Experiments in Realism
A Cappella Zoo is subtitled “a literary magazine of magical realist and experimental works.” Of the 16 short fictions, 10 flash fictions, 14 poems, and one short play, I found only one exceptional piece. But I’ll discuss five. (There are three Apospecimen Award winners, one for each of the first three categories, and none of which are mentioned below.)
Let’s begin with the best.
Wildly imaginative and genuinely funny (you couldn’t really say that the issue in general is a barrel of laughs), Christina Murphy’s “Mrs. Sisyphus” could easily be appreciated by a mainstream readership. Sure enough, it’s the first-person account of the imagined wife of Sisyphus. “He wasn’t always like this, believe me,” she tells us. But one night he was reading a book of Greek mythology and had an epiphany. “I can do it,” he tells her. “Roll a rock to the heavens.”
Their lives are soon subsumed by Sisyphus’ quest for the perfect rock and the perfect mountain. Once these are achieved, their life settles down into a kind of normalcy. She tells us, “It is amazing how the human soul can adjust to just about anything and how any routine, lived out faithfully, can come to seem normal.” This is Murphy’s message, if there is one. The wife plants a garden while the husband goes out each day and pushes a rock up a mountain. I won’t give away what happens next, but it’s a perfect resolution. (Did you know Sisyphus had a brother?) Congratulations to Murphy for penning my favorite short story so far this year.
Let’s take a break from fiction and look closely at R. Matthew Burke’s poem, “Two Evenings.” Two evenings, two short verses. In the first verse, the more cryptic of the two, water is the primary imagery:
Full of seeps from faulty banks,
loose water in a rainstorm –
we are together.
A flood? Who is “we”? The fact that “we are together” is seen as good news in light of the “loose water.” The reader is compelled by the situation to continue:
It should be impossible
to know on this evening
what I know now – but,
I catch whispers in the runoff.
So this is a memory piece (“what I know now”) even though it’s set in present tense. This dissonance is intriguing and works here, whereas it might not succeed in fiction. I like the phrase “whispers in the runoff.” “I catch whispers” implies that there are actually more than two people in the scene. So each sentence provides us with more information and simultaneously more of a mystery.
So, I tell you: “The water hurts
my ears,” as if to complain …
“So” implies that what follows is a result of hearing those whispers. “You” lets us know at this late point that the speaker isn’t talking to us, but to a second person (“we are together”). Who is it? A lover? A friend or relative? We don’t know. Is it a distant memory? Was the speaker a child? “’The water hurts / my ears,’ as if to complain …” Is it really the water? Or is it the whispers? And isn’t he complaining? It sure sounds like it to me.
So what we have with the first verse is a natural disaster, albeit perhaps a minor one, and some intrigue involving at least three people. Will the second verse answer our questions? Alas, no. There seems to be no overt connection.
In another place, I watch
an aging mother
dangle knuckles over her son.
“It’s all a masquerade,” she sez.
But, I don’t know –
could go either way.
The scene has shifted. Later than the first verse? Earlier? How old is “aging”? What do the dangling knuckles and her mysterious declarative mean? And what “could go either way”? Life as a possible illusion? Why “sez”? Everything else in the poem is spelled correctly.