Acapella Zoo #5 (Fall/August 2010)

Cover of Acapella Zoo #5. Acapella Zoo is a web and print ‘zine of slipstream/magic realist fiction based in the US – its editor is based in Seattle but its staff hail from across the States – and has been publishing since 2008. This, its fifth issue, features fifteen stories and poetry by twelve contributors; there is no non-fiction component, which is a shame, but the magazine does not need it. Its issues are not themed and there is no stated editorial intention to contextualise its stories. Instead it focuses on providing quality stories and poetry for fans of strange and cross-genre works, with a healthy mix of male and female contributors who are mostly but not exclusively US residents. I’ll focus chiefly upon the fiction, since as I am not a great reader of poetry I do not feel qualified to do more than passingly comment upon it.

The opening tale is Nancy Gold’s ‘Showtime’. This focuses on three children or young men who work as part of a travelling circus, performing simple morality plays which portray the classic conflict between good and evil. One of the trio wears wings made of collected feathers, playing the role of an angel; another, facially disfigured, plays the opposing part. The equilibrium of their triumvirate is broken when a young woman appears, a strange girl who collects wings but is drawn to the scarred ‘Gash’ rather than the boy who likes to play at being an angel. Ultimately, the strangeness of desire trumps the appeal of earning a buck through crude showmanship. The story touches upon themes of alienation, and highlights how an alliance built upon convenience and lack of alternatives is no match for equality between partners.

After a brief break for Feng Sun Chen’s poem ‘Eclipse’ – which, alas, I am unsure what to make of – there is Hayes Greenwood Moore’s ‘The Creature from the Lake’. At its heart this story is also about desire. A couple find an odd creature, wounded, near a lake, and nurse it back to health. The story is written from a woman’s perspective, and her partner soon becomes besotted with the beast they are caring for. As for the creature itself, it appears capable of singing, although more often it merely cries out in pain, and how much of the former is a misinterpretation of the latter is left to the reader to decide. The story ends with an unmade decision that, intended or not, functions as a metaphor for how easily relationships can be thrown askew by a variety of factors; children, marriage, affairs. Both of these initial stories have a strangeness about them that dissuades simple interpretation, a characteristic shared by many other offerings in this issue.

Kristine Ong Muslim (who I believe I recognise from the ‘zine Greatest Uncommon Denominator) offers  a sequence of poems focusing on the character ‘Conrad’ and exploring the idea of “monster love”. They are at times sinister and grotesque whilst also being heartfelt and dedicated, juxtaposing the banal with the monstrous to explore ideas of unconditional love.

‘In Borges Bookstore’ by David Misialowski is the first story present I did not get along with. Its prose is less alluring, though by no means shabby, and its curmudgeonly protagonist fails to convince, as such characters often do. There are also better stories about magical bookstores, although I do like the allusion to Borges’ Labyrinths. Borges himself was supposedly obsessed with the term as a metaphor for how impossible it is to truly understand our world; this is a theme of Misialowski’s story but it is deployed a little too literally for its own good.

Demond Caldwell’s ‘Collector of Van de Voys’ is a more interesting story, and a quote illustrates the slipstream character of this magazine nicely: “he seemed fond of blurrings and blendings of what should have been clear outlines and well-defined borders”. This curious story does not easily surrender meaning but focuses most clearly on the sinister things that lie just beneath the surface of what may appear to be benign, pastoral scenes. Alternatively, it may be intended to reflect the ease with which viewers can misinterpret what they behold and are enthralled by.

Barry Napier’s poem ‘Sleepmaps’ muddies the line between the states of wakefulness and dreaming, rendering it unclear which is the nightmare that terrifies, although in its close it implies that interconnectedness emerges – perhaps can only emerge – during sleep, and that this interconnectedness – these sleepmaps – may offer a thread of hope.

