STANDARDS' Signet of Excellence
STANDARDS' Signet of Excellence.

 

Our Tribute to the Best of the 'Net

 

With this issue of STANDARDS, we proudly introduce our international readership to our picks for the best online fiction and poetry in English. After reviewing hundreds of sites, we pay tribute to these fine pages...

 

 

Five-
Star Fiction

 

Our selection for Best Fiction on the 'Net is NWHQ, a lushly complex and evocative ezine based in Canada, produced by Elizabeth Fischer (Editor and Designer), Tim Mclaughlin (Assistant Editor), and John Maxwell (Technical Advisor). Fischer's design flair uniquely complements the diverse works in the publication, and every selection in the journal is worth reading (more than once). While we have consistently pointed readers in the direction of NWHQ over the years, through our Hot Links pages, in this tribute we would like to make special mention of the works reviewed here.

 

Elizabeth Fischer

All of the works by fiction writer Elizabeth Fischer might best be described as surrealistically candid — and this, we assure you, is no mean feat. Reviewing Fischer's works in excerpt form can never do justice to the unique qualities of her style — we suggest readers get a taste here: next, read the author's entire online oeuvre.

 

One of her most emotionally rending pieces, Fischer's "Red Rooster," is an almost unforgivably visceral story of displacement and union, attrition and grief, between two Hungarians who are introduced at a café in Canada:

 

He tells me many things.

I tell him many things.

Words fall like pebbles from my mouth and he catches them in his hands and he swallows them. We are woven immobile in a web of words still to be said. He takes a necklace of words and puts them around my neck, oh I am lost, oh they are so heavy. I want to tell him everything, in this other language, in this other language my father taught me, taught me too well. ...

I look at this person. My mouth is full of this person. ...

We sleep, entwined, we are the branches of the same tree. If I move he moves, if I turn he turns. Asleep, he caresses me, asleep he holds my head against his shoulder. Please don't go. I envy you, you are free. I want your freedom. My freedom is death. I envy your death.

 

In the third section of the story, Fischer switches from the first-person narrative perspective to third:

 

She took that train that morning, the train out of the city. And all the time she was packing her bag, and all the time in the taxi to the train station she was thinking, be wise. Be wise, she was thinking. And in the train, going north, she was thinking, I am wise and this wisdom is a burden to me. ...

 

This agility in shifting milieu and perspectives is also an inspired element of Fischer's modular prose piece "What I Did and Did Not Do," a work of luminous poignancy. The three interrelated vignettes — "What I Didn't"; "What I Did"; and "What I Never Did" — create a sharply triangulated series of tenderness, doubt, and longing.

"What I Didn't" includes the passage:

 

Yesterday I went to see my friend Jack Holt. Down the street I went, up creaky elevator, knock knock, shuffle shuffle from inside, hellooo, he says, his eyes light up. He's ninety three. I went to visit my 93 year old friend down the street, brought him a telephone with big numbers on it so that he can see them to dial. Me and my dog, up the creaky elevator we went. Jack says I'm his angel, so I must be good.

 

"What I Did" continues the work, with a twist:

 

I must have gotten up at some time and then I am sure I drank coffee, that's what I always do, I drank two cups of coffee and then I smoked some cigarettes, that's what I always do. And then I sat and thought, some time passed this way, I sat and thought oh just fantasy things, what if things, for fun, and some time passed this way....

Then I may have done some other things. Maybe I went for a walk. Maybe I went to eat lunch somewhere. I might have sat down and read a newspaper, ate my sandwich, listened to the people talking around me. Maybe I did that.

And then I probably walked around some more. And met the very old man who says, please visit me I'm getting sick now, I can't walk too good, please visit. I always say, yes, I will come real soon now, I will visit you, what apartment number is it, I always forget, yes I'll be there maybe tomorrow. I say this. This too could have happened yesterday.

 

The final section, "What I Never Did," we'll leave readers to discover, amidst the other appealingly wise and oddly puzzling pieces authored by Elizabeth Fischer.

