Pith and Amber – the watery words of Carah A. Naseem (Book review)

I’m not even sure what compelled me to purchase Pith and Amber. Perhaps I was entranced by the idea of the beautiful cover?  I wanted to read some books from Fugue State Press who publish beautiful works of experimental fiction, and for some reason I purchased this book. The first thing that strikes me when I read something this beautiful and this unknown is my wonder about what else I might be missing. It will help you understand me better when I tell you, this more than the fear of death, will keep me awake at nights. You might say the very act of my seeking out experimental fiction means there will be little that I can miss, but I will tell you, as a devotee of the experimental, more often than not it feels like I miss everything.

If you are not familiar with Fugue State Press, go to their website here and just purchase everything, and that will help you with that problem. There are many publishers that claim to publish experimental fiction, but few hold the standard that Fugue State Press do. I have a couple of books from there and I have more on the way. Eventually I will read their entire catalogue. That’s how well I trust them.

Carah A. Naseem is a writer who (as far as I can tell) has this lovely book of two novellas published through Fugue State and then there are selected short stories around and about the place. Her Goodreads bio states thus:

Carah A. Naseem longs to share a drink of the life-giving waters with her reader, through her words. Her first novel, Pith & Amber, has been published by Fugue State Press in 2012. She has had short stories and poems published at Right Hand Pointing, For Every Year, and Upton Thoroughfare. If you need her, you can find her cooking, dreaming, and writing nine million unwritten odes to the love that all creatures some day learn to express.

Scrape the bark of the sycamore with your teeth; scrape the moon

Pith and Amber is two very short novellas that work out to almost be prose poems. The first, scrape the bark of the sycamore with your teeth; scrape the moon can only be described as sublime. Its a strange tale of a woman born to, what at first seems to be the sole purpose of replacing an older woman in the arms of a man who has grown tired of the age. Here is the blurb from the Fugue website: The shorter novella: scrape bark of the sycamore with your teeth; scrape the moon. A young woman, a river, and the bones of an ancient marriage. Devotion and exaltation pour from the air, creating this girl whose only directions are truth and beauty. The prose takes place outside every nation and culture–it takes place, instead, on this earth, beside and atop a sycamore tree, beside and atop a mountain: the geographical manifestation of her heart’s search for home.

The novella starts with an E.E. Cummings quote that heralds an invitation to love of sorts. Following the quote, the words:

When he sets me here, he sets me here not to look at me. When he sets me here, he sets me here to look into the sky and laugh.  When he sets me here, he sets me here to forget what it means to have legs that can unsettle the ground. When he sets me here, he sets me here to become tree bark, remember the sensuousness of my fingers. I am set here to sit on top of the tree and scrape the moon with my teeth.  This tree grew out of the place that he marked for me three generations ago,. I was born here, he put me here. He takes me by the big toe every morning, dangles me upside down over the deep wood that whispers.  The wood grew when I was born.  He put me here in this wood, I live here with him.

And so begins a strange cycle of love between two creatures who may be human, may not be human, but are most assuredly destined to fulfil what ever has them play out their future together. As I said above, at first there seems to be a sadness or a loss of some kind. A previous lover is usurped, finding her way back into the unknown as she has been replaced by a younger, faster growing version of herself  Perhaps this is the life cycle within one creature, perhaps this male replaces his older mate with a younger one.  Perhaps these two creatures find each other through every life time and we are baring witness to a new cycle. If it is one of these things or none of these things, the writing in this novella is deeply lovely. The words speak for themselves, so I will give you another sample:

The wood is destroyed, the river overflowed it.  He burrows his face between my legs and turns me into a river. The river source is the bell. The river source is the glacier. The river source is the bell under his tongue, it is the bell inside me, it is the soft tinkling of the celesta. The woman of the stump cries and tells the truth.  There is a truth in her tears, there is a truth in this river, there is a truth.  The wood is destroyed, the truth overflowed it. The woman of the stump cries and destroys the wood.  He takes himself from between my legs and dances amongst the ruins of the wood. Generations are lost. I scrape the bark of the sycamore with my teeth. I cannot reach to scrape the moon. he stabs his bird-bone pikes into the sycamore. He has good bones, he cannot fly above the wood with me, he has legs that can unsettle the ground, I have to climb.  I have shimmied down from my tree and I have legs that can unsettle the ground.  Tell me a truth.  The river does not identify as “RIVER.” The river identifies as “TRUTH.” There is a truth in the bell under his tongue, in the bell inside me, in the soft tinkling of the celesta.  The glacier tears.  The soft tinkling of the celesta.

Cathay Umay

The longer novella is Cathay Umay. A spiritual tincture of Khanate proportion, told in a dance, ritual opera, a drama enacted under the sun. The dust roads of language, because that’s all the sun leaves behind. Boy, Girl, judgement, drums, and the rediscovery of a divine jewel, aborted, sunburnt, and forgotten until another day. (from the Fugue website) Cathay Umay has all the liquid qualities of the first prose poem novella, but for me it didn’t have the perfect beauty of the first. It is still very lovely and well worth reading, but it comes off a little as a poor relation when coupled next to the whirling beauty of the first  Having said that, it only suffers from comparison with something extraordinary, not as a stand alone piece:

The woman sleeps, murder breaks in the throats of the people far below. In the hearts of a Boy and a Girl, a problem (dilemma caught in the wild hair of Boy, Girl laughing fingers tangled.) Darkness kisses their ankles serpent of temptation.  Antsy young souls kicking joyous temper in the face.

Lets run! break through the chest of the day and win! 

Outrun the future’s face through the suns ascent!

Their feet running, forcing up their bones, scatter the vespertine to the corners of the world. 

Their feet running, THE CLOTH OF GIRL SPROUTS WINGS, it flies off bending into the shame of the Name, gets stuck in rift of reality.

Girl laughs, remembers her hair whipping violent soft against her lips. 

The hands of the hair reach out grab the stars, the lungs of the hair 

breathe, the eyes are blind.

Thank you.

The exquisite heart of this amazing writer still exists here and the earthereal beauty of her words still meander and flow their way around the reader. It is an understandable metaphor when Fugue describe this writing as a dance. Experimental fiction can often mean a certain sort of comfort has been sacrificed. As if the work is so difficult to access, the path is strewn with intellectual pins that prick and tease at the comfort of the reader. This is not the case with Pith and Amber. Despite the experimentations with plot, the blurring of characters and the easy movements between points of view, the reading pleasure is never sacrificed for the sake of style. In fact, quite the opposite. The surreal styles adopted by Naseem contribute to the ease of reading, which is in itself a proper statement about experimental fiction. Experimental doesn’t always have to be difficult.

In fact sometimes it can be like chocolate for the eyes.

You can get the beautiful copy of Pith and Amber here, that has the handmade paper wrap.