Tuesday, May 4, 2010

On Michelle Reale's wonderful chapbook Natural Habitat

Michelle Reale’s chapbook Natural Habitat is a contemplation of place and being, and underpinning these concepts, of identity and self-perception.

In her poignant opening essay, Michelle’s talks about how her childhood neighborhood—a complete miniature city unto itself--defined her world for sixteen years. Once she was separated from it, her relation to the world changed dramatically, and she found it more difficult to find genuine comfort or belonging in other places. With the sale of a childhood friend’s house, she experiences an even more painful loss. Memory exists now, not in fact or reality—not in the objects or mortar or clapboard that comprised another’s home (and where the metaphysical energy of Michelle and the woman’s daughters might still move and play)—it exists in the intangible. Childhood and home are now only an idea, a memory. There is, to a certain degree an echo of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. Still, in Michelle’s book, there is less exploration of the “strange and bitter magic of life” as Wolfe called it, and more an examination on the colorful and affecting characters that comprised her world. Here, on each page, are the crystalline structures of Michelle’s memory.

Michelle’s stories are sharp and keen in their appraisal of human motivation and characters' often inexplicable actions. In “Small Things,” which originally appeared in JMWW , she writes of an elderly man, presented with a newborn: “Then he looked around like anything was more interesting than the new life right in front of him….she laughed but the anger, always lying just below the surface, shot through her like someone flipped a switch. The flick of his chin upward was her answer.”

I’ve said before that Michelle’s descriptions are incredibly real, almost hyper-real (even when I don’t actually know her characters, I recognize them in people I know), and that was a statement based on the characters' looks and actions alone. Here, on the characters' insides, this rage that lives so close to the surface, is a force with which many readers can easily identify. This is the same brand of rage that can shoot like lava to the surface of a consciousness with even the smallest slight. The narrator reads the man’s refusal as a personal rejection, like the one her mother offers with emotional coolness (delivered via telephone, no less) just after the main character gives birth. Instead, the old man’s is later understood not as a personal affront: it has nothing really to do with mother or baby. Perhaps, having been diagnosed with cancer, as is later revealed, he wishes not to metaphorically sully this new life. In any case, these two characters (or three, if we count the baby) are ships passing in the night. They miss understanding each other or meeting the other’s requirements again and again. It is likely a cycle they will remain stuck in, although we do not know that for certain. The new mother resolves to make amends, to try to brook the divide that exists between them.

Perhaps my favorite story of this beautiful collection (of 12 amazing stories) is “Sticky Sweet,” which originally appeared in Dogzplot. It is told from a third person-limited narrator’s vantage point and sticks closely to the child’s understanding of events. We are told what she feels and sees, and we are given only enough information so that we understand their import: here is a glimpse of a very complex life relationship between a father and daughter, who is still very young and impressionable. The father at the beginning of the story, rushes the daughter out of church following Holy Communion. He directs her to go out the side door before the sermon has even completed, which is usually when everyone is directed to 'go in peace.' This is fitting because, while there is stolen pleasure for both father and daughter, there is no genuine peace. Witness the father’s reason for rushing his daughter out: he wants to get to the bakery before the throngs leave church, so he can chat up the bakery clerk with the raven hair and pierced tongue.
The little girl, denied a “display of goodness” and the “priestly procession” related to her Sunday ritual, dives into her bag of donuts. She has to run to catch up with her father, whose smoking mouth reveals residual bits of communion wafer—a striking and metaphorical detail, under the circumstances, especially since we learn the man, who has been pointedly flirting with the young bakery clerk, is married.

So, really, while the girl has her donuts, which are a consoling pleasure to her, it wasn’t all because he father wanted to treat her to something nice. He, too, had his own reasons for getting there.

The daughter, who enjoys her donut and reaches into her own bag for another, is suddenly chastised for being sloppy, since she has gotten cinnamon sugar all over her good Sunday coat. Her pleasure is again thwarted, as it was in the church, because of her father’s sudden realization of how the mother will react when she sees the sticky mess.

Also, there is a tacit measuring—through the words Michelle carefully selects—between the growing girl and the young bakery clerk. The bakery clerk “folds her thick, dark hair behind her ears,” she “moistens her lips.” The father, in her presence, “laughs too loud” and generally ignores his daughter, who attempts to get his attention. Meanwhile, the little girl has “short, plump legs.” She gulps her donut down “in three bites.” Her father hisses that she is a “dirty girl” as he brushes the cinnamon sugar from her coat, an action that causes her developing chest no inconsiderable amount of pain. Instead of the cool, elliptical sensuality of the bakery clerk, the reader is made to understand the little girl’s sexuality is vulgar and an embarrassment, and that she is somehow less an object of interest to the father, even though she is his child. This is one memory slice that may define their future relationship, since it is sets in motion a sense of self hatred in the face of enjoyment and even physiological development. “Dirty girl” says a lot to a little mind, and none of it good.

It is these close and telling interactions, these penetrating insights that make Michelle’s stories so amazing. Pick up a copy from Burning River Press. She has so much to say, and you will not be disappointed!

Buy Michelle’s book from Burning River Press!

No comments:

Post a Comment