microreview: Primitivity by Amy Sayre Baptista

review by José Angel Araguz

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The flash fiction sequence that makes up Primitivity (Black Lawrence Press) by Amy Sayre Baptista explores a Southern Gothic tradition of storytelling in pieces that are voice-driven and immersive. Using voice in a near-alchemical capacity, Baptista’s characters come to life through phrasing and presence. Take this short passage from the collection’s opener, “Bait”:

This old road is a ghost. Two small plot cemeteries fenced like a crooked grin hold horse thieves that ran the stagecoach road and travelers that met death before destination. Bandits shot for robbing a man blind. Shot for doing the things men do in the dark.

The vivid imagery of the first sentence here mirrors the “crooked” nature of the landscape. The voice here presents the image in a nuanced, casual tone that contrasts the stark human nature being described. This mix of image and tone makes the narrator’s bluntness all the more tangible.

Here and in the other pieces, the poetic sits side-by-side with grit and survival. Southern Gothic tropes are subverted toward feminist and class issues in a way that is both affirming and interrogatory. Where one piece has an aunt clearing caught birds from twig traps while sharing with a child that “Be careful out a mama’s mouth don’t mean nothing ‘cept protect yourself  better than I did,” another explores the literal ghosts of a town murder through a seance, having each party involved speak for themselves. This approach to storytelling strives for compassion while remain unflinchingly true to the characters.

The flash fiction below, “Pike County Consilience,” shows a number of Baptista’s narrative skills at work. A great example of voice driving a narrative, this piece also braids in technical terminology. The juxtaposition of human voice against this terminology evokes a sense of urgency. The main character’s straightforward explanations become a form of rationalizing and re-imagining of hard truths. This impulse on the character’s part becomes relatable at different points, a testament to the power of Baptista’s empathetic approach.

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Amy Sayre Baptista

Pike County Consilience

“Proof is derived through a convergence of evidence from numerous lines of inquiry–multiple, independent inductions, all of which point to an unmistakable conclusion.”
–Scientific American, 2005

A science man studies the world to say why, say how it got made. A Pike County man ciphers the world for what it is, and how to survive it. Me? I got some science in my toolbox right alongside the wire cutters and the claw hammer. Got me a proof, and a theorem or two, just as useable as my crescent wrench. Let it be known to all: I love Jesus Christ. That said, the Son of Man never broke no barriers on the biological front. Chalk that up to Charles Darwin. Talk about loaves and fishes? No small feat, Jesus wins. But give Darwin his due.

Don’t believe in evolution? Make the acquaintance of the good damn brain God gave you, please. Humans? We scrambled up outta dark water; fin, fang, and claw. No doubt. Pretty it ain’t, we used to filter our own sewage out our gills and rip our supper off a breathing bone. Still not convinced? You must be one of them that thinks babies came to life with mother’s love and angel milk. Truth never stands a chance with the feeble-minded. But I’ve had to stare a man back on his haunches. Eye to eye, I recognized the abyss we crawled out of throbbing beneath his pupil. Gibb Delbert’s his name. Glared back at him with a blade at the end of my gaze and knew he was still gonna come for me. Not for a social call neither. That’s evolution, and Gibbs on the slow track.

Darwin was on to something with his consilience. In plain English, that’s many ways of coming to an unmistakable conclusion. For instance, Bud Rickart says to me at the Rod & Gun on a Wednesday night, “Gibb Delbert means to kill you.” That’s just one line of inquiry, as Mr. Darwin was so fond of saying. Gibb comes into said establishment not thirty minutes later with a loaded revolver, puts one in my thigh and one in my shoulder before he gets tackled. That’s conclusive proof.

Action: Gibb done shot me.

Reaction: He went to jail for two months till next Friday,

But what goes up must come down, that’s Newton not Darwin, I hope I’m not moving too fast. This evidence comes together on the quick. Last night I get a call, says, “Will you accept charges from Danville Penitentiary?” Course I decline. This morning, I got a Banty Rooster broke-necked under my windshield wiper.

