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Literary Magazine Reviews

Posted November 15, 2011

Bellingham Review :: Beloit Poetry Journal :: Colorado Review :: Court Green :: Kestrel :: Michigan Quarterly Review :: The Paris Review :: Prairie Schooner :: Prime Mincer :: Redactions :: THEMA :: upstreet :: West Marin Review ::

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Bellingham Review coverBellingham Review

Volume 34 Issue 63

Spring 2011

Annual

Review by Julie J. Nichols

Brenda Miller, author of five Pushcart-Prize-winning works and co-author of a best-selling creative nonfiction text, is the editor-in-chief of Bellingham Review. The names of Rita Dove, Tess Gallagher, Tobias Wolff, and other better-than-well-known poets and writers light up the editorial board. And with such a masthead, and a mission statement that includes a cry of “hunger for […] writing that nudges the limits of form, or executes traditional forms exquisitely,” how could we not expect excellence from this fine journal out of Western Washington University? This hefty issue contains nearly 250 pages of striking fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and photography. And from the contest winners that open the issue to the interviews that conclude it, not a single entry misfires.

A few examples from the creative nonfiction selections: “A Catalog of Dead Birds,” by Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Venegas, argues in a lovely braided essay that birds don’t always get away. The poignant point is that mortality is not a state to take lightly. In her brief and painful “Histories,” Kristen Radtke aches to come to terms with her brother’s mental illness and her family’s clumsy attempts to deal with it fairly. “Elsewhen,” by Diane LeBlanc, passionately mourns a beloved pet, and “Phantoms (A Correspondence)” is a haunting letter from Colin Rafferty to a high school buddy whose death in Iraq he did not know of till three years after the fact. Each of these, and each of the other CNF selections as well, is strong, moving, human.

My favorite short story is Jacob M. Appel’s “Bait and Switch,” winner of the Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction (judged by Jess Walter), which balances pace and complexity perfectly as fourteen-year-old Laurie Jean is seduced on all sides (well, at least three) and comes out only a little worse for wear. We like her from the very first line.

Jill Logan’s “Your Official Guide to the Happiest Place on Earth” presents a chilling dialogue between betrayal and fury on the one hand, and all that would smooth it over on the other.

“Heavy Winter” by Jenn Scott contains this estimable line in a dialogue between two betrayed and angry women watching The Price Is Right: “‘Be glad you don’t know [which of two products costs more]. There will be an inevitable point in your life when you become aware that for the rest of your life you’ll know the price difference between shoe polish and scrubbing sponges and wish you didn’t.’”

The poetry in this issue is plentiful and masterful. The work of sixteen poets is represented in thirty-one poems and two fascinating interviews. Some—“My Maternal Grammar” by Barbara Rockman and “Parts” by Bruce Snider, for example—deserve to be reproduced in full, because their effect unfolds in an image drawn out throughout the entirety of the poem; but for the sake of space I will urge you to get the issue for their gifts, and to be satisfied here with these other, partial examples of the kind of apt, intense lines which bowl us over or take us under:

I wanted
to come as close
as a needle to cloth
before pulling up through you.
(“Seatac” by Laura Read)
Infants see mere inches
and so sleep
until the world gets farther away.
(“A Brief Overview of Vision” by Patty Seyburn)
It’s so lonely, not knowing
one’s words, their destinations like moving trains
far out on the dark prairie

the long moan
of them announcing the Doppler distortions between
thought and sound, the clatter
of syllables rushing toward something blind and struggling,
tied to the rails.
(“It’s Difficult to Mean One’s Words” by Christopher Howell)

This last is accompanied by a meaty interview with poet, teacher, and editor Howell, who says that poetry “mastered me […] [Writing] poems helped me to survive difficulty without despairing, even, occasionally, to live with some semblance of grace.” This interview, and one with the poet Shane McCrae, provide the pleasure of connection and insight into the workings of fine poets’ minds, as the best interviews do. The “correspondence” between Amy Wright and Alex Stein with which this issue of BR concludes is one of the most poetic, charming, and uplifting pieces in the entire book.

The mission statement of Bellingham Review says that the editors seek “[literature] of palpable quality: poems, stories, and essays so beguiling they invite us to touch their essence.” Certainly this issue fulfills that mission. Buy, subscribe, be enriched!
[www.bhreview.org]

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Beloit Poetry Journal coverBeloit Poetry Journal

Volume 62 Number 1

Fall 2011

Quarterly

Review by Joanna Kurowska

Notwithstanding Lee Sharkey’s essay/review on the poets Kazim Ali and Brian Teare, this entire volume of BPJ features just one poet, Michael Broek—more precisely, his series of thirty poems titled The Logic of Yoo. Reading the collection is a transforming experience. The series tackles the problem of violence in modern history. The problem is approached without preaching or thundering. A protagonist—a doctoral student—researches the topic, not because he is passionate about it or wants to rid the world of violence, but because he is paid for his work. Masterful irony reverberates in the laconism of the student’s research notes, in his quoting factual documents, and in evoking authentic objects, places, and persons.

Irony is introduced at the very beginning of the collection. The first poem “Terra Anthropologica”—a Yeatsian vision of a world that no longer holds—is followed by an e-mail signed by a young woman who uses the pseudonym “Dianthus” (carnation). She addresses the aforementioned doctoral student (identified in the series simply as “he”) to place an order for a paper, which she needs as part of her admission at Harvard. The irony here is multi-layered. Dianthus’s e-mail confirms the image from the previous poem. Everything is upside down, the world no longer holds. Rather than earning her admission to a prestigious school, Dianthus buys it. Her e-mail reflects her profound lack of integrity, of which however she is completely unaware. “He,” too, takes part in the sham. Ironically, he needs money; he has rent to pay.

