I like short stories’ implicit awareness that life has no neat endings, that it is comprised of many very small moments, all in their own way powerful and important, and that life is messy, it’s unclear, it’s about reading between the lines. – Tania Hershman, in interview
Where does prose end and poetry begin? A couple of hundred years ago that wasn’t such a difficult question to answer: poetry was the stuff that rhymed; everything that wasn’t poetry was prose. I’m not sure I trust a definition like that. It’s a bit like answering the question, “What’s a dog?” with the answer, “Not a cat.” The cover to Tania Hershman’s second collection hedges its bets and simply says it contains, “Fictions by Tania Hershman.” ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is a work of fiction but it’s also an epic poem so where does that leave us? If you assume for a moment that poetry doesn’t have to rhyme (which it hasn’t done since the sixteenth century, let’s be honest) then what’s the difference between prose and poetry? Well, up until the nineteenth century poetry was the stuff with the ragged right margin and then some Frenchman decided line breaks weren’t particularly important and the prose poem was born. It struggled a bit to gain popular approval, some big names spoke out against it—TS Eliot for one—and although it looked as though it’s time was done by the late forties since the nineteen eighties it seems to have found its second wind. Poets.org defines a prose poem as follows:
Though the name of the form may appear to be a contradiction, the prose poem essentially appears as prose, but reads like poetry. In the first issue of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, editor Peter Johnson explained, "Just as black humour straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels."
While it lacks the line breaks associated with poetry, the prose poem maintains a poetic quality, often utilizing techniques common to poetry, such as fragmentation, compression, repetition, and rhyme. The prose poem can range in length from a few lines to several pages long, and it may explore a limitless array of styles and subjects.
So, is By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Canadian author Elizabeth Smart a prose poem or a work of poetic prose? And does it really matter? Are the poetry police going to come along and rap me on the knuckles for using alliteration in a short story or a metaphor or two in one of my novels?
If I were to go with Shalom Freedman’s definition:
The language of poetry is metaphor
And irony and ambiguity
And beauty –
then My Mother Was An Upright Piano is, indeed, a book of poems because Tania lays on her metaphors, ironies, ambiguities and beauties with a trowel and several reviewers before me have been happy to describe the works contained within this slim volume as at least poetic if not actual poetry.
When Beckett published a book of short prose pieces he called them foirades—“fizzles” in English which has always reminded me of sparklers although I’m not ignorant of its now-obsolete definition)—but I’d like to propose my own word for what Tania has produced here: novelties. We have the novel, the novella, the novelette, the short story and the relatively new term, flash fiction, which is what most people would settle on when describing these fifty-six pieces, but I like the connotation that these are something new and not just a flash in the pan. In his review on Amazon Garry Powel says some of these stories are, “mini-novels”—he cites ‘Manoeuvres’ and ‘The Lion and the Meteorite Can Never Touch You’—and this just underlines what I’ve just said.
And new things take some getting used to.
The first thing you have to get used to is how to read these pieces. I tried reading them as if they were short stories, skipped from one to the next but nothing stuck. It was like gobbling down a box of chocolates. Or going to a wine tasting and just chucking back the glasses: "Skål! Next!” I was not alone here. Over on his blog, Brian Clegg, notes:
I had to seriously slow down my reading style, which is normally very quick, getting the gist, almost ignoring anything descriptive. I needed to slow down and appreciate the words.
This reminded me of a comment my friend Marion McCready made recently on one of my blogs:
I'm a slow poetry reader, I mull over a poetry collection for months. When people write their top ten poetry collections of 2012 I'm still obsessing over a poetry collection I read last year.
Is it even possible to read poetry quickly? Of course it’s possible—most things are possible—but is there any point to it?
Of course ‘fizzle’ does not mean ‘sparkle’ and ‘novelty’ is not without its negative connotations. The title of the book—taken from a story—is slightly gimmicky (it reminded me of Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales); it has a novelty value and that’s what you want to capitalise on with a title so it was a good choice but having seen the book mentioned here and there for the past several months it’s stopped impressing me. But that’s just a title and a book is more than just a title and some of the coolest books hide behind really naff titles.
I don’t appreciate wine. I just don’t get it. It all tastes the same to me: awful. I listen to these wine experts on the TV going on about and it’s just laughable some of the words they use to describe wine: smoky, nutty, chocolaty. I don’t get any of that but I can appreciate the subtle differences between various performances of pieces of classical music: there’s a world of difference between Sir Adrian Boult’s (to my mind definitive) interpretation of Holst’s The Planets and Karajan’s and even his later version differs from his earlier ones. But you need to have an ear for these things. And the same goes for Tania Herhman’s novelties: they need to be savoured; they need to be reread and read again. A page-turner this book is not unless you include a lot of turning pages back. And that will annoy a lot of people, the kind of people who don’t read an awful lot of poetry.
