The Baltimore Lit Parade for September: “Big Ray,” & Bold New Poetry

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We’re pleased to present writer Joseph Martin’s new Ivy Bookshop-sponsored column for the Baltimore Fishbowl, “The Lit Parade,” a celebration and thoughtful examination of the epic local lit scene that too often goes unreported, unread.

“For my dead dad” reads the dedication to local novelist Michael Kimball’s excellent new book, Big Ray (Bloomsbury) – a heavy, final-sounding thud of a phrase if there ever was one.  And why not?  After four novels stuffed with death, familial friction, and an almost scientific interest in the protocol for (and detritus of) relationships, Big Ray feels like the end product of a long, difficult birthing process, a merger between the post-suicide bricolage of 2008’s Dear Everybody (Alma Books) and the slow, procedural mortality of 2011’s Us (Tyrant Books).  Like those books, Ray presents a precise catalog of mourning; skipping their likeable victims, however, the novel instead turns its fictive eye on an unsympathetic corpse – an abusive, selfish father – allowing Kimball to write with a previously untapped range of emotion and intimacy.

Circling around the death of “Big Ray” Carrier and its aftermath, Big Ray follows Ray’s son Daniel as he sifts through his father’s belongings and performs his lonely executor offices.  Coffins are selected, memories are sorted, and, as in previous books, a strange, playful gallows humor coats the proceedings; at least one section consists mostly of “dead dad” jokes, as awful and demonically funny as their “baby” counterparts.  As in Us, Kimball lets his narrator dig for consolation where none reasonably exists, and much of the novel’s pleasure comes from Daniel’s curious anti-angst in the face of death.

Where Ray’s predecessors sat on this almost childlike sensibility, though, Ray seethes with the complicated rage of adulthood, complete with forced compromises and iffy absolutions.  “If my father hadn’t been my father, I probably never would have talked to him,” Daniel opines at one point; less than 20 pages later, he admits, “I want to talk to my father again now that he is dead.”  Composed of similar short outbursts, Ray becomes a constellation of reactions, a book-length ping-pong match of grief and unfinished business.  The cumulative effect will be familiar to anyone who’s ever lost a loved-yet-loathed one, and Big Ray, neither morose nor maudlin, does a disarming job of rounding up sudden death’s unresolved resolutions.

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As always, Kimball has made Baltimore ground zero for Ray book readings and sundry: beyond guest editing Publishing Genius Press’s bloggy lit showcase, Everyday Genius, this month, the author (along with cohost Jen Michalski) recently jumpstarted the 510 Reading Series’ new season at Hampden’s Minás Gallery and visited Fishbowl writer R.M. O’Brien’s WORMS stage on September 18th. If you missed these, Kimball will appear on Saturday, September 29th, as part of the 510’s presence at the Baltimore Book Festival; the event, which takes place on the CityLit Stage at 6:30 P.M., will also feature writers Carissa Halston, Patrick King, Nancy Murray, Robb Todd, and Elissa Schappell, as well as musical guest Mr. Moccasin.

Speaking of the Baltimore Book Festival, this year looks to positively roast previous years in terms of pure breadth and unexpected literary flashpoints.  Beyond the usual ample panels on genre (sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, romance) fiction and a truly healthy spread of panels on books’ relationship with technology, 2012’s BookFest also features a Q&A with pro book editors and agents, literary walking tours, plenty of book signings, and a “literary happy hour” – the perfect evening out for folks who love Camus quotations and Resurrection drinking contests with equal fervor.  Other notable events include:

+ Multiple Saturday performances from Station North’s always innovative Single Carrot Theater, including an piquant number called “The Poe Project.”

+ Local lit mag (and poetic tastemaker) Smartish Pace’s Saturday reading, which features writer Yao Hoke S. Glover III and Madeleine Mysko.

+ Sunday’s New Work Across Genres reading with Narrow House Press magnate and author Justin Sirois, poets Joseph Ross and Jennifer Wallace, and the Fishbowl’s own Marion Winik.

+ And, finally, Sunday’s Art & Lit, a five-per-year series combining lit, music, and visual art; readers include Bathsheba Monk, Jessica Anya Blau, Charles Rammelkamp, Fernando Quijano II, and Nancy Greene.

The Baltimore Book Festival takes place in Mount Vernon from September 28th through the 30th.  An annotated schedule, as well as other specific information, is ready and waiting at the festival website.

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Despite releasing two excellent debut collections – Oldest Mortal Myth (Storyline) and Dirge for an Imaginary World (Able Muse), respectively – married local poets Joanna Pearson and Matthew Smith will not be appearing at this year’s BookFest.  Still, but readers likely won’t need mics and podia to get these authors’ voices caught in their heads.  Setting Greek gods alongside circus freaks and pedestrian passersby, Pearson’s Oldest Mortal Myth works a sweet, sarcastic lyricism, admirably mashing art both high and low.  In “Leda,” for example, dreamlike classical myth gets cut with hellish reality:

In the most beautiful rape story
he comes as a swan

But in the worst – and this
will always be the case –
she is shivering and has
your little sister’s face…

Pearson, a doctor-in-training by day, carries that job’s sensibility through each poem, lending her subjects an eye both clinical and compassionate.  Even better, she’s funny: it takes a fairly self-aware writer to sell a “Fashion Canzone,” let alone conjure conjoined twins’ “riven dreams of sharp knives glittering” (“The Conjoined Twins”) without sounding cruel or dopey.  Pearson has the good sense to treat her cast of characters like fallible people (see also: her 2010 YA novel, The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills) and, as a result, Myth ends up a remarkable little volume – a near-masterpiece of loving life for its beautiful, outsized failures.

Where Pearson seeks to humanize the world’s gods and monsters, Smith chooses Dirge for an Imaginary World’s targets – Neanderthals, football mascots, ballet students, himself – from a more earthbound rogues gallery, blowing up their broken promises, lost dreams, and hopeless plays for greater understanding to billboard size.  Each poem reads like a patient exegesis of disappointment’s endless layers, all laid out with a certain comfy sadness, and Smith spends a good chunk of World tearing at the mind-body problem in search of some diagnostic solace.  “The soul mistakes the body for itself/And so despairs,” he muses in “Meaning”; elsewhere, in “A Pledge,” Smith illustrates that friction, using a party hook-up to magnify the impossibility of forgetting or reclaiming youth:

Some honked before continuing their travel

    Squinting against their headlights in the dust,
We made a pledge you might recall.  You must.

It’s heady stuff, but humanely and plainspokenly wrought – a joy to read, in other words.  Like Myth, World celebrates the world’s uncertainty and unfairness, finding pleasure in life’s quiet impossibilities.  If neither book offers any answers, no matter.  The authors’ shared ability to delight in the unknowability of the unknown only helps Oldest Mortal Myth and Dirge for an Imaginary World, gracing each book’s web of ideas with a companionable, light touch.



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