Book review: Perennial, by Ben Armstrong

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In science fiction, space and time warps are a commonplace. They are used for rapid journeys around the galaxy, or for travel through time. But there is an integer at which fact and fiction collide – where the relativity of space-time comes into play – and it at this point, the writer suggests, we might find poetry.

Ben Armstrong’s searing debut poetry collection, Perennial, is laced with this relativity; a sense of warped perspectives as different narrative voices walk us through different places and different times – with different poems separated within themselves and sometimes from each other by a clear sense of distance. Distance between one object and another; between one lover and another; between the past and present; between a remembered thought and feeling and a prediction of a future life.

Yet while the idea of the space (either physical or fourth dimensional) between two set points helps drive the core narrative of the collection, Armstrong’s poetry stridently ignores rules of Euclidean geometry – embracing instead the science fiction (or fact – as Hawkin and Einstein would insist) of space-time warps and jumps. Shifts in tense, and perspectives, blur lines, all the while experimental formal structures breakdown boundaries and conventions, helping the reader rearrange language in unique and surprising ways.

And by jove does this surprise you. From the greeting that opens the poem to the sad vision of a remembered goodbye, Perennial takes us on a ride infused both with comedy and tragedy, seeped with allusions and allegory that are literary, modern, classical, punk, political and pop-culture, using faux-satirical homages to classical literary figures and Homeric journeys, as well as very specific moments in scenes that collide together like atoms in a collapsing neutron star.

Take, for example, the shift in tone and style between ‘old bar’ and ‘Coca Cola Focus Group’. The former: a rather beautiful meditation on loneliness and the risks of being consumed by one’s memories. The latter: an extremely fun, engaging, and wry skit on the failings of modern capitalism. Both are excellent – but what the hell are they doing beside one another? In the large hadron collider that is Perennial, Armstrong challenges the reader to embrace the unpredictability and recognise the order within the otherwise apparent disorder. As Dr Ian Malcolm would say in sci-fi classic Jurassic Park, “it doesn’t obey set patterns or rules […] it’s chaos” (to be clear: in Perennial, the chaos is very much a good thing – not one likely to involve the risk of being eaten by dinosaurs, though probably best never to rule that option out completely).

In short, Perennial sets the highest of high bars as a debut collection and firmly marks Armstrong out as a poet to keep an eye on. Not least because his work reminds us just how damn fun poetry can be.

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15 excellent short stories you can read for free right now

Book and Stones

Are you a literature addict looking for that sweet hit of literary ecstasy that comes from reading well-told stories? Are you also – like so many of us slaving away with ever-increasing work demands – short on time? Fortunately, we have just the thing for you that can satiate your craving for well-told, expertly-crafted fiction; bringing you tightly controlled beginnings, middles and endings in the time it takes to eat your lunch or smoke a cigarette (there’s a reason flash fiction used to be called smoke-long stories, after all).

We’re talking, of course, of some of the finest short stories that you can read for free thanks to the wonders of the interwebs. There are untold thousands – probably millions (if not billions) of these pieces floating around in the digital ether, but to get you started we’ve compiled 15 of our favourites, mixing together writing from new and aspiring artists with established literary titans.

Once you’ve had your fix, fear not! We also have many other collections of short stories you can read for free from legendary writers including J.M. Coetzee, Philip Roth and Alice Munro among others.

And if you need even more literary satisfaction; we’re pretty sure you’ll find it thanks to some of these fantastic places you can read tens of thousands of literary texts completely legally and completely for free.

Back to the matter at hand: check out these brilliantly crafted short tales from magazines around the world below.

‘Black Moons’ by Robert Wyatt Dunn

Black Moons

“There were some things you could only do in New York.”

Read the story in Litro.

‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’ by George Saunders

“Work, work, work. Stupid work. Am so tired of work.”

Read the story in The New Yorker

‘Bullet in the Brain’ by Tobias Wolff

“The bullet is already in the brain; it won’t be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can’t be helped.”

Read for free online.

‘Broads’ by Roxane Gay

“Jimmy Nolan has a thing for broads—loud, brassy women who sit with their legs open and drink beer straight from the bottle—women who always say exactly what they’re thinking and for better or worse, mean what they say.”

Read it via Guernica.

‘Ganymede’ by Chelsea Harris

“Tonight I am Venus. We’re sitting on top of the kitchen counters. Daddy hasn’t been back in days but I’m not worried.”

Read it via Okay Donkey

‘Tell-tale heart’ by Edgar Allen Poe

“It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night.”

Read it courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

‘That was back before, of course’ by Samuel Dodson

“She never knew what Maxine wanted. But it started the moment Mark Dean emerged from all the rust. Then it ended with a knife and the sound of something scraping against metal, some sound almost like an animal.”

Read the story for free courtesy of The TSS

‘Goose’ by Chelsea Grasso

“It’s okay, my goose. She will come back.”

Read the story via Carve Magazine

‘Girls at play’ by Celeste Ng

“This is how we play the game: pink means kissing; red means tongue. Green means up your shirt; blue means down his pants. Purple means in your mouth. Black means all the way.”