In broad terms I think the difference between poetry and prose boils down to this: prose states, poetry implies. Again I find myself agreeing with Brian Clegg who writes in his review: “about 90% of the story is implied rather than explicit.” These are stories that you need to think about and I found myself continually revising my assumptions as I read.
The Angle of his Bending
20,000 lead azide detonators could not tear me from you, nor 40,000 caesium-powered rockets, nor 60,000 men with flaming nuclear swords or women with their breasts to tempt me, and he shook his fist into her face as she sat thinking of the space between two chairs which was not enough to keep him from her and the days and days after with no tomorrow to take her away. The rope upon her wrists was tighter now than when he tied it, had some property, she thought, that made it so, and if they had real lives before this all real life was gone. He paced around her now and she tried to see behind him, up and up, but the staircase curved from sight and it was just her in the room with him and rope, and as she saw him bend and stretch she knew the angle a man shudders into with a woman, rope and chairs and all, is never equal to the angles of the opposite sides. And so she stayed silent.
No inverted commas—sometimes she uses them, sometimes not—so I didn’t realise it was a quote. “Flaming … swords” sounds Biblical: a cherub with a flaming sword was stationed at the gates to Eden. It sounds like he’s declaring his love albeit in a rather OTT way. But then why’s he shaking his fist at her? She’s sitting on a chair. Is he sitting on the chair opposite her? “[D]ays and days after with no tomorrow”—why’s “tomorrow” singular? Surely “tommorrows” would read better. Am I editing here or is this important? She’s tied to her chair. Okay so maybe he is crazy, a religious zealot, a terrorist. But then why’s he professing his undying love if they’re all going to die in some imminent holocaust? Perhaps they’re in a bunker and she’s safe from everything just not him. Is that why “all real life was gone”? If there’s a staircase maybe they’re in a basement. It sounds like a spiral staircase. No one has one of them leading to their basement. Not in a normal home. Then again she wondered about the property of the rope. What woman would care about something like that? Maybe she’s a scientist and this is a lab. Always a possibility with one of Tania’s stories as fond of science as she is. (She used to work as a science journalist.) But now what’s this about angles? Sounds like geometry: In any right-angled triangle, the area of the square whose side is the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the areas of the squares on the opposite sides. He’s pacing. Is he expecting something? Or psyching himself up for something? Now he’s bending and stretching. An odd time for calisthenics. “[T]he angle a man shudders into with a woman, rope and chairs and all, is never equal to the angles of the opposite sides”—what on earth does that mean? Shudder: verb, (of a person) Tremble convulsively, typically as a result of fear or repugnance. How does one shudder into something? Wait a second. There’re no more words. That’s it. Bugger. Now what? Okay, let’s go back to the start.
Okay, I’m being a little facetious here but pretty much every story—this is one of the shortest ones—is like this. There are Is and hes and shes but mostly we’re never told who they are. We deduce from the context that they’re mothers and sons or wives and husbands or any of a dozen or so different male-female dynamics. There’s the odd sister too. Few have names. Or faces. What does the woman look like in ‘The Angle of his Bending’? Is she old, beautiful, full-figured, the proverbial catch? Does it matter? In her review of the book Michelle Bailat-Jones says these stories "aren’t incomplete excerpts; the reader doesn’t want or need any of these fictions to go on longer or somehow become another form entirely" and she has a point up to a point; Tania deliberately leaves things vague and allows/expects us to fill in the blanks, to finish off the story but isn’t that the author’s job? “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.”—Samuel Johnson. Fair comment. But what’s the right ratio? 50:50? 90:10? Tania thinks it should be more like 10:90. In an interview with Rumjhum Biswas she had this to say:
I am a reader who wants to be made to work hard. I love great flash stories that leave 90% to the reader to work out, ones that aren’t necessarily rooted in reality as we know it. I think the very short form lends itself well to this. Great flash fiction is when the story fits the length—it’s not straining to be something longer but compressed to fit into a tiny box. Everything has its ideal length, I believe.
Reading other people’s reviews of this I can see there were others who couldn’t come up with their requisite ninety percent.
