Literary Magazine Reviews

Posted May 15, 2010

CALYX :: Creative Nonfiction :: Eclipse :: Fact-Simile :: The Greensboro Review :: Gulf Coast :: Harvard Review :: The Hudson Review :: New Madrid :: Saltgrass :: Saranac Review :: The Southern Review :: Subtropics :: Witness

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CALYX coverCALYX

A Journal of Art and Literature by Women

Volume 25 Number 3

Winter 2010

Triannual

Review by Kristin DeLong

CALYX was established by four women in 1976 to explore the creative genius that women contribute to literature and art. The publication prints three issues per volume in the winter and summer. It presents a wide range of poetry, short stories, artwork, and book reviews. Its mission is to “nurture women’s creativity by publishing fine literature and art by women.” CALYX is known for discovering and publishing new writers and artists or those early in their careers; among them Julia Alvarez, Molly Gloss, and Eleanor Wilner. The publication delivers high quality work to all audiences. By 2005, CALYX had published over 3,800 writers and artists.

The cover art of the latest issue was what drew me to pick it up. A group of young girls stands amidst a busy line of outdoor shops. The girls have different looks and attire, and wear expressions that suggest their curiosity for one another. The photograph works well with the mission of the magazine because it suggests that these little women could one day be writers or artists.

A main theme in the fiction and poetry pieces in this volume is women’s roles in familial situations. “Daughters, Bathe Your Mothers” by Lilace Mellin Guignard was one poem that I particularly enjoyed. The scene is of a daughter bathing her elderly mother. The narrator reflects on her childhood memories of her mother and understands why her mother raised her the way she did. A few of the most powerful lines read: “And if it’s difficult to make your hands / move over her body like they do your own, / remind yourself this was your body before you had one, / and soon yours will be all that’s left of them both.” How true those words are, that before a child has a body, they share their mother’s body. The detail indicates the debt children have to their mothers for giving them life, and Guignard reminds readers that someday they will have to repay that debt.

“Maria Makes Out” by Kathryn Kirkpatrick is also an incredibly powerful poem. It is about a woman undergoing reconstructive surgery after a double mastectomy. The narrator expresses extreme elation just to wake up and feel her breasts again. She becomes even happier in expectation of the next surgery when she will be given nipples. She wants to do all the things that she felt that she could not do without them. She excitedly remembers: “But I woke up, put my hands / on my chest, and oh my, I felt like // a woman again.” It is sad to think that a double mastectomy can make someone feel as if they are not a woman anymore. The narrator thinks of Ramon leaving her and tears herself down for not having breasts by saying, “Who would want // me like that?” I could have argued with the narrator’s point of view all day, but Kirkpatrick portrays a reality that many women believe in.

“Moment” by Carol L. Gloor explores the swiftness of death and its ability to strike with no warning. The narrator in this piece was at an office Christmas party when receiving the call about hers/his mother’s passing. The final line caught my eye as the narrator thinks, “And in one swift moment all my past acts / become irrevocable.” There is a strong sense of guilt that makes this piece stand out. Instead of making up for misdeeds, the narrator was at an office party drinking scotch. When we imagine others as being healthier than they are, we think that we have more time to make up for past wrongdoings, but sometimes it does not turn out that way. Gloor does an amazing job highlighting this fact.

These three pieces convey compelling messages that are emotionally engaging and provide readers a cause for reflection on their personal lives. Stirring the spectrum of emotion is one of the traits that make a piece memorable and this edition of the magazine does a thorough job of it. These pieces are impressive examples of the fine literature and art by women that the magazine’s mission speaks of.
[www.calyxpress.org]

 

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Creative Nonfiction coverCreative Nonfiction

Number 38

Spring 2010

Quarterly

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

Nonfiction guru Lee Gutkind describes the new incarnation of Creative Nonfiction (big, bold, red!) in a style befitting any charismatic leader:

Some years ago, I began stating that creative nonfiction was a movement – and not a moment. The literary journal, Creative Nonfiction, sparked the movement by legitimizing the genre with the academic writing world and providing all writers with a voice and an outlet for serious and often very long nonfiction work. And now the genre has taken off and is coming into its own. And we are responding to the movement – and astounding and continuing growth – by evolving from journal to magazine.

This evolution is not merely physical – from small format to large; from text-only pages to lots of varied design elements; from black type to reverse type and shades of red; from uniform font sizes and styles to immense variation in the type; from academic appearance to popular magazine – but also substantive. The stars! Just consider a few of the names in the TOC of this first issue of the new mag: Richard Rodriguez, Dave Eggers, Phillip Lopate, David Shields, Bill McKibben, Virginia Morell, the now-famous-though-less-so-when-this-mag-was-in-production Rebecca Skloot, and Carolyn Forché.

The issue kicks off with a multi-page chronology of “Great (and not so great) moments in creative nonfiction, 1993-2010,” which includes some obvious highs and lows (think Oprah) and some not obvious ones (AWP counts 822 degree-conferring creative writing programs in the US in 2009. Is that a high or a low?). The writing in this issue is quite spectacular and includes exemplary models (as befits a magazine that takes credit for founding a movement and evolving along with it) of the genre.

