Terrible Sounds: Mary Meriam on Jan Steckel’s Mixing Tracks


Mixing Tracks, Jan Steckel, Gertrude Press, 2008

Jan Steckel’s first chapbook, The Underwater Hospital, is poetry. Her second chapbook, Mixing Tracks, is exquisite prose. Both books concern the extreme distress caused by catastrophe. In The Underwater Hospital, the hospital, which should be healing patients, is flooded. In Mixing Tracks, an airplane, which should be transporting passengers, is crashed in the wilderness. Mixing Tracks is the story of the two survivors, told in a prose so deep and strong that it verges on poetry:

I had been thrown from the crash in a shower of screaming metal, but except for a few shallow cuts, the slashing fragments inexplicably neglected my flesh. Mindless and sightless I had run from that killing ground, fleeing what I might see, and worse, those terrible sounds. I ran till I tripped and fell on the forest floor, where I lay sobbing in the silence of frightened birds.

This paragraph is the poetic heart of the story. The “terrible sounds” are part of the sounds mixing throughout the story. The narrator was traveling with his rock band; the other members do not survive; and the voices and music of the band haunt the narrator. The silent birds are also part of the sound mix, as Steckel seamlessly mixes natural and man-made sounds and silences. Although the narrator escaped the crash with a few cuts, terrible and beautiful sounds, from the past and present, clash in the narrator’s mind with such force that we feel his mind crashing.

In this wilderness, this landscape of catastrophe, there is a stream of water, mixing with the stream of sounds. Steckel returns to the stream leitmotif again and again:

I followed a summer-swollen stream as far from the carcass of the plane as I could get.

The kid went down to the stream for a drink, and I kept an eye on him as I opened the mandolin case.

Jackie swam in the novelty of it, splashed in it like a child in a stream. The sounds that emerged were startlingly, extraterrestrially beautiful.

He flicked some ashes into the silt from the stream.

I pointed across the stream to where the bank sloped upward.

I took a running leap across the stream, then stalked up the bank toward the hill.

Facing away from the stream, I watched shadow swallow the valley of trees below.

I took off my sweaty, dirty, whisky-spattered shirt and rinsed it in the stream as the noise continued.

Steckel’s poetry flows in these lines. Like the mandolin that survives the crash unharmed, the stream goes on and on, close to us, with its life and music.

The other survivor, a young street hustler, seems to represent death, or at least the tempting seduction of death. Indeed, when night falls, and the narrator is spooked by wild howls from the wilderness, the boy seduces the narrator:

“They’re just dogs,” he said loudly. “Didn’t you ever have a dog?” I shook my head. “I didn’t really either,” he said, “But my great-aunt does. No husband or kids, just this Airedale named Lucy that she taught to say ‘mama.’ No shit. The old bag holds up a chocolate-covered cherry and Lucy sits up on her hind legs and kind of whines ‘mah-mah,’ and Auntie pops the cherry right into her mouth.” His delivery was superb. I had to smile. “When the old lady was training her she had to hold Lucy’s mouth the right way with her fingers before she could say ‘mama,’ but now she does it all by herself. Biggest hit with the mah-jongg club…” He went on and on, drowning the howling in an endless stream of calm inanity while his hand slid down my chest toward my cock.

Surviving the plane crash, and finding each other in this wilderness, is not the end of the story. But I won’t be a spoiler, except to say that the story leaves me pondering how catastrophe and survival and life mix, and if this wilderness is a dream or a nightmare or death.

Every word of the story seems to carry the weight of an insight about surviving “screaming metal” and “killing ground.” Such insights are only visible (or audible or bearable) with an equal or stronger understanding of life. The strength and beauty of Steckel’s prose is life-affirming and celebratory. In the face of the terrible distress of catastrophe, when nothing is in its proper place, Steckel’s work is a remarkable achievement.

Mixing Tracks won the 2008 Gertrude Press Fiction Chapbook Award for LGBT writers. Steckel, as she describes herself, is a “Bidyke writer and disabled former pediatrician [who] writes about poetry, fiction, sexuality, doctoring, poverty, and what it feels like to remember what kind of socks everyone at her readings wears instead of what their faces look like. Sharing the view from floor level and somewhere skew to the Kinsey Scale, the Horizontal Poet sings the Bidyke Blues while pimping her books and those of her highly unusual friends.”

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Mary Meriam’s poems and essays have appeared in Literary Imagination, The Gay & Lesbian Review, Windy City Times, Rattle, A Prairie Home Companion, Light Quarterly, and others. Her chapbook, The Countess of Flatbroke (afterword by Lillian Faderman), was published by Modern
Metrics/Exot Books.

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