Animal Children, by Hugh Behm-Steinberg. Oakland, California: Nomadic Press, January 2020. 65 pages. $12.00, paper.
Note I Feverishly Add 12 Hours Before the Speech
In front of Death and everyone, I bury the lede in the mirror: “What sort of book is this? Is it poetry? Fiction? Something else? So a good jumping off point might be to examine the idea of genre, starting with asking the class how they know something is a poem? How do they know something is a story?”
Death reads Animal Children by Hugh Behm-Steinberg: “In the introduction Hugh quips, What’s great about fiction is that it’s fiction.”
“There’s an introduction?”
“Nifty conclusion, too.” Death winks.
“… room in all those extra words to observe and describe,” Death continues. I get up. My hand dies, I cry into my cereal. The cereal rubs aloe on spoonfuls of grapefruit. “It’s all a dream, baby-doll. Breath aloes forth from the hilltops.”
I lift Animal Children. “What’s story?” I yell.
The pages flop in rivers, rivulets. Death grabs a dust-mote I’ve been meaning to get, sails it from the window, over the city. It kills one million people.
Brandishing a raw fish, Character demands, “Build me!”
Panicked, I grab Behm-Steinberg. “I wait in the office, me and my owl.”
“Oh, I like that,” says Character. “Like that mucho.”
“I’m writing in my notebook: characters, backgrounds, plot points and world building, but nothing makes sense. ‘You need to eat more mice,’ my owl says. ‘Three each day. Isn’t that enough?’ I ask, grinding my teeth.”
The fish is falling asleep. I skip ahead, hoping for less climax: “‘Your novel is waiting for you,’ my owl tells me. ‘It’s so beautiful; it shimmers with moonlight. You just need to eat more mice.’”
“Characters deserve more poets.” Character yawns, rubbing peanut butter and jelly on its crotch. I sing a sonata.
Eight Hours Before the Speech on Hugh Behm-Steinberg, Poet-Prosist.
“Behm-Steinberg’s a diversion-artist,” I say in the mirror.
“A slightly out-of-focus motel room, Behm-meister will lead us, lust-soaked for foreplay. Hugh’s an oaken-pilon for the mind’s arousal cortex. Examine this, from his ‘Nature:’”
“‘Why aren’t you pregnant yet?’ Nature keeps asking; you keep making excuses. Finally, you say, ‘I think we should see other people,’ wondering if Nature will sulk like all your other ex’s. Nature says, ‘I’m way ahead of you.’ ‘What do you mean?’ you say.”
Gets you dripping, right? “What the fuck?” the fish, awake, might say. Dancing in low oxygen, B.-S. does what he does best—unplug the carbon monoxide detector when we came in, kidding—gives you an “awe” moment:
“‘I’m seeing everybody already,’ Nature says. ‘I just want you to be who you already are.’ ‘Call me when you want to hook up again,’ says Nature, that bringer of all gifts.”
I grab the clock. Petrified.
Four Hours Before Speech
I climb the mountain. To be alone. Death’s there, spouting eulogisms: “‘You get to be other people, and you get to put words in the mouths of all sorts of beings, human and others.’”
I counter, with Behm-Steinberg’s “The Sea:”
“At the reading everyone falls asleep. The reader, initially dismayed, forges ahead anyway. If not awake, then in dreams, maybe something will stick. The audience snaps awake. ‘Were we snoring?’ they ask.”
“Can I have a bit of that cereal?” asks Death, looking at the bowl.
“That which you resist is what’s calling you.”
That’s nice, I think. Grabbing a sunbeam I float away.
“Another way is to imagine genre as a field (a big circle on the chalkboard) where … the closer to the center … everyone agrees that what we have is a poem … the closer … to the edge, well that’s where the weirdness starts.”
This is ridiculous. 10,000 words. I haven’t gotten anywhere. More words than Behm-Steinberg’s whole oeuvre. How does he do it? Maybe remove the bit about lust-soaked foreplay?
“Why might a writer want to be on the edge? Then pull back: What purpose do genre labels like poetry and fiction serve for readers and writers. How might they shape our expectations before we even begin reading?”
I smoked the fish, with alder wood, the fish is now broken into bits, rolled tightly in a tobacco leaf. I smoke it again.
An Hour Before the Speech
Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s held hostage. Part of him. I forgot four years of dry-cleaning was in the car. So I only fit his Heart. I figured, of Hugh’s many sparkling features, it would have secrets.
“What should I say?” I shake the Heart, frantically, for affect. It slings blood on the carpet.
“Write down a sentence that describes a dilemma:” Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s Heart says, “a problem to be solved or an obstacle to be overcome. Pass this to your right … write another sentence that responds, but in a weird, indirect way that makes things worse. Pass it along to the right.”
I eat the heart.
Now I’ll know.
I get a stomach ache, fall to the ground. Hugh Behm-Steinberg leaps from my ribcage.
Hugh, at the Speech
The audience can’t believe it.
The bill said Taylor Dumptree, or some crap like that, now Behm-Affleck is assaulting their eye-goggles with his professor flesh. He addresses the audience, standing in a weird, indirect way:
“I’m a horse … I leap the fence, and am surrounded by toddlers in awe of me. Of course, I’m a horse, enormous and calm; I let them pet me. I’ll be their secret, I breathe deeply as only a horse can, and the children are so happy.”
The audience roars. They carry him on their shoulders.
He kills one million people.
Startles me from my reverie, “What am I?”
“Hmm,” I say, puzzled.
I thought I knew.
Fiction standing in the park, surrounded by woods like a river. “The mayors go for a walk, and your mom walks along with them, and she takes you with her, so you’re walking with the mayors too.”
“That could be a start,” I offer.
When I get home Death is waxing its underarms. Next time I run into Fiction, I’ll give it Animal Children. Take some of its load.
Share a bit of mine.
That book made me feel better. I’m not even mad I’m dead.
Tyler Dempsey got to fly into space to save our planet. He got the girl. No. Wait. Bruce Willis. Armageddon. Find his stories here, or him rambling @tylercdempsey.