Immortality (as befits the magazine’s assertions about itself) is the announced “focus” of this issue. From Forché’s heartbreaking but never self-pitying story of her cancer, to Morell’s treatise on plants and animals that live forever, to the opinion/analysis by Richard Rodriguez on the demise of “The NewsHour” on PBS (which I, too, had long been lamenting), the work is strong, engaging, expertly crafted, deeply satisfying, and beautifully composed. There is an appealing balance of shorter opinion/analysis style pieces (like the Rodriguez commentary) and longer “essays.”

The journal closes with “afterWords” on “the art of the start” with 11 opening lines from a diverse set of nonfiction favorites (works by Truman Capote, Frank Conroy, Susan Orlean, Lucy Grealy, Mary Karr, you get the picture) exhibiting every element of the magazine’s new graphic style, boxed with headings that summarize their purpose as first lines (“Setting,” “Voice-Over,” “Warning”). “Warning” is the last, and it’s from William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways: “Beware thoughts that come in the night.” When Gutkind and his team dreamt up this new magazine, it was clearly day time.
[www.creativenonfiction.org/]

 

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Eclipse coverEclipse

Volume 20

Fall 2009

Annual

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

Eclipse is an annual of poetry and fiction published by Glendale Community College in California. I did not find many names with which I was familiar in the TOC (the exceptions being Richard Robbins and Lyn Lifshin), but the writers featured here have solid and even impressive credentials nonetheless (Poetry East, Mid-American Poetry Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Bitter Oleander, Hunger Mountain, Atlanta Review, Ploughshares, Field, Boston Review, The Antioch Review, Kalliope, Black Warrior Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Glimmer Train, Sixteen Rivers Press, White Pine Press). And what’s more important, I appreciated most of the work, and I liked a lot of it (which are, and happily so, not the same thing).

The work is solid, original, pleasing, and sometimes surprising. Poetry and fiction are equally strong, and the editorial vision is generous, but not without cohesion. There is sweetness without saccharine tendencies from Doug Cox (“Lullaby as a Second Language”):

Foreign, our motherless tongues.
It’s the falling we need, sweet dreams,
& the rest. Plus, the songs just before.

There is philosophical musing in wholly real and original terms from Austin Tremblay (“The Town I Happened to Be in Was home”):

That’s what I have to think,
walking over the uneven stones
of downtown, just bigger stones, stationary
ghosts…
It’s the reason I leave
porches, praise stray dogs, drink
in the wrong bars until I can’t relearn
my way around. I don’t know
to be here on purpose.

There is grief and longing shaped into language that can make me grieve and long, too, from Kathleen McGookey (“Grief’s Pretty Prize”):

What is the difference between lament and complaint?
Today I am all mouth, unsatisfied…
…Someday I will tell you my story:
imagine me in the hospital’s hallways, lit by green exit signs,
pushing the baby’s stroller longer than you’d think I could,
in that clean bright light, away from someone I love.

There is poetry showing us the art of seeing from Jeffrey Talmadge (“Other Life”):

We were that house
you could see from the highway,
far enough away
you couldn’t tell who we were.

There is the delight of traditional images flipped over to brown on the other side from Donna Pucciani (“Mary McGuire”):

Plump and fresh as a scone warm from the oven,
Mary absorbs the identity of short pastry
through the palm of her hands…
Four and twenty blackbirds flap overhead.
Woman becomes biscuit.

There are stories with intriguing first lines that grab hold and keep you hanging on, as in Rolf Yngve’s “Billy”: “The way it is with Caroline, someone gets the blame.” And stories with narrators I want to know right away, as in James Pate’s “Parrot”:

She didn’t make it a mystery, why she left me. I was thin and barely ever ate, I had colds for half the year. I bought expensive imported beer I couldn’t afford. I did have a job, but it wasn’t a good one. And when it came to food, I liked watching cooking shows on Cable. . .

And stories that are deceptively casual and then build to lyrical conclusions, as in Aaron Hellem’s “San Raphel”: “It was all the faith and comfort we had left, the useless idols painted on our skin.” And there is the classical, remade in a poem about, well, making and remaking (“Daedaulus” from Helen Wickes): “I go on and what else is a maker to do. I mourn. I go on […] For everything I make, something’s unmade.”

I, for one, am glad that in Glendale, California, they make Eclipse.

 

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Fact-Simile coverFact-Simile

Volume 2 Number 2

Autumn 2009

Biannual

Review by Christopher Wiesman

Fact-Simile, a young, independent literary journal published out of Colorado, looks more like an unremarkable neighborhood newsletter than a magazine dedicated to “push[ing] the envelope of polite society.” In fact, next to other widely circulated contemporary journals, it appears downright prosaic – an aesthetic yawn. But its homespun look belies its content. Fact-Simile offers interviews with authors, reviews of plays and short stories, and a healthy sampling of poetry representing all genres. It is professionally edited and well composed.