Proof: Blood feathers mean blood feud.

Times was when a righteous man with a crack shot might claim feud as self-defense. Not so today. Men like me need formularies just like the fellas writing the textbooks. Solving for the unknown in my neighborhood is a high stakes control set. Trajectory of bullets and repositioning the body? Mishandling those details gets you caught. My numbers got to add up, or I might as well start posing for a county-sponsored head shot. Leave Jesus be. Houdini’s my savior. I need a disappearing act.

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Hypothesis on an Unlocatable Body

Theorem 1: Deer season, I take the firing pin outta my shotgun to give me three extra slugs. At twenty paces, I can end a man during the time of year no one questions a gun shot, or three, in quick succession. But that ain’t the difficult part. Trajectory of bullets, pin out, and a body? Too obvious and me the likely suspect.

Theorem 2: Solve for zero: where no evidence exists, there’s no proof to solve for. That’s algebra, translation, “the solving of broken parts.” Thank you Wikipedia and Arab people everywhere.

Theorem 3: No proof equals no charges. Add together the bank foreclosure of the abandoned hog operation at Nebo and property in probate. This equals a waste dumping pit both full and idle for a month. That formula births a slurry and stench to end all inquisition. A body in that slop seals the deal. By the time the farm sells, the hog pit will be no softer than concrete.

Theorem 4: A body at rest stays at rest: Gibb Delbert. A body in motion stays in motion: me. Decomposition meets destiny. Thank you, Sir Isaac Newton.

Observable Conclusion: Done, son.

*

Check out this interview in which Baptista shares more about Primitivity.
Copies of Primitivity can be purchased from Black Lawrence Press.

* influences, cantomundo, & the kenyon review

Just a quick post to share my contribution to Rosebud Ben-Oni’s recent guest post at the Kenyon Review blog.

Rosebud reached out to her fellow CantoMundistas – Javier Zamora, Carolina Ebeid, Yesenia Montilla, Ruben Quesada, Amy Sayre Baptista, & myself – and asked us each to write a few words on the books by Latina/os written in the 21st Century which have influenced us. Anyone familiar with this blog knows I’m a book geek, happy to dig into what I’m reading, so I relished this opportunity.

Below is my contribution to the Rosebud’s guest post. Make sure to check out the rest of the insightful contributions here.

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“Books Written in the Twenty-first Century by Latina/o Poets That Have Made Me Braver”
by José Angel Araguz

Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Elegies In Blue: Written early at the turn of the century, this book stands as a living elegy for both the century that’s passed and the century that continues to grow in the echo of Sáenz’s words: “Perhaps, this year, a harvest for the poor./At last. This year. A harvest for the poor.”

Rosa Alcalá, Undocumentaries: In “Speaking of the Tree,” Alcalá brings together tree mythology, her father, hurricanes, German walds, the Texas/Mexico border, Vermont, etc. – all in a poem whose meaning keeps growing like a tree in both directions, skyward and earthward. Its song and lament holds praise for the lives touched by trees, and a lament for what passes across them. In this collection, this kind of lyrical nerve and ingenuity establishes a poetics of what goes unsaid and “undocumented.”

Rigoberto González, Red-Inked Retablos: I can’t stress enough how powerful the impact of reading the speech “To the Writer, to the Activist, to the Citizen.” From the call for Latina/os to fight with intelligence and be empowered in our public presence as well as to conduct more literary criticism, stressing that we must “generate praise for those who are [our] colleagues not [our] competition,” he makes being a Chicano writer seem like the inevitable beat of my heart.

Carmen Giménez Smith, Milk and Filth: Lastly, I keep this following excerpt from “Parts of an Autobiography” written on the first page of my writing journal as a kind of reminder of what is at stake in navigating the worlds of identity and poetry:

53. The writing is not the catharsis. The decision to excavate is the catharsis. The transformation from dreadfulness to art is the catharsis, but the art is the art.

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Special thanks to Rosebud Ben-Oni and the good people at The Kenyon Review for this opportunity.

See you Friday!

Jose