Svoboda (Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, 2016, etc.) returns to her art’s quintessential landscape to relate the overlapping epochs of the great American desert.
“Camp Clovis,” the first of the 21 stories that make up this collection, opens in the Pleistocene era among the Clovis people, a Paleo-Indian community who live in what will become the American Great Plains. The community’s teenage boys have been sent away to camp, where they will engage in “boy’s footraces, showing off underwater, crafts with leather, spear point chiseling, campfires—the usual,” to keep them out from under their mothers' feet for the long summer months. When the engaging innocence of their boyhood is threatened by elements outside their control or understanding—global climate change, overhunting of keystone species, encroachment by other cultures on Clovis’ territory—their bewildered bravado and ageless little-boyness provide a bridge from their time to our own. The final story in the collection, “Pink Pyramid,” takes place on the same land in a far distant future when almost all animals are extinct and “electronics control…even the wind, and the turning of the Earth.” The story’s unnamed male and female characters operate as a cross between scavengers and disaster tourists, drawing ever closer to the eponymous pyramid which houses the unextinguished fires of environmental holocaust. In spite of their alien surroundings—all life systems mechanized, all earth soaked with poison—these characters radiate a desire for connection, authenticity, and experience that is as familiar to a modern-day reader as it would have been to one of the Clovis boys at camp alongside their ancient river. In between, characters pack their windows against the dust of the 1930s, bury WWII’s leaking munitions under the dry soil of the South Dakota plains, get engaged in snowstorms, set dogs on fire, attend their dying relatives, disregard their living children, and generally live the sort of brief, bloody, tender, or brutal lives they have always lived in a part of the world that both sustains and destroys with its implacable emptiness. A poet, memoirist, librettist, translator, and more, Svoboda has always engaged language as a tool of exploration. Her enigmatic sentences, elliptical narratives, and percussive plots delve into the possibilities of form, genre, and plausible futures, but always with an eye on the vast subterranean psychologies of her all-too-real creations.
A challenging author’s take on the most challenging of subjects—the survival of our species from its distant beginnings into the possible future.