Stunningly Beautiful Poems: David Atkinson on Sarah McKinstry-Brown’s Cradling Monsoons


Cradling Monsoons, Sarah McKinstry-Brown, Blue Light Press, 2010

When I say that the poems in Sarah McKinstry-Brown’s newest collection, Cradling Monsoons, are stunning, I mean that quite literally.  I use stunning in its incarnation as a verb as opposed to its more exaggerative adjectival form.  These richly introspective, elegantly velveteen poems are filled with moments that took my breath away. Right near the beginning, in the poem “Origami Girl,” I ran across the lines:

They say you’re an origami girl,

Guided by men’s strange hands.

Yesterday, you were a fish,

Today, you resemble a rose.  Tomorrow

Your mother will knock on the bathroom door

to find you blue

in the face.

I shook my head and stared at the lines I’d just read, marveling.  It took me an effort to move myself away from that poem.  Then I made sure that no one would disturb me in my quiet reading place, wanting nothing that could possibly interrupt, and read the rest of the collection. I blocked off the rest of the world as I read, because the moments like the one above kept happening.  In “Flowering” I found:

Mother sits across from me,

and the silence we share is tender,

falling off the bone.

In the cellar, her heart

sulks green, hard,

inaudible, her

aorta stumped

by my flowering.

I was a bulb

meant for quicksand, the vacuum

in the doctor’s precise hand,

not the wetlands of her womb.

and waiting for me in “The Other Side of the Story” were the words:

There are days I want to sail

into a new area code in a baby-blue Chevy,

windows rolled down, the wind and Lucinda Williams

blowing through my hair.  When that dream stales,

I cross the Atlantic, find myself lounging naked, smoking

on a balcony in Prague.  Trouble is

I’m getting old enough to know

that the balcony and the Chevy

don’t exist.

I encountered image after image that knocked the wind out of me.  Quite literally, the poems stunned me.  Over and over.  It felt something like delightful sucker punches to the solar plexus. These moments stunned me because at the same time that they were softly reminiscent, I was surprised by emotionally jagged edges.  The origami girl who yesterday was a fish and today resembles a rose will be found blue in the face tomorrow when her mother knocks at the bathroom door.  The slipping back in forth in the poems between pleasure and pain seems to mirror the way that life is almost never purely light or purely dark, but rather a blend of the two that makes us have to drink the poison in order to also get the nourishment.  The poems surprised me in the genuineness of the emotion I felt while reading, the way that the lines turned in directions I did not expect but in reflection could not picture going any other way.

It is true that I found approachable the apparent simplicity of these poems which center on daily life topics such as family connections (both in the faded past and the more gritty present), freedom dreams, loss, motherhood, and so on.  After all, the poems came at me directly, not hiding behind excessive ornamentation or unnecessary complexity.  However, that is not to say that these poems did not also attack.  Once they drew me in, the poems really worked me over before turning me loose again.  That unhurried velveteen elegance lulled me unsuspecting, and then proceeded to set me aflame.

I greatly enjoyed reading Cradling Monsoons.  I think it is a compelling beautiful collection from a poet whom I now expect to deliver even more marvelous wonders the future.

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David S. Atkinson is a Nebraska-born writer currently living in Denver. He holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska as well as a BA in English, a BS in computer science, and a JD. His stories, book reviews, and articles have appeared in Fine Lines, Gently Read Literature, The Nebraska Lawyer, and 2600: The Hacker Quarterly. The website dedicated to his writing is davidsatkinsonwriting.com

Stories to Make the World New: David Atkinson on Amelia Gray’s Museum of the Weird




Museum of the Weird, Amelia Gray, Fiction Collective 2, 2010

It is difficult to analyze a collection of stories that starts out: “One morning, I woke to discover I had given birth overnight. It was troubling to realize because I had felt no pain as I slept, did not remember the birth, and in fact had not even known I was pregnant.” In this first story in Amelia Gray’s Museum of the Weird, when the narrator notes the above and subsequently sees that the “child had pulled himself up to my breast in the night and was at that moment having breakfast,” her reaction is to simply say “Hello.”

Truthfully, I felt the narrator’s confusion at that moment; hers at suddenly finding an unexpected baby feeding on her seemed a lot like mine at finding this on the first page of the first story in the collection. I fumbled for a reaction. I ended up resorting to the same response as the narrator- I merely said hello. Then I kept reading.

These stories seem like they should be so normal, well mannered and plainspoken if you will, but then they just keep walking past the top of the escalator and right out onto the sky. Moreover, when I read, I felt like many of the characters were having a similar reaction to the absurdity that I was. They were trying to make whatever has happened normal, though some were on a related wavelength in that they themselves were the absurdity and were trying to act as if it was normal.

In “Fish,” for example, “Dale was married to a paring knife and Howard was married to a bag of frozen tilapia. Each had fallen into their respective arrangements having decided independently that there was no greater match for them in life.” However, the two men encounter into a women as they are out on a fishing trip. When she pokes fun at the bag of frozen tilapia and acts as if she might open it, Howard merely stares helplessly but Dale “clocks [the woman] on the mouth with his Rick Clunn baitcaster.” Remember, Howard is the one married to the tilapia, not Dale. To Dale’s confusion, Howard and him argue about what he has done, leading to Howard opening the bag and flinging the frozen fish (which is his spouse) into the water. And, “[w]hen they finally came ashore, the police were there with [the] woman” and Dale wasn’t “immediately sure why.”

