‘Threadbare Fables’ by Ian Seed

-Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey

One definition of ‘fable’ is: ‘a short, allegorical narrative making a moral point.’ As this word is used in the title, I found myself looking for the moral point of each fable.

These unusual prose poems – or fables – appear to be fragmented, but chronological, moments from the life of the narrator. There is something intriguing about the way both his internal and external worlds are revealed; the dislocated thoughts that occur at, say, the moment of spelling the alphabet with one’s tongue across a clitoris. Or the ‘regret mixed with relief’ when his father dies, resolving the difficulty of buying him a suitable birthday present. There is often a detachment, or dissociation of emotion in these poems.

‘Bright and Early’ describes a symbolic Paulo Cuelho-type journey where the narrator finds himself in a village, but: ‘Each morning I couldn’t shake the weariness from my bones to get up and leave.’ In another poem, after his father dies, he tells his companion, ‘We’ll miss the funeral,’ but ‘you sat there in silence, admiring the colours of the vanishing sun, as if I hadn’t spoken.’ This ennui, or inability to act, persists throughout the chapbook, and a sense of melancholy accumulates with gathering force. What happens? What doesn’t happen? During a card game which ‘has its adventures’, her stockinged knees press against mine’. Later, ‘I’m trying in vain to restore a face to my mind.’

Some of the poems/fables appear to be simply anecdotal, and don’t work as well as others. Yet an intangible sense of almost-discovery is experienced in most of them. For example, Ex-Pat describes a mugging by a ‘scrawny youth’ whose ‘eyes were vicious’ but whose ‘lips were pretty and feminine’. There is an erotic undercurrent here: ‘I grabbed him round the neck and wrestled him to the ground. The smell of his sweat was sweet. I held his trembling body against mine until the police arrived.’ Perhaps the experience, which left the narrator wanting to ‘chase after him with the vague idea of making amends’ is that he feels guilt/confusion about his feelings after this encounter. At any rate, there is a quality of mystery here, as with most of the fables.

Many of these random, unresolved encounters describe a moment of potential intimacy or connection that nevertheless fails to develop further. The narrator looks for the house of an old acquaintance he hears is terminally ill, but cannot find it. The jovial friendliness of a neighbour changes over some weeks, becoming hostile, as the narrator suspects him of abusing his young daughter. He meets a man on a train, whose manila folder, left on the table, is spilled, revealing suspicious contents. Yet he accepts a drink from him ‘after only the slightest hesitation.’ At work, the HR man ‘never spoke, but I could feel his gaze linger over me with wistful regret.’

In other pieces, conflicting messages continue to occur. The narrator watches a documentary of a man recovering from a mental illness: ‘He could be swallowed at any moment. Yet his smile radiates confidence.’ In another fable, he is tricked by a statue of the bleeding Christ, which turns out to be ‘a man dressed up’ and begging.

These prose pieces, unadorned by simile or metaphor, are all the more thought-provoking for their simplicity of language and anonymous settings – a train, a travel agent’s, a church, apartment block. There is also a cohesiveness to the mood of the collection, which is an achievement in itself. And yet – what is the lesson to be learned? That we are living in an era of moral ambiguity? Existential angst? That nothing is what it seems? These are the questions I’m left with, and the reason I feel compelled to go back and read the fables again. An unsettling, but interesting chapbook, and I look forward to discovering more work by this poet.

Afric McGlinchey