Writings from the prize-winning author of The Divers’ Game: “Reading Ball feels a little like stumbling into an M.C. Escher print.” —Chicago Tribune
This volume by experimental writer Jesse Ball is a philosophical recasting of myth and legend. Employing an eerie narrative simplicity, these always-unpredictable poems are cautionary tales of the oppressiveness of monolithic culture on the development of artistic, philosophical, and political leadership. Alternating from the personal to the public, Ball attains a wide enough vantage to observe the cowardliness of historians in their refusal to ascribe causality. Unearthing parables from the compost heap of oral tradition, folklore, literature, and popular culture, this book projects shadows of figures we think we recognize: Helen Keller, Pompeii, Ellis Island, Houdini, Lazarus, the Pied Piper, Punch and Judy, Hawthorne, Shirley Jackson, and more.
Comprised of three separate “volumes,” The Village on Horseback creates an entirely original world of interrelated characters, with a mix of references, allusions, evocations—the result being a sort of Brueghel-esque feel—and yet there’s also a self-conscious acknowledgment of modernity as well as a questioning of the “authority” of the author in determining meaning. At times evoking Gorey, Chaucer, and the tale of Robin Hood, these fables, ghost stories, and riddles of human nature dissect the individual’s interaction with “culture,” particularly commenting on the ascribing of meaning by communal groups resulting in “truth-making,” and the limitations of our leaders (artists, philosophers, politicians) in their ability to break us out of communal indoctrination.
Ball's superb new volume is strange, haunting, and wise, but hard to characterize: it's an omnibus of new short works and a compendious introduction to an imaginary preindustrial land, with its own folkways, myths, and codes of honor, in two great novellas, one wise long poem, many worse short ones, and a brace of thoughtful, harsh flash fiction. One novella ("Pieter Emily") offers a graceful, sharp update on Irish stories of faerie temptation; the other, "The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp and Carr," is a fable of youthful honor and cosmic injustice. Both stories ask how the real world can ever compete with the invented codes of art. The two novellas' shared motifs duelists, false dreams, fruitless missions, confusion between natural and human law recur in the final long poem, "The Skin Feat," whose titular accomplishment becomes a disappearing act: "Your mother sews you into a blanket./ Your father adjusts his hat./ The town gathers to see you off." Such mysteriously useless missions, frustrating symbols and unsolved mysteries enter prose sketches at the front of the book, where "That lamp which stands between ourselves and a brighter lamp often seems less like a lamp and more like a hooded man."