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Claudia Smith

Claudia Smith's fiction has been translated into Spanish, Vietnamese, Farsi, and Polish. More about Claudia and her work can be found at claudiastories.com.

Blurbs

"For years I've been finding these little Claudia Smith stories. They draw me in so easily, with something familiar if slightly odd, and before I know it I'm consumed by a world far deeper than so few lines have any right to contain. In Put Your Head In My Lap, each of the stories is anxious, intimate, and powerful. Yet together they form a narrative of love and separation -- like a flash novel. She is a terrific writer."

– Robert Shapard, co-editor of the Sudden Fiction anthologies

"Claudia Smith's Put Your Head In My Lap is a vivid book of short fiction that both inspires me and makes me feel inadequate. She takes the everyday -- cooking dinner, a stained sink, physical attraction -- and renders them in such precise detail, that even 'a collection of soiled fingernails in a shot glass' becomes almost unbearably beautiful."

– Mary Miller, author of Big World

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Put Your Head In My Lap

Put My Head In Your Lap

07/30/11

The sixteen short-short stories in Claudia Smith's “Put Your Head In My Lap” (Future Tense Books, 2009) convey such tenderness it's difficult not to develop a big-ass lump in my throat, the kind that causes tears to well and fall. This is a collection to read alone, wrapped in a blanket beside a crackling fire, a steaming cup of tea nearby. But beware: anyone who's had a prior relationship with heartbreak will re-experience that sorrow, those losses. Proceed, however, and be brave. Your reward is to discover prose that resonates with simplicity, prose that prompts aching and, subsequently, hope. You will want to reach for someone dear; you will want to dial up an old friend and catch up, someone whose voice once soothed. This is the complication in Smith's writing: her words remind us of our pain, but the pain reminds us, inspires us, to reconcile with that, or those, we have lost.

(I should mention here that this review first appeared in The Chapbook Review, and when given this opportunity to write about PYHIML again, I decided that I said it all best before. What I'll add here is simply this: Anything Claudia Smith writes, I'll buy and read with interest, knowing I'm guaranteed to have a large, satisfying read, made up of small doses of tiny stories. And now, back to the review.)

In “Submarine Dreams,” a mother says, simply, “We came here a year ago. I was hopeful.” An obvious, but unstated, divorce later, she closes this story with the lines: “My son sleeps with me now. I sing to him, Mariposa, sweet dreams, butterfly, close your eyes. It's a bad pattern to set, isn't it?” and I'm not sure if she's addressing us or her departed husband. “Good luck,” she sings, because her son “gets scared, dreaming, at night.”

In the next story, “Valentine,” the narrator recalls how she and an unnamed “you” first fell in love; after falling “asleep together on the floor,” she kisses his forehead. She says, “I did it suddenly and softly, startling myself,” and I, too, am startled by her admission. It seems so natural, that kiss. And yet, it “was like touching the wings of a creature you couldn't see but knew to be beautiful simply from the feel.” Startling, as well, what she does next: “I stood up and walked out of the apartment, down the stairs, into the street. It was cold and I wasn't wearing a coat, but I kept walking anyway, thinking I couldn't go back there because you'd be gone.”

A fiction professor once told me -- and this is some of the best advice I've ever been on the receiving end of -- that physical objects are best utilized when they pull double, or even triple, duty. What he meant was that a coat can just be a coat, sure, but when it actually means something more than that, magic is born. The magic in this particular coat is that, of course, it is back at the apartment, beyond reach; what's more, it tells us something about this narrator -- that she's willing to go without it, despite the chill, because the physical consequences are nothing compared to the emotional; to return to her apartment, to find her object of affection gone, will leave her more bare than she already is, and the idea and fear of such exposure is something she's unwilling, just yet, to face. Interesting, then, that this particular story opens with the line, “You once gave me an apple off a tree, and I thought about its significance, and wondered if you meant something by that, or if you were just handing me an apple.” An apple, a coat, a sleeping son: in Smith's careful hands, they are more than anything we've ever encountered; they are precious cargo, worthy of quiet meditation and further exploration.

In the next story, “Half,” the unnamed narrator wears a locket her mother-in-law gave her; inside the locket, her husband's black hair. She says, “I wore the locket at all times, even when I took a shower. I thought about the thin layer of gold between his lock and the flesh on my collarbone.” A locket, hair, a collarbone: again, the familiarity of such physical objects is recast in such a way that readers can't help but ponder their symbolic meanings; again, Smith's words—their simplicity, their frankness, the magic of their admissions, their very utterances—become more than words; they become experiences, revealed to us. And are we worthy? When else have we been handed such trust? I can't say I've ever felt such a connection to a writer's (dare I say?) soul.

In “Marks,” a woman learns the meaning of what it is to be touched, to be the one who does the touching. The father of her child has “a strawberry mark behind his left shoulder. When she traces it, he stands up and goes to lie down on the stone floor in the bathroom. She watches him through the opened door.” The door here, a physical object that can be opened or closed, is, while open, closed. The threshold is uncrossable. Her touch has gone, worse than unnoticed, unwanted. And from worse to worst, after they have had sex; and all she can do is continue to watch him until, when “he falls asleep, she leaves and looks in on their child.” And then it is up to us to learn the meaning of a touch, and when we read that she “would like to touch the whorl on the back of his head, but it would wake him,” there is only a deep sense of loss, something unexplainably clear -- this is what it is to want to reach out, this is what it is to stop yourself.

I can feel my throat tightening now. Who wouldn't? Fitting, then, that the final story in the collection, “Ice,” opens with this: “They will break one another's hearts -- well, at least, he will break hers, she's not sure now about his.” And having read the other stories in the meantime, we, too, can't help but be unsure about his, though we do know the fate of hers. Which is why, I'm sure, I opened this review with the word “tenderness.” If these aren't prime examples, I don't know what else I can offer in my desperate urging that will compel you to buy this chapbook. It is required reading for any human being; perhaps, more specifically, any woman whose life hasn't quite turned out the way she hoped it would at some youthful age when she was freshly scrubbed and innocent. We may still be freshly scrubbed, but the scrubbing, over the years, will have certainly taken on a different purpose: no longer to cleanse but to cast away the sorrows of our past and current lives. Claudia Smith understands this; and I can't help but think because she's been there. So tonight, wrapped in a blanket and with a cup of tea nearby, I will raise it to her and hope that as I blow away steam, so too will I blow away her hurt, if only for even a moment.

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4 Comments

  1. Erin Feldman said on 09/20/11 at 1:58 pm Reply

    I think I’m going to have to get this book. The tears are already welling in my eyes after reading your review.

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 09/20/11 at 2:03 pm

    We have it for sale here at TLP! Please consider purchasing it from us! And once you’ve read it, come back and talk to us about it. I love this collection. I will happily talk to you about it. X!

  2. brian warfield said on 10/26/11 at 6:33 pm Reply

    dead babies feels a bit manipulative.

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 10/30/11 at 8:20 pm

    Feels like anything could be manipulative.

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