 

John Young

 

Be forewarned: NWHQ's John Young has an astonishing ability to shock with both raw disclosure and near-soured tenderness. These are the kinds of stories one automatically reads twice, in succession, because the first read is always something of an assault, yet there is something more that begs attention.

 

Young's piece, "Firsts" cautions the reader: "This is about dirty eye-openings so keep your snotty distance" — an excellent introduction to Young's works, overall. From the early exposures to gross anatomy, through adolescent explorations of sex and violence, and ending with a torturous account of death, "Firsts" is a one-page litany of hellish survival that burns the reader scathingly, while somehow imbuing an indelible sorrow.

 

In "My Baby," Young crafts the taut and frayed story of a child's death:

 

Got the truck set up and her outa the way and pulled the car over, and oh, god, there was the baby all stuck in the mud and white and dirty and, oh, god, Mr. Young, oh god, the baby was dead and we didn't know if it was alive when we truned the car over and if we killed it. Her baby, oh, your baby, oh god, Mr. Young, we're so sorry, we didn't know of three, we thought it was just two.

 

Young's style does not permit a break from the fast-paced delivery of events:

 

We put Matt I guess you could say back in one of the cool rooms still in the pink and went out to eat. Pretty spooky meal with no sure guide on this trip. Me and Joel studied existentialism at Rice and thought we knew it all but this was something outa the range of Sartay and Heideggeroo, we kidded ourselves.

After a while we went back and got Matt and rode across town way out the other side where the low houses ran out to flat wet fields. The road ran board straight for twenty miles, not a bend, so we u-turned back toward town and Joel said what now. I said well I guess putting him in a can is a way to keep him with us so let's do that. Joel said fine whatever suits you. ...

So we acted smart to cover our numb and I said go ahead and the kind man pushed the button. Matt scooted off, and on his own passed through a flap, and the man said come back in about an hour.

We did, got Matt in a can, and took off for town, feeling kinda spooky with Matt up front like he used to, before the pink sleeping baby was killed and killed maybe twice way out there in the pitch dark ditch of hard West Texas....

 

In "Dogs," Young studies the frailties of lash-out anger amongst men:

 

Jesus beat the hell out Pete every afternoon across from my house for three weeks. None of knew why they fought just that Jesus whipped Pete over and over and Pete wouldn't quit. Next day at school he'd go to Jesus and say it's on.

Just those two hitting and hitting until Pete couldn't get up, Jesus waiting a while to see if it was over for the day and walk off slowly looking back now and then to see if Pete wanted more.

Next day the same, day after day, there next to the pit bull training pound where the dogs ran hour after hour day after day snarling and snapping at each other and the hard-hearted trainers. ...

Dog-lovers say that after repeated losses pit bulls give up their hate for their trainers and become fair family dogs. Like Leon and Norm and Gene, like most of us I guess, except my dad who was still fighting at 74 when he died, one-armed but still swinging his good one and the stump, lung-cancered and smoking, cursing and coughing and laughing and bleeding outside and in.

 

"Momma's Red" is Young's savagely pointed short story of domestic violence, written in an almost poetic sling-shot cadence:

 

Daddy hits her, "Humph."

Momma blubs, "Obie, oh please stop."

Momma says, "Son go away."

Momma's red looking at me and I begin to cry.

I get out of bed, peepeeing in my drawers.

Daddy spits, "Bitch."

Momma softly says, "Obie dont, please."

Daddy hits and hits, "Who's he ... Humph. By god ... Humph."

Momma cries rolling up, "Obie please. Unh. The boy. Unh. Ohhh ..."

I close the door, crying, peepeeing, scared, Momma's so red....

 

Finally, Young hits us with a frisson of insouciance, in what at first appears to be simply a randy exchange between male co-workers:

 

Hey, dirty old man what was the best you ever had?

They were sitting in the firehouse screwing around cleaning equipment and lying about women and screwing and fluffing their feathers, waiting for the horn to send them flying down to the latest fiery wreck and clean civil rescues not too dangerous for the fellows no longer courageous — most were veterans of wars civil and military not so worldly-grand, just dirty and thankless murderous.