The paper is to be on John C. Yoo, a highly controversial figure, but Dianthus does not care which side the protagonist will take, as long as he proves a point—any point. As a high-level legal advisor to the Bush administration, John C. Yoo authored the notorious Torture Memos describing, in legal terms, to what extent using torture by the U.S. officials is permitted. Ironically, Yoo, too, is a Harvard graduate. Broek explores the word play engendered by the name Yoo, which sounds identical to the pronoun “you.” As a result, the collection’s title The Logic of Yoo can be interpreted as a direct address to the reader—it now reads “the logic of YOU.” This, in turn, poses a disquieting question: “Is this YOUR logic?”

After the protagonist—the “he”—accepts the order, he researches the topic. His approach is broad, so his notes comprise a mixture of words and phrases. “Shakespeare” occurs next to “torture”; “Harvard’s founding purpose” next to “Code Monkey”; “effects of the waterboard” next to “Gross U.S. receipts for Legally Blonde,” and so on. The tone of the author’s moral disengagement in these notes is unsettling. In fact, they mirror the pragmatic language of John C. Yoo’s memos.

Though “he” has no name, he displays many typical characteristics. “He” writes papers for cash, on all sorts of topics. His usual haunt is the U-District in Seattle; Dick’s drive-in being his favorite. Working, he listens to heavy metal. He smokes cigarettes. Occasionally, he brings a woman to his apartment. In short, he is like anybody else—an everyman. However, the deeply compromised situation in which “he” finds himself—as a disengaged “Bartleby” (as he calls himself in the poem), following orders from various “Dianthuses”—puts a question mark on his lifestyle. One begins to wonder, are all the things “he” experiences and encounters during his research connected? Harvard and Lady Gaga? Unpaid rent and Dark Hate he listens to as a source of “energy to work”? “Code Monkey” and Dianthus, who wants to study history? The murdered Juárez women and an American convenience store? The philosophers Hume and Locke—and John C. Yoo, who in his 1988 article in The Harvard Crimson asks, “And what’s the difference between patenting a small bacteria that eats oil slicks and patenting a small white mouse that develops cancer?”

While “he” is deeply immersed in culture, his research leads him to the roots of culture, history. In Broek’s collection, history is very much a history of violence. The Logic of Yoo is its poetic study. Broek’s ultimate question is, “What makes it possible that a John C. Yoo happens?” As the “he” proceeds in his study of the topic, he undergoes a transformation—discovers perhaps that one must not pay the rent for just any price.

Beloit’s choice to devote this issue to one poet is extremely fortunate. The Logic of Yoo is a fascinating read. Well written, it is erudite and morally relevant; and strikes to the very core of the tragedy of politically sanctioned violence.
[www.bpj.org]

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Colorado Review coverColorado Review

Volume 38 Number 2

Summer 2011

Triannual

Review by Mark Danowsky

Two pieces shine brightest in the Summer 2011 issue of the Colorado Review—Diana Wagman's nonfiction piece “Mess” and James O'Brien's fiction piece “The Bones Inside Your Skin.”

Here's why: Wagman's account of siblings from the perspective of a younger sister is a tribute to the power of familial bonds, and reminds us of the importance of unbreakable support systems. Of bridges that can never be burned. The story begins: “Everything is shiny at my sister's new house. Everything is clean and perfect. Except me.” Later: “She loves me no matter what. I have a bad haircut and I've chewed my fingernails off and she doesn't care. She thinks I'm talented.” This matter-of-fact style is an effective device and results in our understanding that the narrator of “Mess” is authentic in her statements. Although you might imagine a story like “Mess” to be a downer, Wagman's light touch makes for a rather uplifting read.

By contrast, O'Brien's “The Bones Inside Your Skin” is more challenging to approach as the couple in the story struggles with similar difficulties to those faced by many families in the ongoing economic recession. Day after day, the characters face a bland, unfulfilled existence as we wait for them to bring about a change in their lives. It is often said that a good story leaves you wanting more without giving too much away. O'Brien's story ends with the promise of possibility, a feeling familiar to many of us surrounding the Obama campaign as Yes We Can gave way to Yes We Did. Even though many now feel that the energy and faith we used to bolster our President has not yet panned out quite as we had hoped, “The Bones Inside Your Skin” reminds us that a person's outlook is half the battle. Perhaps O'Brien is suggesting that good things will only come to those who remain optimistic, even though our dreams for a better tomorrow are dashed time and again.

The poetry in this issue is, for the most part, experimental. Some make use of the space of a page for visual effect, like Nicholas Gulig's “Ommatidium,” Michael McLane's “A Sequence of Trees,” and Stephanie Schlaifer's “The Tiles are Pink The Tiles are Black.” Other poems are condensed, such as three by Sherman Alexie, which include “Love Story, with Compulsion.” And then there is a piece like Susanna Childress's “The Hyssop Tub,” which is something of an amalgamation of styles and ideas, a paradigm of experimentation.

Steven Schwartz, the Colorado Review's new Fiction Editor, was interviewed by Associate Editor Lauren Gullion, and the content is available online in the Editors' Blog. The interview was posted in September after the publication of the Summer 2011 issue and reveals that Schwartz has had a lifetime fascination with the world of literary magazines and is open to any “organic and fresh” fiction. When asked about his idea of a “good” story, Schwartz says:

There’s something that happens when a story keeps reverberating out in circles [...] You think about it the next day when you wake up [...] As a writer, you want to re-create the same effects in your own projects. It has a staying power, perhaps because the story evokes archetypal issues that make it operate on emotional, psychological, and aesthetic levels all together and sometimes historic and mythic ones too. All this without the subtext screaming: I’m important, read me!

