In So Many Words
Ellen Wade Beals
Ms. Beals wanted to create a book that could offer comfort to those who have suffered from loneliness, personal tragedy, a loss, problems with health, a death in the family. A grim compilation, indeed. And the book is suitably grim.
She contacted various writers, placed ads --- and came up with a dozen or so essays and almost sixty poems. Some came in from the famous (T. C. Boyle, Antler, Philip Levine); most of the rest from the unknown.
T. C. Boyle gives us one of the longest stories in the book, a weird one indeed --- not his best. He takes us on a fantasy trip, a world denuded of frogs, but, apparently, loaded with toads. He ends up this shaggy dog story (and it is very shaggy) with his love making love while they're bogged down in a pond filled with toads, "stumpy limbs and foreshortened bodies clambering over one another:"
There they were --- toads, toads uncountable --- humping in a frenzy of webbed feet and seething snouts, humping blindly, stacked up three and four high. Their eggs were everywhere, beaded and wet with the mucus of life, and all their thousand of eyes glittered with lust. We could hear them clawing at one another, grunting, and we didn't know what to do.
This is solace?
One of Philip Levine's poems is a general lament for the woes of the world, people "talking / in bars to no one," "long gray-legged boys / hiding their tears / behind cupped hands." This is not Levine at his best.
An Antler poem is a lament on ignorance,
If a baby doesn't know it has a Mother till it's born,
what do we not know we have
till after we die?
You get the feeling that these three took some of their stuff out of the reject basket and sent it off to Beals and she published them with pleasure, just glad --- no matter the quality --- that their names could appear on the cover of her book. What solace, eh?
More of interest to this reader were the relative unknowns --- at least, unknown to me. Michael C. McConnell has a fine story about his grandfather Gus, who would get drunk and, when drunk, erupt in "alcohol-induced Macedonian rage." He had an infected tooth, and one night demanded that grandmother Mary get him a pair of pliers. She knows him; knows never to say no: "'Here you go, doctor,' my grandmother said, pushing a silver pair of pliers at him."
After he snatched the tool from her, she crossed her arms and stood there with a cigarette in her mouth, watching attentively as her husband worked the pliers around the sore tooth in his open mouth. Even the birds in the trees outside of the big yellow house were still for that space of time when Gus paused with pliers under his lip, and only stained-glass filtered light from the sun room windows dared to move.
My favorite of the over seventy works here is by one Joe Meno. He likes watching porn on the cable channel while his wife is asleep. "I like the dirty talk," he confesses. In one, two ladies are seen taking off their bikinis, and then: "Is that your pool boy?" A "big guy with a mustache" comes in and begins to undress.
He just sits down and, like that, he begins to cry, with his head propped in his hand. The two women go to him, are beside him, holding him, and the brunette asks, "What's wrong, Stan?" The guy says, "I am dying..." The brunette lady kisses his forehead and says, "You're going to be okay. You'll get through this." The man says, "I don't think so. I don't think I'm gonna make it."
"He begins to cry against her chest. The two ladies just hold the man like that for the rest of the movie, no one doing anything, not even kissing, just holding each other, and I suddenly start to cry, too, so happy that somewhere else in the whole dark world, someone, some adult movie director somewhere, has been through this before me."
§ § §
My experience with putting together an issue of a magazine, or a blog, or a book on any subject is this: you tell people what you want to do, tell them the subject you want to cover. And they say OK and then they start sending in stuff that has nothing whatsoever to do with whatever it is that you told them would be the subject.
So you go ahead and stick these things into the magazine or the blog or the book and then you think, well, the idea was a good one, and what we have now is pretty close to being OK, but still most of these are a little beyond my original idea, but since time is getting short...
So you go ahead with it and hope that no one notices that these things are all from outer space.
Thus we have here a volume with over fifty contributors who probably thought, "Well, OK, Ellen's got her thing, and let's send in something, but not to worry what it is, because as the subtitle proclaims, it's just "So Many Words" and you know that your words may be off in left field somewhere, but they'll all get stuffed in between the covers anyway.
And suddenly there's a book which you can pretend is about suffering and misery and loneliness and violence and hate and what it does to us, how it withers the soul, how it destroys some, how it makes others more powerful (or at least more accepting) how we learn to make do despite living a life in this world with all the shit that it hands out ... but we learn to handle it, we learn to make do. Maybe the book should've been titled, Make Do.
§ § §
Which leaves us with little to carp about ... except the Form. Form (as we have so often said) should always fit function (didn't Hegel say that? If he didn't, he should have.)
Solace is about misery, right. And I want you to know that this book made me miserable. In that, it did fulfill its promise. For I had a miserable time with my geezer eyes making out the words. The type is too small. It's worse than ant droppings.
And the layout: the pages are crammed to the borders, a sea of type on every page, on all 200 of them. It's a Mexican bus, a train in India, a subway in Tokyo where they have these guys with long sticks to push everyone in before the doors close. It's cramped, it's uncomfortable; it screams "we're gonna get everyone in here even if it hurts." And so it does.
Thus, if we need solace this is not the place to look for it. For there are too many words stuffed in a book, and it, thus, robs you of breathing (or thinking) space.--- Lolita Lark