-Reviewed by Ian Chung–
Thieves Jargon is a monthly online literary journal that has been running for nearly seven years now, producing more than 200 issues in that time. An in-house press has also been set up, which publishes work by writers who have been featured in Thieves Jargon. Their editorial manifesto lists an eclectic range of influences, including among others, Charles Bukowski, William S. Burroughs, Roald Dahl, Dahiell Hammett, and Stephen King. In the case of Issue #205, it seems that a good deal of the featured work is in the vein of the first two writers’ (for lack of a better phrase) transgressive mode, which understandably may put some potential readers off.
This would be unfortunate, however, as there are some strong pieces in this issue. One such is Adam Moorad’s ‘Saint Luc’, an effective example of how a writer can set his readers up to expect a story’s given scenario to play out in a certain way, only to entirely subvert that midway through. Moorad’s story opens with a couple in a hotel, expecting a baby (‘”I feel more pregnant than before,” Trudi said.’), and also apparently waiting for a wedding dress to be delivered (‘”I’m from bridal shop,” he said. “Prince et Princesse. You called about a dress?”’). I will not elaborate on what they actually receive because that would be a big spoiler, but I will say the revelation has the effect of completely changing how one perceives the characters and their situation, with the matter-of-fact narration now becoming rather chilling:
‘I read the French Do Not Disturb sign and looped it around the doorknob. Then I closed the door and set the bucket down on the dresser.
“I guess there’s no turning back now,” she said, and she took a sip of cola.
We squirreled around for a while, and I waited.’
Kristine Ong Muslim’s flash fiction, ‘Quarter of a Body’, is also a highly effective example of the form. Its content would seem to put it squarely in the body horror genre (‘This time, that missing part, the fourth one shunned since birth, would have grown limbs by now.’), but in the space of just over 100 words, the flash evolves into an incisive comment on society and its inability to welcome what falls outside its own norms: ‘A creature this unstructured is built to last. It will look for the other three-fourths, the one accepted by society, the one which had a mother and a father just like the ones before it. Soon, it will learn to identify its prey. Soon, it will want a name.’
The poetry featured in Issue #205 also deals with themes that readers new to Thieves Jargon may not appreciate encountering. Gary Shipley is a first-time contributor to the literary journal, whose poem ‘Gunning on Empty’ is stunning in the way it combines imagery that is startlingly violent and yet productive of a macabre humour. Consider these lines from the poem:
‘Our depression was never sold in stores.
The idea was always an antiseptic gadget.
I went to see the tourists get gored:
It’s a meticulous way of being human.’
It is hard to deny that the idea of watching tourists being gored as a demonstration of one’s humanity is profoundly disturbing, but the violence of the sentiment is already somewhat undercut by a deadpan line like ‘Our depression was never sold in stores’. Depending on how you look at it, that line is either very funny or very sad. Possibly both. Regardless, it is part of a series of strong images that make the poem memorable reading.
On the other hand, veteran contributor Carl Miller Daniels’s poems embody a frank, in-your-face homoerotic sensibility that has been described in an interview linked from his biographical note as ‘pornographic willy-nillyness’. This is pretty accurate, since Daniels cannot seem to get away from phrases like ‘the sexy naked big-dicked college boy’ in the poem ‘that’s his summer diet’, hammering it home four times as if afraid the reader would miss it the first. The effect is unsubtle to the point of being not so much shocking as boring. What is frustrating is that Daniels’s poems do contain the potential to say something beyond the obvious, i.e. men masturbate. For example, although ‘nesting’ begins typically with ‘two cute big-dicked young men’, the next line is ‘climb into bed together’. When further on ‘one guy pretends to remain asleep / while the other guy is busily / jerking off beside him’, that earlier ‘together’ certainly seems to beg the question, why this pretence? Something more is being hinted at here, but as it never gets developed further, the poem literally subsides into an opaque, post-coital ‘silence’.
Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with writing gay erotic poems. In the manifesto though, the editors quote Beckett: Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness. Judged by this standard, it is hard to argue for Daniels’s work as being necessary, since it tends to read more like the stuff of pornographic wish-fulfilment. So if you want my personal advice in this case? Skip these poems and read something by Thom Gunn or Mark Doty instead, who write more satisfying (and sexier) gay-themed poetry. The rest of Thieves Jargon Issue #205, however, is definitely still worth having a look at. The writing is likely to polarise readers, but I would say that is an achievement to be proud of in any case.