Accessibility is clearly the primary objective of this publication. Although Fact-Simile is independently published and likely only marginally sponsored, its threadbare format is not solely the result of financial constraint. It is not overtly “artsy”; even the title of the journal is disarmingly casual, reminiscent of the everyday lexicon of the office, not the esoteric gallery. This style of presentation of the material suggests what is important is the presentation itself, not ancillary artistic frills.

Apart from the creative title, most everything else about Fact-Simile is straightforward. There is an interview with poets Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop, a review of Collapsible Poetics Theatre by Rodrigo Toscano, and, of course, a goodly smattering of poetry. It is difficult to categorize Fact-Simile, because the editors quite plainly boast their publication as genreless. That assertion is not entirely accurate, though. One can clearly see the distillation of many schools in the work printed in Fact-Simile. If anything, this journal is genre-splitting, cutting across the margins of several disparate styles: There is prose poetry (“Poem Addressing Assumptions and Various Possibilities” by Peter Davis), modernist (“Mathias sets out to study song” by John Cross), postmodernist (“Keyboard” by Michael Alfaro), as well as run-of-the-mill free verse (“Painters’ Exhalations 435: after Winslow Homer’s High Cliff, Coast of Maine” by Felino Soriano).

The final line of Peter Davis’s “Poem Addressing Assumptions and Various Possibilities” is perhaps the best example of Fact-Simile’s breadth: “This quoting of me really rocks!” Any poet, regardless of artistic loyalties, is given the chance to publish. Anyone, including the author of the relentlessly dreadful poem “Keyboard” has a platform so long as his or her work can excite, inflame, question, and transcend. Equal parts antiestablishment and traditional (however unintentionally – Fact-Simile’s spartan design is not exactly unprecedented, nor is the artistic preoccupation with flouting rules; and it is certainly no coincidence that John Cross’s “Mathias…” looks like it came from the Gertrude Stein archives), this journal really may have something to please everyone. Further, it offers the opportunity for fledgling writers – even those who may not consider themselves writers – to publish, so long as they indulge their own desire to challenge conventions.
[www.fact-simile.com]

 

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Greensboro Review coverThe Greensboro Review

Number 86

Fall 2009

Biannual

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

The rainstorm that thrashed its way across the Northeast in March was just delivering its final punishing blows to the tri-state region when I read Christine Tobin’s “Exhale,” winner of the The Greensboro Review’s Amon Liner Poetry Prize. She captures well the anxiety before and sense of strangeness and near disassociation during a storm of great magnitude, and then the return to routine, in this case one that is symbolic of the death and destruction of the everyday, the cycle of life with or without storms, the return to normalcy as a return to a cycle of expected devastation on some level:

In the morning I find the trophy my cat left –
a small creature – a mouse or mole
almost neatly dissected on the rug in front of the cast-iron stove:
body, then head, then organs clustered like whitewashed pebbles.

Tobin’s poem is representative of many of the poems and stories in the issue, small narratives that build to impressive, lasting final images of visual or metaphysical heft (the other award-winning poem, “Father as a Distant Boat” by Jennifer Whitaker; Lois Beebe Hayna’s poem, “Brief Eden”; Michael Cadnum’s poem, “Neglected Garden”; stories by Alexander Lumans and Denzil Strickland).

At the same time, there are significant departures, particularly in the poetry selections, from this model, demonstrating the editors’ eclectic editorial vision. Byron A. Kanoti’s “Earth-Eater! Earth-Eater!”, composed of single lines that stretch across the page (left margin/indented line/left margin/indented line) in an urgent lyrical plea, also uses the storm as metaphor, but with an entirely distinct aesthetic from Tobin’s. At the same time, he brings us to a conclusion not unlike hers, and then to another wholly unique:

When we are finished we are mysteries

–for sciences of the delivered–

All music is broken from silences in stone.

All stories

offend a bored god then retreat

into the deep mood of its first believer.

Stephanie M. Boyle Fledderjohann’s “All That Resides in the Unspoken,” offers another approach to images of damage (“Why can’t you keep your life together?” the poem begins). Her poem is composed of four single-line questions, answered in parentheses containing longer verses, paragraph-like in italics (the unspoken). The poem is one of loss and grief, which does, so often it seems to me, prompt us to imagine answers to questions we will never have a chance to ask.

Stories are told in casual, familiar voices and tell the tale, for the most part, of family relationships There are natural disasters here, too, (a forest fire in Bushnell’s “J. T. Bushnell’s Evacuation”), and the same press toward snapshot-image-conclusions as in much of the poetry (“Her arm dropping like dead weight around him and pulling him tightly against her body” in Strickland’s “Texas is a Big Place”). There is a decided tenderness in most of this work, a forward motion toward the clear skies at the end of the storms, that keeps us hopeful – and reading.
[www.greensbororeview.org]

 

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Gulf Coast coverGulf Coast

Volume 22 Number 1

Winter/Spring 2010

Biannual

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

In memory of the poet Ai, whose work appears in this issue (and which I had not happened upon in a long, long time) and who died just this past March of cancer, let me begin this review with an excerpt from what is likely to be the last poem of hers I’ll see in a current issue of a magazine, “I’m the Only One Here”:

I was smuggled into America
inside a ship’s container.
Once a day, the first mate opened it
so we could breathe fresh air.
Then one day, he didn’t come.

