Microtones by Robert Vaughan
Červená Barva Press, 2013
Robert Vaughan’s Microtones is a gorgeous chapbook full of lovely little pages, poetry, and flash fiction—flashes of brilliance delivered with full poetic license. Those familiar with Vaughan’s work will know he doesn’t shy away from the heart of a matter. Take the poem “Turbidity,” for instance. It begins simply (and shallowly) enough:
Holidays are hard:
I’m going to take
a walk, escape the
silence of this house
But the poem continues, like Vaughan’s work often does, with implications of something much darker and significantly deeper than a cursory glance might suggest. What sort of escape is necessary here? What noise does the blanket of silence aim to cover? Vaughan poses questions that leave his reader on the edge of uncertainty… always wondering whether we dare seek the answers or leave those questions be.
My heart beats someone
up the stairwell
The poem “Before and After” begins with these two wonderful visual lines, the split between them perfectly placed to introduce the contrasts among many possibilities. Does my heart beat someone up? Is it violent and aggressive? Is someone a victim here? Does my heart beat while someone ascends the staircase, joining with their physical experience and rush of adrenaline? Is someone loved and supported while on the rise? Is there an encouraging drumbeat happening here, voluntarily, or a body’s uncontrolled accompaniment? Or is this simply the sound of a noisy witness? The nine lines that follow aim to answer those questions with only hints and whispers. And yet, those hints and whispers satisfy the reader of this poem with an unexpected sense of resolution – remarkable, really, when one considers the way Vaughan’s poetry offers chinks and cracks as points of access more than any form of hearty welcome. With poetry, it’s the subtleties that move us most, and Vaughan’s poems and flash fictions unselfconsciously invite eager glimpses into these astonishing subtleties.
“Summer of ‘66” offers a wonderful metaphor – the kind of line that separates Vaughan from lesser writers and that drives home the eight lines of this piece of flash fiction beautifully. “You had to cut through a mackerel forest of pretence that grew thicker, compressed with each additional day.” This is a complicated, salty, fish-smelling relationship we are reading of here, dense as trees, both natural and unnatural in every way. Vaughan captures it all, with humor and compassion and without a single wasted word. Sometimes he thwarts convention and delivers a punchline in the middle of a piece, allowing building lines to follow and clarify after-the-fact. “Buried” is another piece of flash fiction that plays with sequence in this way – something only a very confident writer can do successfully. Robert Vaughan does it well.
The final piece of the collection ends, as Vaughan’s individual works often do, with sadness and poignancy, a dysfunctional family, alcoholism, and still, a nod at American writing’s first love with any ending—hope. Well worth the time one will take to savor this work, reading and re-reading it often.