody of his daughter and rinse away his reputation from Jazz Age mania and hedonism.
Andrew Brininstool’s short fiction “Stick Figures” brings back this crucible and does so with the kind of creative, adept language that one might find in the elastic vocabulary of Plath, the insights of Ginsberg. The upstanding step-father Paul has an “ellipsoidal skull”; the ex-wife is precisely “apnetic.” The writer uses this characterization to populate an exchange at the ex-wife’s Christmas party where a neighbor and the narrator are discussing the narrator’s daughter’s kindergarten artwork: “Well, Sonny, I hope you have these [the stick figure drawings] insured. Looks like you’ve got a future Matisse on your hands.” The narrator responds that he hoped his daughter would go into market finance: “artists’ lives are often sad. I told him any loving, responsible parent would want for their child a life of emotional detachment and a Roth IRA.”
You really have to read the whole page, but the laughter and delight at the wry humor make it worth picking up the magazine.
The story is balanced, which departs from the Fitzgerald with his staccato maneuverings between sadness and anxiety. When asked what makes him happy, Brininstool’s narrator thinks of his ex-wife just when she told him she was pregnant with his child so many years ago. (We are to know that she was lovely with a glittering line of Vaseline on her arm for a tattoo.) When he thinks of his origins and assignment of happiness, he further realizes that it is not that moment in the tattoo parlor per se, but rather, “I know that in that moment I felt only sheer terror and confusion, and what makes me happy is the memory of that moment and not the moment itself” (emphasis added).
These are just shards of what is a powerfully executed, moving incantation in a powerful collection. While the work (even the nonfiction) is strongly rooted in tradition, the writers are not governed by precedent and instead own and recast those who came before us. Our forefathers coerce us even in the titles, doing the hard work of setting the scene for departures with panache.
Bob Hicok’s poem “A love (of not Adam but Eve) poem” evokes the Creation Myth. Evoking, perhaps, Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California,” Sue Burton’s poem places us at: “The Abortionist Goes to the Grocery Store.” We cross an ocean to experience Olena Kalytiak Davis’s poem “Kafka and Milena About to Meet in Vienna (2009).”
Not all of our storylines do the same amount of psychological work; in Cameron Gearan’s poem “About the Nanny Who Was Raped the Summer I Moved Here,” we are driven to a vivid, emotional masterpiece. Daring to invoke the canon, Kate Gleason’s poem “Watching the Morning Mist Near Mount Sunapee (While Flipping through Plath’s Ariel and Homer’s Odyssey)” melds tradition and perspective into a rhythmic song. And where would we end the locker room roster but with Bob Hicok again, this time invoking Francis Bacon.
For the sake of full disclosure, the Muse, Jesus, X and the enigmatic Girl from Taneryville all have their feature cameos in Anna Maria Hong’s poem “Muse & Me,” Dzvinia Orlowsky’s poem “Jesus Loves Fat People,” Anis Shivani’s poem “Sonnets to X,” and Sandee Gertz Umbach’s poem “Girl from Tanneryville, Johnstown Flood 1977.”
So far, we’ve tread the easy ground of citing the elemental. But it is through the trope of the elemental itself, specifically, the conceptualizing of an atom, that I think Green Mountains has its greatest victory. In Dana Rozier’s essay “The Wave Function,” a relatively short integration of science reportage and a weighed and measured love story, the reader is asked to reject all typical ways of interacting with a narrative—the messages are broken down and framed in precise theoretical vignettes that she calls “A Superposition of States.” I am not a physicist, and I read through the piece a few times to kind of sound out its weaknesses if possible, but from the vantage point of your common reader, I liked it. I thought she was testing the waters, helping break new ground in a volume that makes a tradition of taking existing matter—atoms, bees, The Odyssey—and making it new again.