Ai built her reputation on telling hard stories. I do not know if she wrote about her struggles with illness, though it would not have been typical for her to do so, her work focused generally on the difficult lives of others. I hope, however futile it is to do so now, that she did not suffer terribly in the final months and days of her life.

The impulse to recount a powerful story through a form not always associated with narrative or not only with narrative is evident in a variety of highly satisfying incarnations throughout the issue. While managing editor Sean Bishop explains the journal was searching for a comic book or graphic novel that does not rely too heavily on narrative – and this one certainly does not – the extraordinary “graphic interpretation” of The Wasteland by Ben Powis, the first section of which appears here, is a beautiful example of the way words and illustrations together combine to create a story distinct from what either form creates alone. Powis has a unique and compelling graphic style well matched to the material in many ways, but also jarring at times, which, paradoxically, serves to enhance the impact of the union of visual and verbal texts.

The same is true of an exceptional piece by Noam Dorr, “Wouldn’t It,” which is classified as a “lyric essay,” a label that seems apt for the style of prose (an elegant, lyrical memoir of a difficult childhood), but does not indicate that the essay is also created of marvelous visual elements (expertly rendered line drawings). I love this piece – the writing is gorgeous and the essay is brilliantly composed and extremely moving with its yearning and sad refrain (“It would be lovely and terrible to live in a world made of…”).

These exciting, provocative works are, incredibly, only a tiny portion of the journal’s contents, which also include poems by G. C. Waldrep, Ilya Kaminsky, Laura Kaisischke, Mark Jarman, and Linda Bierds, among many others; the winners of the magazine’s nonfiction, poetry, and fiction contests; a lengthy section of poems by “emerging writers”; two interviews (Ruben Martinez and Chuck Klosterman); several short stories; an essay by Elena Passarello; and a number of reviews.

If there is a common element or unifying feature in these many distinct and largely satisfying works, it’s a predilection for strong, evocative, language and original images. And a perhaps a sense of restraint, the same holding back while holding forth that makes the graphic/poetic work of Powis powerful – the emotional impact of efficient writing in the best sense of the term, no excess, no sloppy corners or haphazard conclusions, the emotional weight that a slender line delivers. This is equally true of the work by emerging poets, this issue’s stars, and the award winners (of which my favorite is a prose poem by Patricia Colleen Murphy, “Why I Burned Down Namdaemun Gate”: “I set fire to the gate because developers took my property and did not fully compensate me”).

Here is Mark Jarman, from “Sayings,” capturing many of the issue’s strengths in his couplets:

Zero Tolerance
If nothing is permitted, everything is sacred.
Angel at the Bedside
It all looks tall when lying down.

At nearly 270 pages, with its thick cover, high quality paper, and weighty contents, Gulf Coast is simply too overwhelming to read lying down, but do sit up and take notice.
[www.gulfcoastmag.org]

 

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Harvard Review coverHarvard Review

Number 37

2009

Biannual

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

I’m always pleased when a Table of Contents includes some of my favorite, but lesser known writers, in this case Mark Conway and Christina Davis. Both are moderately well established (impressive publication credentials), but not entirely familiar names even to avid poetry readers (like Jane Hirshfield or Kim Addonizio, both of whom appear in this issue, as well). Conway’s work is always beautifully crafted, tender, moving, and memorable. While his work often narrates a personal or family story (which interests me less, admittedly, than work of a more metaphysical nature), he always reaches beyond the daily images for something larger and fuller. He has just one poem here, “Scholar of the Sorrows,” but it is representative of his work and I am happy to find him in this prestigious location.

Davis is typically philosophical, often wistful, and always economical in the extreme, which I admire. Her one poem in this issue, “For the Dark and Blazing Truths,” is gorgeous, preoccupied with language in the very best sense, as most of her poems tend to be, sleek, searching, and refined:

We did not after
speak, since “I” is the heading
to every exile

Conway and Davis are well accompanied by Tom Sleigh, David Hernandez, Peter Balakian, Yusef Komunyakaa, Clarence Major, Susan Rich, Tomaz Salamun, among others of similar stature.

Four solid and appealing stories and four equally appealing essays – strong, deftly composed prose, original but not quirky – by such stars as Alice Hoffman and Philip Lopate, and the equally talented and less recognized names Chris Leslie-Hynan and Peter Silver, rival the poetry’s competence and pleasures. I especially appreciated Fred McGavran’s story, “The Reincarnation of Horlach Spencer,” I suppose, in part, because any story with the name Horlach in the title simply demands attention, and because the opening paragraph has a kind of narrative buoyancy that simply makes one glad to read. And I love Lopate and believe his reputation is well earned and much deserved, and this essay about Brooklyn, “Brooklyn the Unknowable,” couldn’t be more enjoyable.

There is much odd and oddly fascinating art in this issue, including reproductions of work by Nellie King Solomon, Roland Flexner, Richard Snyder, David Goldes, Xiaoze Xie, Michal Rovner, and Ross Bleckner. From molecules to the spines of books, much of this work is about defamiliarizing the familiar or making familiar the unknowable.

