Iâ€™ve returned several times to the title of Michelle Realeâ€™s new chapbook, If All They Had Were Their Bodies (Burning River, 2011), posing it as a question of its characters. What if these charactersâ€”these vulnerable, sometimes cruel, and often-mistreated children, women and menâ€”had only their bodies? Often, thanks to the twists of trouble and human nature in these stories and to the harsh realities rendered, these characters would fare better in the world with only their bodies and without emotions and spiritâ€”they wouldnâ€™t be so susceptible and wouldnâ€™t suffer so much. In the end, though, the collection reaffirms that it is better to risk our hearts than to deny them.
Thereâ€™s a strange and aching loveliness to the thirteen short fictions and prose poems in this collection. The relationships in these domestic stories are fraught with complexities and the characters experience and/or inflict cruelties both small and large. To various degrees, the characters throughout these stories suffer afflictions of body and/or spirit that arenâ€™t always easily understood by the reader, but are very much felt. The tensions between these characters are nuanced and layered and subject to imagination and interpretation. Each time I read these brief, powerful stories I took away more.
The language, subtleties, and subtext throughout are skillfully handled. The story â€œSome Citiesâ€ opens with a woman nursing her seriously ill lover. In a reversal of health, when he recovers, she declines: â€œHe was flush with vigor, while she took to braiding her brittle hair, going barefoot and crying at the vulnerability of the common housefly.â€ This sentence and the image of â€˜the vulnerability of the common houseflyâ€™ beautifully capture the essence and excellence of this chapbook. Michelle Realeâ€™s story endings also repeatedly surprised and delighted and again speak to her gift. The last sentence from â€œSome Cities:â€ â€œShe told herself she was as brave as someone in her position could be.â€
Hereâ€™s a wonderful excerpt from the title story â€œIf All They Had Were Their Bodies,â€ a story that centers on boys and girls and the ways weâ€™re conditioned to value the superficial and are blind to so much beyond the body:
“[The skinny girls] hold the fragile scaffolding of their wraith-thin bones in their own arms, rocking gently as if they were their own babies. They are conclave and vulnerable, dressed in the colors of sickness.”
“A fat girl on the wall crosses thick thighs, revealing a musical note tattooed on the puckered skin at the back of her knee.Â A skinny girl spots this, tracing the form. Her eyes become bright. She closes her eyes and sings the note aloud. She thinks of the possibilities there. She takes small, wobbly steps toward the fat girl, who is so surprised that she makes room for her on the wall. They sit silently, side by side.”
In â€œBocartes,â€ a jaded, sometimes heartless father laments, â€œHe just canâ€™t seem to figure out the formula for thriving.â€ This is true of the many characters throughout this collection. â€œBocartesâ€ is an ironic story about gardening and what we canâ€™t keep alive. This ending also slices and stays: â€œHe lets her water the flowers and watches as she holds the hose over each one, letting the water beat the delicate petals down. He knows that later they will burn in the sun.â€
In the second half of the collection, in â€œChicken,â€ â€œMercy,â€ â€œPicturesque,â€ â€œSwayed.â€ and more, Reale peoples her stories with larger families, harsher cruelties and more troubling transgressions. The stories chronicle how desperately we need family love and bonds and how often we fail at it. The final story in the collection â€œAfter Heâ€™d Goneâ€ depicts just such yearning and failing with stunning brevity:
“She was looking at me like she did sometimes, like it was my fault, all of it, whatever. I never asked for this, sheâ€™d said once, and I knew she meant me and my brother. I said â€˜I was just â€¦â€™ I couldnâ€™t think what. She patted the cot for her cigarettes. They were on the floor underneath and I got them for her. The pack was almost empty.”
Jen Michalski, author of Close Encounters and May-September captures something so apt and gorgeous in her praise of this collection:
“Michelle Realeâ€™s stories are the tiny shards, glass birds, that lay around you, seemingly harmless, after an explosion. Glittery diamonds, impossible to resist, to fondle, they cut your skin deeper than you think possible when you take them in your hand. And then, without warning, they fly away.”
Glass birds that cut and then fly away. Itâ€™s a fabulous and fitting image for this collection.