Book Bag: ‘Dance on Saturday’ by Elwin Cotman and ‘Poems in a Time of Grief’ by G. Greene

Staff Writer
Published: 10/22/2020 6:28:47 PM

“Dance on Saturday,” by Elwin Cotwin (Small Beer Press)

You may have heard of “Holidays in Hell,” the darkly comic book by P.J. O’Rourke about his travels to some of the most dangerous and squalid places in the world in the 1980s.

Elwin Cotman goes one better in his story “Mine” — about volleyball games in hell.

“Mine” is one of five stories and a novella in Cotman’s new collection, “Dance on Saturday,” a mix of fantasy, horror and dark humor that probes contemporary issues of racism, sexism, class and pop culture. Published by Easthampton’s Small Beer Press, the book has earned praise from several quarters, including the New York Times, which calls Cotman’s new stories “long, deep and rich, each so thoroughly engrossing and distinctive in its style.”

“Mine” is one of the standouts, a tale about a junior high school volleyball tournament that takes place at a Catholic school in western Pennsylvania (Cotman is originally from Pittsburgh) during a day of torrential rain and high winds that rattle the gym windows. “It looks like Revelation,” says eighth grader Emily, one of the story’s two main characters; another is her sister, Molly.

Emily and Molly are both Black, the daughters of a doctor who’s originally from Nigeria. They’re proud of their heritage and seem to have found some level of acceptance in their school and their neighborhood, playing alongside mostly white teammates. Or is all this an illusion?

As the girls’ volleyball tournament gets underway, weirdness and ugliness begin to accelerate. The clock seems permanently stuck at 8 a.m., and the games go on and on, with the girls eventually dropping with exhaustion and the behavior of adults in the stands getting uglier, like the lecherous father of one of Emily’s teammates giving her a creepy wave and a smile “that felt like ants crawling up her neck.”

The mother of another of Emily’s teammates casually says if the team wants to win “they need more black girls on the team. I mean, not a million. But one or two more ...” And the older students in the crowd, the high schoolers, creep Emily out: “the boys had a lunkheaded energy to match their oily musk; the girls exuded reckless sexuality that had them wearing short skirts in the rain, legs on display even as their sneakers reeked with mud.”

As the story builds to a violent, surreal conclusion — the volleyball itself turns into a “red-winged devil with a monkey face” and a “world-destroying asteroid” — “Mine” serves both as a send-up of high school sports and parent-teen relations and a dark look at race, faith and issues of class.

Meantime, the book’s title story — the novella — is about a group of immortals who call themselves “The Fruit” because they renew their lives by harvesting and ingesting special plants and fruit. “Cantaloupe for breast. Coconut for hair. Cherry for eyes. Sliced persimmon for nose ...” Yet there’s conflict among some of these immortals as they jockey for power, and the story raises questions about whether that power can be responsibly shared.

“Seven Watsons” is narrated by a young Black man, Flexo, who describes how he’s trying to get by during a stint in the Pittsburgh Job Corps. Told in Black dialogue, the story morphs into a strange tale of human-to-animal transformation. And Publishers Weekly describes “Among the Zoologists” as a “sexually charged fever dream about a zoology conference that blurs the line between humans and animals.”

“The landscapes of Elwin Cotman are mythical, searching, and stimulated by haunting fanaticism,” writes Wired magazine. “(These) are tales of magical scope — they do more than simply spellbind; they seduce, invite, crack open the extraordinary.”

Poems in a Time of Grief by G. Greene

In the introduction to his poetry collection, Greenfield author Gary Greene is upfront about its purpose: “This isn’t a book written for poetry lovers. This is a book of poetry written for those grieving a personal loss, by someone who was and is grieving.”

As Greene explains, he lost his wife, Jean, a few years ago to what he calls a “devastating autoimmune neurological disease that remained undiagnosed and virtually untreatable.” Facing his first significant holiday without her — Memorial Day 2019 — he found himself writing the first poem in his collection, “World of Wrong,” as a means of trying to cope with his intense grief. And with that, the others began to follow, he says: “(T)he figurative emotional dam had been breached.”

In a mix of free-verse and prose poems, Greene tackles a wide range of emotions as he recalls the months he spent by his wife’s side before she died, memories of their time together, and then the devastation of losing her. There’s plenty of anger, for one, as in “Satisfaction,” in which he writes “I want revenge. / I want to fight for you, / physically battle, / destroy your attacker with my fists, / feet, teeth, screams, / bone, muscle, sinew ...”

In “Guilty as Charged,” he recalls being forced to approve the medical decisions to alleviate his wife’s suffering, even knowing that would lead to her death: “It fell to me, then / your protector and fiercest guardian, / the one sworn never to harm you, / to become your executioner.”

Then there’s the loss of joy and the sense that life has become a ritual without much meaning or purpose with his partner gone. “Colors of late” speaks to a monotone world: “Mind the color of fog, / thoughts a darker gray // sullen sun, muted in pewter sky, / clouds a shade a clay // nights as black as a miner’s lungs, / the moon begun to rust ...”

As dark as these poems may be, Greene notes in an afterword, writing them has helped him channel some of his feelings, in turn giving him another way of dealing with grief; he’s also drawn help from friends and a therapist, he writes. And his hope is that others coping with the loss of a loved one may get some benefit from his collection: “If you’ve read this far, I hope this has helped you. If it has, I thank you for that.”

Greene also notes that he’ll be donating 50% of the retail value of the book ($12.99), from all sales from local bookstores, to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts in memory of his wife. More information about that and his poetry collection is available at poemsinatimeofgrief.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.




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