Review – Ink. J.S. Breukelaar

Ink review – Mutinous talisman

She limps in circles

Around her room

And learns that

Butterflies can bite

Mutinous talisman

It’s a rare writer who takes on writing with the presence of mind to know the world needs what they want to say.

Don’t get me wrong. Every new writer thinks they are filled with things the world ‘needs’ to hear, but usually the early writing years are more about bohemian smoke-filled dreams in cheap bars and shitty cafes, living on welfare ‘causeyou’reallabouttheartman, practising shunning of Oprah for your integrity and rehearsing your ‘thank you’ speeches while imagining already unheard conversations about the genius of your work. The literary ‘rat pack’ – the Tel Quel, Bloomsbury Group, Algonquin Round table scene you hang with is an ever-present backdrop for these fantasies.

she feels the stares in the waiting room

at the butterflies

tearing at her flesh

with ragged prescision

at the girl shuddering beneath the weight

of all that ink

After the first three years of ‘real’ writing, the first hundred rejections, the recovery from the depths of dismay when you realise your work is so bad it can’t even trick YOU into thinking it’s good, the writer is born. These are the make or break years, the time when a writer asks ‘why the fuck am I putting myself through this?’

truth be told

the tattoos

heal but not well

streaky seepage

from a world within worlds

unholy city

alien reach

is she a specimen?

The question sits in the glazed eye of the beloved friend who asks “how’s the novel going?” and you respond with “brilliant” before realising you’ve been parroting the same reply several years now with nothing to show for the statement. It’s in the dark circles beneath the eye, the endless half started word docs on the computer desktop and the dreadful fear gripping you in the black of the night when you realise there is no reason why this stasis, this desperate soul-crunching, hand wringing nothingness, this thing making you watch a Simpsons re-run instead of put pen to paper, can’t go on for years and years.

wings beating in her eardrums

her flesh a sea of pain

she will circle through the shutterd streets

in a sharp daze of fear

but also wonder-

This is when the writer is born. This is when something inside clicks over, and it’s more important to get perspective out of you than to be read. The moment when you don’t give a shit about how you feel, how much your back hurts, shoulders are creaking, the weight you’ve put on, you need to get it out, because if you have to live with yourself another day the way you are, you will die…

or worse, go on living.

And what happens then?

What happens when the soul kicks in? When you’ve properly gotten over yourself enough to forget a readership, put your ego aside and reach into that very dry webby well?

You find your voice. You find the one thing separating every human being from every other human being on the planet – perspective. You are able to finally touch the place with your breath where the coal of your mind is crushed beneath the weight of your existence to produce those tiny little diamonds falling occasionally from your mouth, usually followed by a remark from a well meaning friend ‘ Wow dude.  You should be a writer.”

Find a way to own that part of myself, condition it, feed it all my blackness and let it spew those diamonds in a controlled fashion, not machine gunned at society in a desperate attempt to be heard above the traffic, advertising and drug-fucked bands?  I should be a writer?  Thanks dude.

palimpsest priestess,

you will squirm

and gambol

in the netted dawn

your guarded happiness the paths you crave

and the secret shape of your care

you will strut in its wonder

Then one day, you pick up a story, and your fingers tremble, and you know. Here is another writer; someone who survived the sorting process. What defines them as unique, essential and brilliant, is not how many in the literary scene reading them, talking about them, (too many dazzling writers were shunned by the literary scene in the past for us to buy into that pathology for too long) it’s in the work itself. Your heart races, tears spring into your eyes, and you know you are holding a diamond. A real piece of psyche, flesh made word, tendrils of recognition revealing a version of humanity.

At that moment, you’re holding Ink.

J.S. Breukelaar is a literary Diane Arbus, if you can imagine Diane getting into her subjects more and not peering at them through a keyhole. Ink is a series of stories about survivors. Survivors of life, not those defiantly standing up to life’s challenges – no Breukelaar’s protagonists have had so much life all they can do is bend further under the crushing weight of it. This is not a writer fascinated with the internal angst of the bex wielding housewife or the melodrama of the self obsessed wall street tycoon, or the self indulgent guilt of the left wing (in)activist assuaging midnight panic with endless anecdotes about the trials of immigration. These stories are about those who live on the edge of our realities, in the dark horror of the fear that laces the grey moment between myself and other.

When the girl turned up for the job in her black jeans and cute haircut and no arms Deel just shook her head no.  Girl wiggled her stumps and flicked her hair in that way.

Just give me a listen, she said.

From Union Falls

What dark soul conjures up an armless young pianist? A girl-woman so worldly wise she knows to keep her distance from all human pain. What mind can fathom the thoughts of such a creature?

But then what mind can dream up (did she dream this up, or did she visit each of our nightmares and see the root of a cold hearted fear) a transvestite demon, beaten to a pulp (again) by dreary homophobia spending her last precious hours in the loving silence of a young girl too young to know you don’t belong to those who rescue you because they didn’t want to have to do it again. The demon realises she’s taken one punch on behalf of all humanity to many, and chooses death swaddled in the love of a child too sweet to be tired.

Raye looked like she was both reading and writing, drawing and being drawn. She watched the line glow and disappear, the invisible ink, their strange coupling encoded in its impossible scrawl.

