Some books, including some of the best, must teach you how to read them as you read them. They are so differently conceived or composed or assembled that they defy almost every reader’s expectations and thus are likely to cause frustration, unless the reader can successfully be tutored by the book to change those expectations. Even if this happens, of course, it doesn’t guarantee the reader will love the book, but it certainly guarantees an intellectual experience the reader will long remember. Half Out Where, by Joseph Aguilar, is just such a volume. Not only does it defy a reader’s expectations, but it also defies categorization altogether. Nowhere on the title page or the table of contents or the acknowledgments is the book referred to as prose or poetry; its contents are not identified as either stories or poems. And this is fitting, because the entire collection is at all times both and neither. Some of the poems in the book read like stories; some of the stories move like poems. What carries the book almost exclusively is its distinctive language: elusive, suggestive, imagistic, and rhythmical. It’s recursive while at the same time defying logic. When you reach the end of a segment, you may not know exactly what that segment said to you, but you know you stopped several times along the way to say “Wow.”
Aguilar’s—or the publisher’s—refusal to characterize the book is cagey indeed, because while this refusal creates friction with one’s expectations, it also makes one read more attentively. After all, with a book of poems, especially a book of difficult poetry, the reader does not look for a through plot but expects to take each word, each phrase, and each line for itself, on its own terms. With a book of fiction, a reader typically expects clearly defined story structures and outcomes. Given that many of Aguilar’s poems appear to be dramas broken into several parts, the reader cannot simply read them for the pleasure of each line but tries to perceive, or maybe invent, connections between the parts. And given that Aguilar’s stories are fragmented, half-dreamy, and mostly absurdist, the reader cannot simply read them as fiction but must leisure over them slowly, savoring their language and their only semilogical leaps. This demands a great deal more attention—and wisdom—on the part of the reader than most books do. The reader ends up playing full participant in the final affect generated by any poem or story; part of the standard enterprise of postmodernism and what accounts for the greater part of the satisfaction of reading Half Out Where.
Aguilar front-loads the book’s difficulty by opening with a triad of longish and almost plotless narrative poems that together form a group titled “3 Meadows.” The three poems are similar enough in aesthetics to warrant being gathered together as one object, but they are by no means identical. Each of the three operates differently on the page and with speakers that are not necessarily the same. The most striking piece in the group was the opening poem, “Constant Meadow.” Though there are repeating characters and situations in the poem, it is the words themselves, with Aguilar’s canny and careful use of repetition, that create the real links, both from segment to segment and within the body of a single segment. A sample of one segment shows the musical nature of this word repetition and the sometimes stunning leaps Aguilar can make from subject to subject within the same small space:
I drowse water and mark its groove for gold. I remember how to erect a cone with no structure. You misconstrue structure. You try the path to the stranger’s bench. You state your timid and familiar statement. The stepfather drools in the rain. The rain is magic.
The following two poems in the group, “Transient Meadow” and “Infinite Meadow” make similar leaps in logic, without overt repetition from segment to segment but sometimes within one segment. From “Transient Meadow”:
Who’s the dong. What’s yellow and. How many naps. What has gaggle. Why did she caution. How did. Why did load. What did give. How do you tell. What’s the dong between the two …
Such tightly constructed fragments are a pleasure for the mouth and the brain—requiring attention, yes, but releasing one’s mind into the words themselves—their physical texture and sound.
The second half of the book contains more prosaic pieces, none very long, some short enough to qualify as microfictions. All are in the first person. While there is more of a story quality to these pieces, the tones of the first person speakers are similar to those of the poems: blunt, wry, and quietly declamatory. Meanwhile, the speakers themselves have no particular identity, backstory, or even personality. Many of these pieces are reminiscent of Donald Barthelme in their playful humor and absurdity. An exception would be “Her Ideas at Night,” in which an unnamed character relays what a certain unnamed woman would think about if she found out she had three months to live, then one month, then one day, then five minutes. A deeply affecting story, it breathily summons and endorses the beauty of the physical world. But more typical are pieces like “A Manual for Janitors,” which describes a ridiculously elaborate hierarchy of janitorial types and behaviors; also “Poles,” the final piece in the book, which attempts to offer an explanation for the sudden appearance of tall metal poles in the streets and driveways of an unnamed “research suburb.” The story borders on the magic realist but seems in the end more like absurdist sci-fi. Similar to the poems, however, because these pieces don’t contain conventional fictional characters and arcs and explanations, the reader is finally thrown back upon Aguilar’s language itself, which I am happy to report borders on the masterful.
Half Out Where, by Joseph Aguilar. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Caketrain, September 2014. 156 pages. $9.00, paper.
John Vanderslice hails from southern Maryland, specifically the eccentric community of Moyaone. He has an MFA in Poetry Writing from George Mason University and a PhD in English from the University of Louisisana-Lafayette. He lives in Conway, Arkansas, where he is Associate Professor at the University of Central Arkansas, teaching fiction writing, poetry writing, and nonfiction writing both to undergraduates and to graduate students in the Arkansas Writers MFA Workshop. He also serves as an associate editor of Toad Suck Review magazine.