[The PACK’s impressed by the quality of Sundress Publications’ selections for ‘Best of the Net’ 2014. Over the next few weeks, we’ll review some of our favorites. —Ed]

D. Eric Parkison fancies a poem by Ash Bowen:

‘Ash Bowen’s “Murder in the Red Barn” revels in its own musculature. The lines are heavy and rhythmic the way an engine is: one isn’t surprised at the power of a machine that grumbles so. Listen to the repetitions of the first stanza:

I came to you like an unkindness, black feathers falling
from the quiver of my coat, an ebony trail
for you to follow. I made you weak [. . .]

‘Smart sonic play indicates something of the subject matter of a piece, or invites mimetic comparison: it’d be hard to find a neater example than the unsettling soundscape made of came/unkindness/quiver/coat, wherein each iteration of the hard C, sounding in the back of the throat, feels violent and slashing. Nor can one ignore the way those hard Cs surround that heart-beat-like iambic run from feathers to coat. The repeated declarative phrasing—’I came,’ ‘I made,’ ‘I left you,’ ‘I flexed,’ ‘I pulled’helps develop a speaker that is supremely lyric in the best sense, avoiding the trappings of confession at its worst. Thus while the artifice of the voice is clear (even when the litany of actions culminates in a ghoulish confession of murder), the reader is convinced of the truth of the speaker more than of his real existence.

‘Not an easy feat in a time of vulgar empiricism.

‘The creepy atmospherics of the poem rely on the ambiguities of language as much as on the macabre subject matter. The stripped, base language seems timeless—’I made you weak with words,’ ‘you moved [. . .] through the clover,’ ‘my call brought you homing to the barn that sat // like a bloodstain,’—because of its preferring plainness of description to decoration.

‘Yet, the piece isn’t plain, is it? It’s inscrutable, a murder mystery, a love song. Perhaps a theology—after all, we note that the tercets, after the murder, give way to a final, haunting couplet—a breaking of the trinity, so to speak—

It cried like the end of autumn and flapped
from rafter to rafter.

‘A stark image of permanent and damnable inertia, no doubt: rafter to rafter, yes, but never out of the building.’


Eric Westerlind took to Ting Gou’s “The Fig Wasp” at a molecular level:

Think about the sweetness,
that purple sanctuary.

‘End-stop. Velvet descent. The initial bite of a delicious thing. The fig surrounds us.

This is all a male, wingless,
will ever know. Sugar that drips
from his sisters’ bodies

‘The female wasp burrows into the fig using the spines on her head, losing her wings in the process. She lays her eggs and dies (who knows what happens to her body, but I wager the nutrients are cannibalized by the young or, less likely, absorbed by the fig). In short time, the young flightless male and his sisters emerge in darkness, surrounded by edible sugar. They mate with vivid incest.

‘How thick is ‘Sugar that drips from his sisters’ bodies?’

The wax world, a dense heart
of which they are the heartbeat.

‘This containment, the wax world with its underwater sounds.

Hold the right fig to your ear
and you can hear the universe
swarm with larval wasps.

‘A human intervenes in the sanctuary, even shakes it around a bit. The fig wasp’s containment and the isolation of the male (‘all he will ever know’) comes into sharp focus.

And isn’t he, at least, pitiable,
that even after being born,
this little honeyed bell is all he knows?
And what mythology does he invent
to explain a life so dark and sweet?

‘The crux questions. In this tight, invariable space, is the fig wasp deprived of some richness? Gou suggests that more than a ‘honeyed bell’ is necessary to create ‘full’ existence. I think further investigation of cloisters would expand on this—what nuance does someone find in darkness, in priesthood? Haven’t we, who can’t fly or swim (very well), found degrees of nuance in our style of movement—the variance between running, walking, trotting, dashing, stumbling, crawling, or laying still? Do we pity ourselves the inability to fly or swim?

‘Here hangs the cloister of human-human relationship. Is there an outer shell for us to bore through? Metaphysically, do we munch through time, growing until we can do so?

‘The second question is lovely. I imagine a series of gods in shades from violet to black—from Bacchus to Hades. Great bouts of silent, rubbing revelry through deep, near-death isolation.

‘Here is that relationship—it’s one that Ting Gou turns towards:

When you left, I would imagine
you inhabiting doorways.
And for a year, how the light caught
the hairs on your arm.

‘This attention to the portal, to that one escape, either bored in or bored out:

Hold the right fig to your ear
and hear everything.
The male fig wasp bores a hole
through the hardened fruit for his sisters.

‘(Where has our lush interior gone? The moisture of the wax and drip and heartbeat has become a husk.)

They escape and multiply. He crumbles in the sun.

‘Nice. Vampiric. The ‘multiply’ is interesting. First read, I supposed it meant the wasps became many and were flourishing, freed from the male and this fruit cocoon. But, biologically, the female flies to another fig, burrows into it with the spines on her head and loses her wings in the process.

‘She lays her eggs and dies, and down on the outer edge of this fig that’s been shaken by our poet, the wingless male becomes dust.

‘Ting Gou makes a melancholic association, raises the male’s singular utility to a lovely hybrid of indulgence and martyrdom. I’d’ve loved to see that mythology sketched out—seen the shedding of her wings too. But this is just one shake of Gou’s imagined fruit: I’ll wait for the next cycle.’