We Know What We Are
 by Mary Hamilton

Rose Metal Press
2010 Paperback
First Collection

Awards: Winner, 4th Annual Rose Metal Press Short Short Chapbook Contest







"I poked a dead rabbit with a stick. And then I took that stick and put it in the train fire, and when, I twirled it in the air, I made words out of the light the fire left behind. I took that stick and the coal ash it made and I wrote a poem for my ma on the side of a garbage dumpster."

Reviewed by Angela Readman


Do We Know What We Are? I thought I did until I read We Know What We Are, then it was time to reconsider. Everything was new.

I opened the volume with no pre-conceptions. Mary Hamilton is the winner of the Rose Metal forth annual short short chapbook contest. I wasn’t familiar with the author or the press. We know What We Are is a wonderful ambassador for both.

The collection begins with When Me and Theodore Look At The Sky, We Pray For Rain, a story burning with imagery and mood.
"I set myself down there in the snow and I watched the fires burn on the train tracks. Fires like the earth had opened and the heat was bursting out right there in the middle of all that snow."
Vivid, often poetic, description conveys the possible circumstances and feelings of her characters. In
When Me and Theodore Look At The Sky, We Pray For Rain the reader is unsure exactly who the main character is and what they are escaping from. It’s the use of language the author uses to captivate us and lead us to character, in this case "another outline. Another blurry shadow when the windows go rambling by."

In these stories characters aren’t always forthcoming in spilling the contents of their lives. Rather, we are seduced by beautiful writing into reading between the lines. We discover for ourselves what it is a character may not want to say.

Stories such as She Has an Ache and Hey There Stranger, Come On Over and Hold My Hand are dreamlike in their abundance of images and suggestions of possible worlds. These very short stories seem to keep going like an ache, within lie characters fighting for breath. They look around and see everything. It feels fresh, a possibility. Sometimes it is frightening, sometimes euphoric. So much depends on one line.
"If she could, she would cut her body open. Her own body open. And she would crawl inside and of herself make a tent… She closes her legs"
In Hey There Stranger... the list of what the narrator could be ("a jet plane","a magic wand", "a shoehorn", "a blade of grass to play a funeral dirge", etc) feels like a battle by the lost to find her way out of grief and re discover life. Every story is a triumph in its use of words, an awakening, painful and amazing as birth.

Writing about the stories, I’m reluctant to say exactly what I found in many of them. Their art is that the reader is invited to find the thrill in discovering treasure. This is not work for the lazy reader, so much is packed into such a small word count the stories pray to be read over, to offer up new possibilities, keyholes that lead to worlds. The range of the stories varies, from a moment as small as holding a finger on a bow for a parcel, in the artfully done Never Ever, to the narrative story of conjoined sisters in We Know What We Are. This title story is, simply, as good as the short gets. Perfect.

The collection is aptly named. In We Know What We Are the writers use of words makes us wonder who the characters in each piece truly are and are redefining themselves to be. The execution of the writing interrogates the ordinary. It simply insists that the reader slow down and take a new look at so much life. The book is full of transformation, one image evolves into another with the effect that the reader is often filled with a sense of optimism when least expected. In stories such as So help me, rock and roll, in which people stop to praise sunshine and rain, the reader feels swept into this song of praise. Nothing is taken for granted in the space Mary Hamilton creates. The work is reflective, sad, yet joyful, "There is hope in our house washing away."

I opened We Know What We Are with no knowledge of Mary Hamilton or the press. I closed it knowing it will never really remain closed. Some books aren’t meant to be. These stories are not open and shut. They are something caught from the corner of your eye, a line, a moment that stays with you. This is fascinating work. If a short story is a destination, I feel I may never exactly arrive at one place and stay there with We Know Who We Are. These short pieces are so full I may never be sure I’ve got to the bottom of every story, or fully know each character, but it’s a breathtaking journey. I’ll stop, look around, be amazed by the view as I read these stories again.

Read a story from this collection in ThisZineWillChangeYourLife


Angela Readman's  poetry collection Strip is with Salt publishing. She secretly loves stories.

Angela's other Short Reviews: Flannery O'Connor "Complete Stories"

                     
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Mary Hamilton is a writer, teacher, and optician living in Chicago, where she is also the co-host and co-founder of the QUICKIES! Reading Series. Her work has been published by Smokelong Quarterly, Storyglossia, Pindeldyboz, Eclectica, Dogzplot, and Thieves Jargon, among others, and has been included in the Best of the Web anthology. She blogs about inspirational sports movies at inspirationalsportsmovies.blogspot.com.

Read an interview with Mary Hamilton