Whether you call them experiments or parables, stories or prose poems, the narratives in Jefferson Navicky’s “Antique Densities: Modern Parables & Other Experiments in Short Prose” present odd situations and a plethora of characters yearning for discovery or connection. The book’s “Introduction,” in effect its first prose poem, describes the author’s life-changing moment in a “small, dark bookstore” where he finds the Howard Schwartz anthology “Tales of Wisdom: 100 Modern Parables.” It becomes for him a kind of portal that liberates him from the “restricting realistic prose realm to which I’d been previously confined.”

Picking up on the theme of the introduction, “Me & Borges” turns to a consideration of two Borges stories, “Everything and Nothing” and “Borges and I,” which are both contained in the Schwartz anthology. The narrator joins Borges for a Sunday morning walk, even taking “his elbow through crosswalks.” The duality of the two characters mimics the duality in the original story, “Borges and I.” Once he has the old writer settled in his usual library seat, the narrator asks “What will I do today, where will I go, now that I’ve found myself in the Library?”

One of the many pleasures of “Antique Densities” is its adherence to the singular conceit of a deconstructed library, a Borgesian place suggested by Jeffrey Haste’s cover art, an abstract portrayal of columns overlaid with recognizable shapes, one of them a set of stairs, another two arched windows framing clouds. The reader explores the book as if wandering through this structure, guided by the titles of the individual sections: Books, Maps, City Directories, Transcripts of Oral History, and Special Collections. A search for meaning and self-knowledge underpins “Antique Densities.”

As with “Me & Borges,” sometimes the narrator seems to be Navicky himself, the author whose initials appear after the “Introduction.” In “Yellow,” for example, the speaker, writing in his journal in a café, describes the “fever” of a street littered with sycamore leaves and “a vision of the north country whose expanse feels both punctual and fleeting.” In “Teeth,” the narrator recalls standing with his grandfather and looking across the river to Canada. He shares his longing: “We drank the colors from the shallow bowls of our hands. I tasted everything that was North.”

Other pieces adopt different points of view and offer unexpected commentary on modern life or inner worlds. In “The Downed Book,” the titular object, face down on the floor of a library, a “casualty” of modernization, longs for the “old library, comfortable and musty,” finally escaping by triumphantly flying out into the sky, followed by all the other books. They leave the library to the wonders of the tech age. The reader rejoices with the escaped books, but also feels abandoned by them.

“Eating People” is a monologue presented by a surly workman, just following orders, which in this case means “eating leftover people.” The outlandish subject matter, the workman’s tone and the scattered nature of his speech repel the reader. Is he an everyman, a ruthless bill collector or an identity thief, some creature believing he has no choice for his actions? “Map of the Provinces,” set in a vast landscape, introduces a priest who is fleeing the Jesuits. After an exhausting journey, he relinquishes his identity by undressing, entering a river, and letting the water take his robes. With this inverted baptism, he divests himself of his vocation.

The penultimate poem, “Imperial Message,” begins with the story of a student in Paris who writes a “little book of histories and mock parables,” then shifts to the first-person voice of the narrator of the introduction. He mentions the Schwartz anthology once again and suggests that he has been searching for books by the more obscure writers in that collection. This return to “Tales of Wisdom” is satisfying structurally, but also thematically, conveying the sense of this speaker’s yearning “to write just one parable that could be included in such a collection.”

The poems in “Antique Densities” are written in a matter-of-fact style that contrasts sharply with their often-fantastical content. Navicky’s box-shaped prose pieces – like much of Borges’s work – suggest the index cards of an ancient card catalogue. These recognizable accoutrements of order, like the layered cover art, help the reader navigate vivid journeys into the subconscious.

Jeri Theriault’s awards include the 2023 Maine Arts Commission Literary Arts Fellowship and the 2022 NORward Prize (“New Ohio Review”). Her poems and reviews have appeared in “The Rumpus,” “The Atlanta Review,” “Plume” and elsewhere. She is the editor of “Wait: Poems from the Pandemic” (2021). Find her at jeritheriault.com.

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