Even after many readings, I'm not convinced I've understood some of these pieces. – Shirley Golden
Some (like 'underground') I don't feel I fully understood, but even those still manage to be engaging and to paint a vivid picture of a strange world. – Annemaire Neary
[A]lthough each of Tania Hershman's stories has a point, not all are immediately apparent. She mentions her parents saying they enjoyed all the stories, even those they couldn't understand and I see where they're coming from. – Ani Johnson
‘The Angle of his Bending’ might have been one I struggled with but there were others I did not or at least not as much. The one that jumped out at me was one I’d already read online: ‘Under the Tree’. You can read it over at Electric Velocipede in full. She began the story in 2006 and it took her three years to write; a long time for only 800 words but that’s the thing about brevity, you can’t afford to be sloppy and it’s to her credit that she bided her time and got it right. She talks about the writing process in a post on her blog and here’s my comment:
This story reminded me of the novel Bed where a boy one day refuses to get out of bed and eats and eats until his health is at risk. My problem with the novel is that the author skipped over practical details (like going to the toilet—it’s astounding the number of literary characters who never poop) and as much as I wanted to rise above it a part of my mind kept wondering. I was the same with your story. Tried not to be but couldn’t help myself. That said there was a lot I did like about it and read it over several times. I can see that you’ve weighed every word. A haunting study of the nature of grief. At least that’s my reading of it. I do like the structure very much.
If I was allowed one adjective to describe the stories in this book I’d go with ‘unusual’; chuck in a noun and I’d pick ‘perspective’. So many of these stories could be told as straightforward third person narratives—she said this, he did this, they went there where this and that happened—but even with her third person narratives she manages to twist them ever so slightly. Take, for example, this story which appeared in Metazen back in 2010:
Although the family is not always available, the family is on hand when it comes to death. The family stands a respectful distance away, swaying slightly as the coffin is lowered, every now and then blowing a nose. Back at the house, the family are convivial, shaking hands, patting backs, handing food around. The family are good like that. In the pandemonium that is mothers and children, fathers and whisky, small dogs and the one that cries a lot under a table, the family takes charge, ushers and whisks, cajoles and sweeps away.
The family is especially on hand for those medium-sized boys with their exploding watches, exploding eggs, exploding matches, whom the family, in formation, scoops up before damage is done so that grieving can continue. And when it is over, the family clears away the necessary before making a quiet exit.
After that, the family may not be available, may be unseen and unheard from for months or perhaps even years. When people ask you a question about the family, answer them vaguely, for the family do not like to be proscribed, assigned to boxes, dates, labels. When they come, they come. And don’t forget your manners.
We all recognise this family. Most of us belong to families like this. What she’s saying here is so bleeding obvious but she’s done what any poet worth his or her salt would do, she’s taken the familiar and made us see it again, afresh. How? Quite simply, firstly, by the use—the unusual use—of an omniscient narrator and secondly, by treating the family as a single unit rather than a composite body made up of mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, cousins, grandparents and other relatives once or twice removed. I have a scene in one of my own short stories where the relatives appear after the death of the narrator’s father and I thought I’d done a good job of it till I read this.
When I reviewed Tania’s first collection I mentioned that there was a magic realist undercurrent at play in some of her stories and drew attention to her thoughts on the subject in an interview on Vanessa Gebbie’s blog where she talks at length about the subject. In part she says:
I like to read magical realist stories because they make me think more than a story in which every element is familiar. I am not particularly interested in a story about someone like me, who lives where I live, does what I do. I want to learn something from a story, and one way to draw me in as a reader is to invent something completely new! If you convince me, I will step into that world, I will accept it all, I will be right there with your characters. If you don't convince me, I stop reading.
Some of my favourite writers in this vein are Angela Carter, Aimee Bender, Italo Calvino, Haruki Murakami, Jose Saramago. These writers inspire and influence me by saying that anything is possible. Their work says to me: Don't be constrained by what you have seen, what you have experienced. Go beyond your world, use your imagination, see what might be, what could be.
This is not done simply for entertainment value: the best magical realist stories use the magical aspects to unveil something about our own world, our communities and societies, who we are as human beings.