As I read them, these stories essentially center on normal, ordinary parts of life- procreation, relationships, trying to make some kind of meaning in life, and so on. However, Gray brilliantly and quietly knocks me for a loop each time, presenting these routine topics in such forms as an armadillo with a Miller High Life and a penguin drinking gin out of a highball glass. These absurdities are so strange, so marvelously imaginative and odd, that it makes me laugh (and/or weep, depending) and look at what is routine in a fresh, new way. They fill the world with wonders for those who can no longer see the wonders that are out there. In short, Gray makes the old new again and manages to delight her readers at the same time.

In short, I found the stories in this collection to be the sort of wild, unique fiction for which I often turn to writers like Etgar Keret and Huraki Murakami, though Gray is definitely her own animal. I am thrilled to see that there are still Americans out there who can still write in new ways like this, intrigue me with something I have honestly never seen before. I loved this collection and cannot wait to find out whether Gray has more like it.

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David S. Atkinson is a Nebraska-born writer currently living in Denver. He holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska as well as a BA in English, a BS in computer science, and a JD. His stories, book reviews, and articles have appeared in Fine Lines, Gently Read Literature, The Nebraska Lawyer, and 2600: The Hacker Quarterly. The website dedicated to his writing is davidsatkinsonwriting.com

A Work of Disturbing Originality: David Atkinson on Timothy Black’s Connecticut Shade


Connecticut Shade, Timothy Black, WSC Press, 2009

With so much of written work today revisiting the same ground as other works and rehashing the same themes, such as the overabundance of modern vampire romance novels, it is truly fascinating to see work that breaks away and does something entirely its own.  Connecticut Shade is, by far, one of the most unique pieces of writing I have read in a long time.

I have heard Connecticut Shade described as a novella, poetry, stream-of-consciousness, and a plethora of other classifying terms.  After reading it, I threw all that right out.  There is no point to trying to classify Connecticut Shade.  It is a useless, futile exercise.  The book should just be read, not classified.

Now, Connecticut Shade is not for everyone.  I do not say that because of the structure.  Admittedly, there are no page numbers.  This is because reading is not confined to any linear path through the book.  Rather, the reader makes their own way by grabbing at different paragraphs, each voiced by one of a number of different identities identified by little pictures.  The narrative thread carries through just as well if the reader selects the paragraph voiced by The President:

He would drop leaflets, but he was no arsonist.  He didn’t even know if he was an Atheist, almost.  He didn’t even know if there was no God to not worship.  Warship?  One would never be named for him, although the few Cubans he had would be enough to bring life back to any sphincter.  What, he was going to light his own Goddamned house on fire?  He didn’t even live there yet.  But it would be his house: Fire.

and then reads the paragraph voiced by the Meth Lady that follows it:

Although she had never met him, the ad said she could get the prescription for free and have free shipping and free service 24/7; in other words, what she deserved.  It had popped up on her Internet thing while she was searching on Yahoo! For “Dunhill.”  Ambien.  $5.00 off.  She clicked.  She typed.  She confirmed.  Post-Apocalyptic Pharmaceuticals.  She didn’t have an answer for that, but she did have a desire under its influence: Voice-Mail.

as if they grab the paragraph near the physical end of the book voiced by the Child Actor:

Although only he knew about his “little problem” (and his greedy parents, the sons of bastards), he couldn’t think it anything but ironic he had to wear what his publicist called “big-boy pants.”  They were like underwear to a point, but…he yelled for a juice box and stepped into the lights.  Salsa.

and then read the paragraph near the physical beginning voiced by The Cat:

Everything the cat did was out of desperation.  Her bin was abominably full, and the Multiple Cat Scoop Clumping Formula the person chose did little to hide the log monsters and crusted puddles laying near the surface.  She had given up, for the time, complete burial.  I mean, really.

Any order the reader chooses works.  Connecticut Shade is fascinating for this fact by itself, let alone the other qualities of the book.

What I mean, though, that this book is not for everyone is that not everyone can handle the drive of the narrative itself, the intensity of emotion and the rawness of the language.  As the above paragraphs amply demonstrate, it is primal, brutally honest, and unrelenting.  This narrative is powerful and it cannot help but affect.  Rather than describe hell, it creates it for readers.  They experience it first-hand.  The hell may have originated in the loneliness and despair of one man, but it is the hell we all inhabit to some extent but refuse to recognize- the hell of modern existence.  Some readers cannot handle that, but it will be their loss if they do not get to experience Connecticut Shade.

Those that can handle it should check Connecticut Shade out.  They may not be certain what to make of it at first, but they don’t have to.  Once the Mack truck of it runs them over, they’ll have plenty of time to sit and figure out what just happened.  They can randomly flip around.  They can read it forwards, then backwards.  They can read only the passages denoted by the sandwich, then the ones denoted by the vote button and the knife.  Whichever way they go for, the experience will be memorable and unique.

Purchase Connecticut Shade

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David Atkinson is currently pursuing his MFA in creative writing at the University of Nebraska.  He also holds a law degree as well as bachelor degrees in Computer Science and English Literature and Culture.  His short fiction has appeared in Fine Lines and he has published articles in The Nebraska Lawyer and 2600: The Hacker Quarterly.  He currently works as a patent attorney at the law firm of Dorsey & Whitney in the Denver office.