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Carnival Aptitude.

Perhaps the most intriguing texts challenge the very idea of genre. I want to look at two different collections that contain "short stories"; these stories are, however, so concentrated and intense that they resist easy classification. They can be called prose poems. They raise some interesting questions: What is a short story? How short can it be? Is there any style that is appropriate to "story" and/or "poem"? These questions, of course, are not new. They have been asked about Kafka's parables, Rimbaud's Illuminations, and Jabbs's meditations. But they still remain unanswered. The two books under review are especially interesting because they are about the limits of language, dream, and perception. They are reflective - mazes about mazes.

Kenneth Koch is one of my favorite writers. His plays in One Thousand Avant-Garde Plays are short enough to be printed on a page. His poems dart from one association to another; they are full of surrealistic gaps. It is, therefore, not surprising that his new texts are provocative and exciting. I am fond of "The Interpretation of Dreams" because it is itself a dream of interpretation, a questioning of memory as art (or art as memory?). The various slides in the text render life itself as a possible series of unknown and perhaps unknowable thoughts and emotions. It begins simply: "The small bird's wings on the bare tree had in the uneven sunlight the look of wood chips. This brought back a memory. He was standing in a park. In his hand he held a long thin bean" (my italics). Notice that Koch emphasizes smallness; he uses many one-syllable words, and many of these words suggest incompleteness. Chips," for example, are part of some larger object. So are "wings." And to make things more obscure - even though the words are clear - he uses the word uneven. Koch implies that memory, experience, and art are uneven; they resist comfortable linear conclusions. They are, if you will, in flight, unlike the bird resting on the tree.

Greg Boyd's text is a "carnival"-a mosaic of masks, sightings, in which words and pictures move back and forth. The text resists stability because it asks me to establish a frame of reference - why and how does this picture comment on this story? - while it destabilizes my acts of perception. I am startled by "Bee-Keeping," which is short enough to be quoted in full: "A giant bee flies through the window of my bedroom, lands on my chest and regurgitates a sickly sweet liquid into my mouth. After it leaves, I realize they've turned my bed to wax. With difficulty I wriggle loose from stiff sheets, pull myself onto my feet, and escape into a world of sunlight and flowers" (my italics). This text is about the instability of things, about this world and that world. (It is a dream of two worlds, of humanity and Nature.) It transforms being, juxtaposing such words as I and bee, wax and loose. And it apparently urges me to lose (loose) my stiffness, my "position." The text mirrors its content.

I must end here. I am uneasy because I believe that I have not completely answered the questions I have posed. But my very uneasiness is created by these careful, brilliant, duplicitous texts.
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Author:Malin, Irving
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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