 

So begins Young's story of "Mud Love," an expansive piece combining the explosive intensity and fail-safe rigor of affections that are the hallmark of Young's works. The gut-twist here will bring the reader to catch breath, just as the characters do, when the old man reveals his "mud love." John Young is truly one of the most caustically empathetic literary talents of our times. We eagerly await the publication of more of his works.

 

Lidia Yukman

 

The final selection we've included from NWHQ is Lidia Yukman's "Wife", a modular piece in four parts, each with the temptation and bite we expect from the best new fiction.

Each of the four segments portrays a woman in pieces—reminiscent, perhaps, of the protagonist in Janet Kauffman's The Body in Four Parts, who remarks, "I can say this about myself, and it could be said across the board: she is piece-meal, she is not herself, she's numberless, not numb, she cannot be counted out, she's gusted air, open fire, she is not watered down, she's dirt and debris. Also, she is a hank of hair, hacked." Yukman, however, externalizes the indigencies of "womanhood." In the first section of "Wife," we are met with a character of searing spirit:

She took a deep breath. She touched her cheek to the radiator for three long seconds in a perfectly calm gesture, a kind of uninspired gesture, but deliberate all the same. "One, two, three. . ." she said, letting the air out of her mouth with each word. One, two three; the heat singed silent and deep through the layers of her skin, through the fleshy part of her cheek. ...

She either winced or smiled as she peeled her cheek away. Burnt, sweet flesh tickled her nostrils. Her eyes welled, swam in their little sockets. When she could see properly again, she rose and staggered, flesh screaming, from the living room to the kitchen.

The first thing she did was pour herself a glass of whiskey. A glass one might fill with milk. She drank it down until the heat in her throat and chest challenged the fire in her right cheek, the fire filling up the whole right side of her face now, making her nostril flare a little, her lip quiver, her eye close. The whiskey streamed down the center of her body: high voltage.

She thought of things her women friends said to her. Advice, consolations over scripted lunches. Come on, be serious, get a grip. You don't really hate him, do you? How clich. For Christ's sake grow up, be sensible, have a little self control. Go on a diet--herbs and tofu. Change your hair. Your wardrobe. Your perfume. Your heels. Make something of your life. Sex isn't everything, don't be ridiculous. You are obsessing. You are playing the victim. You are just being lazy. I wish I had your problem! Or her personal favorite, honey, what you need is a good fuck.

How do you tell women who wear false nails and baby powder between their legs and order chicken salads with vinaigrette dressing at linen-covered tables and who are busy trying desperately to chew without smudging lipstick that women must keep moving or die?

 

This first survivor in motion, this woman who defies death by concretizing wounds, is joined in the second segment of "Wife" by a sister spirit — a wordsmith whose lexicon is not intended for the faint-at-heart, nor for the admiration of her "artiste" man. At an evening party, where her man is called "Pater," rather than his given name, "Peter" (due to the fact that "Pater sounds more like the name of an artist--that more people will buy from a Pater than a Peter"), the woman declares a moment of self-determination:

 

There are a lot of drinks. Language in the rooms of the party suddenly turns liquid. Animals begin crawling out. One man becomes a lizard, his belly scraping the carpet, his arms and legs sticking out stiff from his body. Another man who has been pinching the asses of women all night turns into a crab, with one, huge, red, heavy claw, so heavy he cannot lift it anymore. A woman with big lips becomes a blowfish, bubbles rise from her face now and then, her eyes move to the sides of her head and look magnified. Pater or Peter becomes a bird with heavy, colored plumage, terribly magnificent: his back sways, his chest protrudes.

She drinks continual scotch. She still feels like a fucking person.

She goes into the bathroom and removes her bra and underwear from underneath her clothing and stuffs them into the medicine cabinet. She emerges from the bathroom some new animal no one has ever seen before. Everyone notices her. She names herself something between the color red and the word devour.