The Colorado Review has published notable authors over the years and remains highly reputed, in part for this continued commitment to "good story."
[coloradoreview.colostate.edu/]

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Court Green coverCourt Green

8

2011

Annual

Review by Patrick James Dunagan

The “dossier” section of every issue saves Court Green from falling in with, and being hopelessly lost among, the more run-of-the-mill fair getting churned out among MFA programs. It’s a pretty classy way to get around having “themes” for issues while actually having different themes for each issue, and offers the editors a good chance at a shot of overall cohesion. Once the “dossier” covered Lorine Niedecker, next year it’s going to be “The Short Poem,” but this year it’s Frank O’Hara.

Frank O’Hara’s poetry pounces in on readers, awash with offhanded aplomb. More than may be good for them, chances are when poets read O’Hara they write a poem in response. His poems are a natural and easy stimulant, yet nonetheless it’s a challenging task. To be as breezy as O’Hara and not be milking about in the worst of ways is difficult; however, it's not impossible, and when done well, brings sheer joy:

When will you see me as I am
as industrious with grief as you are
clever at hiding your tiredness.
In poems we shine,
and though we say them with conviction,
The words are never really ours for keeps.
(“Monologue: Frank O’Hara” by Elaine Equi)

There’s a sleight of hand delicacy that accompanies responding to O’Hara that can’t always come off as fine as… well, as fine as a poem of O’Hara’s:

That first flush of,
What nervy balm to
Carry me through that
Room, that I carried you
In my pocket, Frank
And for the first time
Really saw.
(“Flowers, for Frank” by Larry Sawyer)

Many readers of O’Hara realize such moments. Suddenly taken aback that, yes, the world might really be so looked at, so accepted, so pushed back at in response:

Everywhere there’s hair blowing
(brown mostly)
and the bushes huddle together
animated in conversations about the sea,
what it might be.
(“Arkansas Landscape: Wish You Were Here” by Karl Tierney)

Among many of the trademarks found in an O’Hara poem is the opportunity for the poem to be a site where the poet’s thoughts and actions engage with each other, endlessly mixing together, each reference leading to the next. This often lends itself to a styled chattering on in an offhanded rather breathless manner, making connections about friends or even historical personalities and artists only read about. The art of poetic gossipy digression, call it:

he mistook Leonora for Dora. But while Dora
is long dead, Leonora is, remarkably, alive and still painting
in Mexico City, and Dora loved Lytton-Strachey who was gay
and didn’t love her back (though he was extremely fond of her)
while Leonora loved Max Ernst who loved
her back, at least for a while. Leonora spent time in an
insane asylum, and Dora did not, though she did have an affair
with a woman who called herself Valentine but whose
real name was Gladys and who
later became the lover of Sylvia Townsend Warner.
(“Eminent Victorians” by Elizabeth Robinson)

O’Hara out-drank, out-talked, out-sexed, out-wrote everybody. Myth or not, we love him for it: “Untie your muse / for an hour and stay with me” (“Monologue: Frank O’Hara” by Elaine Equi). Stay with us Frank. We’ll be as honest as honesty allows us to be.

And not that the O’Hara “dossier” takes the space of the whole issue, it’s only about half, but O’Hara’s influence pops up elsewhere too, his influence being arguably everywhere you might look:

He breaks off, goes
into a lengthy mono-
logue, tongueing
the blind hedge
sublime: preposterous
crime sheet folded
prank insist priest
privy wire hide
august merriment.
T-shirts we can sell,
but monomints?!
I ‘on’ think so.
(“The Paper Unicorn” by Vincent Katz)

After O’Hara, New York is his New York. But any city is a Manhattan all to itself, site of rich language at play. The everyday dialogue of people going about their business buzzes with newfound clarity. Poetry’s everywhere, in everything, in surprising circumstances of delight.

It’s to be found again and again in the lure of a favored poet’s voice, so often now recorded and available for listening:

The limbo of promising blacktop.
            Through the darkness
your erudition echoes up the California coast.
The mystery of legendary patterns
            awaken in the feeble homage
of a humble ear hungry for
            the “trued” voice.
To get that slight twist in the word
            “homosexual” (as only you knew to say it)
preserving the thrilling failure of it.
How can it be wrong to outwit
            the devil,
even if drawn down below
            in the act?
(“The Conjuring (on listening to Duncan talk)” by Jennifer Moxley)

The call to poetry is ever present, ever tempting future poets.
[www.colum.edu/courtgreen/]

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Kestrel coverKestrel

Issue 26

Spring 2011

Biannual

Review by David Larsen

The cover art chosen for the Spring 2011 issue of Kestrel is a misty-blue piece titled Okeanos IV 2010 by Kathleen Holder, the visual artist featured in this issue. The artwork reminds me of a cold day on a beach, where the sky and the water fuse. Donna Long writes in her editorial comment, the submissions selected for publication sometimes “just seem cosmically ordained to share an issue.” Long tells us water is this cosmic connection, bending and rolling through the work like the thread of a river tying up a landscape. And I see that connection from the opening essay, “Upstream Against Forgetting” by Rob Merritt, to the poems, such as “Aqua Vitae” by Charles Tisdale or “Meditation: Labor Day” by Nancy Takacs. Wonderful.

The editors have selected fantastic work for this issue. They possess wonderful sound—rhythms and rolls—which remind me of rivers. Let me digress for a moment. I enjoy fishing in the spring and summer. I wade through streams and rivers, casting to trout. Every moment on the river, I feel the force of the water as it pushes me along, or pushes me back. Sometimes it even threatens to pull me down. Regardless, it always has a grip on me, holding me. Even more, it whispers to me. I have often looked back over my shoulder thinking I’ve heard words in the water. Anyone who has spent time near rivers has heard it—playful and inviting, but always powerful.

I’m reminded of this rhythm in the poem “Disperspective,” by William Hathaway: “When night / falls and the road becomes / a gushing stream of light, out / creep dark creature to eat / the dead swept up on the shores of that river.” Not to ignore the powerful and disturbing image evoked, the sound of these few lines has me rereading and rolling those alliterate r’s over and over, listening. Hearing the long e’s before they shift to the flat thunk of the short e of “dead” and “swept.”

