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Book Review Heather Martin
Historical Markers
Lynn Kozlowski
Ravenna Press, 2004 ($9.50)

In his collection of “short and very short fiction,” Lynn Kozlowski offers readers a journey through the footnotes (not hills) of a rural landscape by way of historical markers, shards of memory, and sparse and wonderfully understated images. Broken into five parts, the quick narrative bursts belie a preoccupation with that which is tragic and oddly momentous, yet located in the ever-so-ordinary. From accounts that appear to be nuggets of ancestral and community lore—one imagines told and retold at family gatherings—to slices of personal narrative, the chronicles cohere into a decidedly unsentimental but nevertheless moving sequence of stories. As the title suggests, Kozlowski documents the undocumented. That is, he commemorates that which would otherwise be lost, broken, or forgotten through a series of points on a map, blips on a historical timeline.

The text is framed in the first and last sections, both said to contain transcriptions of historical markers dotting the “shoulderless country roads” of a rural upstate New York town and the mountainous Adirondack Region, respectively. The compact recordings offer the detached voice of the government marker juxtaposed with the strange happenstances of rural life. Carefully chosen details lend to the playfulness of the accounts: a man whose arm was “munched like celery” in a hay-bailing machine in “The Kris Accident”; the drowning of three obese men in a loaner canoe whose swollen corpses were hidden by the “dark, tea-colored water” for three days in “The Black River Tragedy”; the report of a hunter in “Deer Dip” so startled by the accidental “splattering of deer” across his car hood that he handed over the reigns of the Buick to his wife for the remainder of the drive. The literary punch of these images hinges on the author’s effective and economical language choices and sparse detail, coupled with the illusory credibility of the official marker. In effect, by locating each passage within the space of the road marker, Kozlowski toys with the reader’s notions of what could (and should) be contained within the space of these mysterious placards. We are at once curious about the possibility of such signs shadowing the quiet roads of rural America and tickled by the dark revelations of the stories themselves.

Kozlowski’s skill in creating narrative voice—which is restricted in the first and fifth “regions”—is discernible in the remaining three. Whereas the historical markers denote locations of “important” events, Kozlowski’s middle sections reveal stories that have marked a mental map; they chart the strange and defining experiences that seem to slow the turn of the earth: an untied shoelace, a shooting in the street, the intimate touch of the dental hygienist during a cleaning. Escaping the playful tone of the road markers, it seems that Kozlowski’s middle sections too are concerned with ways of seeing and of remembering. “The Long-Bearded Men” finds a professor gazing upon a photograph of bearded lecturers hung “in a poorly lit reception area” in an old college building in Krakow who, he imagines, “were full of themselves,” only to find, in his own arrogance, that they were professors executed by Nazis. Another instance details an exchange between three men—one of whom has suffered a stroke and is left confused and bewildered, unable to make the connections necessary to participate in the conversation. Each story reveals a tenderness and quiet resignation—like a drowning man who, while being pulled ashore by his wife, is told to “cut out the struggling.”

One might be tempted to look at Kozlowski’s stories as a reflection on the death of the rural, but what one finds in the text is, instead, a sense of the communal in the rural. The characters that populate the book seem related—if not by blood—then by experience, or perhaps by coincidence. And indeed, the community, the world the author creates is one of men. Kozlowski’s stories chronicle both the making of men and their demise—through the most insidious and natural of methods.

Kozlowski presses against the thin edge of his reader’s notions of rural life—those whose histories are populated with such lore and those who accept such stories as the pathetic realities of those residing outside the shiny anonymity of metropolis. Of the documented signs the narrator notes, “For years I passed them by at unreadable speeds. Print too small. Even slow village speeds were too fast to get more than a word or two.” And indeed it feels as though Kozlowski slows his readers and digs through the rubble of our lives to find these small glimpses into that which is passed along, that which remains, that which marks our real and imagined histories.