thechapbookreview

Pedro Ponce’s Superstitions of Apartment Life: Reviewed by Greg Gerke

Superstitions of Apartment Life
By Pedro Ponce
Burnside Review Press
$6

Reviewed by Greg Gerke

I have enjoyed Pedro Ponce’s work in such journals as Caketrain and elimae. After seeing that Aimee Bender selected him as winner of the Burnside Review Press Fiction Chapbook Contest I was even further intrigued. Reading Superstitions of Apartment Life, I discovered a manual of sorts with no discernable narrative. A collage of terms. I was perplexed. Had Ponce decided to abandon fiction in favor of list making? Not exactly.

In Superstitions of Apartment Life, Pedro Ponce indexes alphabetically various terms from “Ant” to “Hanging Garden,” from “Solumancy to Zootomancy.” The terms cover a wide range, from the household (a dirty word in the history of tenements) to the magical. They highlight the cloistered population’s lives, their small, cramped quarters beset by a parade of pests (ants, pigeons, rats, spiders, moths, the oracle bug) and superstitions (zymurgy: the finding of foreign currency in apartments and their meaning), plus a few of Ponce’s own manipulation, including evection: the influence of the lunar phases on mood and behavior with definitions for waxing, full, waning and new). Augury, omens, harbingers, oracles, taboos and superstitions abound. For instance, the borrowing of condiments in many early tenements was considered “obscene.” Here we also learn that “Hanging Gardens” (a popular gift for tenement-bound newlyweds) were originally designed for King Nebuchadnezzar’s wife in 590 B.C.E. as she missed the lushness of her homeland.

In a Cortazarian twist, there are in fact two ways to read the chapbook: to start from the beginning, or to start with the first entry “Address.” It contains the directive to go see the entry “Mail” where you’ll find a two paragraph gloss on the subject that ends with a true postal error from Gordon Griffin’s Compendium of Tenement Lore (1912), and then the directive to “See also Equine.” Since “Equine” has no further directive the reader is free to return to the beginning or meander in the E’s and F’s for a while until the text directs the reader to the S’s. And so on.

Ponce’s prose sometimes assumes the tone of a 1950’s instruction manual while at other times it busts a seam with its hyper-poetic sensibility and eye on modern life. While the entry on “Bachelor’s Ring” (“The grime and matted hair that encircles the drain of an infrequently cleaned bathtub”) is an example of the former, the entry on “Laundry” offers a broader definition:

Laundry is considered a process of renewal: we feed our soiled and wrinkled garments into concavities burnished and sleek as the mouths of idols; watch the contents porpoise cheerfully in arcs through purifying suds and spray; transfer sodden braids to dryer’s maw, from which our clothes emerge restored to a warm, billowing blankness.

There is transcendence to the life confined. Our day-to-day chores mesmerize us and also make us more or less open to human contact, depending on the task. But there is a darkness to the apartment dweller’s psychology as well. As Ponce writes in “House,” “The tenant scuttles, perpetually in transit, a hermit crab in search of its shell.”

At the back of the book is a two page list of sources, dictionaries of omens and urban legends, Ponce used. From these come anecdotes like one in the “Feline” entry about the Tenement Poets (1902-1910) and an entire sonnet about a cat by Irving Hays. Ponce writes:

The cat’s influence on Hays was short-lived. In 1911, the poet’s landlord, impatient to claim three months of owed rent, entered Hay’s suite and found his week-old corpse swinging from a ceiling fixture.

Ponce’s dabbling in these minutiae also includes a wealth of humor. For instance, in the entry “Canon of Provisional Topics,” the appropriate topics of conversation for new acquaintances as listed from oldest to most recent are: “1. Weather, 2. Music, 3. Food, 4. Celebrities in trouble, and 5. Yoga.”

As an anthropological study of magic and superstition in the quiet spaces of apartments, Superstitions of Apartment Life marks new territory for Ponce, and it is a striking work. And as in Beckett, Ponce’s objects, places, and spaces come alive and take on a glimmering and sometimes benighted meaning. It is a world rich in possibilities and probabilities.

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