More than a dozen and half reviews round out the issue, including Mary Jo Bang on Richard Howard and Cole Swenson, Diann Blakely on Jill Bialosky, and Andrew DuBois on Kevin A. Gonzalez.
[www.harvardreview.org]

 

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The Hudson Review coverThe Hudson Review

Volume 62 Number 4

Winter 2010

Quarterly

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

Harold Fromm’s essay “Michael Phelps, Domenico Scarlatti, and Scott Ross,” encapsulates the issue’s most dominant and captivating aspects, the strangely rewarding juxtaposition of the popular and the esoteric; entertainment and sport with the arts; the ordinary and the arch; gold medals (Phelps) and gold standards (Scott Ross).

Not all of these juxtapositions are thematic or content-based, many reside in the pieces’ wildly distinct tones, from a scholarly essay on Yeats, Eliot, and Pound by Denis Donoghue and learned reviews of opera, dance, art, and theater by Erick Neher, Marcia B. Siegel, Karen Wilkin, and Richard Hornby, to Kermit Moyer’s short story, “Learner’s Permit”:

“Always use your turn signal and check your rearview mirror before you pull into traffic,” my father says.
Which I think is basically what I’ve just done – only I didn’t bother with my blinker since I’m not really making a turn, and I checked the rearview mirror at the same time I pulled away from the curb instead of before, so I immediately have to step on the brakes to let a “Big D” Diaper Service truck pass by.

Poetry in this issue reflects less persistently divergent tones and diction, although there are some strikingly different approaches. Here is the opening of Judith Baumel’s “Passeggiate and Cena in Erice”:

Empty streets of cobbles hard on our feet.
In the passeggiata a glimpse: emergence
and retreat before fog covers again
the bare skin of the town.

And the opening of “Why Baseball Doesn’t Matter,” a few pages farther later, by Lou Lipsitz:

It’s not because the game’s so slow,
that the pitcher has to step down off the mound,
pick up the resin bag, adjust his hat, adjust
his pants, spit, pound his glove,
step back onto the rubber,
nod approval and only then rear back,
unleash the ball at ninety miles an hour
over and over, more than
a hundred times a game.

Perhaps these many sharply contrasting styles, tones, and subject matter come together, in some odd way, in Susan Balée’s review “Women Writers of a Certain Age,” in which she considers the work of Margaret Atwood, A.S. Byatt, Alice Munro’s, and Eva Hoffman, all writers whose work straddles various worlds and whose audiences include literary critics and fans of popular fiction. I have read the works Balée critiques here and am largely in agreement with her assessment of these writers’ most recent books as less impressive than their earlier work, with the exception of Munro’s. I find it wholly in keeping with the issue’s contrasts and juxtapositions that the title of a review of these women’s work characterizes these writers as “women of a certain age,” while a review of the poet Seamus Heaney, which follows immediately, is titled “Famous Seamus.”
[www.hudsonreview.com]

 

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New Madrid coverNew Madrid

Volume 5 Number 1

Winter 2010

Biannual

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

I can’t really think of any topic more important right now than this issue’s theme, “the dynamics of wealth and poverty.” Editor Ann Neelon reminds us that the theme, in and of itself, assumes an awful lot: “The assumption is that there IS a dynamics of wealth and poverty – i.e. as opposed to a rigid inherited class structure” (I’m inclined to believe the latter is more accurate), and she is, with good reason, concerned about the disturbing statistics in the region where the magazine is published: “Kentucky is the fifth-poorest state: 23 percent of the poor are children, 30 percent are African American, 27 percent are Hispanic and 30 percent have less than a high school education.” She wonders where all the money has gone. And she is convinced, nonetheless, that the poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in this issue “will help us to…redefine ourselves in the wake of our incursion into near-apocalyptic economic territory.” I hope she is right, but if she is not, it won’t be for lack of originality, creativity, or insights.

I was moved by Michael Campagnoli’s poems which center on a consideration of the “chosen” and the “unchosen” when it comes to matters of class (“Back / to the stares of the anonymous and unchosen.”) I was impressed by the frankness of “The Real Estate Renaissance,” a personal essay by Re’Lynn Hansen which considers a privileged childhood in smart, tightly composed fragments. Karen Holmberg’s slave narrative in the form of long narrative poem, “Black Pansies,” is a deft and emotionally charged, but restrained, composition. Bombay-based fiction writer Murzban F. Shroff’s story “Faces of a Tycoon,” exhibits a kind of deceptive easiness in the telling: “If only everything were a matter of commerce,” it concludes.

Lorri McDole’s “Going for Broke: An Alphabet of (No) Money” is a highlight of the issue, an abecedary of going-broke-ness that is utterly heartbreaking, highly original, and tremendously satisfying. I would let McDole regale me with any tragedy she cares to. She is a gifted writer in whose hands even profanity has the tinge of gold. A novel excerpt from Bev Jafek, “The Anarchist (from Jarina and Pavel)” has big emotional payoffs. And translations of Russian writer Andrey Dmitriev’s fiction by Heny Whittlesey remind us that the issues of poverty and wealth transcend culture.

