October 2013

Shan Wang

fiction

Mother Box and Other Tales by Sarah Blackman

Sarah Blackman's Mother Box and Other Tales, a collection of twelve short stories (one of them is billed as a novella) featuring an enigmatic cast of daughters, mothers, girls, women, spouses, and lovers, moves in and out of the familiar and never lets the reader get too comfortable. Her animalistic characters raise animals, sometimes turn out to be animals; they inhabit landscapes from corporate offices to suburban gardens to fairytale forests; they occasionally have names like Sylvia and Penny but often are just introduced to the reader as "the girl" or "the boy," nameless pronouns that nevertheless take on intensely passionate and perverse desires. The title along with the cover, which depicts a hen's head atop a topless female torso circumscribed by a box, set up an expectation for surreal fairy tales; and indeed, elements of myth and folklore thread through the stories, mixing with the prosaic to set scenes we're almost too afraid to admit we recognize.

The reader might be afraid, but Blackman isn't. Her characters are unapologetic; her imagery is aggressive but just avoids being too florid. I would be remiss if I didn't dwell on the sensual prose of Mother Box and Other Tales. Because some of the stories in this collection are sketches no more than a few pages long and with amorphous plotlines, they are carried primarily by the sound and rhythm of Blackman's sentences, which, as a poet, she arranges meticulously. And the effect is jolting, delightful: Blackman knows where and when to lay on thick the descriptive paint. Take, for instance, her treatment of the shadows cast by two women, Dannie and Sylvia, and Dannie's babies, during an afternoon stroll:

The wind flattened against them in a huge, coughing pant and it seemed to Sylvia as if their shadows danced around them. Her shadow and Dannie's shadow, the babies' hydra shadow craning out of their stroller and Steven's cast before him, so close now it pressed into their own. It was as if the light of the day were a bulb swinging loose from the sky, knocking around crazily, shining onto all sides of them at once.

Or take this saturated description of a repainted house in the story "A Category of Glamour":

In the morning it had been a chalky antacid kind of blue that faded into the blue morning shadows and was peeling in places to show its elemental brick. Blue with black shutters. Now, the house was a creamy peach with bright green shutters. It looked like the lovebird Penny had often admired in the pet store window in town... Penny thought there was something about the lovebird's peachy head and bright green mask that made it look like a baby, a poor baby all dressed up by some mother who had purchased too many cute hats.

The paragraph is cluttered with adjectives. It wanders. It is unapologetically gaudy. But in context -- the story follows a widow who lives with her mostly-grown son Max and develops a relationship with a shadowy man who visits her garden -- it manages to hold strange poignancy, especially for mothers who have smothered their children and children who have been smothered by their mothers.

The book is also filled with violent descriptions of sex. Blackman holds nothing back as she drives her female characters again and again into bad or undesirable situations, be it falling in and out of love, ambivalent pregnancies, fights with lovers, grave illnesses, upended dinner parties. In "A White Hat on His Head, Two Wooden Legs," a "wild girl" and a "tame boy" meet in fairytale fashion and make a life and grow old together in not-so-fairytale fashion:

...[T]he girl picked up the boy's stick and beat him about the head and torso. She cracked bloody knots in his shoulders, split open his eyebrow, burst his mouth like a plum... He said, "I love you," and she said, "Don't talk." In this fashion, they knew each other.

In "Listen," sex similarly turns savage: "She scoured him. She used her nails, her teeth... All over his body she left great welts, thready scratches beading with blood as if he had come through a forest of nettles." These stories, read in one sitting, can be a little trying; it's hard not to see redundancies.

Plenty of other nonsexual absurdities happen throughout the book as well, but it is the glimpses we get of domestic discord or mental instability that most of all dig deep into real insecurities, that recall uncomfortably real circumstances. In "The Cherry Tree," for instance, a woman clinically examines the landscape as a male colleague propositions and then assaults her:

That afternoon she stood in a reticulated lozenge of light in her office window and counted all the buds on the cherry tree. One hundred and sixty-two... [Anthony] put his hands on her hips to steady himself and worked harder, hurting her, really digging in. Behind them, on the other side of the two-way mirror, the children were being led in some sort of song... The children's laughter sounded spiny to her -- brittle, harsh with edges -- but perhaps it was only this way because of the quality of the light which today was even more than usually resplendent, falling as it did over her breasts and then beyond them, paying attention to all the details.

I wonder how many women have counted buds on a cherry tree, or turned their minds to something else just as mundane, in the above situation. I'm afraid to know. But Blackman boldly dwells on the moment.

Similarly, in "The Silent Woman," the longest and most fully-realized story in Blackman's collection, Mary recalls the period following childbirth with an eerie detachment that would make any new mother squirm. The fly she had accidentally swallowed and which was now flourishing in her chest cavity, and not her newborn, occupied her thoughts:

The baby, though intricate in its parts, was not absorbing. Rather, it absorbed and seemed perfectly content to hang at her breast grunting and rooting around with its puckered, puffy lips. The fly, on the other hand, was unique and her relationship with it required a sort of undivided attention to the experience she could not afford if she were to continue with her extant duties of the home.

In some ways, Mother Box and Other Tales is a weird book that demands too much patience from the reader -- sons turn out to be foxes, one-upping dinner guests turn out to be moons, mothers turn out to be cardboard boxes. It is best where it teeters on the edge of painful realities, blurring real people and places, blending with reader's own memories and histories.

Mother Box and Other Tales by Sarah Blackman
Fiction Collective 2
ISBN: 978-1573661744
224 pages