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Chapbook Review: Mere Tragedies by Heather Palmer

Andrew Boryga / Monday, March 28, 2011 View Comments

Stories require all kinds of shapes and sizes to exist. Some need the space of hundreds of pages, others only hundreds of words. Heather Palmer flirts with the latter in her debut chapbook, Mere Tragedies, and kicks some pretty good game.

In Mere Tragedies Palmer opens up small windows into the lives of various characters, allowing us to peer in only for a moment before slamming them shut. Each story –– most not much longer than a page, some shorter –– situate a reader in an instance; a snippet in fictional time.

Some of these snippets are heavy, such as the one involving a man overcome with shame. Shame in the form of knick-knacks like candy wrappers and unflattering elementary school pictures he hides daily under his mattress. Shame that pains his reflection with blemishes, “he’s blue-black and when he looks at himself he thinks of a bruise.” And with tact, Palmer’s words project this mans shame off the page, allowing us to connect on a human level –– it’s no secret that every one has something they are ashamed of.

Others simply exhibit Palmer’s gift for portraying seemingly mundane things like daily routines, in an interesting way. Routines like tying a shoe. A simple enough act that Palmer’s writing turns vivid using abrupt stand-alone images.

Chan puts his shoes on first thing. Before he brushes his teeth, before he combs his hair, before he slurps down a bowl of cereal, he ties right over left lace and pulls heel snug into sole. The house, he is aware, is filthy from his feet.

At night, the last thing he undresses are the shoes.

While in bed he wiggles toes and rocks heels back and forth. He feels free.

Then there are those that exhibit the power in the unsaid, the seven eighths of the iceberg all those fiction handbooks and creative writing professors talk about. One small story involving a girls self image subtly hide feelings of inadequacy and anxiety beneath the words themselves.

A boy and a girl sleep together at night. He curls up, wraps his limbs around her, although he is slightly smaller. He claims she is the most beautiful creature he has ever seen and she tries to believe him.

Her diet is water-based, mostly grapes and apples, and she pees twice a night even though she does not drink much water. The boy accuses her bladder. She defends it. He accepts insistence.

The culmination of these small stories is a picture of everyday life told from different perspectives.

The book is as small as the stories themselves (43 pages), and so one can look at it almost as a day. A day in the existence of different characters. What they see in a day, what they do in a day, what they feel in a day. And collecting all these experiences ground the ebb and flow of a day in life; a day where you may have feelings of inadequacy for a few moments, a day where you may think extra carefully about the dough you have been kneading everyday for years, a day where you have a crazy dream and analyze it before forgetting all about it a few hours later. And even though every activity, thought, dream or emotion is relatively mundane, it is still significant for some weird reason that’s hard to explain. Mere Tragedies is all about that weird significance, showing us how the mundane can sometimes add up and become quite compelling –– when told the right way.

Mere Tragedies by Heather Palmer

Published by Girls With Insurance

Available here

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