Tuesday, April 26, 2005

NEW! Review of In The Criminal's Cabinet

In The Criminal's Cabinet: An nthology of poetry and fiction, edited by Val Stevenson and Todd Swift. Nthposition, £9.99.

Reviewed by Patrick Chapman

Since 2002, nthposition.com has been one of the more celebrated places in the world to find new poetry, stories and essays. The site hit the headlines at the start of the Iraq war with its series of anti-war ebooks, including 100 Poets Against The War. One of the remarkable aspects of that electronic collection was the speed with which it was put together. It took a week from call-for-submissions to publication, with poems pouring in from all over the world. Not long after, the book had been downloaded tens of thousands of times, the poems being read at rallies around the planet. Faber followed with its own, similarly-titled, 101 Poems Against War. One difference was that Faber drew on war poetry's back pages whereas nthposition's poems were written in that very moment of protest.

Now, nthposition has put out a print anthology of its own. Edited by Val Stevenson and Todd Swift, In The Criminal's Cabinet collects poetry and prose that has appeared on the website over the last few years. As a print anthology, Cabinet is significantly different from its predecessors. The old question of validation is raised again, but in a new way. It has been argued that editorial standards in cyberspace are less respectable than those in print media. This book demonstrates the snobbery implied in that argument. In print, the selection reflects the eclectic nature of the web. Ultramodern poetry rubs shoulders with almost classical prose. In The Criminal's Cabinet is like a biosphere of modern literature: all the colours of the world, so close to each other that the contrasts are immediately striking.

Take “[the return of the ring]” by Maxine Chernoff. At first it appears impersonal and fractured:
a fault-based
ends in a break-up
(of rituals
and rites,
         their permutations)

until you realise that this is the point. The shattered intimacy of a broken relationship lies there like a mirror, in shards, on the ground. In the end,
we hope
to learn
from things
         a lesson
         into grace.

The horror of war is illuminated in Pal Hardacre's “The River Is Far Behind Us”:
fingers on buttons &
phones rubber generals on
sticks (model jump-jets in
         gunmetal, commandos /
                  crafted dust &
                  TV empty box
         another downed life the eastern plains as toohey
                           forest burns.

Kevin Higgins, in “November,” pictures the season as an army.
November rampages down the avenue
like a gang of victorious soldiers,
drunk but still thirsting for more,
eager now the slaughter comes easy.

“Burning Omaha” by Tom Phillips recalls the Cold War unease most of us grew up with. He contrasts childhood innocence with adult dread:
We were racing through the woods
while parents stocked up on tins
and candles or stared at the radio
with palms against their throats
as if by suddenly tightening their grip
they could hold their little faith in.

In “Taking Your Fun While You Can,” Hal Sirowitz crystallises the resignation of a man who has found himself adrift in a supposedly ideal set-up, a family. Addressing his child, the man declares:
                  I only
act like I'm having fun
when I'm with my family,
so your mother won't yell at me.

The prose is as varied as the poetry. Startling and funny, Zdravka Evtimova's “Blood Of A Mole” is like Richard Brautigan channelled by Stephen King. A customer asks a pet-shop owner for the blood of a mole, which, apparently, has curative properties. The owner gives her own blood instead. It works, and more people arrive at the pet shop, demanding blood. The ending is comical and horrifying all at once.

“Stop The War Or Giant Amoebas Will Eat You,” by Richard Peabody, is reminiscent of JG Ballard's later short stories, but it also has a touch of Vonnegut. It posits a dystopia in which China is at war with the United States and asks how Westerners might cope with the Shock And Awe recently inflicted on other countries.

“The Waxwing Slain,” Seamus Sweeney's story of a jealous writer who discovers the fierce power to eradicate public figures from history, begins as what appears to be a standard tale of literary envy. Its central conceit does not outstay its welcome, but serves as an amusing fantasy and a meditation on fame. One of the questions it asks is if the work is good, does it matter who created it? Would Nabokov's Pale Fire be as good a work if only it, and not Nabokov himself, existed?

The standout story for this reviewer is David Finkle's tender and bittersweet “Memorial.” A six-part meditation on the stages of a relationship, from initial abandonment to final abandoning, the story is also a somewhat Gatsbyesque portrait of a remarkable man, Noah Goodman, whose inability to connect intimately with others is masked by his outwardly dynamic professional life. Between the two stands a narrator left behind when the fancies of his lover wander elsewhere, almost capriciously.

The first print anthology of nthposition, In The Criminal's Cabinet showcases some of the freshest, most urgent voices in poetry and fiction today, in an entertaining and eclectic melange of the strange, the intimate and both.

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