Marc Hudson, in his poem “If Walt Whitman is Grass,” writes:

I walked out into Seattle rain
feeling a strange elation,
as if I were the acolyte
of a mild-mannered apocalypse,
as if through infinite space
a fine mist were processing,
blurring well-kept boundaries.

Again, the language in this poem lifts and falls like water rushing over rocks; it has a natural, though seemingly crafted rhythm. There is playfulness in the echoing “a” in "rain," "strange," "elation," and "space" entwined with the “infinite […] fine mist.” At the end of the poem, Hudson writes: “So I imagine him dissolving / the speeches of politicians / the way lichen softens, then assimilates, the most obdurate rock.” Those slippery s’s, the whispering hush of deep water just before it falls over the edge, crashing on hard sounds, those immovable, heavy short o’s.

I don’t have far to go in this issue to find even more examples. I turn the page and I’m reading Devon Miller-Duggan’s “The Angel Quiz”: “Suppose the dark and sleaze of flesh intrigue them.” Or I’m being drawn into Zeke Jarvis’s story “Eulogy,” where a family is practicing the father’s eulogy on a hot summer day, in front of the plain coffin he has made for himself: “Susie sighed loud enough to show that she knew what she was doing. Little Jack had twisted his tie to almost backwards. ‘Is Daddy going to die soon, Mommy?’”

About a year ago, October 2010, Robert Pinsky wrote an article for the online magazine, Slate.com, titled “Keener Sounds,” in which he reminds us that poetry has a long history of great sounds that don’t necessarily rhyme. He points out the great sounds found in poems by Frost and Williams. He adds: “it’s clumsy work, trying to trace these audible subtleties. I’ll just point to the beauty […] without trying to describe any further what we hear: The hearing itself is an action of consciousness, a kind of awakening and of keeping.” So I’ll leave it at that. The Spring 2011 issue of Kestrel, that bird with the distinctive cry, is full of beautiful, “audible subtleties.” It is not unlike the whispering of a river, the roaring of a falls, or the incessant calling of waves.
[www.fairmontstate.edu/kestrel]

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Michigan Quarterly Review coverMichigan Quarterly Review

Volume 50 Number 3

Summer 2011

Quarterly

Review by Kenneth Nichols

The dignified beauty of the vast Great Lakes region is often outshone by the bright lights of Broadway and the high-wattage glow of Hollywood. This issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review, subtitled “Love Song and Lament,” contains poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction that will immerse the reader in the quiet dignity of the area and the people who call it home.

Nature writer Jerry Dennis contributed two essays that provide the reader with historical context and interesting cultural analysis. In “Winter Comes to the Keweenaw,” Dennis describes a trip to the Upper Peninsula that he shared with several friends. A “land of boreal forest and tamarack bogs bounded by the rocky shores of three of the five Great Lakes,” the Upper Peninsula is one of the most sparsely populated places in the eastern third of the United States. Dennis and his friends visit a gift shop named “The Last Place on Earth” and reflect upon the special qualities of the “Yukon of Michigan.”

The Great Lakes and their massive reserve of fresh water facilitate the region’s diverse ecosystem. In “Big Water, Little Water,” Anna Vodicka reminds the reader that natives understand that geology is a double-edged sword. Winter brings in the tourist dollars, but also brings the snow that blankets the pristine landscapes, concealing their dangers. Vodicka’s piece is a requiem for her friend Sam, whose death in an iced-over lake added him to regional mythology. After all, as Vodicka points out, Jenny Webber Lake got its name for a reason.

Fans of poetry in translation will enjoy a pair of poems in the original Anishinaabemowin (or Ojibwe). The language was (and still is) spoken by groups of Native Americans from New York to Montana. Margaret Noori’s poems remind the reader of the real importance of these places. Preserving the memory of the pre-colonial Great Lakes isn’t merely a feel-good environmental necessity. As Noori points out in “A Poem for the Children of the Great Lakes,” people, their language and their home are inextricably linked: “we will forget ourselves / when we no longer hear the big waters.”
[www.michiganquarterlyreview.com/]

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The Paris Review coverThe Paris Review

Number 198

Fall 2011

Quarterly

Review by John Palen

The Paris Review is such a great magazine, edited with such discrimination that likes and dislikes inevitably come down to matters of personal taste. The pieces that I most enjoyed in this issue were two essays—Lydia Davis's "Some Notes on Translation and on Madame Bovary," and Geoff Dyer's "Into the Zone"—and a poem by Sharon Olds, "The Haircut."

Davis's essay perhaps drew me in because I've tried to do some translating, but even if I hadn't, its combination of knowledge, craft and modesty would have won me over. It leaves the strong impression that the translator, as well as the task of translating, are works in progress. Davis ends with a summary, from years ago, of criteria for good translation, although noting that she no longer agrees with all points. The list includes enjoyment of the work and the task, patience, "readiness to work a problem," thorough knowledge of the original; writing skill, and "courage to make your own piece." Everyone who reads literature in translation will find pleasure and edification here.

What attracts me most to Dyer's essay is how initially unprepared I was to like it after realizing what it was—a moment by moment analysis of a movie I have never seen and that isn't even named until the fourth page—Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 Stalker. But Dyer's writing is so fluid, concrete and tonally perfect that I found it impossible to put this rather long essay down, even for a minute. Of Tarkovsky’s ability to sustain interest over extremely long scenes, Dyer writes, "Soon people will not be able to watch films like Stalker or read Henry James because they will not have the concentration to get from one interminable scene or sentence to the next."

