Print Lit Mags : Reviews

On Monkeybicycle 8

by Posted on May 31st, 2011 at 3:36 pm

At 192 pages, Monkeybicycle 8 is a healthy selection of prose and poetry of impressive range. Rarely am I introduced to a print publication through its online version, but my previous reading experiences with Monkeybicycle have been focused on their more truncated works, including the archived flash fiction and the addicting One Sentence Story feature. The print version of the magazine exists independently of the online world: the issue works as a collective, and while it is thematically related to some of the online content, it does not feel merely like a packaged version of the online work.

The issue is focused on prose over poetry, though not to the deficiency of the latter. Although I enjoyed a number of pieces in the issue, I was invariably drawn toward, and returned to, a few in particular, a mixture of new names and writers I’ve encountered elsewhere. “The End of Jimmy” by Vincent Scarpa feels representative of the peculiar Monkeybicycle aesthetic: strong sentence level writing paired with an openness toward quirky and layered content. The story begins rather directly:

The accident was in the beginning of May, right after I kicked Jimmy out for the second time. He was drunk and walking through the streets when the eighteen-wheeler drove right into him.

Scarpa moves from objective to pointed a few sentences later:

Because I had found out that Jimmy was still fucking around with Claire just the day before, I was disappointed to hear [that his death was instantaneous]. I had hoped that each wheel went directly over his head, squishing it further and further into the road.

I love the narrator of this story; she’s honest, not only with about her flawed, failed relationship with Jimmy, but also about his “mama”—“She’s a big woman and I tried to pry her off of me. I don’t like being touched.” The mother’s visit creates even more awkwardness, situations that include Claire, Jimmy’s other love interest, who was “Ms. Louisiana in ‘89” and “a tough bitch.” The narrator’s honesty, though, shifts at an essential point in the story, and she admits to the malleable quality of truth within her narrative. I won’t reveal the twist, but it’s a clever undercut of the sarcasm established in the first half of the story, and the resulting tone feels indicative of the issue as a whole: stories that engage the reader through the quality of prose, yet not formulaic, more than willing to play with structure and narrative.

Aaron Burch’s “Sacrifice” commands the reader’s attention with the same quality of writing as Scarpa’s story, but Burch’s approach is different. Told in ten sections, the story is quite strong sentence to sentence, delivered with a reserved, reasoned tone. “Sacrifice” is about a lack of feeling—the moments when we are either unable to represent, or choose not to represent, the worlds that exist within us. While Scarpa’s story lays bare the elements of narrative, the craft of storytelling (and the desire to sometimes mess with the reader), Burch’s story moves with a through-line of measured grief, the themes unmistakably Old Testament at moments, with the continuous focus on brothers and consequence. Burch’s story uses the passive well and builds toward a King James cadence at moments:

And then, behind them, father and son discovered a ram, caught in the brush by its horns, and they removed the animal and let it to the altar and offered it to their God instead.

The narrative vacillates between these Biblical memories and narratives and the continuous present of the story. The memories, though, move the piece forward. The main character’s present actions live within such a Biblical world. He is living with grief because he was conditioned to grieve:

He memorized not only all Ten Commandments but also their corresponding numbers, and devised story problems, mixing math with theology.

Such backstory rehearses the deepest action of the story, what occurs “on the day of his brother’s funeral.” Burch slows down the narrative here, and I appreciate his attention to pacing. The character’s actions are so deliberate, and we are ready for, though still shocked by, what happens next:

In the kitchen, he emptied the freezer’s box of ice into the bucket on his kitchen table, pulled out and then sat in the seat, and lowered his left hand into the ice.

The story ends with a question, and the choice is appropriate to the ambiguity created—ironically—by such a deliberate, controlled story.

Two poems I especially enjoyed were “Maro and Raquel” by E. Michael Desilets and “Chipmunks” by Steve Peacock . “Maro and Raquel” moves with impressive speed, line after line of images wrapped in tight phrases:

done-up damsels
trawling with the fishnet denizens
clustered in the subway club überground

Snapshots feels like the right word to describe the litany of images, since “Maro’s stuttering shutter snatch[es] . . . body parts at play.” The surrounding world, the “red lacquer wall in the background,” the world of representation, of created “stark wide angles” is more real than the human world. The other character named in the title, Raquel, “lurks,” her “nose too big hands too clammy eyes too lonely.” A caricature only made real through “that lens lunging her way.” The final image is so accurate in revealing the bleeding and blurring of the world of the photograph, with Raquel “tilted / against the glossy brick,” where “her longing / outshines lightning.”

“Chipmunks” is an excellent editorial transition from “The End of Jimmy.” The poem begins “Having arrived / at the choice”—a nice movement from the narrative malleability of the preceding story. This poems is grounded directly in the moment of a possible suicide set to the song “Whipping Post.” “Chipmunks” is arranged for visual reading, yet the narrative thrives on a continuation of acoustics complimenting the action. Music “slaps” from “screaming speakers” before “meander[ing]” and “vibrating” a photograph. Later the “throbbing bass penetrates / the square-bottled liter / of Jack on his lips” and “shattered glass sings as it scatters across the floor.” The poem remains in this moment as long as possible, though, seeing it through to the inevitable end of the song, with

                 The audience
of the live recording
     applauds his performance,
     fades to silence;

He questions: “What song shall I die to?” The turn here is hilarious, but darkly so, considering the poem never truly leaves the establish moment:

of the Allman Brothers Band
has been succeeded by the
of Alvin and the Chipmunks.

The final sound of the poem is

   a series of staccato
into the empty
wastepaper basket
on the floor.

There’s much more work in this issue worthy of especial mention: Ori Fienberg’s clever “Clockwork Dog,” Andrew James Weatherhead’s refractive and smart “Something that Happened in Brooklyn,” the surreal “Hunger” by Matt Briggs , and “Rattle My Leaves,” an excerpt from Steve Himmer’s new novel. A strong issue of diverse and memorable work.