Miracles Come on Mondays
by Penelope Cray
Pleiades Press, 2020

Please lock me in the quiet room so I can once again concentrate and give Penelope Cray the attention she exacts from each story of her debut collection, “Miracles Come on Mondays,” published by Pleiades Press (2020). The bubbles need the human breath, but they would prefer to exist without their symbiotic relationships with humans. Or, every night, the ants steal the bricks from the building site only to capture the builder and take her underground where she’s never felt more cared for. Or, the problem with Bill’s relationship was that Janice’s face migrated to the back of her head when she went to sleep at night. Or, when moods are cloudy, rain falls on your head, especially if you live in the story Air Guitar, where a family passes their days bouncing from one domestic barometric vapor to the next (tea kettle steam; roaring vacuum sounds).

Such are her rules. Cray takes the short story–the flash piece–and turns it up loud. It’s like she finds a nick in something, a strange place to set her sights on, and then sits on the fence of the uncanny and records it as it unfolds. Topsy-turvy readers will slide into a world that closely resembles the one they know, but it will feel like a step into a hologram. Actions are literal and objects misplaced, which is fun and odd and disorienting (take the mother who fears she’s gone too far with a house purging when she throws out her children).

These tightly woven stories (poems?) (parables?) have a habit of upending all sense of place and scale in the world. “The cyclists swatted, smiling, at the air, sending mother gnats in ruinous collision with father, sister, and brother gnats. Their filigreed bodies littered the ground.” By the time this massacre takes place, reality has already taken on ominous smudgy shapes where edges were once sharp.

As the rules of environment shift seismically, so do corporeal relationships with her sometimes-named characters’ physical selves. A man carries a boulder on his back and amorous women come to admire it until one day the boulder slides off and reveals its bruised, green moss. What we know as matter (and what we know of what matters) has a wholly different kind of life trajectory. Kind of like James and the Giant Peach for adults. In fact, I’d bet that Cray was raised on some Roald Dahl. And Shel Silverstein. And then Lydia Davis, who seems a natural stepping stone from Shel Silverstein.

At times, word play seems to be inspiration enough for a jaunt. Take Mortal from Mortar. Weave the two together—an idea of a living human, and a bowl in which things are crushed by a pestle—and all sense of the arbitrary slips away. Now, humans have tendons, but the tendons are grown through foundations and human roots break through concrete and brick, but are always made of flesh.

Here are the people carrying their houses on their backs. Their houses are worthless, stripped, and flammable. Their backs are dark with tendons.

Faced with losing their houses, the people tend to imagine the two as inseparable. Here are their tendons grown up through the foundation: concrete block, stone, brick, woven of the same material, which in human terms is always flesh.
A pound of flesh for a pound of a house. In a vacuum chamber, each pound would plummet at the same rate: house of feathers, house of lead. In an antigravity chamber, we would all be laughing at the daily news of falling houses and the tendencies of people to mistake them for asteroids.

Feathers and lead and antigravity.

And so what does one discover at the end of her games? There will be a punchline, a circular end to the tightly coiled riddles (or equations) that will take the holographic-seismic shifty-world and crank it up one last time, so that each ends with a boom, some louder than others.

And just then, another beginning comes along to crash itself into what’s (sort of) offered a moment of clarity; made a bit of sense. Take “Fishmonger”:

In the domain of the dead, my father apprentices to the fishmonger, private counselor to recent suicides.

There, it’s all about self-preservation, which my father models by packing the newly dead in rows on ice in that giant display case in the sky. Now, if only a good fish would come along and take his dead home as companions for their winsome fry.

Once again, a proverbial rug has been pulled out from under me as I try to reconcile 1) a domain of the dead; 2) a fishmonger as a private counselor to recent suicides; 3) newly dead fish that are packed in rows in a giant display case in the sky; and 4) fish ending up at fish fries, which now seem a horrible fate for suicidal fish. I can keep my footing if I remember that Cray’s is a game of scale and juxtaposition. Take this sliver from the last entry of this askew map, Placeholders:

… They didn’t have our brand of cornflakes, but the Loch Ness Monster nevertheless coaxed gentle souls toward Scotland. We didn’t get a raise that year, but banners flapped over Japan, the tattered flags burned to a white dust. We didn’t venture out though the waves beckoned to us, bearing the great barnacles shoreward. We didn’t overcook the rice, but still the volcano indulged its temper and the orangutan nursed its third child. We didn’t get the tickets, but the weeds grew tall and the leggy flowers taller, carousing with the winds of late October. We didn’t conceive a child that year, but stars magnetized the air, turning the molten compost of the earth.

Parking the images of cornflakes next to the Loch Ness Monster; the mundanity of not getting a raise one year against the image of tattered flags flapping over a burned Japan, hits in a rhythmic way that is both satisfying and logic-defying. When a line creeps up that announces “a child wasn’t conceived that year, but stars magnetized the air,” something beautiful and true gets the chance to collide with the rest of the ruckus, the effect of pulling the whole piece into a deeper place that tugs and won’t let go.

At times, the riddles wouldn’t crack for me. Some pieces felt more experimental and opaque, which frustrated this reader. Still, the desire to revisit them led me back, as if to a crossword puzzle whose solution hinges on a foreign clue.

Rachel Aydt
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