As an introductory poster session on the types of reading lessons that comics make possible, let us turn to a patently non-autobiographical example, David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp (2009), a graphic narrative driven by the same question that animates Reading Lessons in Seeing: how does the way one sees the world affect the world that one sees? And, tangential to that palindrome, how is it possible to transmit interiority visually, or symbolically, in the presence of conflicting and contradictory points of view? The answer, as we shall see, lies in the text’s formalistic tutorials in seeing.
The main character, Asterios, is a twin obsessed with duality who, as we learn, has videotaped portions of his life to artificially replicate his doubling. If that were not enough to convince even the most inattentive reader of Mazzucchelli’s pedagogical agenda, there are further depths to the character and story—postmodern, mythological, and self-consciously literary depths—and it is the reader’s burden as well as her prerogative (with all implications of play and desire intended) to plumb them. Within just a few pages, the graphic novel offers us a plunger: Asterios’ monograph, Modernism with a Human Face, a tome so heavy the winged cherubs lofting it up to the clouds are visibly wincing and sweating under its heft.
An overlapping triptych beneath the book on the same page positions the viewer among the sleepy generations of Asterios’s students. The only speech visible from the most contemporary version of our soporifically dry pontificator invites us to apply the dualities between the Apollonian and the Dionysian tendencies in Asterios’s lecture and book to the graphic novel through which Mazzucchelli mediates them: “Thus, we see the Apollonian—as opposed to the Dionysian—tendencies expressed via…”
And so much hangs in the balance of those ellipses, much more than merely the effect of our drifting beyond a dull talk that drones on in its own empaneled past time. On a formal level, that page is like the students’ flagging attention: it wants desperately to be turned. But there is still plumbing for us to do in the gutters of those ellipses clogging up forward momentum.
A moment like this takes on inflated pedagogical meaning after repeated exposure. In it, we are cautioned about the philosophical underpinnings of our seeing. Verbal evidence for the ostensible dominance of one visual aesthetic over its supposed counterpart gets lost in the ellipses—“tendencies expressed via…” Just how and where the Apollonian supersedes the Dionysian eludes explanation, so long as we search for clarity in the alphabetic. Weary perhaps of not finding it there, we might turn the page in order to escape sleepy identification with Asterios’s students, but we would miss a more intriguing plot that develops.
In this moment of reading and seeing instruction, the lecturing text plays a favorite trump card of the comics. Our assumed reliance upon printed language fails us, deliberately so. For it is not in words but in pictures, and better yet, in their frequently antagonistic resonance, where we must go for semiotic plenitude, the whole picture. Although such thinking has become nearly formulaic for understanding the word-image relations in comics, the thinking that these relations do goes unexamined. We seem to lack a language for talking about this metalayer of comics thinking.
Asterios Polyp, on the other hand, has no difficulty articulating the ineffable, exhibiting a veritable fluency for abstraction, paradox, and the palpable significance of omission. In the final pages of the graphic novel, having lost his vehicle as well as one eye, the protagonist perseveres in his Odyssey through a snowstorm that brings him straight to Hannah, his estranged beloved. Whereas earlier panels of the couple stress their dichotomy, these highlight their resolution even at the atmospheric or stylistic level of color. Gone are the stiff cyan pencil lines that compose Asterios and his unyielding sense of the cold geometry of the world. Gone are the crimson hues that sketch Hannah’s emotionality, her warm uncertainty. In their place is a chromatic plenitude of brown, green, and orange. These richer colors tell a story, a journey from primary separation to tertiary wholeness. The same story imbues the narrative with its heavy-handed references to Platonic ideals in Hana’s sculpture or in the subplot of Asterios’s twin Ignazio.
With one eye overlarge and blank, Asterios embodies the sudden liberation from a binocular view of the world to a monocular one. Instead of eliminating depth, this change announces his release from a crippling philosophical orientation towards duality as a psycho-cognitive fixation. Thus ridded of his physiognomic capacity for a parallax view, Asterios seems able to achieve with Hana the very human depth that binocularity was supposed to afford.
Only here, at the end, can Asterios come to her, like Noguchi the dead cat that Hana eulogizes for going to her while it was dying “like he was trying to comfort me” (emphasis in the original). These final intimacies are heightened by Mazzucchelli’s composition of the entangling tails of their speech bubbles (formerly another instantaneously recognizable difference between them). With their hands nearly touching on the couch, the two enjoy the tranquility of a self-conscious ending. Indeed, the graphic novel is so anxious about the end that it includes a scene of their two faces, speaking the words “rest in peace” in a conjoined speech balloon that is doubly framed: it is rectangular (as are all of Asterios’s balloons) as well as circular (as are all of Hana’s). But while the framing of the balloon fuses the two distinct styles, the lettering of “rest in peace” is in an altogether new style, a tertium quid of script not seen before in the text.