In "The Haircut," Olds looks back on the memory of cutting a former husband's hair on a day he'd been ill, and finds in that unlikely situation an intimation of lasting love. The poem has that rare quality of seeming to unfold its insights and understandings in the very act of composition: "Don't be sick, / I said, Okay, he said, and love / seemed to rest, on us, in a place / where, for that hour, it felt death could not / reach."

The magazine also includes fiction by Kerry Howley and Roberto Bolaño (part three of a serialized novel); interviews with Nicholson Baker and Dennis Cooper; poetry by Brenda Shaughnessy, Constantine P. Cavafy (translated by David Ferry), Paul Muldoon, Jeff Dolven, Meghan O'Rourke and Forrest Gander; and a portfolio of anonymous photographs of children collected by Terry Castle. All of it is fine work.
[www.theparisreview.org/]

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Prairie Schooner coverPrairie Schooner

Volume 85 Number 3

Fall 2011

Quarterly

Review by Jett W. Whitehead

We’ve all said or heard from time to time: “old friends are the best.” This adage is certainly true with the Fall 2011 issue of Prairie Schooner. I’ve known this magazine for a long time—it has been published for longer than most of us reading it have been alive—and the current issue is just as lively and alive as the issues from the 1970s when I first subscribed in graduate school. Its generous collection of poems and prose is at once rich, exciting, challenging, and refreshing as the ample section of reviews is enlightening.

Although the Contents page errors (in my opinion, or suspicion) in describing Bethany Maile’s “Ladies’ Night at the Shooting Range” as an essay, this more aptly described short story is one not to be missed. Full of character development and stage setting, the protagonist has the reader in the palm of her hand through every load, cock, and shot on the range. She enlightens, beginning with her eighth birthday gift from her father—a BB gun—and takes us on an adventure with Wyatt Earp and Butch Cassidy “through hayfields and horse pastures”—to “ladies’ night at the Marksman Pistol Range.” I found a poet’s sensitivity in Bethany Maile’s work as much as I found an author’s keen articulation of craft in plot development.

“In a Small Room” is one of three poems featured by one of the 20th Century’s finest poets, David Wagoner. A poet who edited the magazine Poetry Northwest out of Seattle for decades, and who taught with Theodore Roethke on the faculty at the University of Washington for many years. Wagoner’s sense of place in his poems is a recurring trademark, and one worthy of visiting in these pages. In Wagoner’s second contribution to this issue, his poem “Lumber” is a shaped piece “to a perfectly horizontal / elegance.”

There are other remarkable poems in this issue, perhaps most notably three by Linda Pastan. Her “Counting Sheep” will do nothing toward putting the reader to sleep with “errant / images of sex” and “the dangers / of sunstroke, / riptide, jellyfish.” And in her poem “The Hired Mourner,” the reader finds “that silk-lined boxcar to eternity.” In Pastan’s poetry, metaphor is the reader’s constant companion.

Reading several of the earlier poems in this issue is like taking a Sunday stroll through an art museum: “Picasso’s Eyes” and “At the Rothko Chapel” by Alice Friman are but two fine examples. As are the run of Georgia O’Keeffe inspirations: “At the Magnolia Hotel,” “Retreat into Night,” “Ranchos Church, Taos, 1929,” and “Black and White” by Lavonne J. Adams. Tim Suermondt also envisions us with Van Gogh’s sunflowers in his fine poem, “All the Answers.”

In all, this issue of Prairie Schooner delivers from cover to cover, with poets and authors new to the reader, as well as the tried and true.
[prairieschooner.unl.edu]

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Prime Mincer coverPrime Mincer

Volume 1 Number 2

Summer 2011

Triannual

Review by Aimee Nicole

It is truly shocking to know that Prime Mincer is a young magazine still in its first year of publication. This edition is packed with insightful, daring, and creative work that will appeal to a diverse readership. So many poems, stories, and nonfiction pieces stood out and demanded to be heard. This is certainly a magazine you will have to hold in your hands to enjoy the punch it delivers.

Annie Strong’s cover artwork is brilliant. You can actually see the brush strokes that create the trees and grass that allow the viewer to feel as though they are a part of the process. A lone wolf painted an orange-red hue stands in the woods. It tells a story, as all good artwork does. Cover art is very important; it sets the scene and invites readers in. I found myself disappointed that this was the only painting included in the issue, since it was so intriguing. It shocked me to read in her bio that she does not paint professionally.

There is only one interview included in the issue, which is with Vanessa Gebbie. She describes three lessons for aspiring writers that were particularly poignant. Gebbie gives us some words to consider, not just for writers, but for all of us: “Without self-doubt you will never seek to do better. Without self-confidence you will never know when someone else (maybe a much more experienced person) is wrong about your work.” Balance is everything and Gebbie takes a stab at explaining what a successful balance actually is.

Because so much of the work included in this issue stands out, it is difficult to highlight the best writers. However, to give you a taste of the magazine, Adam Tavel’s poem, “A Proposition,” had such a strong beginning that I found myself floored:

Steel cock of death, this magnum’s barrel
snug against your temple. The round
chambers with the hammer-click
as a blank legal pad lays
beside your bag of bruised
Red Delicious.

The imagery is so powerful that you’ll find yourself thinking about the feeling of having a gun to your head later in the day. Tavel’s words are haunting and, as you read through the experiences presented in this poem, you read them as your own. The poem smothers you in a pleasant way; you are helpless against its power, yet are strangely comfortable with that reality.

Three poems by Jan LaPearle are also included in the issue, and each is as fantastic as its successor. In her poem “Stitch,” the narrator is reflecting on a young Austrian girl that her father held prisoner in the basement. The narrator speculates on whether or not the girl learned to knit:

Catch,
catch, catch me if you can, I say when I let her free, when I let her run in the garden
with me. When she brushes against the flowering trees, blossoms fall,
and where they fall in the grasses the ground blooms—a pregnant ground,
a pregnant girl, and the babies move in her like candy & fruit.
I almost know she knits for those little melon heads with stitches tight as a noose.