 

The call in this second section is answered in the response of the woman in part three of "Wife," where the narrative point of view shifts to that of a thirty-five year old man, who is utterly transfixed and quite debilitated by a chance sexual encounter in a movie theatre. "Truth is," admits the male narrator, "I don't like to talk first or drink wine or pretend there is something significant that can occur in the space of time before fucking a woman. But I usually do a lot of talking, drinking wine, seeing films, and discussing moral issues in an intelligent and meaningful way before the bedroom. See, what I would really prefer is to get them down on the floor, get in them and watch their faces reveal just how much they can't live without it, how they might die if they couldn't have it." This fantasy is turned on itself, when the narrator encounters the woman who is ready to give him just what he thinks he desires — more or less. "Last night I was at a movie," he confesses, "a German movie, or film, with an intellectual audience: lots of black clothing and designer glasses and shoes with exotic names. A blonde woman sat down next to me after the film had started. I looked at her. She looked at me. There were maybe twenty other people there in the dark. Do you want to fuck me she whispers as if she has just said excuse me but do you have the time. Same quizzical look as do I know what time it is." The narrator's randomly insatiable lust has finally met its match in this woman, who begins a brilliantly scripted sexual performance there in the theatre, but:

 

Then she stops. I almost yell goddamn it, don't stop, for Christ's sake don't stop, you can't stop now, but the Germans are yelling already, and she has turned to watch. I hear some kind of brawl accompanying my torment, slapping and screams and chairs being thrown. I hear it is a woman screaming, a man slapping. I tug at her hips because I think I may explode from the inside out if she doesn't move again soon. Just ten seconds more. Please, just ten more seconds. I shake her from the waist. Her wet wiggles a bit. I get that pain in my temple and throat I got when I tried not to cry as a kid, only worse. Please, I beg. I grab my own penis because I can't stand it anymore. I come like an ocean, a hydrant, a whale, ridiculous, I bite the inside of my cheek to keep quiet. When I open my eyes she is dressed, she is sitting in her seat, eyes forward, having slid off of me long ago. I am the sticky on the floor at her feet.

My rage is all whisper: how could you do that to me? Are you some kind of weirdo? Who the hell do you think you are? How could you do that? Are you a psycho? Some looney? She doesn't whisper, though she speaks in a low voice.

You actually think I did it for you? Why, I don't even know you.

 

The ultimate admission of the carnage of female carnality is shown in the wrack and ruin of the fourth and final segment of "Wife," in which a woman stands watching a male mechanic work on a car. Told from the perspective of the mechanic, there is both the delectable luxury of watching the "inverted chase" and of contrasting the perceptions of the female narrators in the first two segments with those of the males in the companion sections. Here, in the closing scene, the temptress is perceived to hunt not only for pleasure, but possible harm, and the male response is evenly divided:

 

Everybody gets excited by things that scare them a little. Not that she scared me, not really, except that now I notice that she is holding the biggest tool of all and swinging it a bit. I've read stories, you know? Women are doing strange things these days. I think, don't be silly, don't be so paranoid. She's weird, not crazy.

Then she says the weirdest thing of all, what do you think about pain, just out of the blue. I play it real cool. Don't like it, I say. Not even a little? Like when you get a back rub and they hit a muscle that is very sore and it hurts how they rub but you just can't get enough-- what about that?

Well, I guess everybody likes that.

And what about fear?

Now the tools are a little slippery in my hands and I start sizing her up, thinking if that arm raises even a little I'll swing this Allen around into her stomach, just hurt her enough to scare her, because after all I really am bigger than her and could pin her to the garage floor easily. But the second I imagine her really trying to hit me I realize that I am wet and throbbing and she is just setting the tool back down like the most normal person in the entire universe.

You little tease, I think, but what I come up with after all this is that I want to take her home, I want her on the floor, and it makes me feel like somebody besides myself. And I think, is this how it feels? I bet she busts a lot of balls.

