I’ve been sitting here staring at this blank computer page for days, trying to convince myself not to overthink James Claffey’s debut short prose collection, Blood a Cold Blue. I’ve given up on that. My head is spinning.
As I move through these finely wrought stories, a larger narrative takes shape, image for image, from Death’s lost battle with Birth to Death’s ineluctable reprisal. The purport of Blood a Cold Blue is nothing short of the well-examined life: a provocative, often grim and always honest, dissection of humanity.
An image-rich, compact and fragmented style nudges Claffey’s prose toward poetry in so many of these pieces. Bared of its grammatical clothing, the author’s more poetic prose is like the nude human form: stripped down to its essentials—this last bit stolen from Claffey’s “Liver Spots.” Here’s what I mean:
“Yellow stripes. A curtain. Summer dress. Strawberry blonde.
Remind me of years ago. Thinner. Prettier. Not much older.
Been there, seen that, walked the streets. Nice to put context
to abstraction. Young. Not so young. A beach, sand, toes, shine
of sun, the hills pretty distant, your skin quite pale.”
(from “Jam Jar”)
This stop-motion photographic realism—just one technique in Claffey’s richly varied narrative palette—intensifies the resonance of each fragmented moment. Most of the over 80 pieces of sudden fiction in the collection examine life through the realist’s lens; yet Claffey certainly does not limit himself to realism.
A bird trapped in a boy’s ribcage, a woolly mammoth in a post-apocalyptic basement, the Kafka-esque insect in “Carapace”—these occasional moments of magical realism lend balance to an otherwise elegiac collection. Elegiac. Yes, many stories in the collection are; but these are not “fabulist passages of an Irish childhood” (“The Tearing of Skin”). They are hauntings “illuminating every fear”: worried recollections of bedwetting, illness and the subtle presence of tyranny.
Claffey’s work is not merely an exhaustive examination of life, but also quite a specific treatment of life’s assault on the human body—the heart, the brain, the liver, the kidneys, the bones and in particular the ribcage—as if Claffey is presenting life as corporeal punishment for our sins, and the author leaves no part of the body unmolested. From the skull to the toes, his characters are made to endure the inescapable misery of life and the rigid hand of Mother Church.
The various images of the Mother in these stories are particularly harsh, bound to a stark Irish interpretation of Christianity: punitive, cold and superstitious—though Claffey treats the latter much less than other Irish writers I’ve read. These images are counterpoised by a gentler character: a nurturing woman, who feeds the narrator with a spoon-like arm in “Privilege,” who comes in dreams to give comfort, and who ultimately becomes The Virgin Mary. A reconciliation of sorts with both Mam and Mother Church? Maybe, but it’s only my reading of “My Mother’s Hands”; you’ll have your own.
The collection will compel you to think—maybe overthink—about corporeal decay, the deterioration of relationships, the unthinkable separation of religion and the archetype of Mother, and, yes, Ireland—oh, and of course the semiotics of birds.
Blood a Cold Blue (83 stories in 150 pages) is available from Press 53.
Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O’Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Available from Amazon.