I’m a little disappointed that I did not enjoy ‘Movie Man’ by Melissa Ross more. It’s an odd tale about a man who lives along in a tower and has always done so, and who has learned to define himself wholly through the films that he watches (his tower is a movie theatre, of course). He is an artificial construction built of cliché and archetypes, though of course he himself does not know that. One day, his birthday, a girl climbs into his tower, and despite his self-effacing excuses she is curious about him. She has strings attached to her that trail away, out of the tower, and in some way he causes them to break. The obvious interpretation is that the story functions as a metaphor for how even a socially estranged enigma can prove to be compelling enough to draw someone else to them. Despite this being the only understanding I could discern from the story I thought it a little cheap and unconvincing, although I do wonder if the story might be based on personal experience retold in weird.

Charlene Logan Bennet’s ‘Circling of Cranes’ clearly and attractively articulates a child’s desire for escape, a theme which recurs in Amy DeBevoise’s stranger ‘Antarctica’ – although the latter has an ironic edge whereby the narrator wishes to transplant herself to a new environment yet retain her old habits and traditions. Between these two poems is ‘Birds Every Child Should Know’ by Kate Riedel, a story in which dead birds, visible only to the narrator, appear atop garbage cans outside houses. These appear to represent discarded hopes and dreams, perhaps souls, with some deliberately killed and others expired through neglect. The narrator attempts to care for them but, even when nursed back to life, they always return to those who killed them. Eventually he finds himself in the position of working to save his own bird. If one accepts that this metaphor fits these birds the story’s meaning becomes clear, and from the title and the narrator’s behaviour emerge two strands of hopefulness from the latter’s thankless, impossible task.

‘The Snake Charmer’s Teeth’ by Amy DeBevoise is told in the form of a fable, wherein a charmer eats his snake to force it to talk. In this he succeeds, but the snake curses him, fusing itself into a bracelet in the form of Ouroboros. The snake’s curse never transpires although the charmer dies destitute; perhaps the curse was empty but it appears to have haunted him. The bracelet is lost, then stolen, then sold, and is eventually given to a girl dreaming of a better life by her incestuous father. During one of his attempts to force himself upon her the snake returns to life, crying out angrily as it devours her father – yet leaving him untouched. The girl weeps, the snake falls still, the father is perplexed, and little changes except, perhaps, the death of several more dreams. I suspect that I may have missed something fundamental about this story, alas, as I found its thematic circularity frustrating. But perhaps that Ouroborean circularity is the point.

Travis Blankenship’s poem ‘Molesting the Legend’, as one might expect from the title, features some wonderfully grotesque imagery. There is ugliness in much beauty, it suggests. It’s certainly less mawkish than ‘The Abandoned City’ by Benjamin Robinson, a mildly tongue-in-cheek tale of two men who make ice cream to salve the worries of a city threatened by war. One of them devises ‘tragedy flavours’ that help the city ‘find courage’. Although this appears to whip up some fervour the last few paragraphs leave it unclear just what ultimately occurs. Perhaps the bravery the citizenry found was simply enough to leave their homes; the atrocities of war were not prevented.

A man possessed by demons can be expected to have a hard life, even more so in a time of messiahs. ‘Somewhere Near Gerasa’ (modern-day Jordan) by Alex Myers follows an individual who has been cast out by his community, but is ultimately “healed” by a passing saint. Unfortunately his demons aren’t destroyed but simply forced elsewhere – into some pigs, which promptly kill themselves. The local swineherds are unimpressed, but the narrator seizes his second chance and sets out to spread the word. Whether that word is that one man’s salvation may be the loss of several others’ livelihoods is not described.

‘: sign language :’ by Jason Jordan boasts an interesting structure, its mid two stanzas appearing as interlopers within the poem. As best I can tell it is meant to apply a sort of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principles to poetry, to indicate that roving eyes and hands are intruders within the mood of a poem, changing it by the act of observation. Its disparate strands are interwoven with skill.

