A curated literary guide

Week #33 / 14th – 20th August, 2017

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Sunday Review: Record of a Night Too Brief

a short story collection from Hiromi Kawakami, translated by Lucy North

[ Pushkin Press / 2017 / 158 pp ]

Three pages into a Record of a Night Too Brief my margin notes start up a storm. “Magic realism minus realism and magic?”, the first one says. Then, “Dream world realism”, then, “Fairy tale!”, which is quickly scribbled out, replaced with, “Absolutely not a fairy tale.” Halfway in I gave up on naming a genre and switched to marking passages with exclamation and question marks. Neither represented exclamations nor questions, but just the visceral reaction to Kawakami’s writing, boiled down into two emotions, felt either separately or magnified and all at once: what, and yes.

Record of a Night Too Brief is a collection that explores the familiarity of confusion. Describing much more than that won’t do you or me much good: explaining “what” Kawakami’s writing is about is like explaining what food tastes like by talking about the shape of the plate. I will, however, make a good effort. It starts like this: a woman enters into the night. Another turns into a horse that’s also the night, another makes the mistake of accepting an invitation. Another finds a man in a coat that’s actually bunch of moles stacked up to look like a man. The moles speak mostly in insults. “What do you feel is the most important quality in a man?” the stack-of-moles man asks, and the woman answers, reckless: “that he’s loaded with moles.”

A sister tells the story of her family, and of all the things that go missing. “Most recently,” she tells the reader, “[it’s] my eldest brother.” He shows up in the night, sits atop his once betrothed, kisses her with bee stings, making her swell. The sister wonders at why their family is the way it is, and whether it’s always been that way, to which her parents reply: “Don’t be stupid! Families are just families! That’s all there is to it!”

A woman steps on a snake. The snake says, “Now it’s all over.” The snake turns into a human, (“as far as I could tell, a woman in her early fifties”), and moves in with the woman. Makes her dinners. Asks her would she turn into a snake, too, because it’s nice in the snake world, so warm and cosy. The woman says no, thank you, and keeps eating the dinners—because they’re nice, and the fridge always has cold beers in it these days.

Somewhere into the third story of the collection one of my margin notes says, “this is what liminality feels like.” And in that sense I’m also happy that I got to read this work in translation [1]. There is something about the shape that sentences take when they’re grasping at thought, or an idea or a concept, that pushes the translated work further into the realm of the liminal: the almost-there, the not-quite. This applies to the best translations, perhaps even more so I would say the best ones know how to work this sense of confusion to their advantage. I myself grew up in a household where our parents didn’t speak each other’s language, and the kids a new one altogether, where the act of translation became a language in its own right. And so getting lost in a work that revels in the inaccessibility and oddity of words is a comforting ritual for me, still. Kawakami’s words, read through translator Lucy North’s creative interpretation, act like an extension of the story itself: the barely-awake quality of the stories mixing in the with blurry nature of joke translated, of trying to give a cultural sign given the same depth in a different context.

Record of a Night Too Brief is what folklore would look like if it didn’t aim for morality but instead lingered in the misty world of magic and consequences, for no other reason other than that’s simply what it’s there to do. It’s what fantasy would look like if the main characters, instead of asking questions, would lie down in a corner to have a nap. Where instead of overcoming an obstacle, they would turn into the obstacle itself—literally. This is a work designed for those who’d like the opportunity of visiting that land of waking up at 3AM and not quite knowing why—of not knowing whether you’re remembering a dream or the day you just had. Best read at: dawn, in airports, at a bus stop, between two trees that have grown bent toward each other.

Visit Pushkin Press to purchase the book.


1. The collection was first published in its original Japanese in 1996. The English translation by Lucy North came out this year. [↥]

Reviewer / Yael van der Wouden

Five Things with Joanna C. Valente

1. The last thing that made you smile.

I saw a pug being walked on the way to work in Midtown on W 29th & Broadway. Dogs are the best medicine.

Other things that make me smile: hugs, poetry, jazz, finding cheap records, going to museums, laughing, riding a ferris wheel, beach days, pie, more pie, a good coffee, friends, walking, love (even when it’s hard).

