Short Story and Other Short Stories

Corey Mesler

Parallel Press, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison
728 State Street, Madison, WI 53706, 2006. $10


Reviewed by Wendy Vardaman



Corey Mesler’s impressive collection of prose poems, Short Story and Other Short Stories, is one of eight poetry chaps by this prolific author who has published two novels, with a third forthcoming, and, according to a recent interview, close to 1000 individual pieces in journals, zines, and anthologies; in his spare time, Mesler reviews books and runs the country’s oldest (1875) independent book store, Burke’s, in Memphis. Mesler’s prose poems—maybe we need a new word like promes to describe them adequately—are little one- and two-character, thematically-linked short stories that reference, however briefly, the whole arsenal of fictional techniques and components—description, narration, point-of-view, characterization, motivation, dialog, setting; rely less heavily on poetic devices like figures of speech, sonics, and line breaks for their impact; reference an array of fictional genres, such as speculative or fantastic, gothic, mock-biographic, realistic; and recollect numerous modern and post-modern authors of prose and poetry.

At the heart of Mesler’s pieces, whatever we call them, are character and characters—less their individual voices than their interiority and state of mind, even the idea of characterization itself. Half of Mesler’s titles include a name, or just a name. “Les,” the first poem in Short Story, is both a name, a characteristic (even Les’s name has one less –s than “less”), and a statement about Mesler’s minimalism. Eleven lines long, “Les” still manages to pack in comments about the character’s state of mind: “Les thought about himself long and hard.”; description: “His face was older, whiskered, dark under the eyes”; information about time—morning—and the setting—Les’s bathroom; a reference to another character—the spouse he’s fought with the previous evening; a sense of almost surreal urgency/plot: “Sharp instruments beckoned him”; an oblique reference to Kafka: “He did not want to be interrupted in his metamorphosis”; and a metaphor: “he woke up and saw that the old Les was just a rest stop on the way to something finer.” About the only thing missing from “Les” is dialogue, which Mesler incorporates in other poems. Besides the word “metamorphosis,” the language used in “Les” is ordinary, plain, less, like the sounds which also do not call much attention to themselves, except that staccato final –t’s and –d’s help to characterize Les as anxious, restless, nervous: “It had been another bad night, insomnia, a spat with his mate, food that disagreed with him.”

Most of Mesler’s characters are men, like Les, in the middle of an existential/identity crisis—reminiscent of those in the novels and stories of Vonnegut or Roth or Updike or Barth—who feel alienated from themselves and their families, if they have one, uncertain, and in need of some easy, instant change. In “A Man,” the unnamed main character develops an aversion to the sun, contemplates Proust and sitcoms with monkeys, stops driving, and finally stops leaving his house altogether: “A man caught inside can die of lack. A man can only last so long without himself.” It’s no coincidence that, unlike Mesler’s other creations, the character in “A Man” has no name: “A Man” is our culture’s Everyman, a creature without the inner resources necessary to continue being.

In both “A Man” and the poem that follows, “New in Town,” Mesler seems to question the continued validity or possibility of the self as material for poetry or prose. The likewise nameless protagonist of “New in Town” has decided to stop giving in to his alienation: “I went into town because I had tired of playing myself in the one man show. I was burdened with the weight of ghosts and relatives; I fairly limped with old, sticky love. I took wrong turn after wrong turn.” The ills he mentions—ghosts/the past, fraught familial relations, love gone wrong, getting lost—read like a list of worn-out 20th century literary themes. The poem demonstrates Mesler’s dry, punning sense of humor about literature and the writer himself: “In the center of town I found a man who spoke the language I had invented years ago. Who knew it would catch on? I sat with him awhile and before I left, he clasped my hand tightly and said, ‘Everyone is revolting.’ I did not let politics stand in my way.” When the hero imagines his future, the poem recalls, and pokes fun at, Eliot’s etherized patient: “We settle down like a madman anesthetized.” The poem’s suddenly sinister ending returns to the limits of writers focused obsessively on themselves: “My visitations take the form of letters, signed with spite, sent out to do damage from a distance, the appeal of the gun. My door is always open.”

