An Elegy for Mathematics, Anne Valente’s first full-length release, is a wonderful little book. Checking in at fewer than fifty pages, it’s a quick but deeply layered and poignant collection of material, most of which was previously published online. (She has a forthcoming story collection coming out from Dzanc Books.)
The collection is comprised of thirteen stories, mostly only a few pages in length. Three are making their debut on these pages, and despite the stories having been written over a two to three year period, it’s hard to tell the difference between her earliest story and her most recent. She’s grown as a writer no doubt, but the effect that her stories have remains consistently gut wrenching.
Published by Origami Zoo Press, this collection is simple and to the point, lacking pretention. Sandwiched between the likes of Laura van den Berg and Brian Oliu I’d say she’s not only in fabulous company but that she more than held her own.
The cover art by Nathan Pierce is unassuming yet intricate with its hushed tones and fine point lettering. It depicts the inner workings of a bird, fitting given the fact that much of the ground Valente traverses is the unknown, unseen, underbelly of the human existence.
My favorite stories were “If The Hum of Bees Flooded Are Ears” and “The Water Cycle.” They delve into those unnoticed and often forgotten crevices of daily life that are usually where people go for comfort.
“If The Hum of Bees Flooded Are Ears” is a simple enough story, a snapshot of a moment in time shared by two people that is illuminated by Valente’s pitch perfect ear and deft maneuverings of the intricacies of human interaction. Consider the following paragraph, which showcases her poetic touch for finding the right word, that perfect term to put the reader right there on that porch with the two characters. It’s subtle but moving.
I asked him what he held his breath for, since he was taking the risk anyway, picking up bees. We were sitting on my back porch, away from my parents inside watching Wheel of Fortune, and the show’s piped-in applause warbled through the open screens of our house, curling into the smoke Tom exhaled from his cigarette.
She manages to take a simple scene and slowly rev it up, carrying the momentum of that second, longer sentence far enough out to wander inquisitively yet disciplined enough to bring it back in time to end it on an evocative and wholly original ending. It gives me hope that the elusive, perfect sentence is out there, somewhere (quite possibly within these pages.)
“The Water Cycle,” a deeply moving tale of a mother trying to explain to her son where he came from, has been done before, but it’s Valente’s personal stamp on this often-mined material that makes it stand out in this collection. It’s not without a twist at the end either, which makes for great reading when it’s done as elegantly as Valente. There is no clumsily inserted twist, just a subtle whisper of a rotation, a pivoting of the narrative and then it’s over.
Trying to explain that his classmate was correct about how babies come about, the mother details a beautifully magical and moving story, invoking an imagery so rich with fairy tale-like elements that the reader gets lost in the moment, in the world the mother is creating. “I told you that weather was fickle, that much in the same way hurricanes and thunderstorms and tornadoes pop up in the most unexpected of ways, so too can babies if you’re not watching and waiting for you, with my eye on one small cloud that had been hovering over my backyard for days.” She goes on to say that it rained one day and that she went outside and picked a droplet from the sky and it popped like a bubble and the boy appeared. If the story ended there I would’ve shed enough tears, but as I flipped the page I wasn’t ready for the final paragraph, the final gauntlet to be laid down, her final trick in which Valente must’ve reached deep into her writing tool bag to execute so masterfully.
This is what I told you, right through to the end. But by the time I’d told you how it was that you began, you were already asleep, your cheeks puffed and soft. As I headed back down the stairs, toward the light of the muted television, I wondered if now might be the start of something hard, of an inevitable slide toward one terrible moment when I would have to tell you that I was your mother–always, your mother–but not in any manner of blood.
I could quote from each story but then you wouldn’t go out and get the book and if there’s anything you should take away from this review it’s this: go buy this book, right now.
In many ways this book had a schizophrenic feel to it, in a good way though. Each story zigged and zagged in its own direction, forcing itself down its own narrative path, unencumbered by the previous story of by the promises of the next one. Each story in An Elegy for Mathematics is like a beautifully aged Polaroid found at different yard sales around your hometown. Little unexpected gems, snapshots into a moment in the everyday life of strangers that moves you enough to buy it and place it proudly on your mantle because you still remember that moment you first laid eyes on it, and you don’t want that feeling to go away. So read this book; peek beneath the veneer of a different world, one that’s eerily similar to yours but so gracefully observed that it makes you feel good to just be in the proximity of these. You won’t be disappointed though you might be mad at yourself for never having heard of Anne Valente before.