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  • Bent Eyeglasses
  • James R. Hugunin (bio)
Claim to Oblivion
Yuriy Tarnawsky
JEF Books
278 Pages; Print, $17.00

If it doesn't bring you pleasure, don't write it!

—Yuriy Tarnawsky in "Interview with AD Jameson"

Induced coma is increasingly common in medical procedures. Patients lapsing back to real time claim it's a sweet space. Coma-land.

—Harold Jaffe, Induced Coma: 50 & 100 Word Stories

What does it mean to break a rule, "to put oneself into a 'dream-producing' mood to loosen the restrictions placed on your mind by the real-life way of thinking?" Experimental writer of poetry, drama, fiction, and translations, Yuriy Tarnawsky (b. 1934) asks such in his book, Claim to Oblivion: Selected Essays and Interviews. He urges writers to break the conventions of realist, plotted fiction, bending language out of shape like "bent eyeglasses" that have been sat upon. But to do so is to risk "oblivion" in terms of money, reputation, and audience. It is a risk he, over his long career, has been willing to take, for oblivion can also suggest the "induced coma" à la Harold Jaffe (also a writer of "small fiction") that removes the strictures of waking life, inducing a surreality that Tarnawky's odd characters inhabit.

From what he calls "Heuristic Poetry" (as seen in the collection Modus Tollens [2013] its title referring to deductive reasoning with negation) with its IPDs ("improvised poetic devices"), to this self-taught writer's short stories in Short Tails (2011) with their fragmented and stilted syntax, to "Screaming" and "Pavarotti/Agamemnon," two of sixteen "mininovels"(fifteen are collected in The Placebo Effect Trilogy [2013]), so called by the author as they employ a verbal "jump cuts" across scenes, maximizing reader interpretation and avoiding plot which he sees as too artificial, to constricting: "Life is a series of loosely bound events rather than a spring of tightly connected ones like those in the chain reaction in a nuclear explosion . . . . Imagination is so much more powerful than real life. It is the same way that dreams reflect reality."

Dreams play an important role in his aesthetic; the opening essay in this collection discusses Andre Breton and Comte de Lautréamont in relation to Freud and mentions Spanish surrealism as a major influence as well. But Tarnawsky reveals that the strongest outside influences on his writing has come from visual sources, visits to New York's Museum of Modern Art to view Dali, De Chirico, Tanguy, and Picasso. In another essay, "Adapting Static Images to Narration," he details using photographs as raw material for narratives that riff on the chosen still image. In his Short Tails (where titles were used as prompts) there is a short piece titled "Photographs," the impetus for which was Diane Arbus's well-known photograph "A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents, The Bronx, NY, 1970." The story is a play off of this image, always stressing uncertainty over the man's identity: "The man looks young, in his early twenties, but he could be younger, even eighteen . . . . The man's unnaturally light-colored eyes—probably sky-blue in reality—look also unnaturally round, and there is a strange, inappropriate air of vivacity and gaiety on his face indicating a possible incipient, or perhaps actual, senility, perhaps brought on by Alzheimer disease." The author goes on to discuss twelve other photographs not related pictorially to Arbus's image, but prompted by it, "in a mixture of description and analysis" during which the author continues to destabilize certainty, opening the text to various interpretations by the reader.

If you've not read Tarnawsky before, this book is a superb introduction. It is also a must-read for students of writing. It would make an excellent text for a MFA-level writing class, opening up a space for teachers and students to examine what language can do and what literary models one might learn from. The discussions, assisted by generous amounts of citation from the works under discussion, suggest exercises the instructor could task students with to enlarge their experience of their craft; although, the author asserts one can't really teach creativity—"I am uneasy about...


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pp. 42-43
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