Grab the A cappella Zoo Bestiary and pull up a chair, but don’t get too comfy. Guest Editor Gina Ochsner keeps her eye on the comfort zone horizon while selecting the best poems and stories for this celebratory tenth issue. Ochsner prefers writing that nudges a reader, as she explains in a 2010 interview with Jeff Baker at The Oregonian,
“I’m not here to make people comfortable, I’m not even writing to make myself comfortable. I make myself really uncomfortable because then I’m hitting on a raw nerve and that’s what it should be all about. The worst thing someone could say about my work is, ‘That was a nice read. I felt so comfortable.’ That would be horrible.”
This same disquiet and vibrancy represent speculative literature (speclit) at its best. Ochsner’s choices for the A cappella Zoo Bestiary accordingly transport readers from the pedestrian path to the Twilight Zone with tight, visceral writing.
Some works in the Bestiary unsettle more than others. From the first sentence, Andrew Mitchell’s story “The Rocket in the Sky” corkscrews with tension of impending and immitigable doom, a lightning flash in the lifetime of Perry Abbot.
Joe Kapitan’s story “War Crumbs,” shows us children who playfully reassemble Uncle Henry, a veteran who literally falls to pieces. As the children periodically hunt Henry’s body parts, we readers puzzle through violent histories, old wounds, half-truths, and meted justice.
“Teaching a Post Lunar World” is a poem by Caitlin Thomson that reads with the clarity and brevity of a nursery rhyme. Don’t be fooled. When the “eldest asks, How could you sleep?” in a moon-and-starlit night, I find myself wondering, How would I ever sleep in a post lunar world?
While you’re looking skyward, flip to Lora Rivera’s story “Calling Rain,” an offering of healing that will crack your heart open like thunder. True to Ochsner’s objective, Rivera gently but unflinchingly introduces us to Tara, a powerful woman, a survivor of violence and sexual abuse, a caller of rain, a sentinel of inner strength.
All speculative literature does not read equally. I find some pieces easy to apprehend on the first read, while others require more work for me to acclimate to their universe. “The Life Story of a Chilean Sea Blob” by Theodore Carter falls in the category of easy to apprehend, and I was glad to see it reprinted. What can I say? “Sea Blob” pulls on my heartstrings.
Other pieces take a little more mastication. I remembered “The Creature from the Lake” by Hayes Moore like a bit of old dream. On this reading I felt more familiar with my surroundings, less focused on the strangery, and more able to regard the dynamics of the characters.
The real joys of the Bestiary are the unburied treasures: poems and stories I’ve missed from back issues. I’ll just take this chance to say, Thank You, Gina Ochsner, for retrieving so many sparkling jewels like…
… “The Legs Come Off Easily,” a story by Emily J. Lawrence, wherein self-plasticizing young girls pose: “‘The real question is, were you ever real at all?’”
… “Man without a Wishbone,” a poem by Prartho Sereno that muses on “the strange gift of wantlessness / However we come by it.”
… “Take Up the Bonnet Rouge,” a story by Chantel Tattoli that reads like creative nonfiction and affords us the essential levities of garden gnomery.
… “Tale of the Avian Saint,” a poem by William Keener that invokes our senses of responsibility and accountability, and invites us to listen closer and think more carefully.
… “Old Myths,” a story by Collin Blair Grabarek, wherein we witness the Valkyrie descend on an oilrig seeking heroes to defend us in the end times, only to find mere mortals.
… “Kentucky-Fried Christ,” a poem by C. E. Chaffin that offers a kaleidoscope of burning materialism.
… “Brunhilde’s Escape,” flash fiction by Danya Goodman that juxtaposes cityscapes and wildlife, plucks at secret hopes of escape, joy, possibility, and reconnection; I too harbor a not-so-secret delight that Brunhilde the hippo’s “proud and foreboding footsteps are now free to stomp on pasture and road alike.”
Whether you sail the slipstream every day, or just want to dangle your toe in speculative waters, the A cappella Zoo Bestiary will satisfy with a healthy serving of well-written and willfully discomforting speclit.
Ready to read? Visit A cappella Zoo.
Editors: Colin Meldrum, Michael James Wilson, Amanda DiSanto, Micah Unice
The hardcopy of A cappella Zoo Issue 5 for today’s review was provided by the editors at A cappella Zoo.
Read selections from A cappella Zoo 5 here.
(And for more fun, read an interview with Editor Colin Meldrum by Jim Harrington at the Six Questions For… blog.)