 

The works at NWHQ bust a lot of things: niceties, politesse, standardized high school literary "formalism," and the overwhelming ennui that can be bred of long-time reading on the 'net. With writers like Lidia Yukman (who can even write a tantalizing bio) and a host of others of the same calibre, NWHQ isn't what you're looking for, if "mainstream" literature is your wont. But, if cutting edge isn't too sharp for your tastes, this site, which has ranked Best of the 'Net in several categories, is where you need to be.

 

 

Palpable Poetry

 

For the best in new poetry, we salute the works of Aether ("With the tongue of a serpent and the heart of an saint"), an ezine edited and designed by EA Lynch. Although readers may find the overall works included in the most recent edition of the journal a bit uneven, there are, more importantly, absolute gems among chaff.

 

Catherine Daly

Daly's "The Mugho Pine" is a beautifully crafted poem cycle, harshly evocative. It begins:

The oriental splendor of that bush
grows over the porch and covers the door.
We won't hack it back. Not for her.

She scars the staircase with washing machines
and rude high heels. Clicking and slipping,
these nick the plaster. We keen.

In her defense, she has finely tuned trembling;
yellow gloves with buttons at the wrist, or green gloves;
consumption, and bliss in a blue vase.
But she reduces imperial damask to fiber
with the travel of her eyes.

 

In the final stanzas of the cycle, the poet renders a dolorous denoument:

 

We were covered in powder before the sap rose
as blood rises — gray ash, flour —
we don't need paint. Sun knocks at our windows,
hammers color to our skin.

We're splashed with flowers and sleeplessness.

Drenched, animals come
to the foot of the bed, to forge an aisle
through legs and flannel.
It's no secret the heart's an altar.

Milkweed garlands twine around the branches of our mugho pine.
In the vaulted interior, she lives.

 

Such imagery and evocation signal entry into the type of interior landscape that is the native dwelling of some of the best poets, and the work of Catherine Daly earns its place in this milieu.

 

M.S. Edgecombe

 

For the perfect blend of the insouciant and incisive, we've selected M.S. Edgecombe's tongue-in-cheek notation of the '90s, "Muzak Therapy":

 

yesterday at work I had a breakdown.
I called my therapist and they put me on hold.
while I waited Dolly Parton told me working 9 to 5 is enough to drive
you crazy if you let it.
when did muzak get so mean?
I never did speak to my therapist.
today I called to ask when urgent becomes urgent.
while I was on hold Diana Ross asked me if I knew where I was going to
and if I liked the things life is showing me.
I still haven't talked to my therapist.
I'm afraid to call and have Gloria Gaynor tell me I will survive.

 

Although just this one poem by M.S. Edgecombe appears in the most recent issue of Aether, we look forward to more wit from this poet, in future editions.

 

EA Lynch

 

Finally, it is with the greatest pride that we introduce our readers to the works of EA Lynch, undoubtedly one of the finest poets of her generation (this, despite protestations to the contrary in her contributor's note).

Lynch's ability to script lyricism from the harshest of emotions has led to her works being printed out and hung over office walls of STANDARDS staff members, as the exemplary "I wish I'd said that" missives.

In "Rain", a prose poem, Lynch prods the interstices of failure and acceptance:

 

Do you remember praying for rain, when the promises stood like picket fences and you were hollow to the core? You rusted. A tin solider. Do you remember the days when you counted seasons by the color of the sky? Hope cauterized, eyes the color of mirrors, breath like ash. I don't know if this is a story of you, or a story of me, or maybe it belongs to more than us. Maybe it is a story of all of us. Maybe it's the story of how we are all, in the end, failures. Of how we fail, moment by moment, step by step, in imperceptible increment. Of how the day arrives when we have not become who we wanted to be, and how we tell ourselves that it's never too late, keeping falsehood pressed between our pages. There is always a time when our heads snap back, a sharp exhalation. We are rivulet and gully, the sculpture of our experience. No less. No more. ...

I have learned to wish for something difficult. For the time to do it. To become not a person but a stoic. For the solitude of deafening, numbing concentration. For the azure hum of thought. To forget that I am only the flawed anvil of want. ...

And it rains and rains and rains. Rivulet and gully. This is the sculpture of it.

