Ports of Entry
By Caridad Svich
At the Damascus Gate:
By Elana Greenfield
Green Integer, 116 pp.
A corrosive, beautiful and delicate book of short stories, poems, and
brief dramatic pieces, Elana Greenfield's At the Damascus Gate:
Short Hallucinations enters a reader's dream life and refuses to
leave. Walking through Manhattan readers may find themselves repeating
lines from Greenfield's stories to themselves in order to better understand
their place in the contemporary world.
Jane Austen and Debbie Harry
appeared out of its darkness, their arms lightly draped around each
other's waists. (p. 26)
a wanderer who finds himself--herself--once
again, a guest in someone's heart… (p. 36)
day I stopped, here, in the moonlight, where the silver point meets
the narrow vein (p. 45)
Greenfield has an uncanny ear for everyday human
speech, and an alert and agile mind that, like any true poet, is able
to rearrange the contours of the everyday into something exceedingly
strange and familiar. Her short stories, which move like poems, evoke
the labyrinthian worlds of Borges and Carpentier shot through with Nabokovian
wit and despair. Although she brings to mind these and other great writers,
Greenfield's voice is decidedly unique. Her prose shimmers and bites.
Her humor catches the reader off guard and also roots her work inescapably
in the march of the daily in which we are caught on this earth.
This is a rare book--a slim volume that defies description and expectation
at every turn, and as such, is a remarkable achievement, made even more
so by the fact that it is Greenfield's first book. Formerly Director
of Artistic Programs at New Dramatists in New York, and the author of
several plays, Greenfield brings to her prose and poetry the experience,
talent, and skill of someone who has been working in the literary field
a long time. The lucidity of her prose has in it the sharp insight and
observation of a critical thinker, and the detail and freshness of her
dialogue are evident of her craft as a dramatist.
What Greenfield manages to do in the 116 pages
that make up this volume, elegantly published by Doug Messerli's Green
Integer imprint, is to dissect the emotional dilemma of dislocation
that is at the heart of contemporary life. In story after story, poem
after theatrical dialogue, Greenfield weaves a brilliant hybrid, ploy-genre
web of circling, eddying, and ruptured signs that testify to the broken-ness
and subsequent search for wholeness of human wanderers. Devils and soldiers,
balladeers and errant biographers hold court within the pages of this
book to tell their fragmented, hallucinatory tales.
Philosophical in nature and less concerned with
pop culture and its effects than most contemporary fiction, At the
Damascus Gate consciously but without elaborate and ostentatious
artifice acknowledges its place as a text of inquiry, which juxtaposes
local and global concerns as they travel the map of the human heart.
Like the triple gate to the Old City which its title evokes, the stories
in this volume serve as an entrance to a contemporary city: each story,
poem or short play is a meditation on the randomness and organised chaos
of our world. Each voice and dream evoked, and this volume is a collection
of disparate voices ("The Voice of Peer Gynt," "The Voice of the High
Sierra," "The Voice of a Woman in the Desert," etc.) that nevertheless
makes a whole, charts an arc of motion. The voices travel, enchant,
seek revenge, and roam countries and bodies with the jump-cut speed
Curiously in Greenfield's world, despite her
wide-ranging attention to detail in her rigorous and fluid presentation
of cities and states of mind where one can see "an alphabet of dust,"
there is a noticeable absence of disease, or the ravages, physical and
spiritual, of illness and war. Given the fact that the book serves as
a gateway to both the second century Damascus and the contemporary one,
the pin-pricks here are few, subtle, and far between. Although menace
is constant throughout, bloodshed and disturbances of the body are elided;
instead, the focus is on the voices in the air that behave like iron
ghosts for a new age.
The lack of corporeal sensibility in the book,
save for witty sections in the stories "Talent," and "Neutrino Blues,"
has the simultaneous effect of both firmly rooting the text in the present
tense, almost without incident or precedent, and of lifting it into
the reader's unconsciousness; hence the dreaming-and-wandering effect
of the volume I mentioned earlier. A writer as thoughtful and passionate
as Greenfield can surely not be avoiding the body as subject in her
work. Clearly she is asking the reader to leave the body and gravity
behind, and to ponder instead the consequences of dreaming itself. In
the radio play Desire, one of the voices of Lyca "long[s] for
the Bedouins" and "broken pavement . . . leading to the sea." Bound
by an un-named terror, and increasing dread, the desire, then, encapsulated
here, is for unrestricted motion, freedom, and boundarylessness. Under
siege in the past and present, the voices in Desire hope and
pray, even where and when they are not wanted. Greenfield eloquently
elucidates the yearning of the transient being, the stranger/foreigner,
to belong, to be let be, and to be able to seek and find affinity despite
difference or political obstacle. Greenfield's dream, seen in the many
dreams that comprise this powerful book, is one of transcendence, hard-earned
beauty, and perhaps impossible hope.
Let a good silence take us over in our loneliness,
while the flags of many countries move insanely in the wind. (p. 115)
In the voice of At Damascus Gate, Greenfield
asks readers to see beyond themselves, outside themselves and the structures
that bind them, sometimes without their asking, in this world. She asks
us to imagine in a concentrated manner what God's mind might be like
and what the Devil says when we're not listening. She asks us to contemplate
modern panic and anxiety, and to apprehend with caution and skepticism
greed as opposed to desire. She asks so very much, and rightfully so,
for her questions keep us vigilant to what we avoid, dismiss, or neglect
in our lives.