Glowing review of The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down

The Short Story Review (Flash Fiction): ‘The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down’ by Meg Pokrass

The Short Story Review

 


Review by Rupert Dastur

 

To open the cover of this slim but mighty book, is to step into a boxing ring with a champion of Flash Fiction. And not just any champion. Pokrass is the sort of writer who will pull her punches swiftly and skilfully, leaving you blue with bruises. After the bout she’ll offer you a stiff drink and say that life’s pretty tough, but you’ve just got to keep at it. It’s a sentiment that the hard-hit, hard-hitting characters in these fifty-one flashes express with heart-wrenching simplicity.

Often in short story and flash fiction collections, due to the diverse style and substance of individual narratives, it can be reductive to neatly package pieces together. Interestingly, however, this collection offers a surprising consistency. The majority, about four in five of the flashes, are written in the first person. An even greater proportion than this are told from a female perspective, though there is variation in age. A number of protagonists are wannabe-actresses, secretaries, and salespeople; folk who smoke and drink and worry about the rent and the people they love.

Relationships, usually failing or failed, are integral to almost all these flash fictions. Sex, an inevitable consequence, plays a significant part.

'Bird Envy' a Flash Fiction Collection by Meg Pokrass

‘Bird Envy’ a Flash Fiction Collection by Meg Pokrass

What is quite extraordinary is that despite the surface similarities, each flash fiction is unique, is a short, sharp jab of brilliance. These are lives we recognize, even when they veer in unexpected directions; the twists and turns avoid artificiality and almost always feel rewarding. The reader identifies with the sudden shifts a life can take. Similarly too, the drinking and the smoking and the sex has the flavour of Carver, but it’s messier, stickier, more carnal, more akin to the genuine lusts and loves of ordinary people. Pokrass paints the world as it is, her gaze unflinching, her hand steady, and her palette vibrant.

One of the best flashes is ‘In This Light’ and it works well as a representative of the collection as a whole. The first few lines drop the reader in media res, at the centre of a private moment between the narrator and a man called John:

‘There are drops of semen on my lips when he says he loves me for the first time, and tears. I do not dry them.’

Gritty and disturbing, the flash leaps into the abyss in the space of a single line:

‘Twelve hours after my husband David and his bike were destroyed by a truck, people distributed hospital smiles.’

The combination of stark truth with the concise poetry of ‘hospital smiles’ illustrates the precision of Pokrass’s pen, with each word integral to the weight and meaning of the piece. The flash fiction continues to explore the tensions of this trapped woman, bound to her disabled husband, but craving – and taking – the liberties that present themselves; liberties that make her body feel ‘so stupid, so young.’ Here, the self-awareness of the narrator displays the uneasy complexities and contradictions that make up a human life. Pokrass continues to layer the flash with meanings and pressures, finally landing such a powerful uppercut that one is forced to close the book and breathe deeply, relax one’s shoulders, put the kettle on. It’s called the K.O. moment in writing. A knock-out narrative. And all this in under eight hundred words.

A few other motifs pop up in The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down. Related to the title, both cats and

'Damn Sure Right' a Flash Fiction Collection by Meg Pokrass

‘Damn Sure Right’ a Flash Fiction Collection by Meg Pokrass

dogs are given sentence time. So too are lemons and citrus fruits in general, which may offer some explanation to the bizarre cover choice; the absurdist image of an upside-down bunch of lemons is somewhat discordant with the grime and graft of these realist fictions. But that is a matter for the publisher, not the writer.

Death also presents itself with frequency, though often in the idiosyncratic, factual one-liner Pokrass delivers so well. This is demonstrated in another exceptional flash fiction, ‘Sparkly Plans’ in which the narrator states:

‘I make a list of our recently unlucky things: We adopted a dog who looks sad but was supposed to make us look happy. Dad died making an old building new. The front of our house is sinking into the ground.’

The understatement, the careful placement of the sentences which couch the dramatic within the comparatively trivial, and the deceptively conversational style all serve to relax the reader while swinging the newly sharpened axe.

Death, drink, divorce – it would seem weighty if it wasn’t also for the sharp wit that also cuts through the prose, albeit in a bittersweet fashion. In one of the earlier flashes, ‘If Things Move Under the Trees’, we’re offered the line: ‘Mainly I wanted to die in the forest with a unicorn’. Such a sad, silly thing to say, particularly in the contexts of a boozy fancy-dress party.

One final plaudit: the beautiful sea of similes. Earlier on, I mentioned the concise poetry Pokrass employs with such ease. This point is aptly shown through the myriad similes that dust the prose. A small sample: ‘My friends, other secretaries, gather on the sunny beach like a bouquet’; ‘In bed, my eyelids behave like cheap polyester drapes, unable to keep out the light’; ‘Mom and I, tightly knotted like helium balloons trying to stay here on earth.’ Whether sad or humorous or both, all these stories sing.

Pokrass has published a number of flash fiction collections, has appeared in over two hundred journals and anthologies, and has repeatedly appeared in the ‘Wigleaf Top Fifty Flash Fiction’ lists. This latest collection by the experienced writer brings together many of her best writings in a book which is an absolute tour de force. Whether a reader or writer of long or short fiction, the piercing portraits in this volume deserve a place on your bookshelf.

 

The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down can be purchased here. 


