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.
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