The First Church of What’s Happening
by Miah Jeffra
Published 2017 by Nomadic Press
$10 paperback ISBN 978-0-9981348-9-5
By Noah Sanders
Miah Jeffra’s chapbook, The First Church of What’s Happening, is a deceptively slender volume of lyrical essays. The book, a collection of 10 short, lyrical pieces flits between both form and tone, with Jeffra peeling back the loose skin around his succinct, specific thoughts to expose the connections between what seems like nearly everything. With subject matter ranging from how to seduce a tech bro (“How To Seduce a Tech Bro in 13 Steps”) to Keith Haring (“Make Sure to See The Exit Door”) to an almost granular exploration of the memory of a rape (“Sunset, 1986”), there’s a lot to unpack in The First Church of What’s Happening. Jeffra, for the most part, is up to the task, managing a delicate balance of crass humor, poetic description, and academic insight (the author is a professor at Santa Clara) to untangle a dense knot of memory, perception, and life experience to great effect.
The essay “13 Ways To Seduce a Tech Bro” is, at a surface level, a satire of the emotional “how to” lists made popular by Cosmopolitan and other glossy lifestyle mags. And if you read it straight through, with your thinking hat laid neatly on a shelf, you would chuckle at the dismantling of the typical “tech bro” at his ” after-party bro jobs” or that the “white male donning Warby Parkers” is probably named “Bryan or Brad or Brent or Brock or Chett or Chip.” Jeffra is a skilled humorist and he will make you laugh, but you’ll do so with a lingering edge of discomfort as the author unravels his “tech bro” subject, exploring the politics of protest, gentrification, a boy named Chris Cortina (“His ass filled a pair of shorts like two planets.”) and much more before using the whole form to skewer the shallow representation of glossy mag, emotional “how-to” lists in general. And just when it feels like you’ve ingested too much, like Jeffra’s layers upon layers of meaning have filled you to the point of popping, he ties it all together—the tone, the style, the form—into a heart-breaking expression of universal human emotion.
When Jeffra turns inward and picks apart his own experience is when the book truly takes flight. “Sunset, 1986” recalls, in graphic detail, Jeffra’s rape in the woods around the Virginia home of his youth. The visual experience Jeffra is able to build on the page is both breathtaking and harrowing, each moment zoomed in on microscopically, immersing the reader in the brutality. “Dirt and grainy nature stuck wet inside my lips,” he writes, “and I could feel slobber move inside my mouth.” But as much as this is an essay about being raped, Jeffra uses the moment to investigate the permeance of memory, and how as a grown gay man and a writer, his recollection of the event has smeared, altered, and changed as he’s grappled with its implications. He intrudes upon his own memory like a director commenting on a film, peering at it from different points in time, dragging the reader into the hindsight, the emotional grappling he’s gained as the distance has grown. “And I wish I could admit that I only thought of this man’s pitiful, sorry boyness, awkward with the darkness of adulthood,” he writes, “or that I thought of my boyness, and became afraid then of what I would be, what all men become.” It is a harrowing piece of writing, and the very best in a collection full of strong pieces.
It isn’t that Jeffra ever overextends—his tangents are always interesting, his ability to wind them together strong—but on occasion they become too much to digest fully. As if Jeffra has so much he needs to say in such a short amount space, the essays become overindulgent, a table laden with themes, ideas and descriptions to the point of breaking. Some of this is in part the general concept of reading an essay collection: as soon as you’ve got your teeth fully sunk into one set of Jeffra’s ideas, you jump headlong into another and the effect can be dizzying for good and for bad.
As a whole though, The First Church of What’s Happening threads the needle of humor and pain, truth and perception, circling around and around its subjects before landing quietly on some gasp-worthy bit of thought and writing. And sometimes, sometimes Jeffra’s choice to describe shitting himself as dropping a “stink pickle in my drawers” will just make you laugh, and amongst everything else, it will, as I can only imagine Jeffra intended, it will feel like a breath of fresh air.