Beauty in the Grotesque

Review of Hayden's Ferry Review, Spring/Summer 2008 by Zachary Boissonneau


Hayden's Ferry Review is a biannual publication of Arizona State University's creative writing department. The Spring/Summer 2008 issue--themed "The Grotesque"--features poetry, fiction, and visual art from over sixty contributors, and includes an international section. It seems to be split evenly between poetry and prose as far as page count goes, and the only obvious continuity of set up is the entire international section sandwiched between the scattered poetry, prose, and visual art.

It's interesting to see how different artists interpret grotesque. Found within the different works are a broad pallet of themes and subject matter, from violence, war, animal cruelty, sexual abuse, emotional trauma, to Elaine Mayes's photographs of animals.

The poetry here may seem the most intimidating to the casual and conscientious reader alike due to sheer volume. Something in the brain clicks at the sight of 40+ names next to even more titles in the table of contents. It's like going to a restaurant and flipping through a four-page lunch menu. But if you take your time you can make it time well spent.

Reading and thinking about Sandra Beasley's poem "Beauty" is just such time. In it she plays nicely with the grotesque as the reader is presented with a stray dog named Beauty. A sense of absurd humor is evident as the poem opens: "That night, something howled outside./ I opened the door. It was Beauty. Beauty/ was muddy and senseless. I let her in." This muddy and senseless beauty is further described in terms that call to mind the very antithesis of what humans typically perceive as beautiful: "For hours I worked the burrs from her hair,/ so matted /I had to shave it in the end./ She licked at the bare skin." Ultimately, the reader is left with an image of classic beauty, but in a way that makes it seem ridiculous: a Play-Doh Venus de Milo? In creating this caricature of beauty, Beasley causes the reader to question the preconceived notion of it and the ways in which human project value onto different objects based on these notions.

In "12 Horses Burned," a poem by Stephanie Taylor, grotesque is seemingly used in its more idiomatic form to mean simply ugliness. The title is self-explanatory--12 horses are burned to death while trapped in a barn, but the language used by Taylor adds a deeper, more bizarre element. The subject matter is more visceral, so the playfulness of Beasley's poem is noticeably absent, but beauty is still a cornerstone of the poem. The horses are not merely dead mammals; they are depicted as noble creatures locked in the eternal struggle for survival: "Flesh left in its snags/Fire seized their hearts."

Other poems of note include: "Mermaid" by David Sirios which calls into question the selectivity of memory and Elizabeth Hoover's "A Celebration: Maude Oklahoma" which details the murder of two Seminole teenage boys.

Of all of the stories in this issue, the standout is definitely Daryl Farmer's "Skinning Wolverines." With its intriguing title, the story is captivating from the beginning. It opens with the climactic event--the death of Gary and the narrator's role in it. We don't yet know who Gary is, his relationship to the narrator, or the details of his death beyond that it was the narrator's inaction that in part led to it. Farmer gives the reader the climax early and then builds up to it, reflecting on it in periodic time shifts throughout the story. The story avoids the cliché of slowly building up to a tragic death. But in doing so, it falls into another. Beginning at the end seems to be part of the fiction formula. In this journal alone, Elizabeth Seale's "When You Watch Me" and Urban Waite's "Don't Look Away" are structured in the same way. If not this, then a shocker of an opening sentence like in Kate Pamela Kostelnik's "Dancing School": "Phil and Kashmir talk dermatitis while she grinds on his khakis." While this method has its place and functionality, its overuse is a bit tiresome.

A story in the international section stresses the importance of a connection with the natural world. Angèle Kingué's "Venus of Africa" (translated by Renée Gosson) is a excerpt from a novel of the same title. The novel, according to Gosson's introduction, is set in the author's native country of Cameroon. It tells of a group of women struggling to live and exist in a small village where European colonialism has left its dirty mark. The character of Assumta returns to her home village after spending time as a prostitute in the city and sets a small stand for provisions. It grows into a "visionary purification center" that employs numerous women, including Bella, the "Venus of Africa," a woman dismembered by her husband with both arms severed above the elbows, whom Assumta leaves the center to when she succumbs to illness. One of the women plants a garden of remembrance where Assumta is buried: this is where the excerpt begins.

This recognition of the big picture makes "Venus of Africa" a thought-provoking, and immensely important piece in our time of accelerated globalization and the rapid disappearance of indigenous cultures.

While not all of the pieces fit the dictionary definitions of grotesque, for the most part they all deal in some way with absurdity, distortion of the natural world or human perception, or ugliness making issue 42 of Hayden's Ferry Review an interesting and worthwhile read, if not for the previously mentioned pieces alone. In a world that is becoming more connected everyday through the exportation of culture and growing technology, maintaining and entertaining different perspectives on these changes is important in understanding them. This issue of HFR aides in that understanding.