2. A secret.

Old secrets: I used to play sports. I was on a basketball team for two years and on a softball team for about five.

I used to be good at Street Fighter.

A current secret: I’m not cool. Like, I’m really, really not. I cry to a lot of movies, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

3. The last thing you wrote.

A nonfiction essay over at Electric Literature.

4. Favourite city.

Florence. NYC. LA. Does three count? I can never choose just one.

5. What you’d place in a time capsule.

My heart. Your heart. Our hearts together.


Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Marys of the Sea (The Operating System, 2017), Xenos (Agape Editions, 2016) and the editor of A Shadow Map: An Anthology by Survivors of Sexual Assault (CCM, 2017). Joanna received a MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College, and is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, a managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine and CCM, as well as an instructor at Brooklyn Poets. Some of their writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Brooklyn Magazine, Prelude, Apogee, Spork, The Feminist Wire, BUST, and elsewhere.

jar six

a poem from Ashley Miranda

i am a melted paradise, disfigured so that only man could glisten

With more and more poets reflecting on the past events of this week, I have been searching, not for a distraction from the world, but an intimate space to curse and scream and shout. Ashley Miranda’s new poem is ruin and raw with a chorus of fury. The profanities and obscene words do not shock but enhance the repetition of “gendercide” and its metaphors—ranging from “an infection that spurns” to “detachment”.

What’s especially notable is the use of “molten”, “melting”, and “melted” throughout the poem, with each word serving as a guide to the next poetic shift. Miranda gives you such fire and destruction in every line break that you too will be “drinking molotov cocktails” after the poem ends.

Visit The Rising Phoenix Review to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Hannah Cohen

In Defense of “Candelabra with Heads”

a poem from Nicole Sealey

Though some of us may live far from Charlottesville, Virginia, the eruption of violence this weekend is the harbinger of what’s to come for all of us in the United States. It’s the rumble of thunder over the mountain, the violence of lightning in a dark cloud, it’s a reckoning: we can’t hole up inside and insist it’s not raining; we will have to take to the streets; and we will have to decide what side of history to be on. In the electric buildup of storm, before it all breaks, of course, we turn to art. Of course, we turn to story and poetry. I’ve been biting my nails and scrolling through miles of social media, op-eds, debates, and analysis but the caesura in the tumult has been poetry. I’m not speaking of platitudes passed off as poetry. I’m speaking of hard, cutting narratives, like Sealey’s ‘In Defense of “Candelabra with Heads.”’ She isn’t pulling punches, for she asks us to look back, without covering our eyes and pleading squeamishness, to the dark heart of racism and violence in our history. How we know that a man’s body burns like branches of a tree. She is speaking of deeply rooted racism that flourishes today. Yet, she also speaks to a future, when what was sown and thriving can be uprooted and eradicated. Because with all of portends of dark times, we may be able to find a way to something brighter and better, made clean and restored.

Visit Poets.org to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Reneé Bibby

Movements of the Uncontrollable Body Part One

poems from Bronwyn Valentine

To let a thing be what it is / to call a thing by its rightful name / to say disability is a reclaiming of the body / an action of the body and a disruption to so-called normal / to say disability is to claim agency in our personhood / to disassemble the machine of normal

The inaugural issue of Monstering Magazine, a journal for and by disabled women and nonbinary people, came out recently and it’s full of amazing work. This piece by Bronwyn Valentine in particular stood out to me. One part definition, one part recollection and observation, this piece dissects and examines the state of disability. What it is to the self, to family, what it is in public spaces. The relationship with the body as a constant source of chaos, of unexpected existence. There’s something unpretentious and direct about the language in this piece that draws you in. It’s almost cyclical, starkly honest and wholly immersive.

what my mom was ashamed of and what I am also ashamed of is that we understand enoughness in terms of how we are or are not normal / that the body is a continual failure of normal

This poem visualizes disability as an entity. It is the ‘uncontrollable body’, it is both a physical, mental and emotional entity. It is the way the body is seen to exist in open spaces, the ripples that a body leaves in social spaces. The uncontrollable body is more than just biology, the dichotomy we’ve created of physical existence as “is” and “is not”, a compiled series of on/off switches and yes/no boxes. The uncontrollable body is a continuation, the unstoppably dynamic state of flux, flitting subtly between states of being; in and out of these arbitrary walls denoting “normal”, as if some bodies do not move, do not exist in states of fluctuation. As if any body is not an uncontrollable body.

but whoever said that disability must by definition be corrected was wrong / I tell you that liberation comes when we recognize the body of disability as inherently a good body / still deserving of the full state of humanness and worthy of adoration

Visit Monstering to read the poems.

