Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Listen to This, Listen to That: Side Door

by Dan Froid

“If I go through that side door, if I go into the world via something magical, or heightened, or strange, or absurdist . . . I can access the emotional stuff more clearly,” Aimee Bender explains. In Air Schooner’s sixteenth episode, “Side Door,” the novelist and short-story writer discusses her surreal approach to fiction-writing: she seeks to capture not plot or characterization, but “something alive.” She compares writing to a terrarium, in which that “something” can grow from the page. 

 Bender reads from her story “Appleless.” A group of girls who love apples press another, who hates them, to join in the fun; they then proceed from consuming the apples to, well, her. Not that they literally eat her: they touch and kiss her, working their way past the voluminous yards of cloth. Past those loaves of hair.” Bender provides endless, rich catalogs of the apples—their colors, textures, and namesas well as equally rich renderings of the girls body. My description doesn’t quite do the story justice, because it’s as strange as it sounds—Bender’s intent, to be sure. The story relentlessly evokes a feeling of unsettled-ness. To contemplate the apples’ delicate flesh, and then for such imagery to pair with, well, actual flesh—it left me both baffled and fascinated by these girls’ exquisite quasi-cannibalism. 

Now I’m thinking about “Daisy Dead Petals,” a 1994 Tori Amos b-side. Like “Appleless,” this song is just weird. Its tone, at least to my mind, seems to complement Bender’s story, something about its exuberance, combined with an undercurrent of dread or anxiety, or maybe about its cheerful refusal of straight-up realism. Check it out: 

daisy dead petals 
that is her name 
so maybe she tastes like a hamburger made well 
these dead petals, honey, brought me here 
she said, “these dead petals, honey, brought me here” 

dancing on a dime, 
hearing mother cry 
maybe she’s around the corner 

The imagery here too is off-kilter. Theres her name, first of all: little piles of dead flowers. And the song suggests, like Appleless, the consumption of the body. All these bizarre images form an interesting juxtaposition with the music; this is kind of a zippy song. It certainly fits with Bender’s definition of slipstream as “writing that makes you feel very strange. Reveling in that strangeness, and just accepting whatever in the world is going on, seems appropriate both to this song and to “Appleless.” 

Lynn Emanuel is an experimental poet who nonetheless rejects the “experimental” aesthetic, at least as it’s commonly applied. She favors less formal or technical experimentation than evoking feelings of strangeness, discomfort. She describes her poem “Metamorphosis,” which she reads in “Side Door,” as an attempt to get closer to understanding herself by moving further away. 

As for myself—wherever there was a street going indifferently about her business, 
I was the dog. 
At first I wept. 
I became its beatings, shitting on command, bred and bred into more and more of it. 
I crouched behind its bark, still as a stone ax. 
I lunged at a greasy picnic on the table of some lawn. 
I was dog’s belonging, dog told me. We were nothing in and of ourselves—one fiction abusing another. 

It’s a lovely poem—but lovely in an unnerving way. The surreal qualities of the narrative recede into the background, at least at first listen. The dog’s perspective, frightening and sad, drew my attention before I contemplated the poem more deeply. When I listen to this poem, I think, strangely (if you can believe it) of Diamanda Galás“The Thrill Is Gone,” a standard blues song, becomes in her version something completely different—completely diabolic. The song starts with her piano-playing, jagged but elegant, which erupts into angry wailing, which itself descends back to a slightly garbled interpretation of the song. Galás's voice is deep, perhaps submergedA roller coaster of high and low, loud and soft, the song sounds a bit like a demon-possessed Aretha Franklin. A tough listen, it nevertheless, if you can bear it, rewards contemplation. The song itself is one of anger and sadness, and Galás twists those emotions into their most extreme forms. In “Metamorphosis,” Emanuel writes that “We were nothing in and of ourselves—one fiction abusing another.” For dog as well as Galás, you might say, the thrill is gone. As Bender seeks to access “the emotional stuff” more clearly by means of absurdismGalás  and Emanuel, too, approach emotional turmoil through strange and heightened perspectives—through side doors of their own.