Monday, August 8

"Money is round and runs away."

Review by Martin Stannard

In Ordinary Time by Sharon Mesmer (Hanging Loose, $15.00)

Not many people know about St. Brave of the Champs-Elysées. They should read Sharon Mesmer. The spirit of St. Brave drives Mesmer’s “In Ordinary Time” – a book of prose from a fine poet. The saint’s wisdom comes down to us via a series of aphorisms, and they have already added something, um, aphoristic to my life.

A clown in a palace is still a clown
The honey of love has often a dash of gall

Even those aphorisms influenced by St. Brave but drummed up to perhaps make a fast buck or, better still, to make an “obsolete hero” where an “under-employed stevedore with high overheads” once was, are pretty good:

Civilisation in Holland began with a dike
The female crab never fights
Gauze comes from Gaza

You can tell Mesmer is a fine poet – actually, scrub that “fine”, because it sounds wheedling and insincere – replace it with “fucking marvellous” (much more ingratiating…) Anyway, you can tell Mesmer is a fucking marvellous poet because her prose has things in it like

It was sunset, and I was exhausted, but not too tired to notice the wrapping that covered an entire building billowing out in the wind with an alternating up-and-down motion, as if there were little animals running races underneath it....

And you can tell Mesmer is someone you really want to know and read because she writes about going to a drugstore called “Beauty Feel” with a friend and buying “Whale Sperm Shampoo” and “Arabian Formula Masculinity Tonic For Men” and cracking up with laughter about it. Of course, this episode might be something she made up.

Today I’ve been sitting in the sunlight reading for what I think is the third time this delightful and, at times, remarkably moving book. It makes me happy. Because of it (I shouldn’t admit this, but I don’t know why not) I have even written one or two prose pieces myself of late. They aren’t very good. But “In Ordinary Time” is brilliant. It's divided into two sections, the second of which is either autobiographical or fictionalised autobiography, or a mixture of the two, or neither. (The “I” is called Sharon, a poet who lives in New York, so there may be a clue in that… ) But whichever, it’s beautifully and subtly linked to the world of the first section. This first bit is peopled by the spirit of St. Brave and the likes of Blessed Eucharis of the Butte along with, among others, “misshapen aristocrats, ballooning enthusiasts, veuves de joie, wastrels, guignols, sentimental equestrians, young comers from the suburbs, humble bonnes, blowsy fisherwomen in tight-fitting chemises cadging drinks from bishops dispensing blessings with beneficent expressions, and sturdy midinettes, grisettes, and laundresses snacking openly on malodorous cheeses.” The world of the second half of the book is Chicago (where Mesmer is from originally; now she lives in Brooklyn, NY), and comparisons are there to be made if you want to make them.

By any standards, this is lovely writing – here, the “I” of the story is on a visit from New York to see her mother, and they are at the bank so Ma can get some money out:

“I ain’t got nothin’ left of my money,” she chuckles. “You kids cleaned me out! But,” she shrugs, “if I don’t get money, we don’t eat.” She hands the teller her bankbook and he looks back and forth from her to me. I’m so angry at her for saying that I feel like leaving town with whatever’s on my person, taking the bus straight to the next plane out of Midway no matter what it costs.

Once we’re out the door I say, “Why’d you have to say that to him? What was the purpose of that comment?”

“What comment?”

“That ‘we kids’ cleaned you out of your money. I never ask you for money!”

“Ho! What about when you were livin’ with what’s-his-name, over in that shitty whatsit – Uptown, or whatever you wanna call it. And he went to New York and you didn’t have any groceries in the house and your father and I had to go out and buy you groceries and lug ’em up three flights of stairs ’cause you were sick?”

“Ma, that was 1987. But that’s not the point. Why even bother saying anything? It makes it seem like I’m not working and you’re supporting me.”

“Well, you ain’t workin’!”

“Yeah, but you’re not supporting me. I don’t even live here! And I don’t want your money! Why even mention anything to him?”

“Oh, who cares. It breaks up the day a little for him.”

To your mum you’re always the little kid. Your mother is that exasperating person who drives you mad, and you love her to bits. And there’s this mother in a scruffy run-down home in Chicago with scatterings of family somewhere around town but they're only paying attention to her when they can steal something you have. And there's a daughter, a poet far away in New York who travels the globe reading poems. I’m not even going to start in on this. I think I’d have a lot to say, most of which would be about me and not about Mesmer’s writing.

At the book’s close, the worlds of St. Brave and Back-of-the-Yards Chicago are beautifully entwined and united in “Anno Lumina”, “now that the family, as well as society in general, was back together…” It’s a fictional reunion but nonetheless a significant one. “Anything and everything was possible. These were, after all, the Bright Ages.”

This is a marvellous book by a wonderful writer. Yes, it’s published in the USA and if you’re in the UK then getting hold of it is rigmarole. But it’s rigmarole worth doing.

Ulysses no longer slouches disconsolate in Ithaca!

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