The description is so powerful that readers can imagine themselves out in the garden, watching the scene unfold. Another poem, “New Motorcycle,” takes place over an Easter ham. It is a poem about family, love, and the cobwebs that one sweeps into a corner of their soul in order to keep the family intact. The narrator thinks about her mother:

I think sometimes
she wants to ride off like grandpa. Galloping like a horse.
I think she wants to be shiny and new, wants to ride off past her bills,
her bad job, the yards in town on fire, right on
past her winter that’s held her for years like a fist.

“Wenze, Wenze,” a piece of nonfiction contributed by Kate Wolf is both humorous and dark. Her voice sheds light on an otherwise very serious and controversial subject: prostitution. The opening pulls the reader in and refuses to let go: “I don’t know what you did last weekend, but I spent my Saturday with a few prostitutes. I’m quite sure I’m not the only one who did so in this town, and I hope I’m not the only one who watched someone put a condom on.” The lines are both informative and mysterious. Wolf continues to emphasize the health workers’ goal in Africa: to promote healthy sex habits for prostitutes which, of course, includes the protection of condoms. These women support themselves through prostitution and Wolf’s first person observation of this interaction between the health workers and prostitutes is spellbinding.

This second issue of Prime Mincer delivers. It not only satisfies, but also reminds us what literary magazines are all about, and why editors struggle days on end with finances, manpower, resources and, of course, sleep. Clearly, these writers deserve to be discovered and praised.
[primemincer.com/]

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Redactions coverRedactions: Poetry & Poetics

Issue 14

2011

Annual

Review by John Palen

This issue brings a fresh approach to regionalism by positing its own ad hoc region. "The I-90 Poetry Revolution" includes varied, ambitious work by poets who came from, live in or have some relation to the territory strung along the lanes, ramps, gas stations, motels, fast-food joints and rest stops between Boston and Seattle.

The concept is interesting. Unlike writers who self-identify with the South, Midwest or Adirondacks, these poets share little in the way of unique landscape or history. So what do they share? The magazine offers a manifesto that includes such articles as disdain for "cosmopolitan elitism and rural anti-intellectualism," and commitments to "the heart and the gut," "the northern hemisphere and the four seasons," and poetry that "can truly make a difference in the lives of those who need it."

If such commitments could easily apply to good poets along any number of Interstate corridors, north, south, east and west, that fact only serves to point out what really binds these writers together: They do good work. Whether or not you buy the "I-90 Revolution" premise, this is a magazine worth spending time with.

It has attracted some well-known names: William Heyen, Jim Daniels & Ravi Shankar (in a co-authored piece), Gerry LaFemina (reviewing a new book by Lynn Emanuel), Laura McCullough, John Bradley, Daniel Tobin, Bill Tremblay, and Sherman Alexie (in a two-line poem about his father). Many others are less well known, but do nothing to lower the consistently high level of serious, accomplished and engaging poetry. Take for example the beginning of Tremblay's "Waking With Night Fever”:

Lava flows out of my body
as I stand in the bathroom
shuddering, moaning, leaning,
palms spread against the wall.

Or the ending of Jonathan Johnson's "Kellogg, Idaho," in which truck stop and casino "let you know / they're still here in four-foot plastic letters":

Take this one good look
at the black-haired girl astride
her pony, turning him tight
around the farthest barrel in the field.
She'll be gone next time
you're through here. She
won't ever be back.

[www.redactions.com/]

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THEMA coverTHEMA

Volume 23 Number 2

Summer 2011

Triannual

Review by Julie J. Nichols

The cool thing about THEMA is that prompt thing. Each issue of this cleverly-conceived magazine offers one premise (the prompt) and solicits whatever plots, poems, images and issues writers can come up with from that opening. Now, I don’t mean the opening or beginning of the story. I mean that opening into the imagination, that one key into story or wordplay. THEMA's threefold goal is: “to provide a stimulating forum for established and emerging literary artists […] to serve as source material and inspiration for teachers of creative writing […] [and] to provide readers with a unique and entertaining collection of stories and poems.” The theme for the summer issue was “About two miles down the road.” What would you come up with for that?

Maybe you’d come up with something having to do with travel. The prompt itself comes from such an incident. According to the introduction, a slightly deaf friend of the editors (who came up with the idea of the journal from reading their fortunes in a Chinese restaurant, so says their website) misunderstood their solicitous questions about whether he was able to find the gentleman’s restroom during a road trip. “It’s about two miles down the road,” he told them, but he seemed quite satisfied and calm, so they didn’t press him. Instead, they took it as the prompt for the next issue. And what a trip into the varieties of thought and experience it provides!

Travel stories, yes. Three wonderful pieces of creative nonfiction—“A Change in Plans” by Virginia McGee Butler; “On the Train to Warsaw” by Melinda Brasher; and “The Real France” by Julian Zabalbeascoa—describe mind-changing moments “about two miles down the road” from where they start. Zabalbeascoa says in an author’s note at the end of the magazine that he’s wanted to write his story for years; he’s delighted THEMA has provided the perfect opportunity, and I am too. Author bios show that most of the contributors are writers and teachers of writing; their love of language, plot, and character growth is well demonstrated in these pleasing, often suspenseful, always satisfying pieces.

“Mile 615,” poetry by KH Solomon; and “Learning to Breathe Night Air,” fiction by Shirley V. Hill are also about travel. But there are also stories of escape and near-escape. “Hoop Snake” by Sarah M. Lewis tells an eerie tale of running from near-monsters at the haunted house “two miles down the road”; and “Hero” by Linda F. Willing fills the reader with dismay, as the narrator tries to save a young hitchhiking woman from the angry husband behind them, and ends up wrecking the car, two miles down the road.