The front and back covers are marvelous photographs by Richard R. Sitler, a returned Peace Corps volunteer, who photographs the poor “because it is they whom I lived amongst and worked with.” You cannot tell his subjects are poor from these portraits, only that they embody a kind of intense engagement with the world (and the camera).

Several slender and quite lovely poems by Mercedes Lawry are an exquisite balance to the more strident (though no less necessary) works. Here is “Parallel Living”:

Some people are dying.
What about the lessons of stones
or empty shoes?
Daylight is a concept, irregular at times.
Breath, cough, low hum.
There is no test, music or silence.
The first sentence went awry.
There was a wound.
It was entire.

Dare I say it? Riches abound here.
[www.newmadridjournal.org]

 

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Saltgrass coverSaltgrass

Issue 4

2009

Biannual

Review by Lesley Dame

You’re idling in rush-hour traffic. Bored, and sick of hearing the same droning pop song for the fifty-seventh time, you flip through the radio stations and happen upon a song you’ve never heard before. The beat is good; the lyrics are fresh. You’re really in the groove. Bouncing head, tapping fingers, all that. You wait for the end of the song, desperate to discover the identity of the mastermind behind the creation. But the DJ cuts straight to commercial, and like me, you aren’t technologically savvy enough to own a robot-like phone that tells you what the name of the song is or who sings it. You’re stumped and annoyed, and you spend the next week humming the song to all your friends to see if they’ve heard it, too.

You’ve bumped into a mysterious little work of art that is unique and refreshing. If literary magazines were songs, Saltgrass would be the undiscovered hit you’ve been dying to memorize. It’s short, semi-sweet, and cheap, all good things when you want something new and different to read during a time of year dominated by summer fever, and its origins are provokingly aloof. I’ve looked at the website and Googled “Saltgrass” a zillion times, and still can’t figure out where this gem comes from. So be it.

This issue is primarily poetry with a couple of very short fiction pieces. If you’re looking for fiction, look elsewhere. It could just be this particular issue or the spatial limits of the magazine, but to me, the fiction was lost amid a majority of solid poems. These poems were pleasantly lyrical, the kinds you want read out loud and savor on the tongue. Here’s one of note by Lisa Ciccarello titled “(the shore in parts) sand & underneath”:

line of each sound, long around the O: pigment pressed in.
a chain appears from within the mouth. This is how we are bound.
made and made again: linked hair, braid he builds: hold still.
palm-pressed, a space for the back. Scissor-blade a hard knife; song
from the string, song sawed down into. Here I buried the mirror, here
the borrowed needle.
shore. the business of putting one grain above the other.

There’s a lot going on in this brief poem. Interesting punctuation and form, great images, big statements. But what I love most about this poem is the way it sounds. I’ve read it aloud and tasted its rhythmic, almost hypnotic flavor. Which is not to say it is a flowery, flowing poem. In fact, with the odd punctuation, short clauses and fragments, it is at times abrupt and choppy. It builds you up, and then makes you pause in anticipation. It is lyrical genius. Besides the sound of the poem when read, it’s obviously literally concerned with sound and music, as it mentions how sound forms on the mouth and how a song is made. It goes further to declare that we are bound to one another by words and songs. What a beautiful thing to say, not always pleasant as “Scissor-blade a hard knife” and “song sawed down into” seem to suggest, but beautiful. Of course, this poem may be about a particular, personal relationship, but it doesn’t need to be interpreted as such. For me, I see it as a universal relationship, as one relates to the world, sometimes scary, sometimes wonderful.

As Genya Turovskaya says in “The Present World,” “Songs create the world / annihilate it.” Isn’t that what words do? What these poems and stories accomplish? They create a reality, and can just as easily take it all away. But the work itself is as intricate and complicated as a song, or as any work of art. There is music in the written word that is waiting to be heard and savored, longing to be sung.

Saltgrass is a small journal. We all know the adage that good things come in small packages. This is a good thing. This is the kind of thing you’d like to take out and read in one sitting while lounging in your lawn chair, radio low in the background, sipping a cool drink. Don’t forget to sing along.
[SaltgrassJournal.blogspot.com]

 

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Saranac Review coverSaranac Review

Issue 5

2010

Annual

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

Saranac Review is an annual featuring work by American and Canadian writers published at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh. The terrific cover art is by Ric Haynes, oil paintings from a series called the “The Floral Wars” composed of combinations of “flower set ups” and toy figurines. His short essay, “The Floral Wars: Beauty and Brutality,” (with studies/drawings of the individual figures) is a highlight of the issue. The artist’s approachable style, both in the essay and the visual works, is representative of the journal as a whole, which features work that tends toward the “accessible” and casual in tone and diction.

Approaches to the approachable in Saranac Review are both varied and consistently appealing. Jim Krosschell’s essay, “With Thoreau in Maine,” for example, which begins:

Here are the steps to heaven, maybe hell.
1. Sit in JFK rocker with fir trees and Penobscot Bay in view.
2. Log on to Google Book Search.
3. Download copy of The Maine Woods.
4. Open Delorme Atlas to page 23.
5. Read “Ktaadn” and trace Thoreau’s route from Bangor to Katahdin.
6. Explore your head alongside his.
7. Worry about the shortfall.

