Book Reviews · 03/12/2012

We Bury the Landscape by Kristine Ong Muslim


Queen's Ferry Press, 2012

It isn’t everyday a book offers two very different ways of reading. The first: intensely personal, sometimes bewildering and yet rigorously demanding in terms of creative participation, and the second: intellectual, research-based and analytical, but also a call to a communal multi-genre artistic experience. These two different methods are on offer in Kristine Ong Muslim’s collection of micro fictions We Bury the Landscape, an assemblage of very short ekphrastic pieces.

Ekphrasis is an intellectually rigorous form in that it requires engagement in two mediums, the art object that inspires the writing and the writing itself. Ekphrasis is most often a form of homage, but involves explication and adding nuance. It can also be subversive, a way to transform a generally accepted understanding of a work of art into something novel or contrary. In this sense it becomes a form of translation and interpretation.

What is interesting about Muslim’s collection (and no doubt the result of a logistical consideration) is that the original pieces, the art that inspired each fiction, are not immediately available to the reader. Depending on the reader’s artistic background, some, or even many, of the pieces may not be easily called to mind. This separates the piece from its ekphrastic purpose. Forces it to stand alone. A first method of reading the book.

For example, here is Muslim’s “Rivalerne and Shelving:”

We do not know what they are, yet still they insist that they are just beautiful girls having their time in the sun. When girls evolve into wooden cupboards with long legs and perfect breasts, this is not the time to complain. So we let these girls be. Their wooden torsos creak when they walk, crack along the grain when they race to catch the train. They do not ride elevators. All the stairs and ladders in the world bend under their weight. Sometimes, they catch fire and are beyond help. Sometimes, their salvageable contents spill before the flames can reach them. As we watch them die, we imagine rearranging their tangled red hair, putting something on their empty, slowly burning shelves, inhaling the sawdust of their last breaths.

Read in a void, without access to a reproduction of the original painting, Georg Broe’s Rivalerne, the reader is drawn inside this surreal landscape—the enigmatic description of these girls, the curious metaphor of transformation, the beauty of that last line, the whispered bewilderment/awe of the communal narrator. This is already an intense and full reading experience. This speculative land of wooden women, susceptible to instant conflagration is a mystery worth considering.

But by looking at the original—a blue landscape with strolling surreal figures—we discover that Muslim has worked a subtle explication in her piece, has given a life to Broe’s strange women, but she has gone further than explication, she has written a future for them, even created a death unforeshadowed by Broe.

In another instance, between Muslim’s “Abandoned Dwellings” and Vladimir Kush’s piece of the same name, the connection is somewhat more tenuous. Muslim avoids explication here and uses Kush’s piece solely as inspiration. The result is obviously less dependent on the reader having any knowledge of Kush’s original piece:

What we always leave behind is an unrecorded catalogue of the things that went wrong. There’s the depression of a window on the unpainted side of a house. There’s that book filled with bluebird, filled with woodchips, filled with nightmares, filled with burned-out lamp bulbs and mismatched socks. And if we have said something in the past, we have said nothing at all. So trudging along, we bury the landscape underfoot. We move from one shell to the next, leaving by the side of the road a litter of colorful husks. We travel light, and everywhere we go, there’s an entire universe of abandoned dwellings.

I’m not trying to suggest that either way of reading these pieces proves more satisfactory than the other. Some of these fictions are more dependent on seeing the original, some stand completely and breathtakingly alone. The double exercise is fascinating, however, because it offers a three-way collaborative reading: the reader responds to Muslim’s textual creation, the reader engages with the original art, and finally, the reader is invited to make connections between the two.

The reader will undoubtedly have her own reaction to each piece of art, so what Muslim gives us is the start of a conversation. And she gives us one hundred of these vibrant and extraordinary little worlds, one hundred openings for discussion with her and her fictional response.

The mention of “bury the landscape” from the second example provided above should not go unnoticed. Here is the reference piece for Muslim’s title, a fitting description for a book that takes its genesis from a collection of surreal and enchanting landscapes. Muslim is, in a sense, burying these original pieces beneath new structures of words and images. There is a feeling of reinventing the artist’s supposed intention, a daring, even risky endeavor, but one that Muslim accomplishes with much grace.

The variety of emotional experience is broad. Some of these micro fictions are dense and serious, others light. Some inspire curiosity, others elicit an immediate emotional response. Some pieces are even delightfully opaque. The minimalist “Bathyscaphe,” for example, inspired by Jacek Yerka’s painting of the same name:

We dream of fish that are invisible and can never be caught. We dream of seas, too. Waters too perilous to allow the invisible fish to exist.

There are several layers of impossibility in these three lines. A sliver of prose poetry to be read, pondered and untangled. A look at the original confirms Muslim’s insightful eye as she has based her piece on the single most baffling, wonderfully inscrutable element in Yerka’s painting: the potential of the perfectly ordinary bed.

This is not a book to be devoured in one sitting but best savored slowly. Take these a piece a day, one hundred days of fantastical word creations, one hundred reasons to consider/reconsider a piece of art. One hundred conversations just waiting to begin.

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Kristine Ong Muslim has authored many chapbooks, most recently Night Fish (Shoe Music Press/Elevated Books, 2011) and Smaller Than Most (Philistine Press, 2011). Her short fiction and poetry have been published in hundreds of magazines, journals, and anthologies, including Bellevue Literary Review, Boston Review, Hobart, Existere, Narrative Magazine, Sou’wester, The Pedestal Magazine, and Verse Daily. She has received multiple nominations for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Web 2011, and the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s Rhysling Award. Her work also has garnered several Honorable Mentions in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Her online home is http://kristinemuslim.weebly.com.

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Michelle Bailat-Jones is a writer and translator living in Switzerland. Her fiction, translations and reviews have appeared in various journals, including Ascent, The Kenyon Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Atticus Review, Necessary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, Cerise Press and Fogged Clarity. She is the Reviews Editor here at Necessary Fiction.