Meg Pokrass, The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down, Etruscan Press, 2016
Reviewed by Sean Lovelace
I would now like to consider topics of some general interest: book covers, sex, and animals.
The Book Cover:
Can we discuss the cover (or may we?)? Of course we may, because covers do matter, and controversies and catastrophes emerge from them (not so unlike various social concerns that arise [like the shrieks of ambulance sirens at dawn, at least to my wandering mind] from any close study of external appearance versus internal significance), such as Batgirl and White-Washing and wandering hands on/off rear ends and so on. The cover is often our first contact with the book. Then to back cover. Then to its actual pages (as one hopes the path leads). So what is the purpose of the cover? To contextualize the contents? To intrigue? Simply to sell? Or possibly—and especially in smaller (shall we say hipper?) presses—could the cover provide metaphor, signifier, some designation on how visual space is organized as a means of sharing cultural and social knowledge? To wit: can the cover be separate yet the same as the ink on the pages, to be of and not of, much in the way of the tree and the leaf, the ocean and the wave, the lover and the love, and so on.
What is the actual cover of The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down?
1.) Lower case author name. 2.) Lower case title. 3.) A sort of lame blurb ("These little stories read big.") 4.) A large image of an upside down, yellow net of at least eight oranges (either Valencia [mostly utilized, I believe, in orange juice] or Navel, though possibly I'm way, way off).
And what are we to make of this?
I shall return to the cover at a later time.
Meg Pokrass once wrote a somewhat famous (and somewhat infamous) story titled, "The Serious Writer and Her Pussy," but, really, that's not her familiar technique, to attack this most universal subject head on. Eroticism is about the direct senses, yes, but sexiness—the world of possibility and anticipation—is about a careful (and purposeful) restraint, an indirection upon those senses, the flash of white fabric, the quick scent of suntan oil or a lingering cigarette, the nudge of slender foot upon foot, the wink, the raised eyebrow, the gaze, the glitter about the eyes, the short phrase or ambiguous joke (was it a joke at all?) or text or even the vague flirt of a Facebook post, a sigh, a cry, a laugh, a whisper of lipsticked-lips. These are the structural tools of Meg Pokrass's particular genius—an ability to bring about a sensual, erotic world, but from a slant (as Emily D. would say), with brushstrokes of scaffolding (I know "scaffolding" is simplistic, but it's the best word I can find), useful and apt and deft and charged with electricity as the fingers brushed lightly upon most any shard of exposed skin.
72: "...he warms my ears with those piano fingers curling over."
20: "With the captain in mind, she lay down topless and bottomless, thinking about tobacco, pipes, and parrots."
36: "We sipped from the same small bottle, watched each other's lips."
21: "I have to have this recipe," I said, giggling and poking his calf with the tip of my shoe under the table.
31: "...rolling on the ground and grabbing the grass—flicking it at each other."
54: "...still sweating from the lights."
What works about these images/moments is actually what works in eroticism: not one event (the physical act of sex), but rather a gradual accumulation, the sweet tug and pull of the sensual, human narrative, whether a crush, a fling, a rebound, a long affair, possibly even a marriage (though by its very nature, in my opinion, passion wanes in the blank face of time). And flash fiction itself as genre and design works, too, as a lifetime of erotic moments are remembered in scattered vignettes, not as unified novel—in dates, happenstances (fortunate or not), one-night stands, assignations, relationships, jumpy weekend nights and lazy, Tuesday afternoons, houses and hotels and motels (I don't know why, but I've always thought it would be interesting to sleep with a prostitute, though I haven't to this date of writing and maybe never will), all the common and uncommon (I almost thought of sordid, but why should it be framed that way?) couplings and uncouplings of what is an entirely appropriate affair (excuse the pun): a personal sex life.
With wit and intellect, Meg Pokrass uses this very form of flash fiction (the essence of power through compressed restraint) to explore eroticism. It's a smart bit of writing. Often rousing, often tense. Often stimulating. Often unhinged, in surprising ways. Often a certain streak of sadness. Often playful, then often devastating. Like sex.
The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down has many, many more animals than just the title. Dogs, cats, ferrets, rats, oh my. How does this apply to craft? Let me digress (as is my way).
We are Kingdom Animalia, but we are not animals (yet already I hear the shouts of "Yes, we are!"). Many things separate the two, from time-travel (scenario building, basically) through mental, imaginative acts to certain aspects of abstraction to cultural collective acts, on and on, into biology, psychology, sociology, basically a lengthy argument (and counter-argument, I'd assume) that would take many more words and time than we have here (anyway, I have a beer [or seven] and an NBA game to consume in just a few moments [not that you really care or should]). But I'd like to focus on analysis (especially self-analysis) and anxiety as traits very human. Let us turn to literature for a moment, since literature surpasses psychology, biology, whatever flawed lens to generally figure things out, as literature is true (I don't have time to go into how very true, but I would say as true as shredded clouds, a rainstorm wiggling about them, or a memory of freight trucks pulling into loading bays, hot sauce, fireflies, snowflakes and carved turkey [paging Gabriel Conroy!], and so on—basically very, very true.) Ted Hughes wrote a poem entitled, "Hawk Roosting," wherein the hawk speaks (or thinks), "I kill where I please because it is all mine./There is no sophistry in my body" and "No arguments assert my right: / The sun is behind me. / Nothing has changed since I began." Hughes primary point is that the hawk holds in its talons something we do not, something pure and powerful: the hawk is the hawk is the hawk, without self-analysis, without fretting (or strutting), without a jangling loop of anxiety.
Animals, in The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down, act as structural and thematic counterpoints. They are the antipodal, or as perfectly captured by the author (page 74, "A Person Can Laugh"), "All Around us, sad people walked happy dogs." In this collection, ferrets curl into dresser drawers while their owners worry over late periods and eye the pregnancy test, "the pink colors of it all." Cats scurry by while in the bathroom women with breast implants whisper secrets and don't smile, but rather "...at least, her mouth moved up." Rats listen as tired, empty words are as routine as "flash cards" (one of many memorable metaphors and similes in the writing). Spiders "...bubbled up through the floorboards..." (I told you the language glowed) as adults have sad, aimless conversations in barrooms like the following from page 105, a title smacking with irony, "These are Great Times":
"Ever made love?" I asked him, about two hours later. We'd been talking about nothing, watching the others say stuff.
"No, no, but I love watching porn."
I excused myself again.
In these scenes, the animals of all type do a lot of work: they create a friction, an Other, also a freeness, a way of living so foreign to all the busy flailing of the other animal, you and me, so occupied we are thinking it over (as opposed to just doing the thing), so caged and anxious about the self. The dog? The dog doesn't just look happy upside down; it is happy. You know why? Because the dog is the dog. Is the dog. Is the dog. Dog.
We Return to The Book Cover:
Possibly, not oranges at all. It may be lemons. There's a story in the collection that mentions a bag of lemons (page 86). Then again there's a story with oranges (page 30). And both stories certainly have their self-analysis, their anxiety (though no dogs). So it might indeed be lemons. But I think it looks like oranges (I once worked at age sixteen in a produce store in Memphis, Tennessee, a hot, sticky summer of pitching watermelons off trucks, sorting itchy collard greens, stacking wooden crates of Washington cherries and Maine blueberries and all other type of fruit [including both lemons and oranges] in the wonderful oasis of the blast cooler, watching all the wives sway the aisles as they stalked ripe peaches, so feel I have some room to ponder). I'm confident it's probably oranges. But it might not be. That's all I have to say.