Read the story thanks to Bellevue Literary Review

‘Anatomy of a burning thing’ by Monica Robinson

“He was falling in on himself.”

Read via Blanket Sea Magazine 

‘Hills like White Elephants’ by Ernest Hemingway

“I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn’t that bright?’”

Read for free online. 

‘Fitting’ by Molly McConnell

“I left a relationship because it was too tight. But once I was out, I wanted back in.”

Read the story in Rabid Oak

‘The lady with the dog’ by Anton Chekhov

“It was said that a new person had appeared on the sea-front: a lady with a little dog.”

Read courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

‘Five baked beans’ by Katy Thornton

“I had started wearing earrings again, after the break-up. Not that I hadn’t worn earrings because of him – I’m sure we never had a conversation about it. I guess at some point I’d grown out of wearing my green-skin inducing costume jewellery and decided only to wear jewellery with sentimental value.”

Read thanks to Porridge Magazine

‘The Veldt’ by Ray Bradbury

“‘Nothing’s too good for our children,’ George had said.”

Read for free online

 

What is literature for?

In the hurly burly world of our Post-Fordist society, it is increasingly becoming difficult to sit and concentrate for thirty seconds – let alone thirty minutes – as the digital background babble drills into our consciousness, and we are met in the world outside the office by TV in waiting rooms and the backseats of cars; by music in supermarkets, retail stores, gyms and buses; by advertisements everywhere you look.

Each of these things distract us from our thoughts, and from real life. They consume us to such an extent that people sometimes even ask questions like “why do we even need books?” “Why should we spend our times reading novels and poems, when so much is happening?”

Well, fortunately, to answer these questions the wonderful folk at The School of Life have created a marvellous animated essay, which extols the value of books and literature in expanding our circle of empathy, validating and ennobling our inner life, and fortifying us against the paralyzing fear of failure.

The creators note that we tend to treat literature as a distraction, an entertainment – something for the beach. But it’s far more than that, it’s really therapy, in the broad sense. Indeed, they suggest books could be used as a cure for many of the afflictions that ail us:

“We should learn to treat literature as doctors treat their medicines, something we prescribe in response to a range of ailments and classify according to the problems it might be best suited to addressing.”

The essay notes key rewards found in reading, which are detailed here below:

It saves you time

It looks like it’s wasting time, but literature is actually the ultimate time-saver — because it gives us access to a range of emotions and events that it would take you years, decades, millennia to try to experience directly. Literature is the greatest reality simulator — a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you can ever directly witness: it lets you – safely: that’s crucial – see what it’s like to get divorced. Or kill someone and feel remorseful. Or chuck in your job and take off to the desert. […] it lets you speed up time.

It turns us into citizens of the world

Literature introduces you to fascinating people: a Roman general, an 11th century French Princess, a Russian upper class mother just embarking on an affair…it takes you across continents and centuries. Literature cures you of provincialism and, at almost no extra cost, turns us into citizens of the world.

It makes you nicer

Literature performs the basic magic of what things look like though someone else’s point of view; it allows us to consider the consequences of our actions on others in a way we otherwise wouldn’t; and it shows us examples of kindly, generous, sympathetic people.

Literature deeply stands opposed to the dominant value system — the one that rewards money and power. Writers are on the other side — they make us sympathetic to ideas and feelings that are of deep importance but can’t afford airtime in a commercialized, status-conscious, and cynical world.

It’s a cure for loneliness

We’re weirder than we like to admit. We often can’t say what’s really on our minds. But in books we find descriptions of who we genuinely are and what events, described with an honesty quite different from what ordinary conversation allows for. In the best books, it’s as if the writer knows us better than we know ourselves — they find the words to describe the fragile, weird, special experiences of our inner lives… Writers open our hearts and minds, and give us maps to our own selves, so that we can travel in them more reliably and with less of a feeling of paranoia or persecution…As the writer Emerson remarked: “In the works of great writers, we find our own neglected thoughts.”

It prepares you for failure

All of our lives, one of our greatest fears is of failure, of messing up, of becoming, as the tabloids put it, “a loser.” Every day, the media takes us into stories of failure. Interestingly, a lot of literature is also about failure — in one way or another, a great many novels, plays, poems are about people who messed up… Great books don’t judge as harshly or as one-dimensionally as the media. They evoke pity for the hero and fear for ourselves based on a new sense of how near we all are to destroying our own lives.

Sylvia Plath, reading.

Sylvia Plath, reading.

The essay concludes with a fitting tribute to literature, and perhaps the most salient answer to that damnable question we first started with – “what is literature for?”

The creators say: “Literature deserves its prestige for one reason above all others — because it’s a tool to help us live and die with a little bit more wisdom, goodness, and sanity.”

We here at Nothing in the Rulebook couldn’t agree more. Why not complement this video essay with musings on the ecstasy of reading, and then peruse some of essential summer and autumnal reading lists.

About the School of Life

The School of Life is devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture. We address such issues as how to find fulfilling work, how to master the art of relationships, how to understand one’s past, how to achieve calm and how better to understand, and where necessary change, the world.