This entry is by guest post-er Nicki Pombier Berger, writer and founding editor of Underwater New York. Check the site for more information about activities and events surrounding the release of What He’s Poised to Do.
What He’s Poised to Do, Ben Greenman’s fifth collection of short fiction, grew out of Correspondences, a limited-edition art book of stories on the subject of the title, printed postcard-sized, unfolded like letters to read. Greenman’s earlier collections also had an architectural self-awareness, but What He’s Poised to Do sheds this concern with construction. Postmarks for each chapter give a playful nod to the book’s trope, but the connections explored are those between people: how we try or hope or fail to reach one another, and how our attempts reverberate or linger.
In loosening his grip on structure, Greenman loses none of his hold over the reader. Instead, these stories seem informed by the same depth of empathy that last year gave us Rock Foxx, the funk rock front man of the novel Please Step Back, whose fame is so convincing because he is so inhabited. It is Rock Foxx who does the talking, and with What He’s Poised to Do, Greenman again steps back, this time letting his characters do the writing.
The thread in this collection is correspondence, but not all are epistolary stories. There are postcards and notes, letters written to letters and by the living for the dead, composed to a woman who may not exist, sent to and from the moon. The missives aren’t always explicit, but the collection as a whole has an epistolary intimacy.
Consider the act of writing a letter, motivated by hope or nostalgia, the need or inability to say something. Whatever the expression, it is committed alone and directed to someone; a letter is a rope cast out to a reader, and in that way not unlike writing a story. Where it would be easy here to go meta, Greenman doesn’t. Instead, these are stories of emphatically imagined characters, strongest when he employs the first person, as any letter writer would. And he makes these leaps equally well across time and place and gender:
Nebraska, 1962: a note left from a man she used to kiss opens rifts between a young wife, her sister, and her husband.
Chicago, 1988: a letter to a lover’s letter as elegy for an affair, telling its story and keeping its silences.
Lunar City, 1989: the son in a split family writes letters that unwittingly mediate the distance between his parents.
Harlem, 1964: when a friend is shot in the back, a deejay grapples with his life, his love, his race, his country, his voice, his doubts, his doubt.
Miami, 2010: an encounter on a train sets a man remembering a summer from his youth, “overcome by a sense that all the time since had been miserably misspent…” (164)
There are some moments when Greenman’s hand is visible. In the epistolary From the Front, a captain makes observations that read truer to the author’s voice than to the would-be writer of the letter. And in The Hunter and the Hunted, letters lapse into scene, once even addressing us directly: “I can sketch what happened, but the sketch will not satisfy even the most casual reader.” (48) But these are just blips. To read What He’s Poised to Do is to discover a bundle of letters and the lost worlds they belong to, to taste and know longing, no matter the time or place.