Josiah Morgan’s Circles Pushes Boundaries

With the 2019 release of Inside the Castle, Josiah Morgan announced himself as a transgressive and exciting new voice, and Circles is further evidence. A freewheeling blur of poetry, film criticism, and visual art, Morgan’s latest work urges its readers to question what defines a text, and even what it means to read. Morgan pursues these complex problems through the attentive and varied use of typography, offering a mixture of blank-verse, concrete poetry, and essay fragments that gesture to the book’s title shape and its implications of auto-cannibalism and endlessness.

The content is as fascinating and rebellious as the form. Morgan draws on disparate media, religious references, and allusions both coded and explicit (I was particularly pleased to see one of my favorite lines from Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” and a reading of the vegan ethos in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). The author lays bare his frame of references in an appendix labeled ASSISTANCE [IN RESEARCH AND ERASURE], and his array of sources is fascinating and unique.

The result is not nearly as daunting or unapproachable as it might sound. In fact, I easily devoured the book in one quick sitting. Morgan’s work is energizing, animated by a vital and authentic voice, threaded with both coldly ironic observation and real despair. The author engages in some hilarious interplay between artificial designations of “high” and “low” art. Consider, for example, a prose-poem near the end of the book that describes a speaker masturbating to urolagniac fantasies of shock-punk icon GG Allin before reading Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Plath.

Much like Morgan’s excellent Inside the CastleCircles is a powerful testament to this brilliant young writer’s talent. Keep your eyes on him.

Joanna Koch’s The Wingspan of Severed Hands is a Brilliantly Challenging Work of Speculative Fiction

I tend to value style most highly in works of fiction. Of course, I enjoy the pleasure of sinking into a well-constructed plot as much as anyone, but for me, voice and perspective are most important of all. It is no surprise, then, that I am quite taken with Joanna Koch’s novella The Wingspan of Severed Hands, whose deliberately obstructive narrative strategies are delivered through such stunning, distinctive prose.

The story tracks Adira, a young woman who fights against misogynistic familial and social structures that aim to lay violent claim to her body. Simultaneously, it depicts Bennet, the weapons director of a secret research facility who constructs a sentient, neuro-cognitive device that develops her own disorienting self-awareness. As the novel progresses, these three characters (Adira, Bennet, and the weapon) discover a common, quasi-cosmic enemy.

This is a slippery book, whose hallucinatory sequences leak between different character POVs with stunning abandon. Koch, who has an MA in Contemplative Psychotherapy, applies Cronenberg-esque body horror to transferences of consciousness and selfhood. Much like Cronenberg, Koch intertwines institutional corruption and scientific inquiry with vivid, hyper-visceral depictions of bodily destruction and transformation. Although the novel’s climax swerves into trippy, consciousness-hopping dreamscapes, Koch seems more interested in the intimate interiority of trauma than they are in “cosmic horror” conventions.

The result is an impressive achievement, massive in scope and narrative ambition, but insular in thematic focus. Koch applies elements of experimental speculative fiction to both body and cosmic horror, placing their primary emphasis on the formidable (but ultimately beatable) power of trauma. Although the book goes to nasty places, it does not submit completely to its darkness, and I respect it for that.

Koch is a stunningly original talent, and I enthusiastically recommend this novella.

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