The Crimes of Clara Turlington by Meg Johnson (Vine Leave Press, 2015) is a thin collection full of sex and fire. These pieces are mostly poems, but also include short scenes and ruminations that don’t seem to fit any established literary form. They aren’t quite flash fiction, but aren’t quite prose poems either. They feel like scene treatments for a story, notes Johnson has jotted to herself to explode into greater color and depth later on.
Vine Leaves Press provides the explanation for what this form actually is in the back of the book:
“‘Vignette’ is a word that originally meant ‘something that may be written on a vine leaf.’ It’s a snapshot in words. It differs from flash fiction or a short story in that its aim does not lie within the realms of traditional structure or plot. The vignette focuses on one element, mood, character, setting or object. It’s descriptive, excellent for character or theme exploration and wordplay. Through a vignette, you create an atmosphere.”
Later, they clarify their mission as a press is “to give the vignette, a forgotten literary form, the exposure and credit it deserves.”
It’s an intriguing goal, and I think the form does hold great potential for allowing a poet or writer to explore images and scenes and characters without having to hold plot in mind. Still, it feels like a development tool to a different work. A lot of the vignettes in Clara Turlington feel like notes to a later piece of writing we haven’t been permitted to read. They are interesting, but feel incomplete, and lead to the book feeling somewhat disjointed. I wanted to know more. But that might be the point.
The pieces in Clara Turlington, which I will call poems from here on out to avoid confusion, deal with misbehaving females of various stripes. Some are sexually aggressive, some take justice into their own hands, some seem to vibrate with frustration and discontent. The women and girls in these pages would be friends with Tuesday Weld’s Sue Ann Stepanek from 1968’s Pretty Poison, and while they may not like to admit it, they listen to a lot of Lana Del Rey.
In “Slugger,” we’re told:
“I could never be
a suspect, cardigan
and pink lips.”
While in “L,” the narrator purrs:
“Wild thing, I’ll write
your name inside
a cheerleading uniform.
Wear it to meet you
by the railroad tracks.”
In other poems Johnson seems to write from her own thoughts. In “Ladies, Call Now” she disparages the absurd mediocrity of the dating options she and others are presented with:
“Press 1 if you’d like a tattoo artist wearing a gold
chain and swim trunks to make a move on you
in a hot tub as he chews on a toothpick …”
She writes with a bold sexual license, telling us in the cheeky “I Like Penises”:
“…My clit like a space
heater, like a second heart,
a bright planet I rule.”
The Crimes of Clara Turlington had the tone I hoped it would but didn’t quite carry through with the substance of scene this tone promised. These vignettes are interesting clips, but I want to read the full scenes and poems Johnson could turn them into. I suppose that unsatisfied curiosity is half the point of the form.