Quite a few of the textual images in this issue are of desperation, of being lost, of wandering. The narrator of “Just One Turn,” by Tony Press, took the wrong turn “two miles down the road” and now knows he will die of thirst in desert country where no one knows he is. Two lost and seeking characters in Randolph Thomas’s “Homing” haunt us with their insatiable longing.

And happily, hopefully, there are also images of joy and connection. Vaughn Wright’s “Down the Road a Piece” grants a new parolee hope and kindness just two miles down the road from the prison; and one of my favorite pieces, “Cold Storage” by Tim Bascom, is a lyrical prose poem in which a father and son wander together “two miles down the road” in the snow, loving each other’s company.

When I give a prompt in my creative writing classes, it often seems as though there is surely only one way to develop it. THEMA proves with every issue that writers everywhere have unique, appealing responses to any theme. Grab an issue, and those upcoming “One thing done superbly,” "Who keeps it tidy?" "White wine chilling," "A week and a day." You’ll agree—this magazine is one idea done many times superbly.
[members.cox.net/thema/]

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upstreet coverupstreet

Number 7

2011

Annual

Review by Aimee Nicole

In the seventh issue of upstreet, creative nonfiction shines like an LED sun. Its poignancy encourages the reader to think of his or her own life experiences. The creative nonfiction stands out, to this reviewer anyway, as nothing short of amazing. It is both inspirational and compelling. While the fiction and poetry in this issue were good, the creative nonfiction reminded me, over and over again, of why I love to read.

Michael Martone crafts a brilliant essay, titled “Against the Beloved,” from a presentation about Kurt Vonnegut at the 2010 AWP Conference. Martone recalls his shock when an editor tells him that Kurt Vonnegut is a joke. Seasoned with time, he learns the difference between the ha-ha joke and the serious type of joke that Vonnegut pursues:

By that I don’t mean to invoke the dismissive connotation of slight, trivial, minor (what I think the editor thought he meant by “joke”), but I do wish to invoke the profound power, the mystery of the joke and the fool who jokes, equipped with little more than jokes to address and redress the world. I think now that the editor knew this too, labeling Mr. Vonnegut a fool when in fact the Fool.

Vonnegut comments on the world as it is rather than what it should be. Martone points out that in literature, no one wants to be honest in their portrayals and that everyone wants to glorify the past. Vonnegut worked with history, he “was and is the anti-historian, a dirty job but someone has to do it, not defusing the past but re-mining it in the reminding of it, resisting the sanding nature of History biases to blah, to make palatable the past.”

I found myself recalling Kathryne Irene’s nonfiction piece “Stained” for days after I’d read it. She dances between past and present with such finesse that I keep up easily and find myself hungry for her next revelation and admission. Her words made me cringe at all the appropriate parts and gave me goose bumps. When talking to her therapist, Irene admits: “I wanted to explain. I wanted to tell her how they never say anything. Not words. They moan and laugh and talk—talk that blurs. It turns to chatter. They use words that rattle, unformed in the back of closed mouths behind long wet teeth.”

Being raped, because she was gay, cut her deep and has been haunting her ever since. Instead of making our hearts break without a silver lining in sight, Irene lets us know that she is presently happy and has grown from her horrible past. She explains how her lover washes her with her skin while they are wrapped up in blankets and we are thankful that she has someone to heal her.

Robert Vivian comments on life, geography, and the questions we all think, if not ask. His opening is so poignant we are propelled forward against our will: “And every place hums a live bright wire in the air above its crown that’s tough to touch or hear except for the one who was born to be jolted by its unique electricity, which cracks the soul like the skeleton hand of lightening flash lightening up sheets of place.” Literature should make us think and not just about the story itself. Vivian masters and encourages this self-reflection and contemplation.

In this issue of upstreet, the creative nonfiction takes the cake with its ingenuity and freshness.
[www.upstreet-mag.org]

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West Marin Review coverWest Marin Review

Volume 3

Fall 2010

Annual

Review by Julie J. Nichols

Ah, Marin, county of my heart. Cross the Golden Gate Bridge north from San Francisco, veer west toward the ocean, and keep driving through oaks, hill country, and sea. Who wouldn’t love its rural beauty, or the loyalty to earth and humanity of the independent souls who choose to live there? The bio of Catherine David, whose delightful short essay “Amateurs are First-Rate Lovers” opens this issue of West Marin Review, identifies her as “an artist, journalist, and pianist living in Paris who visits West Marin whenever she can.” That love of place, that desire to be in this land of “seashore and woodland” infuses every work of word or art in this fine book.

West Marin Review describes itself as:

an award-winning literary and art journal published by Point Reyes Books, Tomales Bay Library Association, and friends and neighbors […] the only literary and arts journal to merit recognition at the prestigious New York Book Show […] delighted to be recognized for our diverse contributorship […] a community working together on a project that promotes literacy and art, and that includes, educates, and entertains everyone.

A glance at this issue’s contributors’ pages verifies this description electrically (and eclectically). Middle and high school students, sculptors, museum curators and gallery directors; medical ethicists, builders, mothers, painters; former editors of Pulitzer-Prize winning publications, poet laureates, sitters on benches; “Bolinas residents,” “Inverness residents,” natives of Alaska and Massachusetts—all appear here with equally respectful and beautiful presentation.

The editor’s note which heads the issue is impressive for its pride not only of place—truly, West Marin is a place to put down your land-honoring roots—but also in the quality and richness of the submissions which come to this all-volunteer-staffed journal. Among the most striking of the entries in this issue are a number of beautifully-executed, strongly affecting pieces from middle and high school students. There are bird and animal drawings—“Spring Lamb” by Jessica Baldwin, a seventh-grader at Nicasio School; sixth-grader Willow Dawson’s “Hummingbird”; “Jenna” by Kyla Pasternak, eighth-grader; and Ryan Giammona’s “Quail”—and a trio of quiet but fierce essays on the theme of “I come from…” by last year’s Tomales High seniors, Daniel Potts (“Scattered Threads"), Flor Jimenez (“Broken Blood”), and Jazmine Collazo, whose “Good-bye, Hello” evokes authentic feelings with its understated description of moving, always moving, from one tough neighborhood to the next.

