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Review: Sad Giraffe Cafe;, by Richard Gwyn

The prose poems in Richard Gwyn's Sad Giraffe Cafe from Arc Press take the form of fables, in a manner not dissimilar from Borges or Calvino. Most of these fables are less than a page long and are linked through recurring themes: an imaginary kingdom, a wanderer named Alice and a narrator who explores a past which veers from the streetwise real to dreamlike shifts in perspective. There is a haunting quality throughout. For example, in one of my favourites, On being cool, the narrator nostalgically and ironically remembers an adolescence, which will be strikingly familiar, and then takes us unexpectedly and yet convincingly with a close-up shot into a detail which has all the qualities of a hallucination. There isn't room to quote the piece in full, but here - at the risk of butchering it - is an extract to give you a flavour:

Do we ever forget the things that shaped us in
those long days of adolescence and early childhood?
[...] the slick rolling of joints, and the cavalier
abandon with which you attempted to carry off
simple acts, as though nothing, but nothing, was
a challenge, to your quiet cool [...] not appearing
too needy so as not to put girls off [...] Carol, 19,
from Leytonstone, will take you to her bed but
will not have sex with you [...] you both make it
to the kitchen where you drink gin and watch a
spider working its thread above the stripped pine
table [...] You reach for the spider, scoop it into
your mouth, wash it down with gin.

Of all three collections, Gwyn's prose poems most resemble short fiction. Yet the narrating 'I' is far more slippery in Gwyn's work than it is in Elenkova's. Part of the fun is in identifying which character is talking in any given piece and temporarily entering that character's world before it slips away into a different space and time. The different voices form a kind of collective, but it is a collective which operates in a dangerously disembodied universe, where we are never free of the past and where we are already haunted by the future. But there are an infinite number of pasts and futures, which are only made real in the telling of them. The Sad Giraffe Cafe

exists only for as long as and to the extent that we,
its creators and tenants, re-tell and repeat its story,
unspooling and re-threading the narrative day after
day, night after night, replenishing ourselves as well
as it, the Cafe, with the illusion of its existence

from Ballad of the Sad Cafe

Denise Duhamel, explaining the difference between 'flash fiction' and the 'prose poem' says that when we are urged 'to lose control, to dispense with gravity, to bark at the shape of air' we know that we are 'probably in the realm of the prose poem'. Go on, go and buy one of these books! Bark at the shape of air!