For the remainder of the essay, Krosschell extrapolates on each of these seven steps, and there isn’t a misstep among them.

Reg Lee captures my attention immediately with his approachable approach to titles and also to first lines, which are, respectively, “This is Not a Story About Zombies,” and “When Ricky Ceden returned to his wife, cooked her breakfast the way she liked it – eggs a little runny, toast slightly burnt – she fainted.” I won’t tell you the next line, because there’s a shock contained therein. So, you’ll have to approach the journal yourself if you want to find out if she faints from his lousy cooking or for another reason.

Tom Wayman’s approach to the approachable is to implicate his reader in the story from the get-go in “Satyr Mounting a Nymph,” which begins: “We’ve looked at some landscapes, and with the next slide I want to begin to show you how figures appear in such landscapes.” He sustains this approach admirably throughout in a story that is clever and highly original.

Poems, too, are approachable, making the foreign familiar (in “The Ring,” by Karen Shenfeld); balancing arch language with plain speak (in “Homecoming,” by Elizabeth Sanger); and using humor to engage (in James Engelhardt’s “Impotence of the Gods,” which begins: “The gods can’t repair you if you fail / because they’ve moved to Florida to rest / their rebuilt joints”).

Finally, Nathan Holic offers a short story made approachable through a likeable and inviting voice coupled with comics and black and white drawings to illustrate his family tale. “Between Panels,” is both well written and well-drawn, a wonderful example of hybrid creative work that is meant to be understood, rather than to dazzle or baffle.

This was my first encounter with Saranac Review. I will certainly approach it again – with enthusiasm.
[research.plattsburgh.edu/saranacreview]

 

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The Southern Review coverThe Southern Review

Volume 46 Number 1

Winter 2010

Quarterly

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

There is no announced theme in this issue (which marks the journal’s 75th anniversary), but do you perceive a pattern? Here are the opening lines of the issue from “In the Village of Missing Children” by Rigoberto Gonzalez:

The old not call themselves old,
the call themselves dead. They call
themselves forgotten and silent, the footprints
made by water that evaporate and erase,
leaving the ground thirsty for contact
all over again. They call themselves
banished, abandoned, invisible, asleep

Which is followed by these opening lines from “When the Light in Dreams is Identical to the Light in Death” by Peter Marcus:

I’d just returned from a bus tour of the mass graves at Babi Yar
with an hour stop at the Chernobyl Museum with its photographs
of a radiated humanity. Thyroid cancers, gross deformities, rashes,
workers in protective suits raking, shoveling, and tossing out debris
as if performing mundane yard work

Which is followed by these opening lines from Laura Kasischke’s “Swan Logic”:

Swan terror and swan stigmata. Three of them slaughtered
at the edge of the pond
and one still
One still gliding around in wounded circles on the black mirror of that, like
some music box tragedy inside some girl.

Which is followed by an epigraph from Cornish Folklore (“In old England, after a death, family members went to the nearest beehive to tell the bees”) and these opening lines from Gary Fincke’s “Telling the Bees”:

My father, at eighty-nine, abandoned
His yard to hired help and neglect. He drew
His bedroom drapes as if he were closing
That theater like a bankrupt business.

Which is followed by this opening passage from Jane Delury’s short story, “Transformation of Matter”: “The event of this day will be the drowning, but now, in the oblivious present, it is the snow.”

I’m not complaining or even unhappy about this death spiral, just observing it and finding that the pieces work together to serve the mood of the times, which is, for the most part, deservedly quite dark most days. But, if you think there will eventually be some relief from these difficult realities, think again. Here are the opening lines of “Snow Angel” by Jane Springer: “Tell me about ice & I will tell you about the bottle shard held to the boy’s throat in my / kitchen. The boy seemed to melt into the floor & the shard made a scar / on the tile where it missed the mark.”

And the opening of “Ode” by Susan Terris: “unfiltered words spew from her mouth with volcanic force drunk with fire / but our mother’s torso atilt is slack and uncooperative / the jab of an accusatory finger you must want me to die she beneath your soft wings.”

I’m not looking for a break from these tragedies, I find, instead, they represent a kind of permission to experience the world’s horror in all its glory, which is to say that these expressions of horror are in themselves, for the most part, simply glorious in their execution.

I must mention an extraordinary piece of nonfiction by Traci Fount, “Scenes from an Unsane Childhood,” a terrifically honest and beautifully composed essay about growing up with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Her full-length memoir on the subject will, according to contributors’ notes, be published next year by Simon & Schuster, and I await it eagerly.

There is also a marvelous portfolio of paintings of the by Edward Pramuk, “Voyages,” who says he has been inspired by such painters as Milton Avery and Turner, and such poets as Neruda. These works are created of the richest blues and whites and are among the most exquisite I have ever seen of sky, sea, rock formations, boats, and a sense of distance that brings us close and distances us all at once. They are truly wondrous.