Several excellent essays spotlight West Marin’s history and culture. “Marin Memoirs” is a bit of sisterly genealogy from Vivian Olds, charmingly brief and arbitrary:

Kate [Olds, b. sometime before 1857 in Marin] was not domestic by nature and spent most of her time horseback riding, but Jennie [b. December 15, 1857] loved to work in the house and was a great help to her mother. When she was 17, in a contest for the county’s best cake and bread, she won two sterling silver tablespoons and two Havilland bowls. Mr. James Shafter awarded the prizes.

“Farming and Ranching in Bolinas 1834 to 2010,” by Elia Haworth, accompanied by reproductions of oils by Terrence Murphy, one a stunning aerial farm view, the other aptly titled “Fence Mender,” recounts in clear, readable prose a story of livestock and agriculture, “the centerpiece of Bolinas history.” In “Fellow Conservatives,” Jonathan Rowe writes authoritatively of the West Marin worldview: “We are skeptical of the version of progress that the corporate market pushes at us […] embrace the wisdom of the past, especially as embodied in the natives of this place [….] revere the land and take a dim view of change, and if those are not conservative inclinations, then nothing is.” In “Tom Killion on Mount Tam,” Steve Heilig profiles the printmaker, whose work graces the cover of the issue, explaining his artistic process as well as his stance toward his subject, “Marin’s Mt. Everest.”

Here find fine poetry, from Juan Avalos’s “Dear Mud” (is Avalos another student, or a much-published adult? We don’t know; it doesn’t matter) to award-winning Prartho Sereno’s “The Dancing Cure.” Not a single poem disappoints, from the ones that are clearly Marin-inspired (“Advice for the Marin Lovelorn” by Jodie Appell) to the ones whose universality call out to every reader regardless of place (Roy Mash’s sweet haiku).

Wonderful personal essays and fiction fill out this issue. Whether you are drawn to the multiculturality of Jan Harper Haines’s “Hootlani!” and Agustina Martinez’s “Life in Mexico,” or to the humor in Dave Mitchell’s “Tall Tales of Intelligent Animals,” or to the heartbreak of Cynthia A. Cady’s exquisite short story “The Miles Pilot” or the bittersweet nostalgia of Reynold Junker’s “Yesterday, Perhaps,” you will be irrevocably drawn to West Marin through this noteworthy journal. I love everything in it—even the ads.
[www.westmarinreview.org/]

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Alternative Magazine Reviews

Posted November 15, 2011

The Point

[Back to Magazine Review Index]

 

The Point coverThe Point

Issue 4

Spring 2011

Biannual

Review by Joanne B. Conrad

The Point is a sophisticated 187-paged Chicago-based literary magazine about contemporary life and culture. The Spring issue's most frequent theme is sports entertainment and rationale, although its five sections, "Letters from the Editors," "Essays," "Art," "Symposium," and "Reviews" include other topics. It's good that it is a biannual, as its many articles require, more often than not, erudite engagement, and certainly more than one sitting.

The "Letters from the Editors" consists of six pages of quotes about freedom by politicians, authors, musicians, philosophers, and economists, from Member of Congress Michele Bachmann to Milton Friedman, from Thoreau to Lenin, Kant, Sartre, et al.

The "Essays" cover such things as games, theology, hermeneutics, education, and digestion with articles such as "Did Drugs Kill Sports," "Pornography as a Way of Life," rap music, problems with authority, and "A Philosopher's Sickness."

The arts section, "Lifestyle," describes the "Wild Alps, a Photo Essay" by Nicolo Degiorges with twelve pages of color photos of the back-to-nature, sort of Native American, lifestyle of three families in the northern German-speaking region of Trentino-Alto Adige in Italy, who are practically self-sufficient, "estranged from industrial and technological development."

Part four's "Symposium," twenty-seven pages on soccer, cricket, basketball, American football, and healthy rivalry, explores athletic entertainment with much intellectual analysis, even an article about the ancient Greek/Athenian penchant for the sound body producing sound minds, ergo the necessity for physical education as opposed to a curricula of math, science, history, and literature. Physical competition provides more than physical fitness; it teaches participants about life. "Soccer and Schizophrenia," "The Sweatiest of the Liberal Arts," "March Madness," "Healthy Rivalry, and "Hail Mary Time" are the articles in "Symposium." "Hail Mary Time," about the 1906 football revolution, after eighteen players died and 159 were injured the year before, was particularly informative, but author Jonny Thakkar's main point was how plutocracy distorts society. One wonders, however, what the yearly injury rates have been since 1906.

"Reviews" include author/artist "Chris Ware's ANL #20," television's Sarah Palin's Alaska, the film Chicago Heights, and "Chicago's Political Theater," the latter reviewing the three stage plays Cherrywood, Detroit, and Frost/Nixon, respectively about "transform[ing] our bad present," “a fitting midterm report for the age of Obama, at a point where talk of hope has bleakly curdled," and a "delectable glimpse at the birth of politics of resentment whose echoes […] saturate our polity today."

The writers are erudite, often esoteric, and showcase their profound knowledge. The only articles that weren't so recondite were the "Wild Alps, a Photo Essay" and Jessica Weisberg's review of television's "Sarah Palin's Alaska."

Included is a separate and impressive list of "Resources," used by some of the authors and would probably be recognized only by scholars. These resources are not referenced as footnotes accompanying the articles, which is annoying, but then only the literati would recognize them anyway. Also missing is brief biographical information about the authors. Professors, artistes, and other intellectuals would like The Point.
[www.thepointmag.com]

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