In this new collection there are a far greater number of stories that one could classify as magic realist or fantastic. Examples are:
The short tree has its hand up, the short tree wants to ask, wants to ask a question. The two taller trees ignore the short tree. They whisper together, the one tree leaning in to the other, giggling a little, flirting, while the short tree, its hand upraised, is crying out now. (from ‘The Short Tree has its Hand Up’)
Life was small. It was tiny even, so tiny it was hard to see it sometimes. Life curled up to make itself even smaller, to fit into the kinds of holes that insects crawl into to get away from bigger insects. Life was sad. Life didn’t want to be an insect. Life was getting backache from the curling up. It wanted to straighten out, stand up tall, shout out to the world. But it had been so long, Life wasn’t sure how to. (from ‘Life Bursts Out’)
I can see through her. She is sitting opposite me and I see her ribs, the blood beating in her heart, the tea as it makes its way down towards her stomach. Yesterday we were sitting here as couples do, cut off from one another by skin, by outward defences. Today, she is as open to me as my own mind. (from ‘Transparent’)
Others are simply quirky:
Einstein sits in the corner, playing guitar. No-one tells him, Albert, go home. Because he’s Einstein. He looks up and grins. (from ‘Einstein Plays Guitar’)
We just love Art in containers, any sort of glass jars, or Tupperware, even. We adore that sense of containment, the feeling that the Art isn’t going to, well, leak out. Or that something else will get into the Art. Art contamination, it’s something we worry about a great deal. Some Art, it’s terribly sensitive, you know. It’s fragile, like a baby, or more like a soufflé. The smallest thing can deflate it, like tapping a balloon with a sharp pin. (from ‘Containing Art’)
And some are just plain poetic:
I stand under the street lamp, my flickering self lit up by doubt and lit up by the lamp and by the moon. I wait under that street lamp for you, all the while vibrations inside me filling me with questions. And you, where are you? Untethered, floating away, leaving me, a stranded star, to shimmer and blister on dark street corners alone. I wait for you to rush up to me, but where you should be rushing there is only silence and where your feet should be there is a cat, moon-widened eyes, afraid to cross my path, a witness to my inner ache. (from ‘My Flickering Self’)
When it sings he sings with it, him and the bird. It sings in its metal cage, with its metal wings and small metal beak, and its heart, which is part of his heart, a tiny lump that he removed from his and placed inside the bird’s metal ribcage. (from ‘Tiny Red Heart’)
Where the quirky or the fantastic ends and the poetic begins I couldn’t tell you.
One thing that bothered me a little about the collection as a body of work was that it felt a little jumbled. I had a horrendous time organising my own poetry book and the only way I could do it was to have an overall theme but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. In an interview with Nuala Ní Chonchúir she said:
I had over 150 that I'd written … and so—in contrast to my first collection, which contained basically everything I'd written up to that point—I got to pick my favourites, the ones I really love, the Top 56, you could say. That's a really nice and different feeling. I can never put my own stories in order—my fabulous publisher, Richard, at Tangent Books, did it for me. We didn't want any conscious thought of ordering by theme so he tried as much as possible to mix them up—but then you read them and things jump out at you. Like how many times trees appear. And certain images I clearly like to use, that I'd ever seen before!
This will likely bother others less than me but I didn’t feel that the book had an overall tone unlike, for example, the two collections by Andrew McCallum Crawford. Fifty-six stories is a lot, even fifty-six very short stories. There are a few I would have left out this time. Another reviewer took the view that with so many if there was one you didn’t like you should just jump onto the next one. And there’s nothing wrong with that attitude either.
In her review Ebba Brooks made this observation: “A minor quibble: I spotted four typos in the edition I read. At a cover price of £9.99 for a paperback, I’d expect better. In case there’s a chance of a second print run, Tangent Books editor please take note.” I read the ebook—I downloaded it from Amazon—and my gripe was with the punctuation (commas without spaces after them, for example) and the formatting which was a little sloppy too. Now there’s nothing stopping them uploading a clean copy there.
Larkin was once asked what he’d learned from his study of poetry. His response, slightly butchered by me, is sound advice for anyone interested in flash:
Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study [microfictions]! You read them, and think, That’s marvellous, how is it done, could I do it? and that’s how you learn.
Flash fiction has never been more popular and anything that stops novices writing awful haiku has got to be a good thing. Like haiku flash fiction looks easy and it’s really easy to write bad flash fiction; you don’t even have a syllable count to worry about. If you’re genuinely interested in learning how to express yourself in a few hundred (or even a few dozen) words then get yourself a copy of this book; it’s as good a textbook as you’re likely to find.
If you’d like to try before you buy there’s plenty of her work online:
From this collection
Tania Hershman lives in Bristol, UK, with her partner and their cat. Her first collection, The White Road and Other Stories, was commended by the judges of the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. Her award-winning short stories and flash fiction have been widely published and broadcast. Tania is currently writer-in-residence in the Science Faculty at Bristol University, and is founder and editor of The Short Review, an online journal shining the spotlight on short story collections.
Her recent projects involve an interesting shift in direction. She’s submitted an entry to the Wellcome Trust Screenwriting prize (an idea for a biomedicine-inspired feature film), has completed a science-inspired radio play, is writing more actual poetry (with line breaks) and is also working on what she described as “a sort of novella thingy.” A third collection of short stories is also a distinct possibility.