Mary Hamilton, We know what we are
Publisher: Rose Metal Press
2010, 44 pages, paperback, $12

OF ALL THERE is to admire in the work of Mary Hamilton, why not begin with the sentences? For example, try these nimble first lines from “When me and Theodore look at the sky, we pray for rain”:

I put a pickup truck in the back of my pickup truck and
drove to Milwaukee to look at the lights and the water. And
I set myself down there in the snow and I watched the fire
burn on the train tracks. Fires like the earth had opened up
and the center heat was bursting out right there in the
middle of all that snow.

Absurd and simple enough: a pickup truck in the bed of another pickup truck, going down the road, headed for Milwaukee. But note how well the weight, rigidity, and implied labor of the image contrast with the lights and water. Note, too, how quickly we’re sent roaming with the narrator. Before we know it, we’re traveling—to someplace other. In the next lines come snow, fire, and train tracks; the earth opening up; hot and cold held together by a center, a middle. We’re pulled back and forth between sensations but not unpleasantly. Reading We know what we are, you’ll find that most of Hamilton’s sentences share a similar approach: they present poignant dualities that figure strangely but truthfully in the mind.  They consist of uncanny but sensible juxtapositions, surprises that are by turns funny and sad and that, in retrospect, adhere to an emotional logic that resonates.

Thirteen tiny fictions make up We know what we are, which won Rose Metal Press’ Fourth Annual Short Story Chapbook Competition. Taken as a whole, this collection is a series of surprising, dream-like worlds and boldly chimerical body-states. You can expect to feel lanterns under your skin, to explore the laden minutia of a stomach ache, to form an underwater garage band in a flooded neighborhood. Yet with all this dream-play and odd juxtaposition, one might expect We know what we are to drift into flippancy or arbitrariness.  But not so: Hamilton’s prose is credible and urgent, expressing a compelling emotional weight—specifically, a pervasive, deep sympathy for the outsider, the misunderstood—and we’re quickly grounded in the weird worlds of her characters.

Consider, for example, the title story, which is told from the point of view of a female conjoined twin.  In a feat of deft concision, Hamilton’s narrator relates a number of key events in the lives of the twins, giving us a brief but unambiguous picture of what their lives have been like. When they’re approached in their senior year of college by a woman soliciting entertainment for a cruise line (by now the girls have learned to sing and play a keyboard), they sign a three-year contract with the “cruise woman.” Incidentally, Janna—the non-narrating conjoined twin who senses all the sexual “bits and pieces down there”—is a lesbian, and she and the cruise woman engage in a sexual relationship. Most impressive in the story, I think, is the way Hamilton here balances, there unbalances, the emotional separation and bodily connection of the twins.  We’re drawn into their world by Hamilton’s deliberate, rhythmic prose, and the overall effect is pathos:

Janna and the cruise woman loved each other real good
and I was happy for her, I was. I got used to the nights
they’d spend together and I even stopped wearing my
headphones during. I’d just close my eyes and listen to the
things they’d say to each other and the sounds Janna
would make and I’d try to make my mind all calm so I
could feel some of what she was feeling. It was one of those
nights, when I was putting myself into some kind of love
meditation that my hand moved to where it shouldn’t have.
The cruise woman slapped me hard and told me to keep
my hand to myself and Janna wet the bed for the first time
in years.

Interestingly, the titles of several of the stories in We know what we are refer to two once-popular television sitcoms: The Cosby Show and Night Court. The Theodore of Hamilton’s single-sentence titles is Theo of The Cosby Show. And Bull Shannon, you may remember, is the bald, gentle-giant bailiff of Night Court, and a few of the stories are titled as “odes” to Bull Shannon. While these characters don’t always figure into the action of the stories, Hamilton evokes them to add another layer of sympathetic difference—of outsiderness—to the vibe of the collection. Theo and Bull, each in his own way, are outsider characters. In “How’s the weather up there: An ode to Bull Shannon,” Hamilton treats the gentle giant as a confused, overburdened soul erroneously born in a Goliath body: he’d rather be a fish, or a match to start a fire, or a pawn on a game board, something smaller. The narrative does a lot of work in a brief span, juxtaposing conflicting self-perceptions and life-plan-type language to leave you with a paradoxically combined sense of desperate longing for the impossible and realistic hope for the future. Similarly, in “Bitchin’: An ode to Bull Shannon,” Hamilton recasts the tall, bald bailiff as an ineffectual scarecrow whose misplaced identity is defined by his self-difference:

How’d he get here? The beginning is so someone else.
Someone else’s clothing, someone else’s gloves, some
stranger marrow in these hand-me-down bones. Scarecrow
squimmer shimmer shakes to get out of these clothes, this
skin, these bones. He wills his bones to brittle bend split.
To pull and tilt. To snap and splinter.

You can see at times how the stories in We know what we are verge on prose poetry—expressive, imagistic lines that are a pleasure to read aloud. But beyond the sheer eloquence of these pieces, each one offers a satisfying story structure that rings true in the end. We know what we are is certainly an interesting hybrid, and ultimately the pleasure of reading Hamilton’s work is that we witness dream coalesce with reality, self-difference confront itself, and the familiar become curiously new—all to resounding, beautiful effect.

—Josh Collins