A Jellyfish for Every Name, by David Rawson. ELJ Publications. Paperback, $14.99, paper.
Thought-provoking, ethereally haunting, and at time, surreal, David Rawson’s A Jellyfish for Every Name presents readers with five short stories that explore human nature at its rawest and most intriguing moments.
The collection opens with “Touch Me,” which centers around seventeen-year-old Moses’ innocence and longing. In his adolescence, he wants only two things: to “make love to Annie Oakley Jones” and to “know more about the ocean’s creatures.” The entire story is one of exploration, both of Moses’ understanding of sexuality and his obsession with life in the ocean. The pairing of these themes are so uniquely balanced together that the ocean not only begins to function as a womb, giving space to thoughts of life and love, but also allows room for Moses to bury his sexual guilt into its depths. Amid all of this, darker moments rise up to the surface. You learn of Moses’ absent father and his mother’s miscarriage. By the end, you are left feeling as though you are peering over the edge of a cliff, staring into an uncanny and mysterious ocean, ready to fall in.
Moses will be a recurring character in “Whatever You Like” and the title story, “A Jellyfish for Every Name,” which both dive deeply into Moses’ navigation of his adolescence, relationship with his mother, and burgeoning sexuality. If you thought that biblical forces of good and evil, existential philosophy, and a spelling bee couldn’t be contained within a single thirteen-page short story, then you thought wrong. “A Jellyfish for Every Name” skillfully accomplishes all this and more, requiring readers to reflect on larger themes, such as the powerful forces of the universe and the interconnectedness of the past with the future.
Yet Dawson also presents us with two seemingly unrelated short stories: “Alligator Wine” and “Taking Home the Queen.” In “Alligator Wine,” two women communicate through an alligator puppet, delicately illuminating the fractured experiences of human relationships. Rawson’s skills as a writer lie in his use of language. Images are carefully chosen, extracted with a certain precision. When the protagonist from “Taking Home the Queen” receives a new mother from the federal agency, he describes their encounter as follows:
She asked my brother and me if we could feel the sorrow in our marrow. We nodded and traced the flow through our bodies, from our heart out to our arms to our fists, from our heart to our crotches to our chubby legs. The new mother had a set of lips on every finger. She would grab me by the arm, and I would feel each set of lips bite a tiny bite, each creating a small puncture, and the lips would suck the sorrow out. Unavoidably, blood was lost, but she was careful not to drink too much.
Dawson’s writing is fantastic and surreal, woven together with the kind of poetic language that makes you want to read sentences twice. A Jellyfish for Every Name presents us with the oddities, curiosities, and complexities of human relationships and the human psyche. The stories themselves are strange, yet familiar. The entire collection is one that will leave you feeling as if you have just stared at your own reflection through the glassy surface of some unexplored ocean.
Mercedes Lucero is a writer whose prose and poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Curbside Splendor, Printers Row Journal, Whitefish Review, Kalyani Magazine, Burner Magazine and many other journals. She has also been awarded “Best Piece of Prose” in Canvas, a literary journal, and her short story, “Memories I Cannot Recall,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She recently launched Spectrum Extract, an art and literary magazine dedicated to those with autism and developmental disabilities. She holds a BA in English Literature from Missouri Western State University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Northwestern University. She is currently pursuing her PhD in English at the University of Kansas.