 

Recalling Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Gentle Into that Good Night," and contemporazing the central emblems for a new generation, Lynch's "Blister" becomes a ceremony unto Thomas' incantation:

 

I dig a garden through clay, weeds.
Hands blister, then bleed,
cutting myself in the most
acceptable of ways.

This is the color of sweat.
The smell of heat.

I sow ungloved, firm the soil.
These seeds will grow.
Thrive.
Something must.

Each seed a prayer:

Stretch your bloom to the sun.
Send your taproot deep.
Rage against the dryness.
Rage and rage and rage.

 

"Amplitude", like all Lynch's poetry, successfully crafts form and function with theme, here in the utilization of call-and-response repitition and the reference to music in poetic cadence:

 

Find the pattern. Change the key. Turn to minor. Then resolve.

This note smells like fresh rain and cinnamon. A change of key — a discord, a resolution, a close spanned across the measures. This is the song of melancholy, the shout of joy, the growl of rage, the accompaniment to grief. A perfectly tuned D carries the same wave as the soul. It is the call and response to the hum of blood coursing through our deepest arteries. When played well, it can invoke the thrill of terror. This is the noise of release, the sound of falling asleep, the static of return, our long suppressed memory of nothingness. This is the sine of life and death, consciousness and loss.

Find the pattern. Change the key. Turn to minor. Then resolve.

The most skilled of composers understand this, weaving in time to the oldest of patterns, revolving a score in ellipsis or the shape of infinity. The other notes in the scale are, of course, essential, although incidental, adding contrast to the granite of D, adding vein to our marble, contributing porous emptiness to our sweet heady sandalwood and infusing brightness into the solemnity of shale.

 

And there is Lynch's "Arrythmia", about which the best thing we can say it that we have it on good authority that this poem was the literary stimulus for a romantic engagement between a couple who didn't know quite what to say to one another, until this:

 

This rains in sheets, fire-cold. This is the lostness of walking too far. Or not far enough. Brace against thought, the passage of time. I keep my head down, shielded. I am neatly folded, mothballed, filling time with distraction, petty stoicism, marginal scraps of wit. Spindled on work - eat - work - sleep - email, endure.

But I frighten you.

I am a wry nod to asceticism, uncomfortable chairs, long skirts, and my own absurdity. So put your ear against my chest, love. Listen to me breathe, and measure the arrhythmia of these, my many atrophies.

Ask me to forget, I will.

Today, I am a photograph. Solarized, singed. The moments like an antique watch, a dragonfly pin. Apples caramelized in a bowl of blue dragons. This is the delicate, halting walk of pink glass. Thoughts the color of nylon. Air bubbles. An unknown bruise. A battery of time.

Close your eyes.

I've learned that anyone can be pushed to anything if pushed hard enough. A knife with two blades, I guess. I've learned that sometimes the only thing that counts is one's imagination. To never lose the ability to play make-believe. To be able to step away, and remember that some things are beautiful, even though this is not.

It is not I who frightens you.

I am harmless, like oatmeal or bar soap. Safe as a ladybug, patient as a stone. I am soft patchouli and warm clover. I believe in hollyhock and herring sky. Silk like water. Hibiscus. The parched song of winter leaves.

Ask me to forget, I will....

 

The quality of Lynch's design, particularly her own artwork, makes Aether a visual as well as literary treat. Be sure to bookmark Aether, for coming attractions.

 

Our Salute

 

To each of the authors in this Tribute, we at STANDARDS salute the innovation and quality of your achievements in literature, and it is with great pleasure that we extend our Signet of Excellence.

For our readers, we remind that each of the works in this Tribute have been reviewed in excerpt form, and urge you to read the entire works, by following the links provided.

And, for a taste of other fine ezines on the 'net, visit our Links Page.

 

 

 


 

Original Graphic Image, "STANDARDS' Signet of Excellence" © 1999 by Jim Davis-Rosenthal


Reviews © 1999 by Canéla Analucinda Jaramillo and Emmanuela Copal de León

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