All omens presage the doom that comes after a few more pages and a series of three exterior shots of the cabin in the woods, pictured further away with each iteration. In the first of the three panels, we know by virtue of balloon shape and font style that Hana says “This is nice” followed by Asterios’s rectangular reply of “What’s that noise?” One more page turn reveals a two-page spread of a fiery meteor on a crash course for our couple’s serene cabin.
That two-page spread conveys one ending of Asterios Polyp. It is an apocalypse that has been heralded by the symbolic crater found in the middle of the book, which is both a literal and symbolic aporia, calling attention to all the other gaps in the text. One earlier breach that this one re-calls punctuates Asterios’s encounter with Spotty Drizzle, or Steven, at the diner, in which the doomsday prognosticator informs the group of an asteroid “A few years ago, one about the size of a house [that] whipped past us – just sixty thousand miles from Earth – and nobody saw it till the day before!” And to ensure that readers will not miss this cue of instruction, Mazzucchelli brings us in close on the oracle’s perspiring face as he warns: “Somebody’s gotta be prepared. Somebody’s gotta be on the lookout.” As readers of this narrative, we ought to be that somebody; we must become lookouts and cautious watchers of the stars.
For more, see the rest of my introduction–Reading Lessons in Seeing
emphasis on singularity and time, giving the impression that March will take as its titular concern the experience of one exceptional man who made history, marching against its grain so to speak. And yet, even as Lewis is proposed by this effect
This essay was originally published in a more expanded form in…
“On the Nature of the Boundary in Comics Memoir: TheCase of March.” In Comics an der Grenze: Sub/Versionen von Form und Inhalt, eds. Matthias Harbeck, Linda-Rabea Heyden, and Marie Schröer. Berlin: Bachmann, 2016. 31-40.
Whether you call it micro-memoir or flash nonfiction, stories about real life told in the compressed form of flash fiction (or is it prose poetry?) are soaring in popularity for readers and writers. And if you’re anything like me, you might be wondering where to scatter your latest slivers of tiny truth, cold and dear like creek pebbles. Well, look no further pebble-seekers, here’s a handy list.
The following journals not only outright say they are interested in ‘flash nonfiction,’ most even have a Submittable category dedicated to the genre (which says so much more).
Edited by CNF (creative nonfiction) guru (generously unpretentious reader of the universe) Dinty Moore, Brevity has been a leader in reshaping the landscape of contemporary literary memoir. But don’t take my word for it. Check out a few scintillating lines from a recent flash published in Brevity by Daisey Hernandez called “Wings”:
One of my favorite pieces of flash memoir coming in at just over a thousand words and proving that arbitrary rules (like that defining cut-off line known as word count) are merely that–arbitrary–is “Glass Beads” by Sonya Huber
In the green fake-velvet jewelry box I got sometime in high school, I keep two smooth blobs of glass about the size of grapes. They rest heavily in my palm and make tiny tik-tik noises when their surfaces touch.
3. River Teeth (“Beautiful Things” Section)
Yemassee tends to publish a handful of nonfiction in every issue. Generally inclined towards flash, they regularly include at least one excellent nugget of flash memoir every couple of issues or so. Whatever their rate, Yemessee’s editors know their business: the selections have been purposeful. I am absolutely taken by the opening of Elizabeth Horneber’s “Tiger Claws”
A man named Tienan taught me how to survive in China—it was all in the mouth. He taught me the way of positioning the tongue in order to be understood, the way of sucking on bones, on crab cartilage. The way of loving was in the mouth.
In addition to the journal, the blog also secretes pearls of flash memoir from time to time. My favorite lately being this series of questions by Heather Steadham
A BRIEF CHRONOLOGY OF PRETTY, creative nonfiction by Heather Breed Steadham
Six months before conference: forty-year-old woman, mother of three, wife of middle school teacher, mostly unemployed in order to pursue degree in writing and rather broke as a result, registers to volunteer at conference so fees will be paid. Beseeches friend in area for bed in order to avoid hotel costs. Talks two colleagues into carpooling twelve hours across four states so gas can be split three ways. This conference is vital to her career.
If you like brisk, you’ll love the ending to Catherine Brereton’s
The green arrow signals me to go, and I go, easing the car onto the road that she’s galloping along. She’s running not on the sidewalk, but in the cycle lane—I’ve heard it’s easier on the shins—and I nudge the car out slightly as I pass to give her more room. Then, she’s behind me, and I see in my rear-view mirror her flushed, hot cheeks, determination etched on her face.
