Butler's latest: a work to lose your head over

Review Short Fiction

October 29, 2006|By Lisa Teasley | Lisa Teasley,Los Angeles Times

Severance: Stories

Robert Olen Butler

Chronicle Books / 264 pages / $22.95

In Severance, we are privy to the streams of consciousness that 62 heads experience upon being cut from their bodies. It is believed that after decapitation the head remains conscious for 90 seconds; at a heightened state of emotion, humans speak at a rate of 160 words per minute.

Thus, Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler gives us exactly 240 words for each of his heads. They are as varied as Medusa, Anne Boleyn, John the Baptist, the dragon slain by St. George, a chicken on its way to a Sunday dinner in 1958 Alabama and even Butler himself ("writer, decapitated on the job, 2008"). The result is glorious, pure poetry.

Still, one can only wonder why Butler didn't take the scientific assumptions of a decapitated head's 90-second state of consciousness along with the rate of speaking purely as inspiration, rather than constraint. As delightful as all these prose poems are, and as formalist as they appear, I couldn't help thinking that the American slave Jacob, slain by his owner, may have uttered more or less than Angry Eyes, an Apache warrior beheaded by Mexican troops in 1880. I would like to think that we are all created equal in death too, but what explains our varied reactions? Calm versus rage, rebellion versus resignation?

John the Baptist's soliloquy is among the most passionate: "Smelling of garlic he comes to me and he is lank with long hands and I rejoice that he enjoys his food and that in my own mouth there was only the bitter crunch of locust and the sour berry and the cloying of wild honey as I waited for him and I draw my face close to his mouth as I hold him in my arms to smell his very breath and I feel the hardness of his back and his hand curls up to cup my elbow angled by his side I pull that arm closer laying it along his body feeling his ribs and the Jordan rushes about us the fish rubbing at my legs like hungry dogs and I am hungry too and I would rub against him, my Lord my face of God, his eyes dark and narrowing at me as I hesitate to press him under and he whispers to me John you must do this and my mouth would speak but it is so close to his now and I lift him slightly toward me this man I have waited for all my life, waited to kiss, thinking it would be his feet but now I would have him open his mouth and devour me take me in his mouth and let me disappear into his very flesh and I would be sweet to his taste I am certain and he says John."

The heads are listed chronologically, along with country. Ancient Rome features prominently, as does 16th-century England, 18th-century France. Over the last 50 years, the U.S. begins to reign - for accidental and murderous beheadings. Later, there is the executioner in Yemen killed for a crime unrelated to his work, a Shiite cleric beheaded by Saddam Hussein, a West African woman subject to fatwa in 2002 and a 29-year-old Palestinian lawyer who blew up herself and 19 others in a Haifa restaurant suicide bombing in 2003.

Did the beheadings by Islamic terrorists in recent years inspire this project, so that we might ponder any culture's belief in meting out this particular punishment? Whether or not, it is a moving poetic exercise and a deeply empathetic experience for both writer and reader.

Lisa Teasley's most recent novel is "Heat Signature." She wrote this review for the Los Angeles Times.

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