Questions of narration, like characterization, also dominate Mesler’s prose poems. Some of the poems are written in 3rd person, some in 1st. Some have an apparently omniscient narrator; others, like “Les,” use limited 3rd person narration intended to be the character’s point-of-view. Mesler likes to camp on the borderline between realism and surrealism, like modern/post-modern novelists from Joyce to Pynchon, and often employs his narrator to confuse the reader. Maybe the “sharp instruments” in “Les” really do beckon him; or maybe he thinks they beckon him; or maybe that’s just a figure of speech. Maybe his metamorphosis will assume Kafkaesque proportions, as they appear to in “Blunge,” which appropriates the “substituted bride” motif from folklore. In this poem, a man happens upon his wife watching a nature show and is suddenly convinced that she isn’t who she pretends to be. It’s his point-of-view, however; the reader has no independent evidence for the claim. Maybe his wife is evil. Maybe she’s just who she’s always been. Maybe the narrator is having a psychotic breakdown. The uncertainty at the core of the narrative resembles the fantastic 20th c fictions of authors like Kafka, GarcĂ­a Marquez, or Borges.

Other poems employ more obvious, though playful, fantasy, as in “Noah, at Home, Afterwards,” or, about the crucifixion, “Chin-Chin on Golgotha.” “Noah” uses comically overblown and cliché-ridden language to create a caricature of its mythical speaker, although clueless Noah simultaneously seems like he’d be right at home with Les: “The house creaks; many of us still feel at sea. All my grapes shall be raisins anon. With a world destroyed by God’s Seas, I know not if I am up to the task of remaking it with such base materials: bantlings, wildlife, and an ark now beached like a dying whale.”

When Mesler writes realistic poems, he creates simultaneously funny and pathetic characters. “Jeff/Lynn” features an omniscient narrator who describes the collapsing marriage of this pair. When Jeff comes home from a trip to find Lynn gone, he reads a notice from the electric company because “he wants to not feel powerless anymore.” The poem concludes in the same ironic manner: “God help them. They’re as small as you and me.” Both the use of “God” and the poem’s final word “me” draw the reader’s attention to the narrator and his role in the poem. “Aftermath,” the collection’s concluding poem, likewise turns our attention to narrative, the way we use stories to take control of our lives, and the way we try to control narratives in order to control life. Its main character, Ralph, loses his car, his wife, his self-respect and his job, and just keeps talking, “as if he were the ancient mariner.”

Though strong poems of multiple generic origins abound in Short Story, “Sweet Annie Divine,” a mock-biography/obituary of a blues singer from “Rooster, Arkansas” is in a category by itself. This poem blends reality (Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, Alan Lomax) with fiction: I actually thought Sweet Annie might be a real person until I got to “Stephen Daedalus’s Blues, “ “a mid-major hit” in 1948, and “Saint Ursula Goes Down for the Third Time.” That sent me Googling the poem’s other names, songs, places, etc. The poem is a genre-bending amalgamation, and ultimately successful because Sweet Annie is no less poignant for being fictional and slyly self-referential: “She died of the drink in a Memphis boarding house, just hours after recording her last record, the plaintive and pain-filled ‘I’m a Drunk in a Memphis Boarding House.’ Alan Lomax has said of her, ‘She could have been one of the greats if not for the hooch.’” Like many of Mesler’s poems, “Sweet Annie Divine” shows us how fictional devices and fictionalization can invigorate poetry.

To what extent can character be captured in a paragraph? Charles Dickens and George Eliot’s multi-layered worlds sometimes took more than a thousand pages to detail but often contained hundreds of characters as well. Maybe a reader is no closer to “knowing” a character presented in a one-thousand-page novel than one met in a paragraph. The character-focused prose-poems of Corey Mesler strip fiction down to its essentials and in so doing, foreground the devices of fiction, its indispensable units, like narration and character, at the same time that they foreground the limits of interpretation/characterization and the reader’s willingness—complicity—in creating a character’s story, in filling-in the meaning or details that might be lacking. Maybe our fascination with limitations and failure draws us to the form, in the way that the Victorians were drawn to description, wanting to bring a world to life in the fullest, most complete way possible, whereas we like a story that almost isn’t one. Or maybe prose poems are just the most suitable way to tell stories in a culture in which people over-schedule themselves, attention spans run short, and poems compete with T.V. shows and video games for a reader’s time. In any case, Mesler’s pieces are readable, memorable, and thought-provoking.


This review first appeared in Free Verse. Reprinted by permission of the author.



Wendy Vardaman has a Ph.D. in English from University of Pennsylvania. Her poems, reviews, and interviews are forthcoming or have appeared in a variety of anthologies and journals, including Poet Lore, Main Street Rag, Nerve Cowboy, Free Verse, Pivot, Wisconsin People & Ideas, Women’s Book Review and Portland Review Literary Journal. She has received several Pushcart Prize nominations and was runner up in 2004 for the Council for Wisconsin Writers’ Lorine Niedecker Award.