Conjunctions 41, Two Kingdoms

Bard College, 2004, ISBN 0941964574; 421 Pages, Paperback $16.00. [

Elixir Volume 4, Number 1

Elixir Press, 2004, ISBN 1932418032; 92 Pages, Paperback $5.00. [

Review by Alan DeNiro

One of the most tantalizing ideas to come out of Buddhism is that of the middle way between relativity and phenomenon. This idea provides a useful framework for exploring “the dualism issue” of Conjunctions 41, guest edited by Howard Norman. Few of the stories therein lean towards an easy dialectic; in fact, those are the ones that have a greater tendency to fail. Rather, it’s as if the writers collected have decided to tackle the much more difficult task of setting up fictional tension between dualism and nondualism. This provides a healthy dose of weirdness--and bracing clarity--in many cases.
The most incandescent story in the issue is the first, “Lake Zed,” by Steve Erickson. Set in both 2009 and 2017, the story is a typographical circus. It’s as if the words of the story themselves have gotten caught up in the vortex of the lake. A single long sentence tugs through – and runs on – through the latter half of the story, plowing past anything in its wake. It’s hard to tell whether this is a lifeline, or whether it’s a trick anchor.
There are many other stories that skate their own self-constructed thin edges. Carol Maso’s “The Passion of Ann Frank,” is as much about Anne Frank the icon in the popular imagination as the person herself. Maso is almost trying to create a linguistic crawlspace for the iconic Ann Frank to inhabit, as well as making a startling direct address – and contention – to contemporary authors who “say that we’ve made a fetish of little Anne’s life and to leave her alone, etc. etc. etc.” “The Ominous Philologist” by Rikki Ducornet is a jewel of a piece that manages in less than three pages to map entire worlds inside doubled pearls and compound nouns, in her characteristic mix of venom and nectar. Also of particular note is Robert Kelly’s “How They Took My Body Apart and Made Another Me.” Here the dualism is investigated on a visceral level, using a scene of alien abduction and examination as a kind of tableau upon which to explore identity. The bifurcating of the body takes on strange but matter-of-fact proportions:

“And in their busy cave they went on working, lifting out his young pure smokeless lungs. In their place they carefully tucked two gray squirrels, apparently alive and breathing, and nested together like a pair of shoes in a shoebox, tail of one to the head of the other. And when they pulled the liver slimy with blood, they shoved a live hawk in its place, which fluttered its wings once or twice and then kept quiet, its wild eye looking here and there.”
The question then becomes: how much of the body, in its “natural” state, is already a cabinet of wonders? The narrator almost finds in the end that adolescence is as complicated as any alien abduction.
Other strong pieces by Paul West, Brian Evenson, David Antin, and Joyce Carol Oates, among many others, fill the issue. It’s hard to say whether the authors in this issue are already so deeply comfortable in their comfortable territory that it was no great effort to cull representative works, or whether the work collected was specifically written for this issue. That is to say, how much is dualism, in all its forms, a “normal” preoccupation of the contemporary writer? It’s likely a blend of the two. But whatever the case – and regardless of the framework – it’s an embarrassment of riches in these pages. The very tenuousness of the framework is an odd source of strength.
There’s a bevy of other material beyond the purview of this review, but the poems, as almost always, are quite exceptional, and are pleasurable in how they aren’t wedded to any one aesthetic outcome. Also noteworthy is the special section on William Gaddis, with a variety of remembrances of the master author.
As a colophon to this review, I thought it was worth mentioning Elixir, a fine, primarily poetry magazine out of Minneapolis. Its fifth issue has only one story, but it’s a stunner. “Limbic Innings” by Sandy Florian is a story in which the cadences and alliterations themselves almost form part of the landscape. Following the escapades of a person named “Not Florian” through a surreal cast of characters, and filled to the brim with incantatory allegories, abstractions, and numerologies, it truly embodies the title of the magazine in which it appears.

Alan DeNiro
23 October 2004

Additional Information

Conjunctions – The journal's website.

Elixir Press – The publisher's website.

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