Flash fiction has enjoyed a boom in recent years but sometimes overlooked are shorter prose forms which don’t respect the conventions of flash—e.g., at least an implied plot or hint of closure—in order seek out other literary effects. Thomas Walton’s All the Useless Things Are Mine: A Book of Seventeens (Sagging Meniscus, 138 pages) is an intriguing entry into this field. It is both experimental, in the sense that there isn’t really a label for the genre, and traditional, for it deploys aphorism and image in a manner which is readily accessible, despite its peculiarity.
The author calls the pieces in this collection “seventeens” because each freestanding entry is composed of exactly seventeen words. A few pieces are titled, but most are not, and the book is arranged in 26 chapters with titles like “Animal Sketches,” “Art Criticism” and “Birdsong.” The fixation on seventeen words recalls the haiku form, which in its English rendering is typically composed of seventeen syllables in three lines. Here, though, instead of relying on poetry techniques like line breaks or rhythm assisted by white space on the page, Walton opts for a “prosier” approach, working with short, punchy sentences.
In the first chapter, he announces:
“I will find a new way, one they say I can’t go, one I imagine for myself.”
Later he adds:
“I can’t stand constraint based poetry, the counterintuitive sense of limitless freedom makes me feel insufferably claustrophobic.”
Even so, many of his entries do resemble a sort of prose haiku, offering keenly observed images of the natural world.
“Just ahead of the rainstorm, the dandelions stretched themselves slightly to say “listen, can you smell it?”
“Coming at last out of the dense forest, a meadow, and in it a single rusting Mitsubishi.”
At the same time, the narrator of these pieces is frequently in the foreground and becomes the subject. The result is an incremental character development more common to fiction, while the impersonal lucidity favored in many haiku poems, which can easily veer into preciousness, is something that Walton is at pains to avoid.
“The smell of flowers woke me up, and I realized I’d passed out in the neighbor’s rosebushes.”
“I ran out of the garden screaming, “the hydrangea’s blooming! the hydrangea’s blooming!” pants around my knees.”
Humor plays a big part in All the Useless Things. It can be antic or goofy, and sometimes downright morbid. Walton is fascinated by infants in peril, water and rats. Some of the observations about joggers and dog-walkers are less idiosyncratic, and feel like the musings of a more ordinary curmudgeon, but at their best, they startle and take the reader someplace entirely unexpected.
“I’ve drowned so many times that all my corpses have made an island where I can relax.”
“Mike Bell gave me a wedgie so severe that sometimes after tacos I can still feel it.”
Accompanying the hundreds of seventeen-word entries are seventeen black-and-white illustrations by Douglas Miller. They do not, as far as I can tell, respond to particular pieces, but they depict some of Walton’s major preoccupations (for instance, birds) in a precise, finely-detailed style. Several leave unfinished gaps for the viewer’s imagination to fill in, just as the reader must often supply context to interpret the minimalist texts. When the unsaid is palpable, it becomes part of the expression.
All the Useless Things also includes an afterword by Elizabeth Cooperman, entitled “A Fur Coat in Summer,” in which she discusses Walton’s writing in light of the tradition of aphorism. He both participates in and deviates from this tradition. As Cooperman says, “the ‘advice’ offered us directly or implicitly is perverse, incongruous, counterintuitive, perhaps even hazardous to our health.” I would like to develop this observation further, particularly in regard to the book’s emphasis on what is “useless,” and in order to do so, I’ll begin by underlining the breadth of these seventeens.
Although the humor noted above is present throughout the book, the underlying sensibility is meditative. The lasting impression of All the Useless Things is less one of jokiness than of tenderness: for nature, for creation, for language itself.
Animals are the focus in many of the entries. For instance:
“I love how we like to think that birds are singing to us, as if we mattered.”
“I love the way the star-nosed mole interrogates the notion that somehow you and I are eccentric.”
Here and elsewhere the narrator moves away from a human-centered perspective. The human is just one creature among others in the planet’s curious menagerie. Walton sounds a note of modesty and throughout the book, the authority he questions is often his own. He also unabashedly uses the word “love.” A crude gloss of many of these seventeens would be something like: “Slow down—look—and love.” At the same time, the perspective is not sentimental about natural processes. There are many entries like this one:
“A crow with a baby bird in its beak, pecked at its skull, then swallowed it whole.”
For the human animal subset, similar rules apply. There is the aforementioned tenderness:
“I will love you—all of you—like a quiet snowfall falling over every inch of you.”
But there is also a wide range of other interactions, notably in regard to a character named Jordan. Her relationship with the narrator is intimate, ambiguous and queer. At times he is in thrall, at other times exasperated or antagonistic, but he is never bored.
“I do love Jordan but her dick has been in more mouths than a Michael Jackson song.”
As the chapters unwind, it becomes clear that a central preoccupation of this book is death. The narrator is keenly aware of his own demise, of both his materiality and the fleeting mystery of his consciousness. Perhaps, he argues, the knowledge of death is an ingredient in our perception of beauty:
“We think the butterfly dazzles because the butterfly dazzles, but it does so because the darkness terrifies.”
To stave off the darkness, however temporarily, the narrator takes upon himself the task of noticing. (“Slow down—look—and love.”) The title of the book comes from a seventeen in the chapter entitled “Dear God” where he announces:
“After the neighbor’s wedding party, the garbage was strewn and lovely; all the useless things are mine.”
Beauty resides in the garbage, for his delectation. And to be clear: he doesn’t make claims to be visionary. It is not as if the narrator somehow “redeems” the detritus. He doesn’t don a Superartist cape and leap tall metaphysical buildings in a single bound. Rather, Walton seems to be searching, as Auden said of Yeats, for “a way of happening, a mouth.” This happening is located “where executives / Would never want to tamper.” In the end, it’s perfectly fine that poetry (or “seventeens” or any other art form) “makes nothing happen” because everything is already happening. The point is to pay attention, and give the experience of being alive its due.
George Orwell, though generally remembered for his political engagement, also wrote of his affection for “useless information” and “the unnecessary detail.” (This fact is overlooked by ideologues of all stripes who posthumously enlist him in their camps.) Far from irrelevant, the useless and unnecessary are salutary, Orwell reminds us, for they resist “all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.” In Nineteen Eighty-Four, a junky glass paperweight acquires special significance for Winston Smith and is “doubly attractive because of its apparent uselessness.”
All the Useless Things Are Mine expresses a similar affection. There are no pretensions here for uplift, or for Whitmanian bluster, but reading it was, for me, a boost, a reminder of possibilities. This is highly original work by an active, restless mind, aware of the pressures of time. It is also challenge:
“You can play the game or question the rules, but you only get one turn. Ready? Go.”
–Charles Holdefer, author of Bring Me the Head of Mr. Boots, 2019