In “The Okay End of Funny Town,” Mark Polanzak’s fantastic, fantastical debut collection of short stories out this week and winner of the BOA Short Fiction Prize, Polanzak plays just over the line of the non-real. A man decides to end a relationship with a needy, condescending robot; the locavore restaurant trend is taken to its extreme as diners slaughter the animals they’ll have for their meals; there’s lost childhoods, lost loves, permanent departures, a toilet on a lawn, a mime, grown-up summer camp; and a story called “Giant” about a giant who arrives and disrupts a town, settling in to eat and sleep, takes on new meaning now: “None of us went to work that first day. No child went to school. Many of us chuckled after remarking that the giant had put things in perspective.” Polanzak, who lives in Salem and teaches writing at Berklee, reckons with the big non-understandables in a way that feels especially timely. Underneath the fabulist conceits throbs a familiar humanity: heartbreak, grief, shimmery moments of rage, our faltering efforts to connect and to love. Amidst the pains and disappointments, the boredoms and the emptinesses, lives the possibility for laughter, both the “grand, godlike guffaw,” and the funny-sad strangeness, the beautiful mysteries: “funny how people meet and then how they end up in love.” He’s right. Polanzak captures comedy-and-tragedy with a thumping heart, a big imagination, and a profound sensitivity to the textures of our longings, loves, and laughs.
Poet and translator Ani Gjika, who lives outside Boston, took on the daunting and intimate task of translating a collection of her mother Julia Gjika’s poetry. “Memories Pretend To Sleep” (Laertes) wrestles with making a life and a home in both a place and a language. The Gjikas immigrated to the U.S. from Albania when Julia was 48, and Ani was 18, and Julia, who lives in Worcester, took twenty years off from writing poetry. In a tender and illuminating introduction, Ani writes of the act of translation, on the deep reading involved, and moments when one “can sometimes reach beyond what the author could have known initially.” Julia’s poems are crystalline, fierce, in moments melancholy and indicting, in moments questioning and longing. “Nothingness . . . pokes its nose, eavesdrops on a being . . . / listens in, / turns the seconds heavy, / on the hours of being, / tramples mercilessly.” Of geese, she writes, “Their white bellies / glided through the numerous hues / the firmament had stolen from the season. / In an instant, exhaustion and rest became one.” Always, in each one, pulses a smoldering sense of aliveness. “I have finally found my mother’s tongue,” Ani writes. “Gentle, unadorned, discerning, the kind of language that transmits a message straight to one’s soul.”
Poet Tara Skurtu got her MFA in writing at Boston University, and is currently on a Fulbright fellowship in Bucharest, Romania. To combat feelings of isolation and loneliness in lockdown, she turned to poetry, and she started the International Poetry Circle on Twitter, a global initiative that invites poets and poetry lovers to record videos of themselves reading poems. Since the start in mid-March, over 1500 poem videos in over 15 languages have been added to the hashtag, including videos by some bigtime luminaries: Dolly Parton has joined in, as well as Lana Del Rey, David Gray, Ada Limón, Maggie Smith, Rhett Miller, Jorie Graham, Lloyd Schwartz, and many others. “We really need each other,” Skurtu says in her introductory video which has been viewed nearly 125k times. “In times like this, people turn to poetry.”
“Cockfight” by María Fernanda Ampuero, translated from the Spanish by Frances Riddle (Feminist Press)
“The Park” by John Freeman (Copper Canyon)
“Strange Hotel” by Eimear McBride (FSG)
Pick of the Week
Heather Woodworth at Phoenix Books in Burlington, Vermont, recommends “The Night Watchman” by Louise Erdrich (Harper): “Erdrich shows how family holds it together. Erdrich’s grandfather decides to organize the tribe to fight against Senator Watkins’s intent to remove the tribe from their land in North Dakota in the 1950s. When families endure hardship, they care for one another, show resolve, and trust in the spirits of their ancestors watching over them in the Northern Lights.”