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Ports of Entry
By Caridad Svich



At the Damascus Gate:
Short Hallucinations

By Elana Greenfield
Green Integer, 116 pp.
$10.95 pap




A corrosive, beautiful and delicate book of short stories, poems, and brief dramatic pieces, Elana Greenfield's At the Damascus Gate: Short Hallucinations enters a reader's dream life and refuses to leave. Walking through Manhattan readers may find themselves repeating lines from Greenfield's stories to themselves in order to better understand their place in the contemporary world.

Jane Austen and Debbie Harry appeared out of its darkness, their arms lightly draped around each other's waists. (p. 26)

a wanderer who finds himself--herself--once again, a guest in someone's heart… (p. 36)

one day I stopped, here, in the moonlight, where the silver point meets the narrow vein (p. 45)

Greenfield has an uncanny ear for everyday human speech, and an alert and agile mind that, like any true poet, is able to rearrange the contours of the everyday into something exceedingly strange and familiar. Her short stories, which move like poems, evoke the labyrinthian worlds of Borges and Carpentier shot through with Nabokovian wit and despair. Although she brings to mind these and other great writers, Greenfield's voice is decidedly unique. Her prose shimmers and bites. Her humor catches the reader off guard and also roots her work inescapably in the march of the daily in which we are caught on this earth.

This is a rare book--a slim volume that defies description and expectation at every turn, and as such, is a remarkable achievement, made even more so by the fact that it is Greenfield's first book. Formerly Director of Artistic Programs at New Dramatists in New York, and the author of several plays, Greenfield brings to her prose and poetry the experience, talent, and skill of someone who has been working in the literary field a long time. The lucidity of her prose has in it the sharp insight and observation of a critical thinker, and the detail and freshness of her dialogue are evident of her craft as a dramatist.

What Greenfield manages to do in the 116 pages that make up this volume, elegantly published by Doug Messerli's Green Integer imprint, is to dissect the emotional dilemma of dislocation that is at the heart of contemporary life. In story after story, poem after theatrical dialogue, Greenfield weaves a brilliant hybrid, ploy-genre web of circling, eddying, and ruptured signs that testify to the broken-ness and subsequent search for wholeness of human wanderers. Devils and soldiers, balladeers and errant biographers hold court within the pages of this book to tell their fragmented, hallucinatory tales.

Philosophical in nature and less concerned with pop culture and its effects than most contemporary fiction, At the Damascus Gate consciously but without elaborate and ostentatious artifice acknowledges its place as a text of inquiry, which juxtaposes local and global concerns as they travel the map of the human heart. Like the triple gate to the Old City which its title evokes, the stories in this volume serve as an entrance to a contemporary city: each story, poem or short play is a meditation on the randomness and organised chaos of our world. Each voice and dream evoked, and this volume is a collection of disparate voices ("The Voice of Peer Gynt," "The Voice of the High Sierra," "The Voice of a Woman in the Desert," etc.) that nevertheless makes a whole, charts an arc of motion. The voices travel, enchant, seek revenge, and roam countries and bodies with the jump-cut speed of dreams.

Curiously in Greenfield's world, despite her wide-ranging attention to detail in her rigorous and fluid presentation of cities and states of mind where one can see "an alphabet of dust," there is a noticeable absence of disease, or the ravages, physical and spiritual, of illness and war. Given the fact that the book serves as a gateway to both the second century Damascus and the contemporary one, the pin-pricks here are few, subtle, and far between. Although menace is constant throughout, bloodshed and disturbances of the body are elided; instead, the focus is on the voices in the air that behave like iron ghosts for a new age.

The lack of corporeal sensibility in the book, save for witty sections in the stories "Talent," and "Neutrino Blues," has the simultaneous effect of both firmly rooting the text in the present tense, almost without incident or precedent, and of lifting it into the reader's unconsciousness; hence the dreaming-and-wandering effect of the volume I mentioned earlier. A writer as thoughtful and passionate as Greenfield can surely not be avoiding the body as subject in her work. Clearly she is asking the reader to leave the body and gravity behind, and to ponder instead the consequences of dreaming itself. In the radio play Desire, one of the voices of Lyca "long[s] for the Bedouins" and "broken pavement . . . leading to the sea." Bound by an un-named terror, and increasing dread, the desire, then, encapsulated here, is for unrestricted motion, freedom, and boundarylessness. Under siege in the past and present, the voices in Desire hope and pray, even where and when they are not wanted. Greenfield eloquently elucidates the yearning of the transient being, the stranger/foreigner, to belong, to be let be, and to be able to seek and find affinity despite difference or political obstacle. Greenfield's dream, seen in the many dreams that comprise this powerful book, is one of transcendence, hard-earned beauty, and perhaps impossible hope.

Let a good silence take us over in our loneliness, while the flags of many countries move insanely in the wind. (p. 115)

In the voice of At Damascus Gate, Greenfield asks readers to see beyond themselves, outside themselves and the structures that bind them, sometimes without their asking, in this world. She asks us to imagine in a concentrated manner what God's mind might be like and what the Devil says when we're not listening. She asks us to contemplate modern panic and anxiety, and to apprehend with caution and skepticism greed as opposed to desire. She asks so very much, and rightfully so, for her questions keep us vigilant to what we avoid, dismiss, or neglect in our lives.


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