Bringing us close and distancing us simultaneously is, I think, the best way to describe the whole of the issue, with its richly dark portrayal of human and natural disaster, catastrophe, illness, destruction, cruelty, confusion, and death. For that reason, this is a particularly satisfying issue of the magazine, despite the fact that it feels, if not wrong, at least somehow strange to say so.
[www.lsu.edu/thesouthernreview]

 

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Subtropics coverSubtropics

Issue 9

Winter/Spring 2010

Triannual

Review by Karen Rigby

This special issue of Subtropics features over thirty translations from France, Japan, Russia, Spain, Romania, Argentina, Mexico, and other countries that interpret a variety of crossings. “Hazaran,” by nobel laureate J.M.G. Le Clézio, introduces a mysterious handyman and storyteller who leads his neighbors when they learn that the government plans to evict them from Frenchman’s Dyke, a shantytown populated by migrants. The story concludes with an exodus as one character, Alia, glances back at the darkened shore. Translation can inspire feelings of displacement, but at its best, becomes appreciable as confident work rather than as a shadow of the original.

Noteworthy examples include the move from curiosity to obsession in “A Guide to Famous Stabbings” by Bernard Quiriny, a story about a man’s journey to join the “eclipsees” (writers who produce only one work and then renounce writing); the tension between a mother’s desire to protect her son and his freedom to choose his own future in Fumiko Enchi’s “Black Hydrangea”; and “the border between dream and sleeplessness” in “Another White Sea,” a poem by Alberto Blanco.

Poems are printed side by side in their original languages and in translation. The most ample selection contains six poems by Seyhan Erozçelik that employ the rose as a symbol. Several poems investigate similarly artistic subjects: color in Aleksandr Kushner’s “Here’s What I Envy”; Edward Hopper in two poems by Ernest Farrés; and ephemeral beauty in Chuya Nakahar’s “A Fairy Tale” and “Song for a Summer Day.” A few poems explore darker moments, such as “Three Hero Songs” by Gerrit Kouwenaar:

Count the feet, the footnotes, the art,
pace the put-out
wheelchairs in books, kiss
the down of the blood-young widows, cook
the feast of childflesh, lick
the sick of the rod, slap me with peace
to the all-seeing sightlessness.

Nearly all of the poems offer a change of pace – not in the touristic sense, which may initially focus on the simpler pleasure of hearing a range of voices, but in their breadth and frequently deft use of silence.

Stories include only the English, which may disappoint a few readers, but they retain a tactile quality, whether they detail realistic or imaginary scenes. It’s easy to assume that they capture the right spirit. In the words of Manoel de Barros, whose poem “The Book About Nothing” is also included, “It’s impossible for the mouth to be absent in language: no words stay abandoned / from the being that revealed them.”
[www.english.ufl.edu/subtropics/]

 

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Witness coverWitness

Volume 23

2010

Annual

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

Albanian poet Luljeta Lleshanaku’s poem, “After the Evening Movie,” ably translated by Shpresa Qatipi and Henry Israeli, is not part of the issue’s “portfolio” segment (“Captured: Writing About Film and Photograph”), but part of what editor Amber Withycombe defines as the issue’s “adventurous general work.” But, it’s clearly no accident that a poem about the movies opens this volume of what has been for as long as I can remember, in my view, one of this country’s most underappreciated literary magazines.

Lleshanaku’s poems are representative of the quality and character of much of the extremely fine poetry in the issue:

We hide beneath a suffocating embrace
simply to avoid speaking,
simply because we fear that we might have to tell a story,
a story whose ending we don’t yet know,
because we no longer hear barking in the courtyard.
Clay turns on its wheel
unable to realize
that it is history itself,
that same story
told over and over in countless ways.

I was especially taken with poems by Paula Bohince, Jonathan Weinert, Wayne Miller, and one of my all-time favorites, Eric Pankey. Theirs are poems in which language meets the world and the world meets language outside of the ordinary without straining to achieve eloquence or succumbing to easy and ordinary diction and imagery.

I liked very much in the “adventurous general” segment of the issue, a beautiful and worldly essay by Akiva Freidlin, “Mourner’s Kaddish in Mumbai”; a tender story, “Caregivers,” by B.R. Smith (another non-portfolio that also begins with a movie); an inventive prose compendium of visual imagery turned text from Galerie de Difformité, by Gretchen E. Henderson; a series of expertly framed black and white photos from Jessica Dimmock from “Paparazzi!”; a story/script-script/story, “The Cowboy’s Wife,” by Smith Henderson.

At nearly 300 pages, every piece distinct and distinctive, this issue of Witness seems to embody the final verses of Pankey’s “Cold Mountain Meditations”:

The distilled, absent subject shimmers, empty of itself.
As a dream relinquishes into language, into body,
As well, fills with wakefulness, the certainty of things
Unsettled by their names, by being named: breath-stutter,
Thaw-ice loose in the rapids, the cold stone-felt, permanent.
The present tense, endured, passes, remains tense and present.

[witness.blackmountaininstitute.org/]

 

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