What Isn’t Said

Two of America’s best-known microfictions are poems, written by poets—Forche’s “The Colonel” and Hass’s “Story of the Body”—but both read like fiction, and are presented as paragraphs, not poetic lines.  These are crisp, compressed narratives, disturbing, highly distilled, charged to maximum voltage.  Both close with striking images: a bowl of dead bees, disembodied ears that seem to be listening.  For prose poems and flash, omission is everything.  What matters most is compression, insinuation and inference; what matters most is what isn’t said.  A piece will raise crucial questions and leave them unanswered, hinting at answers, unwilling to yield.  The greater the constriction, the more the flash or prose poem must resonate, swell in universality, a shadowy giant rising from the husk of its structure.

The story I teach most is Natalia Rachel Singer’s “Honeycomb,” reprinted in Norton’s influential Microfiction.  It’s a model of speed and subtext, managing in its poetic way elements of plot, character and theme in less than a page.

Singer’s northern Midwest grotesque is concise, muscular, quirky, something like Fargo meets Olive Oyl and Brutus from Popeye.  Tightly wound as it is, it’s a conventional tale, its plot arc a swift, deft trajectory (“She was expecting Mr. Mann”/“there he was”/“After their meal they’d walk”).  A linked issue lurks, necessarily, beyond the story’s immediate girl-wants-boy tension, a deeper conflict buried in “the baby’s grave.”  Mrs. Stick’s grief and romantic yearning combine as she waits; hence “desire” seems to “part her like a comb” (the partition occurring at the story’s midpoint exactly), and what she’s “expecting” arrives.  Mr. Mann’s vigorous, day-lit baby-sized squash are an answer of sorts to “rutabagas,” the tubers she’s stewing at the story’s beginning.  Experienced farmer that he is, he may help reproduce if not regain what she lost.

Planted in the tradition of miniscule dead baby fiction—Hemingway’s famous six-word “baby shoes” story, Carver’s “Popular Mechanics,” Beattie’s “Snow,” Foster Wallace’s “Incarnations of Burned Children,” Bret Lott’s “Night,” Katharine Weber’s “Sleeping” and others—Singer’s story nevertheless taps a tradition older and deeper.  (The more compact the story, the larger its subject must be, as Richard Bausch has observed.)  Oily, honey-smearing Mr. Mann is not only Romeo but a mythic sun god returning to enliven what’s barren, to restore fallow, dry, mother earth.  “Honeycomb” is a fertility tale, one of the oldest stories we know.  Fecundity and productivity will be restored, the “mulch pile” will take, we think—but the conditional quality of the final sentences (“he’d ask”/ “they’d walk”) cast a faint though palpable shadow.  The story’s real time ends with swarming dust, squash pounding Mr. Mann’s truck, not with an idyllic honey-tableau.  The stroll in the field is conditional; depending on how we read Singer’s omniscience, it may be projection.  No matter how promising the promise of change, unqualified assurances are just that, the story implies.  Mrs. Stick may soon be a queen bee, aided by her worker and drone, but as yet he hasn’t arrived.  True outcome’s omitted; hand-in-hand walks into sunsets are always about to begin.

Kirk Nesset is author of two books of short stories, Paradise Road and Mr. Agreeable, as well as a book of translations, Alphabet of the World, and a nonfiction study, The Stories of Raymond Carver; his book of poems, Saint X, appeared last year. He is recipient of the Drue Heinz Prize in Literature, a Pushcart Prize, and grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. His stories, poems and translations have appeared in The Paris Review, Southern Review, Kenyon Review, Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, Agni, Prairie Schooner,and elsewhere. He teaches at Allegheny College, and is writer in residence at Black Forest Writing Seminars (Freiburg, Germany). For more information, visit http://kirknesset.com.