FALL 2013 (Issue 80)

Tasha Matsumoto

Notes on Joyelle McSweeney's Salamandrine: 8 Gothics

Tarpaulin Sky Press 2013
188 pages

1. In Joyelle McSweeney’s story collection Salamandrine: 8 Gothics, language commits incest with itself.

2. Sounds repeat, replicate, and mutate in her sentences, monstrous sentences of aural inbreeding and consangeous consonants, strung out and spinning like the dirtiest double-helix, dizzy with disease.

3. WARNING: HAZARDOUS MATERIAL. To speak a single serpentine sentence from Salamandrine might cause asphyxiation.

           From time to time I retreated to the washroom, and looked on the large plastic cleaning            cylinders arrayed in clean ranks, dull white with bright pink writing, bright as eyebright, as            the ill-eyes of snakes, as the myxomatosis that brings low the rutty hare, as the eye of            every haunched and wriggling thing: rat and mouse and stoat and ferret and eagle and            ermine, which during a recent birdplague did lie sluggish in fields like a robe for Queen            Carrion, I saw this on cable news which has as its symbol the eye of the carrier pigeon,            which carries its eye like a wheel within wheel, an eye which could hold a scrolled map of            the world, or hold it wired to its spurred ankle, and which brings down the vain stand of            lilies, which wear the blush of rot in their face, and shall be vanquished, as pink as flux, as            inflammation, little slipper that sluffs the vein, plaster, plaque that phlubs the wall of the            eye till pressure bursts it, pink as lung or brain, an infected catharsis or vain invention, pink            as an Easter leukocyte, as pynk as eyester, then I did feel a pilgrimage in my veins, a            desire to flow to the broad place and the narrow, the high place and the low, to show what            a wide place is the mouth of the need, for one so humble, so meek mind, for one who            takes dictation, and what a wild place is the marrow of she who near succeeds. (“Mothers            Over Lambs”)

4. One might say that these stories take place in the Rust Belt, but the Rust Belt is less of a formal setting and more like a pollutant from which these stories cannot escape, a cinematic miasma, a cataract over the narrative lens. What I mean is, that the Rust Belt is not scenery but an inescapable sorrow, a “cancerscape,” a “traumazone.” A suffering.

5. The suffering in these stories is, in part, financial. The economy has collapsed like a lung, leaving the bloated corpse of capitalism splayed out on the mortician’s table. McSweeney’s metaphors start shooting through the sky and implode inward, like dying stars or Kamikaze pilots. “The moon,” McSweeney writes, “is a hopeful zero in a nest of debt” (“Salamandrine, My Kid”). Or consider the line, “The sky’s uncertain, waiting in a line of skies, holds a claim check with an inscrutable sign” (“My Rat”). What begins as lyric ends in economic loss, the ode becomes what is owed, the Sublime as a subprime crisis. “His eyes,” she writes, “are an empty storeroom, hoarding darkness, as if there could ever be a shortage of that” (“Charisma”). 

6. This is very much a book about motherhood, and writes against capitalism’s attempt to mechanize motherhood, to turn her labor into labor, a factory-womb producing workers-of-the-state. The mothers in Salamandrine are gangrenous, abhuman creatures: a vampire, a cannibalistic zombie who eats her own brain and entrails and cradles her rat, a mother who vomits gold cloth and suspects her daughter of having an affair with her lover. Pregnancy explodes into an impossible pageantry—a mother dresses up her daughter in a dusk costume or as deodorized death, a mother who wears a hat adorned with dead birds and dresses her daughter in coffin clothes with high-button boots.

7. “Apocalyptic” might not be entirely appropriate description of these stories, because the apocalypse is an event that occurs within time-space, a someday. Even the post-apocalypse references something that has occurred, thereby implying a causality or linear sequence. In the stories in Salamandrine, the apocalypse is not an event, but an always, as if the chronological timeline furled around itself like a pillbug sucking on its own shit. The apocalypse does not occur within time, it devours time. 

8. “At this moment when forward motion stops completely, time is an echo of the train. A visual echo. Maybe something’s wrong with the film. The train’s stopped. Smoke curls around the train like a second dragon. Time’s commuters peer at its flank” (“Charisma”).

9. McSweeney writes like a synesthete sculpting sound, her sentences cross-wiring and corrupting our senses. It’s as if McSweeney wrote these sinful and sinewy stories with the knife of mad scientist, slicing and resuturing syntax, as prose unexpectedly breaking into verse. This is a book full of choral keenings, the echo in your ultrasound, a “lunguage.” These words ring and richochet like tinnitus in your ears.