If I had to describe a theme or a common thread for A cappella Zoo (AZ) issue 5, it would be this: voids, and that which fills them. AZ5 reads like a volume of the Never-Never Encyclopedia of the Esoteric: pages of places both peopled and unpeopled, people without places, people displaced. The contributors for this issue ponder voids of unknown, and speculate on the voices heard within. The result is a collection of literature which ultimately places the sketchbook and pencils in my hand this week – these works are adequately vivid and tangible to fuel your own creative engine through those long, dark nights.
The curtain opens with Showtime by Nancy Gold, winner of the Apospecimen Award for Fiction. Gold’s piece sets the tone for subsequent selections by deftly weaving emotion and imagination with a spindle of belief – the belief that we can be more than the sum of our parts; that our hearts are vessels meant to be filled. This is the first of many pieces which playfully create images that are both impossible and perfectly conceivable. (Read Showtime and just try not to look at your ankles and ponder a few tiny wings about their knobbly bones.)
I never read journals front to back, which is why I next bounce forward to Movie Man by Melissa Ross, telling of “a boy born in the projection booth of a tower in the sky away from the Earth as we know it;” first we are cast into the sky, and next drawn into the intimacy of Earth’s shadows.
In Borges’ Bookstore by David Misialowski smacks of one of my favorite Burgess Meredith Twilight Zones: “Time Enough at Last” (see also Jorge Luis Borges). This maze, void of reason and physical law, wraps upon itself into a complete, neat package. Speaking of neat packages, poetry lovers might like to begin with : sign language : by Joseph A. W. Quintela (whose work I seem to find everywhere these days). The unique composition of this poem is a perfect complement to austere images of solitude, plains, and big, wide sky, cleft open by shared experience.
This completeness is a quality I appreciate throughout AZ5: stories which, while wildly catalyzed, still anchor themselves in some clearly-formed thought. No matter how outrageous our surroundings, each author still affords us a compass with which to navigate the realm. Pestilence by Jason Jordan is such an excellent example: a form of tethered madness.
Many of the AZ5 contributors counterbalance the darker shades of humanity with artful prose and poetry, or a bit of wicked humor. Perhaps the most disturbing yet effective piece is The Crushing by Phillip Neel, which I may have otherwise stopped reading because of the nastiness of the descriptions, had it not been for the clever and poignant entrance to this particular void: that dirty of dirties, the DMV. I’m glad I kept reading – the payoff of this piece is what ranks it among my favorites for this issue.
Similarly The Snake Charmer’s Teeth by Mike Meginnis still haunts me weeks after reading, wherein a cruel story is sculpted with both elegance and requisite gentleness. What the Calf Daughter Knows by Rob Cook is both brutal and beautiful. This persistent poem stands out bone white against the void: completely unignorable.
It’s tough to pick a favorite, especially when I find a journal like A cappella Zoo which is good enough to reread many times. However, the sentimentalist (or perhaps the Japanese lit lover) in me found the deepest connection in A Tale of a Snowy Night by Naoko Awa, translated by Toshiya Kamei. In this story, space is not a function of distance or time, but of empathy. Naoko grounds us in crisp imagery which is as familiar as it is fantastical. Aren’t we all, in some small way, a crate of hopeful apples?
Einstein Plays Guitar by Tania Hershman is also a rewarding read: a well-developed snapshot of those graceful and fleeting whispers of true knowledge. Birds Every Child Should Know by Kate Riedel is another of my favorites from AZ5. I wasn’t sure what to think of it at first; but the more I read Birds, the more I feel the weight of each angelic, warmly feathered lump. In this piece we glimpse the unknown aflutter with spirit, the glittering moments we share with others that spark us on an entirely new path.
Thank you, Theodore Carter, for the tears I cried upon reading the final lines of The Life Story of a Chilean Sea Blob. With much of speculative fiction favoring the apocalyptic, it’s always helpful to recall with specificity that which we might lose in the aftermath.
If you wish to truly be suspended in the void, begin your journey through AZ5 with Sleepmaps by Barry Napier tucked firmly in your back pocket. Personally, I love dream-inspired art; this poem spares no effort in reaching for the most tangible sensations of the dreaming world, such that I too “never want to wake.”
I want to thank the editors of A cappella Zoo for preparing such an effective cross-section of mind-opening literature for issue 5. Each piece is clearly selected for its creation of both precipice and foothold. What I like most about reading specfic – especially GOOD specfic – is that constant feeling of discovery in each page. I love experiments in literature which keep me guessing and thinking and unraveling, and that’s exactly what you’ll find in A cappella Zoo: a bit of the unknown, made knowable.