I’m dying thought the demon, and the last thing I have to look at is this cocky bitch. But she loved her. She loved her as her own.

From  She Glows and Says

Ink is a permanent stain. It’s used in some countries to prevent electoral fraud, staining the voters choice to their fingernails like the mark of Cain.  For something so common it is a complex medium, composed of solvents, pigments, dyes, resins, lubricants, solubilizers, surfactants, particulate matter,fluorescers, and other materials.  Every component serves a purpose: flow control, carrier colorants, thickness and of course permanence. Ink stays with you forever. Like a man who beats his gifted son, or an aged socialite who flashes her tired vag at the end of every dinner party, in the the psychic stain that reveals those liquid scars that have left their mark and reveal to all who care to look what choice you made at the crossroads.

Fulton had brought it all to the Weisses, the old man, everything, because he’d always known the old man would come for him. He thought, hoped, his song was the cure, but he was wrong. He had always been wrong, just like the dogs blood in his dream. It was his sickness and he must take it back.  Take it all back.

From Blue Note

She saw herself somewhere else, somewhere better, and felt ashamed to be here yet again, on Jean and Nicholas’s fifth floor balcony. After all, she was no stranger to Nora’s front-bottom. None of them were. She watched Nora’s dress riding high on her thighs, and at the balcony behind her Nicholas leaning on the rail with his Cohiba and his glass of St Germain dangling in those long musicians fingers of his and she wondered how he could stand it.

From Sex and Death

For me the pick of the stories is Lion Man, a short story previously published by LegumeMan books. A man desperately trying to save his carnivorous dog after it severs an unsupervised child’s hand in a playground. The dog was taunted, but the man is weak, and we are talking about a childs hand here. All there is to do is run and wait for the ghosts of his conscious to find him in the dark of the night, hugging a lost corpse and wishing life weren’t so confounding.

Then he pulled into the rutted gravel drivewaybeside the Georgian pile with its lean-tos and add-ons, and drove around to the garage. He parked outside and they walked around to the back door. It was unlocked. The Visa Cruiser was up on blocks inside the garage. The garage was dark and bone-cold, with something in the air, like the taste in the back of his throat, foul and foreign.

From Lion Man

Memories mix with no sense but the illogical assortment our guilt will make of them, moving us around inside till current day events speak to us of past indiscretions or lamentations of lost love from a parent or guardian. For Breukelaar the real Gothic-horror of the American south is in the hearts and minds of its citizens. Here land and sea and air match what we feed our soul on, but it’s in the interpretation, the perspective, that horror is found. J.S. Breukelaar finds the darkness (there but for the grace of god go I) we all use conformity to keep at bay.

This series of short stories is Americana Gothic at its finest. Here we have all the elements required: rational v’s irrational, Puritanism, guilt, the Freudian strangeness within the familiar, abhumans, ghosts, monsters and domestic abjection. A black heart pulses here riddled with all the fears born of the genocide of Native Americans and the daunting prospect of the American frontier. The inability for any of the characters to overcome their fear through rational thought is essential to the mythology. We have traces of all the masters, Hawthorn, Lovecraft, with the occasional touch of Shelly and … dare I suggest… a little Cormack McCarthy too?

I sensed a connection with Charlotte Perkins Gilman in the Kristevian concept of abjection used here. Breukelaar’s characters try to deal with their domestic abjection with expulsion – usually of themselves from a situation driven by fear, but the terror and ugliness of life finds them all. It reveals itself from the Pandora ’s Box in their mind, terror, rather than horror, being the important distinction driving the internal narrative of these protagonists. Breukelaar’s long suffering characters live with a horror firmly implanted, finding no sanctuary in rationality, logic or knowledge.

Just when you sit back comfortably in the arms of American Gothic, Breukelaar tosses that cat amongst our comfort pigeons through her poetry which is closer to real horror. She offers us tattoos consuming a woman whole and a ‘shitty vampire’ that hates the sight of blood. The American gothic themes remain here, however. The greatest terror is still that of death, and the beauty and fascination we have with the gruesome. Breukelaar gets in there and makes the ugly beautiful.

and then he’s like grinning again and makes that fist over his heart the way he

does, and then he moves in close, so close I can smell his old-coin breath, and

the way he reaches across with a rag, to wipe the blood off my chin, tenderly

and quickly, and stuffs it back in his pocket so I won’t have to see it, the

crimson flower of life mine for the taking never more to give.

From Shitty Vampire

Ultimately, this is a fine collection that sits amongst the modern great short stories of American gothic by Flannery O’Conner and John Hawkes. The familiar elements are all here; an anti-hero with few discernable strengths, domestic instability at the heart of disconnected psyches, and anxiety riddled individuals. Breukelaar manages to reveal these traits through characters not physically restricted to the American South or any particular region. There are even stories that take this brand of horror to New Zealand and Australia, in competent stretch of breadth and scope that unsettlingly reveals to us the spread of these discontents as if we can no longer confine the internal horrors of gothic to one small, safe aspect of the Americana’s.

This fresh hell we all must face.

Highly Recommended.

Ink can be purchased here.

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