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One of the most marvelous qualities art has is that it inspires more art. It’s self-propagating. Sometimes its lineage is direct, and other times it’s obscured, but it’s always the gift that keeps on giving. The groundbreaking album The Velvet Underground & Nico, Brian Eno famously observed, only sold 30,000 copies initially, but everyone who bought one started a band. And the music mutated and grew into something different. Similarly, author Miah Jeffra uses everything from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Madonna’s “Holiday” as springboards for the highly personal essays that comprise The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic!.
As with any collection, some pieces will work better for each individual reader than others and for me, this didn’t really get started until the third essay in, “Otherwise.” Although I didn’t know the subject of the ekphrasis (Joan Brown’s Noel in the Kitchen), I was taken with this short but vivid exploration of the senses, ending in a pointed question. “Latitudes,” although it doesn’t list a work, amplifies a snapshot of the author’s mother during a road trip – an unsentimental, unsparing portrait in words of a relationship captured on film. “Just One Day Out of a Life” is a smartly observed, Jean Shepard-ish childhood memory of butterscotch candies and Christmas at the mall with a farting Santa.
Childhood figures prominently in many of these essays, particularly the author’s relationship with his mother. The most interesting familial aspect, however, is a fictional sister, Shenandoah, the narrator invents. Although her creation is never directly addressed in detail, she weaves ghost-like, in and out of most of the narrator’s childhood anecdotes until you wonder whether or not his brother was wrong when he finally calls the author on it and insists she never existed. It almost seems like an affront by this time.
But Jeffra certainly isn’t stuck in that time frame. “Trying to Shove Ourselves Back Together” is a treatise on gender expression, “A Miracle of Miracles” takes on childbirth, “The Treachery” is about white Jesus, and “The Being of Such an Unlikely Thing” even directly references Jean Shepard and his infamous one-legged lamp. From the author’s letter to Keith Haring (“Make Sure to See the Exit Door”) to the perfection of a Zen garden (“The 15th Rock”), Jeffra consults his experiences for answers to the big questions, usually finding more questions.
For all the philosophizing, this collection works best when it keeps an eye on the personal. One of my favorite Carl Rogers quotes is, “What is most personal is most universal,” and I’ve always tried to keep that uppermost in my own writing. Jeffra has also absorbed that dictum, as illustrated in the final piece, “The Shape of Gratitude,” which is about his wedding. It’s one of the more prosaic essays here and certainly breaks no ground in either subject or form, but its overall effect is that of a glance into the very heart of a life. Its simplicity is exquisite, and the last line is as pithy a summation as anyone could possibly wish: I wanted, more than anything, to be honest.
And it’s that honesty that makes The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic! a great read.
© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler