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Issue 23: 28 April 2024
Book Review: 905 words
By John Brantingham

Jeff Burd’s Sixteen Ways to Be in Love

This debut collection is a powerful example of what flash fiction can do when used to its full potential. In sixteen vignettes and story flashes, Jeff Burd captures those moments between moments that show us and make us feel what it is like to be a part of a relationship. The relationships that he gives us are not at their highest or lowest moments. His characters are neither heroes nor villains. Instead, we are given access into the intimate thoughts that happen every day.   Cover of Sixteen Ways to Be in Love, by Jeff Burd
Alien Buddha Press
April 2024; 61 pp

Relationships can be hard, after all, not so much because of high drama. They are difficult for the same reason life is hard. It is the constancy of the relationship, the grinding when one is not in the right relationship and even when one is in a good relationship sometimes. We see our love through the lens of our imperfect and often painful pasts, asking the current relationship to make up for the problems of all our previous ones. When they don’t, we then have to remind ourselves of the humanity of our partners again and again and to back away from our narcissism. Burd’s prose shows so eloquently how difficult such a task is. His work opens us up to those small moments that are exceedingly meaningful to us to show how people get through life with the imperfection of unsatisfying relationships.

We are often witness in Burd’s fiction to how awkward it is to allow ourselves to be vulnerable to another person, to show that person who we actually are or believe we are only to have that person be disappointed in us. In the first story of the collection, Burd’s character disappoints a woman in bed and is disappointed by her. He has tried to perform oral sex, but he finds doing so with her physically painful. They gripe at each other a bit and then go to sleep:

She turns away from me and curls into a ball. I’m stretched out long and staring at the ceiling. We are like one of those binary power switches. She’s the “◯” on one side and I’m the “|” line on the other side (3).

The physicality of the moment reflects the emotion. They might be in the same bed, but they are as far emotionally from each other as they could be. This distance and lack of emotional connection is heightened when Burd writes about a sexual relationship from the point-of-view of a woman being abused. Her partner wants her to use a tool, and she’s resistant:

You say it’s easy to use, even with my twiggy wrists and tiny hands.

You say it like an accusation, like my petite frame is my fault. You don’t mind it so much when your huge gut pins me to the mattress (53).

He is disappointed in everything about her to the point that he does not even seem to recognize her humanity. The thrill of hurting her seems to be the point of the relationship to him.

But if Burd shows us what it is for others to be disappointed in us, he also shows us what it is to turn that dynamic around; after all, in this sort of relationship, no one is going to measure up to our hopes and expectations. In one story, we follow a narrator who is in love with a woman named Brenda and realizes that he wants to have children with her. They like to drink and she goes out ostensibly to buy vodka that they will drink together. Instead, when he looks out the window, he sees that she’s hanging out with partying teenagers:

The group shifts with the beat of the music, and that’s when I see Brenda. She’s swigging from a bottle they’re passing around. I think she looks towards me, but I’m not sure. I open my mouth to call her, but the music is probably too loud for her to hear me. I could go get her. But maybe she just needs to get this out of her system (50).

Here Burd’s character is hoping for a kind of magic telepathy, hoping that this woman he loves will somehow magically understand that he has moved on to another phase of his life. He could simply tell her what he wants and needs, but he’s so caught up in his own thoughts that he’s surprised that she hasn’t guessed them. He is, in fact, trying to guess at her needs. He could just ask her if this is something that she needs to do, and then he would know where he stands, but like so many of us, he is deeply disappointed that she doesn’t have a kind of couple’s ESP.

A student once asked me what literary fiction was about. It took me a while, but the answer I came up with was unsatisfying relationships. I don’t think I’m the first person to come up with that answer, and I’m not sure how often that answer is true. It is true for much of my favorite literary fiction, however, and Burd’s fiction captures the dissatisfaction we have when we project the personality that we want onto our partners rather than allowing them to be who they are. Jeff Burd’s Sixteen Ways to Be in Love is a fantastic collection, and I couldn’t recommend it more.

John Brantingham
Issue 23 (April 2024)

was the first poet laureate of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (east of Fresno, CA), and now lives in Jamestown, New York. He is the founding editor of The Journal of Radical Wonder, and the author of 21 books of poetry, memoir, and fiction including his latest, Life: Orange to Pear (Bamboo Dart Press, 2020) and Kitkitdizzi (Bamboo Dart Press, 2022), the latter a collaboration which features artworks by his wife, Ann Brantingham.

John’s poems, stories, and essays are published in hundreds of magazines and journals. His work has appeared on Garrison Keillor’s daily show, The Writer’s Almanac; has been nominated multiple times for the Pushcart Prize; and was selected for publication in The Best Small Fictions anthology series for 2022 and 2016.

Author’s website: www.johnbrantingham.com/

More on the Web: By, About, and Beyond

A Walk Among Giants by Kendall Johnson, a review of John and Ann Brantingham’s book Kitkitdizzi: A Non-Linear Memoir of the High Sierra, in MacQueen’s Quinterly (Issue 16, January 2023)

Finnegan’s (Fiancée Goes McArthur Park on His Birthday) Cake, flash fiction by Brantingham in MacQueen’s Quinterly (Issue 9, August 2021), which was subsequently selected for publication in The Best Small Fictions 2022 anthology

Objects of Curiosity, a collection of his ekphrastic poems (Sasse Museum of Art, 2020)

For the Deer, one of two haibun by Brantingham in KYSO Flash (Issue 8, August 2017)

Four prose poems in Serving House Journal (Issue 7, Spring 2013), including A Man Stepping Into a River and Poem to the Child Who I Almost Adopted

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