Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Perfectly Unique Book, Nearly Perfect Bee


Review: Carribean Fragoza. Eat the Mouth That Feeds You. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2020.

Michael Sedano

Grove Press is one of them. Black Sparrow is one of them. City Lights Books makes three.  

Browsing the shelves of a top-notch bookseller looking for something unique, literature on the leading edge of stuff all your friends will be reading six months from now, you know you won’t go wrong picking up a title from Grove, or Black Sparrow, or City Lights. 

That has never been more true than with City Lights Books’ 2021 short fiction collection, Eat the Mouth That Feeds You by Southern California writer Carribean Fragoza. You won’t go wrong on both counts—unique, and trend-setting. Eat the Mouth That Feeds You belongs in your Shopping Cart at the publisher’s website (link)

Above all, Eat the Mouth That Feeds You treats readers to gem after gem of interesting, provocative, impossible writing. Carribean Fragoza crafts grammatical sentences that challenge the capacity of language to contain a story when it emanates from a coherency-defying imagination. There are outlandishly daring events written about here and no one's surprised to find themselves in such settings. "Supernatural," "strange," "weird," hardly covers what's happening in these fictions, but it's close.

Readers won't find work like this everyday, nor from ordinary publishing juggernauts. Nearly every element of this book challenges convention, composition, vocabulary, idiom, character, setting, coherency. Here is how those things are done now. 

Fragoza’s characters stumble into events that can take off on independent trajectories with the characters along for the ride, usually with aplomb in the face of profoundly absurd quotidian anarchy. This is their world, welcome to it. Watch the writer pull it off. She’s an incredibly disciplined writer, mostly, letting weirdness spin out of control before the writer finds a semblance of reason that makes for not-quite orderly metaphors. She puts a lot of responsibility on her readers to anchor her characters with understanding and empathy, and if not, open-mindedness.

The collection opens with a training story. That is, “Lumberjack Mom” serves to train readers how to consume the style in this ten-story early work of tomorrow's literary luminary. The lead story's the most straightforward fiction in the collection, and while astonishing in its understatement, “Lumberjack Mom” comes at you like a gruesome sight compelling you to stare in amazement despite all that asco.

A family falls apart when the man abandons them. To the children narrating their story, Mom’s behavior doesn’t strike them out of the ordinary: Fathers cause resentment, Mothers need to release their stress. Kids help out. This is how the world is.

What isn’t ordinary is when mother turns obsessively to destroying the family’s possessions, ripping out plants in the garden, chopping up the furniture. The kids support mom in her not spiraling out-of-control endeavors. It’s a natural world where kids matter-of-factly buy Mom a sharp axe, read lumberjack textbooks, provide logs for her to chop, transporting her to the woods to chop down trees.

This family must be rich to afford all this destruction, but logic is anathema to fantasy, so let’s not talk about that part. In fact, it’s best to allow the universe of the stories full steam ahead and don’t ask questions, just watch.

The second story, for example, “The Vicious Ladies,” is a gem of perversity. Fragoza crafts a dark underworld of cholas, house parties, drug dealing. The narrator is a college woman in summer, abandoning her books for passive licentiousness. She’s the enabler, not the one who gets it on. There’s rich tension for a reader watching her throwing away her future by giving in, with no reason whatsoever, other than inertia. And that’s how the tale ends, the character going headlong into nowhere, the reader frustrated, objecting that the author did this to them.

Dismal as the setting makes one, Fragoza’s compelling narration impels you helplessly into the story, maybe you know these girls, you sure don’t like what you see from these mensas:

“It was like watching a clandestine baptism. The girls faithfully dropped their bodies into the invisible waters that would make them new. And the noz did. Each emerged from their trip smiling, like they’d all seen some variation of a god that was gentle and kind and sometimes very funny.”

God. Funny. Mujerismo. Abortion. Readers will find enjoyment, and perhaps outrage in the collection. There’s the spiteful saint who explains people turn to her for miracles because they’ve lost faith in god. “Sabado Gigante” provides badly needed comic relief before the collection impels you to its unsettling final two stories. 

The title story balances discomfort against insight in a challenging metaphor. “Eating” is the verb of the “Eat the Mouth That Feeds You,” a daughter consumes her mother bite by bite, for lack of memory. The active indicative form of being nurtured is feeding. From what is eaten, Girls absorb and become their mother’s history. Metaphors lurk on the menu, but in the darkness some pose a challenge to read. This must be why one blurber calls this "Chicanx gothic tales".

“Mysterious Bodies” begins as a horror story. A woman feels mollusks, clams, barnacles, spreading throughout her sinews. Not horror, an awful truth: Angelica’s pregnant. Eduard gets some pills. Right-to-Lifers need to get into Angelica’s thoughts without remonstrance. 

“Me Muero,” the last offering, is going to make readers really uncomfortable. The narrator’s dead, the body splayed out on the patio while familia circulate around her nonchalantly. The soul checks out the food and the chisme, revisiting her body to monitor her putrefaction. Here’s compellingly gross writing, with a delightful Fragoza touch of surprise in its last sentence.

Too bad the cover art doesn’t reproduce well enough to notice the wings on the girl looking back at the camera. Not knowing what to expect from the book, such a foto with that arresting title, a browser sees the City Lights imprint, buys a copy, not knowing what to expect, but with high expectations. 

Eat the Mouth That Feeds You, like the last sentence in the book, turns out as good as you expected. Better.

A Taste of Near-Perfection 

Three images of a male Carpenter Bee in flight fulfill a goal to take even a single image: a brilliantly detailed golden bee suspended in mid-flight at the point of landing or feeding. The other day, I created three nearly-perfect images that achieve that goal. 

I'll continue taking fotos of this bee. Now the goal is a full-frame, no crop bee. These images are not cropped, this is the entire image. I use a 70-300mm lens, racked to 300mm. The glass focuses at around 4 feet, so this is as much bee as the lens produces. I own a 100mm macro lens that I can capture a nearly 1 to 1 image if I can get close enough and hold the camera steady while the bee flies in focus.

Approaching the Ocotillo the bee begins to slow down
The bee flies at the near-focus distance of the lens. Hand-eye-camera coordination achieve oneness and I track the Carpenter Bee in the viewfinder while holding down the shutter release.
The Canon T2i fires 3 frames in rapid order before it stops to process. What you see is what you did not get. When the shutter opens, the view goes blind and the image goes onto the sensor. A moment before, everything looks great in the eye. What you get is what you got. This time, everything comes together. A goal accomplished feels good. I haven't seen this insect since the day I captured its portrait. Right time, right place, right equipment, right on.
ISO1600 300mm f/5.6 1/3200s Hand held, open sky.

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