Janet Hamill has published five books of poetry; this collection of 17 short stories, Tales from the Eternal Cafe, is her first book of prose. Although, some of these are so short—only two or three pages—and so exquisite they could almost be considered prose poems.
Patti Smith in her introduction writes, "In the world of literature, the café has long served as a sanctuary for its conception as well as an escape from its blessed tyranny. In the tales offered here, one may picture the melancholic cafés of the nineteenth century, where the poet, drowned in obscurity, pens his masterpiece and downs his absinthe."
The stories, reflecting Hamill's globetrotting history, are set in Belgium, the Veneto, Turin, Rome, Cordoba, Tangiers, New York City, an abbey in the Pyrenees, Mexico, and India. They range in time from medieval France to today's Rome, and range widely in style and character, from first-person narration by Baudelaire's first publisher, to a letter from a writer who knows he is going mad, to a magical tale reminiscent of Héloïse and Abélard, to a fable of a girl chosen to be the bride the Water Spirit, the Great Python.
By the nature of any short story collection (and the tastes of individual readers) some stories seem stronger than others, some will appeal more than others. I thought the long story in the middle of the book, "Espresso Cinecittá"—a young woman press agent working on her movie director uncle's production of The Divine Comedy—a perfectly good story. Good enough to make me think that Hamill had personal experience with Italian cinema. But compared to the other stories in the book, it is not special, whereas many of the other stories are.
One example: "Ursula and the Sublime" begins with a faux academic introduction to the life and works of "Ursula Campion," a Romantic-era painter. The rest of the story consists of Campion's diary entries, snapshots that give quick glimpses of her life and loves. These are like quick pencil sketches and the reader has to fill in the details, which makes the story both rich and rewarding. A fascinating collection.