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Small Wonder: an anthology of prose poems and microfiction

Posted in REVIEWS with tags , , , on March 18, 2013 by Richard Holt

Small Wonder is perhaps the publication the Australian Writing and reading landscape needed in order to jolt it from expectations that had begun to weigh heavily on the creative energy of published short fiction. Focusing on very short stories (to 800 words) and prose poetry the collection demonstrates the potential of forms that have not been well supported or represented in mainstream journals and anthologies. This alone would make it a valuable contribution. But it should be judged, and in my opinion highly praised, as a collection of great writing that bounces the reader, like a fretful dream, between ideas and notions of reality.

The organisation of the stories, alphabetical by author, seemed uninspired, but the more I read the more I appreciated that stories like these organise themselves. There might be many groupings made but with such punchy pieces of writing that task occurs in consideration of the whole. So rather than attempt to regather the works in the groups that emerged for me I’ll respond as the writers appear in the book.

Dael Allison’s tropical prose poems kick the collection off. They evoke not only a ‘top end’ landscape but a sense of time and partly hidden lives that seems to emerge from that landscape.

A cluster of B’s demonstrate deviations from realism. Judith Beveridge’s ‘the Book of Birds, is classic magic realism, a simply told narrative that has, at its heart, a notion from beyond normal experience. Peter Boyle’s four pieces operate collectively as a meditation on the poetic. And Joanne burns’s ‘easy’ expands ideas cleverly from a single incident, a fall.

C brings us Michelle Cahill, in whose work the concept of magic realism is raised, but this time for the very real experience of childbirth and the biology and chemistry of parental love. John Carey’s, ‘Ivan’ is told with the detachment of a fairy tale. Echoes of the folk narratives that are a direct precursor for much contemporary very short fiction create the perfect storytelling voice for his simple tale. Shady Cosgrove’s ‘After School’ depicts a scene unfolding in an attic bedroom, with a protagonist’s virginity about to be lost to Isobel, whose parents are out and who knows what she’s doing. It’s a gem.

Moya Costello is the first of a number of writers whose works morph out of the act of list-making. It’s an effective tool for exploring ideas. Anna Couani’s first person reflection has the immediacy of autobiography against which the tawdry world of political paranoia forms a compelling backdrop.

Charles D’Anastasi was the winner of the competition from which about half the works in the anthology were chosen (the others being sourced from invited writers). His ‘Madame Bovary’ is a delightfully intimate piece in which the reader is taken, by the wandering mind of an audience member as poets read, into the carriage of one one of literature’s most familiar scenes. It is much more than an exercise in cleverness, though it is without doubt clever in an understated way.

There is no E in the author list. Much of what I enjoy about very short fiction is the gaps that such brevity requires. E is good. It leads me to…

Michael Farrell’s rambling interior monologue in which the ‘I’ of the author and the ‘you’ of the reader seem interchangeable and, in the end life goes on. Adam Ford’s ‘Sequel’ is sci-fi multiculturalism and hilarious to boot. It has the best opening line in the collection and never misses a beat.

The Gs, for some reason, seem bound by an interest in displacement, each beginning with travellers in foreign cities. Both Keri Goldsworthy’s pieces consider Australians abroad in Asia and the shifting geopolitics of our century. Monica Goldberg’s relocation is to old Europe where changes are also occurring against the long-cast shadow of 20th-Century conflicts.

Erin Gough’s ‘William Shatner vows to save the great basin pocket mouse,’ stood out as an example of how efficiently dialogue can tell a story. It’s a tool not exploited within micrifiction as often as it might be. And Gregory A Gould’s story of a stolen book is classic very short fiction, full of half-revealed meaning.

I have an affection for H’s. Phillip Hammial’s ‘Gold’ entices the reader by revealing the potential of a situation before it unfolds. Future tense seems particularly well suited microfiction. His ‘Milk’ is a curious glimpse into something much larger.

Stu Hatton’s pieces inhabit the dystopic norms of virtual and medically altered versions of perception.

There is no ‘I’ – yes, I know, that sounds like the coach of a sporting team – but there are great individual moments nevertheless. Carol Jenkins ponders evolution. Her pieces flirt with whimsy but are smart enough not to succumb.

Jo Langdon’s ‘Pause’ is as beautiful as very short fiction gets. Its gentle observation of a family in crisis and denial is masterfully told.

There are a cluster of ‘M’s beginning with two writers toying with text. Kent MacCarter’s ‘Light Foxing’ accelerates the deconstruction and deterioration of a print novel. Clare McHugh’s ‘Briefly’ adapts the brevity of very short fiction to mull over the cultural sensitivities around ‘shortness’.

Alyson Miller’s ‘Impossible’ is another meditation, this time on the existential conundrum. It is light and alluring even as the author grapples with certainty.

In Cara Munro’s ‘An arrangement’, old world traditions and patriarchy clash with the modernisation of societies. It is the author’s self-awareness of first world privilege that elevates this story.

It is apt that A S Patric, the first of the Ps, should evoke Emily Dickinson. He seems to revel in brevity and the story beyond what is written.

Ideas in Vivienne Plumb’s ‘Fish’ cascade, forming a kind of story that’s mostly gaps, like a scene glimpsed between the cars of a slowly passing train.

Aden Rolfe had me wandering a deserted coastline.

Michael Sharkey doesn’t say too much.

Laurie Steed’s stream of consciousness road trip dissects an unequal relationship and traverses vast distances between hope and reality.

W is as close to the end as we get, with Sean Wilson also choosing a road trip scenario, placing his reader in the car as a couple discuss their future. It’s a bit of a ‘drive off into the sunset’ finale.

Small Wonder is a smart piece of publishing. Black and white illustrations complement the written works. The layout makes the most of the brevity at the heart of the forms in the collection.

My only misgiving was minor, and more about personal taste than any obvious shortcomings in the selected works. I was a little frustrated that so many stories referenced literature and writing directly. Writing, after all, is always about writing, but writing about ‘writing’ risks disappearing into places the reader may not wish to follow.

But such criticism is nitpicking. Small Wonder shows the variety and vitality of microfiction and prose poetry and demonstrates that both forms, which sit very well together within the same volume, are thriving among Australian writers who appreciate the creative potential of the forms.

Small Wonder: an anthology of prose poems and microfiction, edited by Linda Godfrey and Julie Chevalier, Spineless Wonders, 2012.

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