OFF RADAR: “Ancient Densities: Modern Parables and Other Short Prose Experiments”


“Ancient Densities: Modern Parables and Other Short Prose Experiments” by Jefferson Navicky; Deerbrook Publishing House, Cumberland, Maine, 2021; 104 pages, paperback, $ 18.50.

In the introduction to his original book, “Antique Densities: Modern Parables & Other Experiments in Short Prose”, Jefferson Navicky explains how he was influenced by an anthology of “Modern Parables” written by Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and other story writers, whom he found a long time ago during a visit to a second-hand bookstore in Manhattan. At first, I believed in it.

After having read “Ancient Densities”, I don’t know if this visit to the bookstore really took place. And I don’t know if Navicky is.

He is a librarian (in particular, archivist for the Maine Women Writers Collection at the University of New England), and librarians appear frequently as narrators or main characters in the sixty or so writings of the five-section book – ” Books ”,“ Maps ”,“ Town directories ”,“ Oral history transcriptions ”and“ Special collections ”- all areas of librarians.

Few of the writings are longer than one page. Most of them describe events that appear to be fictional, but not in a conventional narrative sense. Many of them seem closer to prose poems than to prose narratives (for a brief discussion of prose poems, see Off Radar, July 6, 2017, on the clever “On the Edge of No Answer: prose poems” by Joal Hetherington. And despite the title of the book, barely a handful of them are parables in the conventional sense of the word because, as Navicky suggests, few of them offer an Aesop-like enclosure or Scriptures.

I happen to know how to read this stuff. Decades ago, I had a long, sweaty struggle with Kafka, whose dark ironies can be as baffling as brilliant koans. Her shorter pieces are best read as if they were based on dreams – they may or may not mean something you can sum up for a friend. But they are so weird and real that once you start them you can’t stop. It’s the closest thing to a category that Navicky’s parables fall into. And when you start to say that Kafka is in a “category,” you know you’re in strange territory.

For a memorable example, “Catapult” (half a page) begins: “The last student enters the room. We sit in a circle. The port is waiting. (“The harbor is waiting”?) “There is a catapult in the center of the classroom, spring loaded from plywood and leather. The group talks and jokes ironically about the craft, then one by one the students are thrown into the harbor. “Someone should be keeping track of where they land.”

You can imagine a school librarian attending this launch party, so it’s not far from the inference that Navicky himself somehow witnessed this weird scene. It should have been in a dream, right?

A long, long time ago, Richard Brautigan’s “Trout Fishing in America” ​​blew the minds of young drug-seeking children who might also have experimented with psychedelic drugs. “Antique Densities” has the same kind of real, unreal tenor, and any remaining fans of Brautigan, Kafka, Borges, or other uncategorizable writers should really dig into this book. It will throw your head for a loop.

Previous books of Navicky’s unorthodox tales include “The Book of Transparencies” (2019) and “The Paper Coast”

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Connections from Maine on the first and third Friday of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected].


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