Show Her a Flower, A Bird, A Shadow, by Peg Alford Pursell
ELJ Editions, March 2017
90 pages – ELJ Editions
Peg Alford Pursell’s collection of flash fiction and poetic prose, Show Her a Flower, a Bird, a Shadow, is a cryptic assemblage of moments. Each story — not more than a page or two long — offers only a glimpse into a portion of her characters’ lives. These are children, parents, or lovers caught in flashes of desperation and confusion, often begging to be seen. Fathers dash their children’s dreams, cheat on their wives, and rewrite family histories by leaving, lying, or both. Though opacity reigns in Pursell’s enigmatic and clipped tales, motifs from nature and parenting repeat like refrains. Filial and marital love are challenged, considered, and questioned in these short tales. Pursell keenly and judiciously reveals concrete details of each character’s life so that what transgresses in these fleeting moments is enough to convey a full history; these are stories to be savored and considered one at a time.
Pursell opens the collection with “Day of the Dead,” an invocation that establishes a heavy tone. Juxtaposing her childhood memories of the holiday with her adult grief, the narrator says, “[n]ow I have my own dead and no sweet bread, hot wax, or tequila to lure them, no fancy papel picado. The dead come anyway.” (3) Childhood assumptions give way to real adult pain. This establishes one of the central ideas of Pursell’s work: adults do not see children as they see themselves; there is an impenetrable wall between the concerns of generations.
Desire and its tie to nature surfaces multiple times. “I want you to feel my fingers, to deny fears that may form as my fingers pause at each vertebra,” Purselll writes in “I Don’t Want to Talk about Valentine’s Day.”
I want you to think of crayfish stuck in the eddying of the stream, caught, caught again, waiting for a change in the water.
I don’t want to. What? Remember your laughter like the sound of the creek, the trees, the stones.
I don’t want.
I don’t. (5)
Though “Valentine’s Day” is about two lovers, love and its connection to nature appears in many forms in Show Me a Flower. And in each case, Pursell’s stories draw acute attention to language and character detail. Though the reader gets only a small amount of information about each character or set of characters in flash fiction like this, the author chooses her vivid detail wisely. Often, the stubbornness of characters is the connective tissue that holds these tales together. Pursell writes: “There is an arrogance in assuming that you belong where you choose to stand,” (6) and each of her characters illuminates a particular scene through their petty conflicts and how they take a stand within the world.
Sometimes, Pursell’s reader is kept at a distance, not quite privy to the complete details of the story, as in “The Girl and the Stone” and “Fragmentation.” Opacity, rather than clarity are her goal here, but this is always guided by the beauty of language. These are short, complicated stories best enjoyed in small doses. This slim volume is packed with many vibrant lives. Pursell keeps the reader at arms-length, but manages to make each story feel as though she is revealing an intimate truth.
Concrete details abound, as in “Petal, Feather, Particle” when the narrator describes a woman who “will show you what is simultaneously forming and falling apart” (8) when shown a flower, a bird, and a shadow. In “Girl on a Hobby Horse,” the author writes of shaved heads, and “saffron and crimson robes like a monk” and glowing skin (10). In each case, the characters are haunted by their childhoods and their parents’ difficult marriages, remembering things that almost too painful to speak aloud. In “Circle,” a character remembers “[t]he day after her eighth birthday, [when] her father said he was going to break her.” (18) Another story, “Bad Dog,” deals with domestic violence viewed through the eyes of a scared child who sees doom coming for the family dog. “No one ever spoke of this day,” the narrator says, but the child sees her parents fight, then sees her father sitting on the bed, holding a gun, and then the dog is given away. (21) Pursell’s work often feels like a confession scribbled into a diary – like something that’s confessed too quickly to be complete, or too painful to breathe into the world.
Pursell has been published widely, and Show Her a Flower, A Bird, A Shadow is evidence of the reasons for her success. Her writing blends the meticulously chosen language of poetry with the urgency of the ultra-short prosaic form. Many of these stories will leave you wondering, and wanting more. Read together, they form unexpected connections. Each one blossoms, but disappears just as quickly as it opens.
Heather Scott Partington is a recipient of the Emerging Critics Fellowship from the National Book Critics Circle. Her writing has appeared at The Los Angeles Times, Ploughshares’ Blog, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She is a contributor to Goodreads, Las Vegas Weekly, and Electric Literature. Follow her @HeatherScottP.