A more light-hearted story is next: ‘Pestilence’ by Jason Jordan. A journalist visits a man who is one of five living in a very strange house; every day of the week it is afflicted by a different plague. One day it floods, upon another all oxygen is removed, and on another corpses mysteriously appear and must be carted out. The journalist is invited to tell this story, with the residents’ representative hoping for sensitivity, but predictably what goes to print is a “travesty” and the subsequent media circus is a far more difficult plague to live with than the house’s predictable eccentricities. This is an obvious conclusion but I still found myself enjoying the story, perhaps as it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

‘Let This Be My Refuge’ is one of the few poems in this magazine that I found both easy to interpret and engaging. The refuge of the title is music as played by a lover, the delicacy of a musician being applicable elsewhere, too: “your fingerplay, my oh!

Also featuring a musical theme is ‘Einstein Plays Guitar’ by Tania Hershman, featuring a maudlin genius who cannot seem to understand that he is not a genius in all things. He’s a terrible sax player, a mediocre pianist, and a somewhat entrancing violinist. What conclusion the story leads us to I cannot say, except perhaps that it’s worth tolerating the eccentricities of the brilliant.

Lisa Grove’s poem ‘The Cat and the Fiddle’ offers the startling observation that sex is preferable to chores; uncontroversial, yes, though by presenting this in the form of a nursery rhyme it more effectively delivers its message of carpe diem – live like innocents. At the opposite end of the age-scale is ‘Life Story of a Chilean Sea Blob’ by Theodore Carter, in which an old man reads in the news of an odd life form found in Chile. He’s enthralled by this story, and after he suffers a heart attack his devoted wife invents a fabulous continuation and conclusion of the sea blob’s tale. Deep down he recognises that it is untrue, but he loves her all the more for knowing him well enough to give him the excitement and mystery he desires. It’s a touching and sweet story with a gentle humour to it, and is one of my favourites in this issue.

‘How To Fall Down’ by Nathaniel Taggart appears to represent a moment frozen in time; as a man plummets from a window on an ordinary day he sees and hears “everything, always, at once”. But, of course, “the concrete hits hard”. It presents beauty but that is transient and its tale must end suddenly.

Another somewhat obvious story that succeeds by dint of being grossly over the top is ‘The Crushing’ by Phillip Neel. A man waiting in the DMV (US Department of Motor Vehicles, though I’m sure even non-USians are familiar with this hellish environment from any number of TV comedies) collapses and begins to vomit, first the contents of his stomach, then blood, then faeces. The building is overwhelmed, then the local village. From the ceaseless stream of vomit emerges trash, produce, food, raw goods, and toxic waste. Some of what is retrieved from the vomit is briefly usable but nothing can stop the flow. Ultimately the entire country is overwhelmed. A community and even a country can survive for a time on a foundation of bile, but eventually everyone will be buried and crushed.

The last two poems are ‘What the Calf Daughter Knows’ by Rob Cook, which dwells on the limitless hunger and cruelty of man, and ‘Fragmentation’ by Anna Jaquiery, which observes how parts of oneself are left behind everywhere, and how nostalgia is built of the desire to return and recollect these pieces. The last two stories are ‘A Tale of a Snowy Night’ by Naoko Awa (trans: Toshiya Kamei) which sadly I didn’t find at all engaging. The magazine ends with ‘Shades of Grey’ by Catherine Sharpe, a remembrance of a past, lost love which occupies similar thematic territory to ‘Fragmentation’, its shared locales and objects binding two people together through memory no matter the distance. I found it a resonant story to end on if only because I have plenty of memories of sitting in laundrettes feeling melancholy and dreaming up ideas for stories…

All told, I found Acapella Zoo #5 a mostly engaging collection of stories. It was often confounding, at times amusing, sometimes resonant, and occasionally thought-provoking. Its fiction and poems are arranged well enough that where they overlap and interlace thematically they flow together pleasantly – a delicate editorial approach. Whilst there are no stories here that I am likely to remember forever there were a few that touched me and a few that impressed me, and any collection that manages this is worth reading.

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