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‘Square Dancing at the Asylum’ by Kirby Wright

December 12, 2013
Joseph W. Bean - Contributing Writer , Maui Weekly

These days, I don't always know from watching what is gymnastics and what is dance. Listening doesn't always tell me which tunes are country and which are rock or even pop. All the same, as sure as Gymnopedies is ballet--great dance!--I know what is beautiful, what reaches me and what changes me.

"Square Dancing at the Asylum" is beautiful even when it turns angular and confrontative. It reaches me like fog through open windows, inescapably. And I don't even try to resist the change in myself Wright effects with these bolts of flashing literature.

Why would I expose myself to art if I'm going to reject its constructive power?

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Book Review
Joseph W. Bean

Kirby Wright calls the pieces in "Square Dancing at the Asylum" "flash fiction." Would any reader feel differently about them if he called them poems, prose poetry, or just very short stories? I think serious readers would not. The pieces are poetry because they are aesthetically whole and they depend on all the significant qualities of language, not just the defined meanings of the words. They are very short stories, since that only means each one can be read in basically no time. Are they prose poetry or flash fiction?

Easy question. Yes!

What is far less easy is to keep yourself from being entirely consumed by the seven "books" in the volume. Even the names of the books recited in order suggest something more than the naming of "sections" in a collection: Desire, The Burbs, Confinement, Creature Comforts, Slaughterhouse Flies, Notes from the Front Line and Nothing Ever Changes.

The major characters--all of them gunning for you, the reader, one way or another--include flies (more than once), Bell's Palsy (more than once), a lifelong mental patient, cannibals, an abusive father, big brother and a nearly helpless sister. There are countless other characters that will haunt and taunt you ever after, too, including one who will make you think twice about any poems you ever try to write yourself: The Queen of Above Average Poetry.

Prose poems have been around for at least 150 years. Oscar Wilde was a master of the form. Flash fiction, more than anything, seems to be a newish (1990 or so) name for the same form, probably meant to place fewer demands on the writer about the intense, poetic use of those higher and more subtle qualities of language.

Wright didn't need the softer definition. Throughout Square Dancing, there is rhythm and multiplication of possible meaning, words provide color and sounds convey emotions. Nonetheless, Wright is smart enough to use the newer name for his work, flash fiction.

It is not possible to know and probably not reasonable to guess what a writer "thinks he is doing," ever. We cannot see what he is looking at, know what he is thinking, or sense the feelings that move the creator of art in any form, especially literature. We can, however, be moved by his language. Here, feel this as an example: in "Earthquake Weather" you'll read, "humming Iran's National Anthem at intersections." That plugs into my heartbeat, and gives it a new rhythm. Even completely out of context, the syllables stun. Or, try this one from "New Jersey" as both an intense use of language and an ultra-sharp image: "Neighbors laugh, cough, conduct seizures of sneezes during family reunions."

There are, all through "Square Dancing at the Asylum," endings that surprise (or even shock) the reader, but they never feel contrived. Before you even read the book--I know you'll want to read it--try to think how this ending of "Hurricane Irene" is a direction-changing surprise: "The breeze makes him feel he as though he's really there. He sees a woman standing at the water's edge, searching for something in the waves."

Heart-stoppers can crop up anywhere in this collection. You won't understand why this is so important until you read your way to it, but burn this "Messages from the West" line into memory: "After crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, the man adjusts his rearview mirror while speeding home to Michigan, his convertible top down."

Whole novels blossom in your thoughts or dreams after you read a few hundred words. The pieces do not appear as Cliff notes. Instead, each piece is clearly the crystallized result of powerfully and passionately compressing every meaningful thought and syllable into almost no space, giving meaning so concentrated it is dizzying.

There are echoes throughout "Square Dancing at the Asylum" to remind you of Wright's memoirs, his earlier poetry, and even his speculative fiction ("The End," "My Friend"). You don't have to be familiar with these earlier works to enjoy the new volume, but this is a collection that--if it is your introduction to Wright--will send you in search of his other works.

First, though, stop and enjoy the prose here, or the poems or flash fictions. Doesn't matter. Turn the pages slowly. Give yourself time to think and care about what you're experiencing as you read. The meaning and value will grow to fill all the time you are willing to give them.



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