Contributing Editor / Joyce Chong

Toward a New Masculinity: Five Poets and the Politics of the Male Body

an essay from Porochista Khakpour

There is so much good poetry right now, and that’s a wonderful and overwhelming and necessary thing. There have also been some good conversations about how we write about poetry: namely, how poetry, if it’s reviewed at all, is pretty much also done in a positive light. The negative poetry review is a rare thing, and that’s good, ultimately. There are so few reviews to begin with, and the practice and reading of poetry so deeply subjective and variable, that a culture of uplift and visibility is far preferable to one of negativity and point scoring (there’s plenty of that in literature as it is).

What I appreciate most about Porochista Khakpour’s essay review in the Virginia Quarterly Review, titled ‘Toward a New Masculinity: Five Poets and the Politics of the Male Body’, is how not only is it an uplift-and-champion sort of review (of five different books no less), but also takes a longer approach to current poetry and finds an important thread to meditate on.

As I read the five male poets here, I tried to imagine a new masculinity. Could we be on the cusp of the sort of male identity we’ve waited for our whole lives? Is virility even a notion we could reframe and redefine? What if the unfairer sex could step out of themselves, too, and just be human beings?

There is more than enough incredible poetry to discover in this essay; on top of that, Khakpour gives us something of herself in the process, and that’s a difficult and important thing to do in poetry reviews.

Welcome to the season of our constant failure, I wrote a friend recently. I wanted to land on a theory of new masculinity, but I have failed. Still, I found that I want to sit down every man in this country and ask that he hear the songs and whispers and the shrieks and coos and the snaps of these poets.

Failure is terribly important, perhaps now more than ever, because there’s still so much work to be done in our poetry and in our lives.

Visit VQR to read the essay.

Contributing Editor / Andrew Sargus Klein

Quarrel

a song from Moses Sumney

I love how much ‘Quarrel’ is an interrogation of how language obscures truth. Sumney sings, “with you, half the battle is proving we’re at war,” and we’re instantly drawn into a space of dueling points of view. It’s exhausting to attempt to pull someone into your universe when they’re not only squarely comfortable in theirs, but believes theirs is often is the only option. In a relationship, opening our space to new possibilities allows us to see & feel more accurately. Yet the you here feels all too pleased to let themself remain untouched, implying that there's never a true connection. The you values the pleasure of consistency over grappling with any intersectionality, and eventually even the sprawling & lush sonic landscape repels them. When Sumney hits a higher vocal register in the chorus—“don’t call it a lovers’ quarrel”—and the band blares in, we can feel just how strongly he urges us towards precision. Even the music calls us to elevate our language and ourselves.

While Sumney’s videos are usually cinematic expressions of the body unfurling and interacting or being eclipsed by their environments, “Quarrel” leaves us with a single red rose set under a sap-colored liquid. As the top layer slowly spins, the rose is both obscured by little bubbles and brought to focus in turns, giving us all the normally missed angles. This also tricks the eye into believing that the rose is steaming the entire time. When it finally boils to black, we’re left with a still simmering void that's not entirely surprising. I loved that the rose wasn’t taken out of this seeming heat but changed instead: while we can’t deny the influence others have on us, we can adapt. We can acknowledge where we’re not on the same level. We can say that we're boiling. When we create distance (for example, saying, “we cannot be lovers, long as I am the other”), we give ourselves more room to breathe and thrive with less burden. Let Sumney convince you to set needed boundaries in order to give way to authenticity.

Visit YouTube to listen to the song.

Contributing Editor / Nix Thérèse