about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the forthcoming novel Maintain (Ampersand Books, 2012). A regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books, Dew is the author of Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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Sister Stop Breathing
A Review of Sister Stop Breathing
by Chiara Barzini

Spencer Dew

This book consists of two things: brief statements of prose, often hinging on hallucinatory details, framed by blunt assertion of already being underway (“There is...” for instance, or, “Some days...”) and then these illustrations or illuminations, palimpsests, reliant on techniques of collage and overlay, image on image, often with faded text or traces of text in the background. Here is a scaly koi, augmented by rays of darkly thick fuchsia ink; here is a line about “a couple of severed cat paws you left on the lawn for me”; here images of hair in overlap, and actual cloth, a picture of a pinecone, a broken pair of spectacles; here teeth with veins and masturbating children threatened by their grandmothers.

It is perhaps better to say that there are two books here, shuffled together and then stitched in place: a collection of disorienting and cluttered images, sometimes surreal in their juxtaposition (a sink, a concealed breast, some sort of mask, tubing, a faucet knob) or aiming for a sort of hyperactive, self-devouring abstraction (stain and defacement, references to organic decay, an overload of unreadable markings and gray wash), then a set of small stories, some only a few sentences long, some several pages, developing the threatening allure of incest for a precocious young female narrator or, in the second person, speaking about all the “additional legs,” “the extra legs” that press against one, in bed, at waking. We have a narrator say “I trapped myself when I said I was going to make rice with vegetables. I couldn’t find the rice so I used sand instead. I knew it would taste grainy and dry. I knew my boyfriend would think I was a terrible cook, but I did it anyway,” and we have grave-digging courses, piss tests to determine color, impotent voyeurs, a wife rehearsing for the shock of her husband’s eventual absence.

Yet how different are these, paired, things: (a) a map, with some kind of diagram, fragmentary, imposed upon it, and hatch marks and scribbles—a page torn from a book and masked, brown and gray and that yellowing tone of old paper, from ordered, schematic composition to frenzied, decomposition, an image that appears to be in the process of metastasizing, and (b) a story called “Sewage Police,” musing on the idea that, in Rome, some of the pipes are quite ancient. In this story, the eponymous force (“mellifluous, wet people in neoprene uniforms that camouflage themselves as seals from another era”) apprehends “those who defecate in bags and throw them out windows,” a story that ends with an image of violent death and the scents of white pizza, at various stages, cooked and digested.

In one image, grains of rice take on the look of maggots in ripe flesh, in another, something like salt crystals form scabs on the page in imitation of lace. Meanwhile, story after story gives us lost corpses and loss, death, suicide, skin conditions, impotence, and rivers of manure. Images of a bear rug, bare legs, a fire, a bottle, and lips like a scar all clouded over with hair for a formless and viscerally repulsive effect, pair here with stories that likewise brook in elements of puzzle, whiffs of dreams, fragmentary familiarity and the jarringly alien. One character is described as trapped “in an inferno’s circle,” and, indeed, we have representations of this, page after page, in prose and image. A strange sort of hell: here coiled worms, there a headless figure; here a guillotine or some poison, there a collection of kidnapped girls eating frozen dinners and watching pay-per-view.

Official Chiara Barzini Web Site
Official Calamari Press Web Site

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