Rupert Dastur is a writer and editor. He studied English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he specialised in Modernism and the Short Story, He established TSS with the aim of furthering discussion, interest, and development of the short form. He has supported several short story projects and anthologies, and his own work is in / forthcoming in The New Flash Fiction ReviewA3 ReviewField of WordsBath Flash Fiction Anthology 2016, and Bath Short Story Anthology 2016.

Feb 8, 2016 Prompt

Make something with these words..

limping, realtor, driving, sexfest, warty

Try to use all of the given prompt words. Make sure that there is an animal in your story, somewhere.. 1499437_10207566757791749_1985702966650363185_n

Cellulose Pajamas (Blue Light Press Poetry Award) is here!

on amazon, ready to order!
“Care to lounge about dressed in greens?  Try on Meg Pokrass’s splendid Cellulose Pajamas.” –Molly Peacock, Author of The Second Blush
cover 2xImage-1 copy Words of Praise for Cellulose Pajamas:

In a smattering of sassy, wry words Meg Pokrass creates a universe of love in Cellulose Pajamas.  These sexy but wistful prose poems hint at entire constellations of affections, relationships at once sweet, sad, satisfying—and not.  The poet’s delicately surreal metaphors give her poems so enticing an air that they seem to wear perfume.  Care to lounge about dressed in greens?  Try on Meg Pokrass’s splendid Cellulose Pajamas. –Molly Peacock, Author of The Second Blush 

Serious and witty, mystical and dark, Pokrass’ poems are small windows into another world, a world which is almost this world.  But not quite. I find myself wanting more, always a little more of her work.  One short poem, one small collection, it is never enough.  In short, and in her very short and masterful pieces, Pokrass leads her readers on, page by page, enticing them with her beautiful and dream-like language.  Pokrass’ writes books you want on your nightstand to read not once, but again and again. –Nin Andrews, Author of The Book of Orgasms, Spontaneous Breasts, Why They Grow Wings, Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane, Sleeping with Houdini, and Dear Professor, Do You Live in a Vacuum.

I have admired Meg Pokrass’s work for a long time—Damn Sure Right and Bird Envy among other books.  Cellulose Pajamas contains that same bold quality: stories painful and joyful at once.  Meg Pokrass proves once again that she can write an epic on the head of a pin!”John Skoyles, poetry editor, Ploughsares. Author of A Little Faith; Permanent Change; Definition of the Soul and The Situation, A Moveable Famine and The Nut File

Meg Pokrass has the gift of a fluid imagination. Strange and beautiful prose poems pour across the pages of her new book in a confluence of the surreal and the mundane. It’s as if Raymond Carver and Russell Edson had collaborated on these fine poems, which manage to be fierce and vulnerable at the same time.  Cellulose Pajamas is a moving, haunting, riveting book.-Ellery Akers, Author of Practicing the Truth, and Knocking on the Earth

Prose poems require a particular intensity to be truly successful. Pokrass has no problem with that constraint. This book is a breathtaking as racing a car. There isn’t a single one of these fireworks that doesn’t completely satisfy. One of those few writers who can handle this form with grace and room after room full of magic.
D.R. Wagner author of 20 books and chapbooks of poetry and letters (Rattlesnake Press)

 

Advance praise

Coming this SPRING, 2016!
The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down
a new collection of flash fiction by Meg Pokrass will be available from Etruscan Press. 51bGQpg6SWL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

The people in these stories need Meg Pokrass. Their lives are tough but her imagination is the fire-lasso that can save them, save us. In her work, off-kilter is the same as clear-eyed focus. Here, strange and normal go hand-in-hand, a marriage that explains nothing but makes so much clear. Time after time, these little stories read big.-Bob Hicok, author of Elegy Owed (Copper Canyon Press, 2014) and This Clumsy Living (University of Pittburgh Press, 2007)

“Meg Pokrass bops and slams through these little stories like some genius extraterrestrial psychic on a world tour of the human heart. Her language is supercharged and witty, with humor and sadness in approximately equal amounts.” –Bobbie Ann Mason, author of Shiloh and Other Stories, In Country, and The Girl in the Blue Beret

“Meg Pokrass gets a lot done in the shortest spaces imaginable, whole worlds in a handful of words, a teeming city of characters arising from mere paragraphs, 55 stories that just won’t quit.  And laughs!  And tears!  And those moments when you have to stop reading and think for a dayWith The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down, Flash Fiction comes of age.” —Bill Roorbach, author of The Remedy for Love and Life Among Giants.

“Serious and witty, mystical and dark, Pokrass’ poems are small windows into another world, a world which is almost this world.  But not quite. I find myself wanting more, always a little more of her work.  One short poem, one small collection, it is never enough.  In short, and in her very short and masterful pieces, Pokrass leads her readers on, page by page, enticing them with her beautiful and dream-like language.  Pokrass’ writes books you want on your nightstand to read not once, but again and again.”
Nin Andrews

“I dare you to read a Meg Pokrass sentence and not want to read the next. Just enter that voice voice and it makes magic. It’s the kind where you don’t know where you’re going until you’ve left, but you know it was deeply right to have been there. Unassuming, ridiculous, insightful, dark.”
Robert Shapard, editor of seven anthologies for W.W. Norton from Sudden Fiction to Flash Fiction International.