The current issue contains one incredible piece by Bryce Emley that the table of contents classifies as nonfiction but what looks on the page more like poetry…
An amazing reflection on the joys and woes of parenting awaits in “Blackbird” by Beth Bilderback. It ends in an ecstasy of tangled emotions. It is a symphonic, syntactical vortex of a vexed letting-go:
These days, time races by in a blur and Eli stays up long after I’ve gone to bed, into the dead of night, and both day and night he feels as if he’ll never take flight, his shoes too heavy, his aura too black, feels like he’ll never manage to connect, this old soul in a sixteen year old body already impatient with the world’s absurdities, he is only waiting, as I was only waiting for him to arrive in my lonely life, crows on the backyard gate, a glossy feather landing in a dead field, winter sun glinting off the power lines, Poe’s silhouetted beaks, into the light of the dark black night.
Although you must be a member to see the full contents published within the pages of Burningword, the editors of the website offer snippets of their creative nonfiction fare and the flash stands out. I’m almost sure this wonderful snippet is the opening of a flash based solely on the first few lines:
If I could give a trophy to my favorite piece of flash nonfiction, I would give a huge pewter flashlight to this one about anatomy class
As Ms.Google reports: “people born February 18th to March 20th are born under the influence of the Pisces.” Some would say they are the more intellectual of the water signs. I would say they epitomize the expansive, founding spirit of the Pisces as well as the intellectual and satirical tendencies of the Piscean artist.
One site I consulted informs us that “As a Pisces born on March 1st, your personality is defined by sensitivity, self-sacrifice and intuition.” These are interesting adjectives when applied to some of the characters and voices we get in the works noted below.
Harriet E. Wilson
born February 26
Remember the crisis in legitimacy that poets and writers underwent when the physical print journals typically associated with “quality” literature decided to embrace the web? Many gave up the husk of permabound or spine-stapled physicality to live online, amidst all those zeros and ones raining down from the Matrix onto your poem now wearing obligatorily dark shades and trench. These days, few would doubt the authority of a venue based solely on its status as an online journal when so many of them kick ass while the action stops and the camera pivots.
In fact, some of the very best journals are online–only online, without the perfunctory small-run printing of its work to be found anywhere other than that Glorious Nowhere known as the digital.
Thus, with all due caveats, qualifications, admissions of biases, and full disclosures of subjectivity aside–though they are blinking as brightly as the red pill that let’s you stay in Wonderland–I give you a list of a few of the very best places online to send your poetry.
Why Boaat? Because, as RAQUEL SALAS-RIVERA tells you in
“WORK IS THE FATHER AND EARTH THE MOTHER”
or each scalpel you bury
a triceratops conch is born,
umbrella screw, celestial octagon.
for each scalpel you bury
a dollar goes to
the governmental development bank.
Need another sketch? Try
Here is an excerpt from a schematic-poem:
I’m partial to the opening lines of
I talk back to the videos. Someone ate paper. Someone isn’t eating anymore.
Mornings like this, I wish I never loved anyone. What is it to be a lucky city, a row of white houses strung with Christmas lights.
There is no minute.
For more incontrovertible claims, take a gander at the first line of this poem, which wants us to imagine a future that is also weirdly knowable in terms of the precise scientific stuff we (certainly) won’t be thinking:
When you look at a long wave of kelp stretched out
as it if were a mess of some drowned girl’s hair, you won’t
be thinking of the functionality of the ovoid bladders
like tiny buoys holding the flat wide blades toward
the sun for maximally efficient photosynthesis.
The resonant, the tuning-fork-off-the-knee-so-hard-it-hurts kind of resonant, ending found in:
“Wild Fire” by Michael Broek
but I’ve been ready all along. How to say
I left a lifetime ago. How to say I want to burn
I’m particularly fond of the ending of My Grandpa Emails Me Regarding My Plans to Return to Kurdistan
by Tracy May Fuad
4. Sixth Finch
Molly Brodak’s poem “Friendship” ends with an image of a beautiful alternative to love:
To begin our navigation through the verdant wellspring of poetic excellence here, you’ll need a serviceable Field Guide. Happily, the editors have arranged for one to be provided.
Promethea Midsummer vibrato. Nightfall of yellow poplar, spicebush and sassafras. Sex at altitude will end in the underbrush. Our next subject: the moon.
Who enjoys ekphrasis? Those in the know, know what I mean, or shall I paint you a picture and then write a poem about that picture and spell it out for you? No time for elementary instruction, the master class is in session in this poem…
A favorite of mine there is by
LENA KHALAF TUFFAHA, whose “My English Teacher Tells Me“
stirs with its relentless investment in the idea that words contain portals as well as barriers–no matter what English teachers will have you believe!