Literary Magazine Reviews
Posted March 15, 2012
Armchair/Shotgun :: Basalt :: The Bitter Oleander :: Cimarron Review :: The Dirty Goat :: Gargoyle :: Inkwell :: Inscape :: Memoir :: New Madrid :: Notre Dame Review :: Permafrost :: Poetry International :: Toad Suck Review :: World Literature Today
Review by Shannon Smith
Armchair/Shotgun is certainly one of the most intriguingly named new literary journals around. The name is a reference to a Bob Dylan lyric, but the journal is more straightforward and less twisted in its mission than the average Dylan song. Their mission statement, which claims that they read all submissions completely anonymously, lays it out succinctly: “At Armchair/Shotgun we do not care about your bio . . . Good writing knows only story.” And story would seem to be a focus for this journal: tight, compact, highly inventive stories. Even the layout of the prose on the page, with its slightly wide margins, adds to the compact excellence of this edition; the wide margins seem to squeeze the prose to the middle of the page, up front and center, where it belongs.
Before I comment more on the prose, I’d like to praise the photographs of Cory Schubert, placed about two thirds of the way through the journal. Photographs of buildings, walls, cars and places; nearly all are devoid of humans. The light in which they are shot nearly leaps off the page. Schubert states that he only photographs between 11:00 am and 2:00 pm, in the California summer, in order to utilize “an alienating and clarifying light that creates a profound sense of isolation.” The brightness and glare of the light in these images creates a radiating color contrast that gives rise to an electrifying dissonance, heightening the sharpness of the surroundings captured in the photographs.
It is this strive to highlight a unique pinprick of isolated detail that permeates the stories and poetry in Armchair/Shotgun. One story that hovers between the real and a slip into the unreal, in the same way the photographs use color to disassociate the way the viewer perceives details, is Jackson Culpepper’s “Hammer Lane.” In the story, Wes, a minor just under the age of 18, steals a car and lights out from his home. He flees through Georgia, encountering people who help and hinder him in various ways. The firmest connection in the story, though, is to a CB radio that he buys to communicate with truck drivers on the road, to communicate through channels that usually go disguised and ignored, channels that are falling into disuse. There is something eerie and incongruous about a seventeen–year-old, on the run from the cops, speaking through a microphone in a disembodied voice over the airwaves with older truck drivers through fading technology. The story has a powerful but open ending.
Complementing Armchair/Shotgun’s commitment to up and coming, but always interesting, writers focused on story, this issue contains a wide-ranging interview with Jesse Ball. Perhaps the most salient bit of information is that he loathes interference from outside editors, and strives to find ways to work around accepting others’ comments, which he details in the interview. It seems he feels the need to protect his narratives because “the understanding that people have in common now is a cinematic understanding.” For that reason, he attempts to write about, to portray, ambiguity that is “based in possibility”—possibilities that will then be analyzed and misunderstood.
This hope of exploring possibility filters into other pieces in
Armchair/Shotgun. Many concern characters on the go, people in between places. Their lives might be in shambles, but the stories and poems are certainly not.
Armchair/Shotgun is an exciting new journal to keep an eye on.
Volume 6 Number 1
Review by Robyn Campbell
Although Basalt is based in and linked to the state of Oregon—taking its name from the igneous rock prevalent in the northwestern U.S.—a number of the pieces in this latest issue seem interested in crossing or expanding borders. While the front and back covers feature photographs of Oregon’s geography, the roughly thirty pages in between discuss the idea of place, both literally and figuratively.
In Harry Martinson’s “Global Nomads,” translated from the Swedish by Lars Nordström, the narrator takes readers through post World War I Europe. But more than a straightforward description of each city’s blemish and beauty, this piece is a musing on travel, on movement in general. While stating in the opening sentence that “No literature is more superficial than a good travelogue,” the narrator later explains the importance of travel itself, saying he is “convinced of the global social task of our feet when it comes to the healing of our psyche.”
“Junkyard,” a particularly noteworthy poem by Carl Adamshick, mixes together the ideas of time and place in the narrator’s discussion of past and present selves. Beginning with the decisive line, “I never visit my younger self,” the narrator seems to suggest that the past is a physical space where one can go by choice. In life, there is always movement away from that past, there is always change, but no guarantee of its authenticity—once memory (humanity, emotion, etc.) gets involved, even the changes begin to change:
from memory to dream. Snow
falling in a barrel of rusted
engine parts becoming a day
of lightning and old fallen oak:
one life or another, mine or yours.
The eight-page spread of Terry Toedtemeier’s selected photographs adds to the geographical theme of the journal, presenting black and white images of vast rocky landscapes. Without color, the focus of each photograph becomes the rock itself—not the blue of the sky or the browns and greens of trees, not the way the sunlight yellows a certain portion of the scene. James Lavadour, in his eulogistic essay titled “A Thousand Places I Love,” quotes Toedtemeier as saying, “Indeed basalt is just one kind of rock—but it is also a thousand places I love.” An apt sentiment for Basalt.
Including English translations of works not only in Swedish, but Portuguese and Italian as well (a pretty high volume for such a short publication), this journal seems to suggest that the uniting factor for all readers/writers/people is the very ground beneath our feet, the soil and stone. It’s nice that with
Basalt’s simple design and easy readability, one can still get a sense of the largeness of the world, and our small place in it.
Volume 17 Number 2
Review by Joanna Kurowska
It would be a greater justice to write an eight-word review of this volume of Bitter Oleander. Stating simply: “Read the volume! It’s worth your time!” would spare having to select a few pieces from a collection in which each and every piece offers something insightful, interesting, or beautiful. The volume contains sixty-nine poems (free verse or prose), four pieces of short fiction, and an interview. It features writers representing many cultures: American, Azorean, Canadian, Chinese, Estonian, Faroese, French, and Korean (which doesn’t even begin to recognize the complex multicultural heritage/experiences of many of the writers).
The volume’s longest piece is the interview with the interdisciplinary artist Fiona Sze-Lorrain. As a poet, composer, and instrumentalist, Sze-Lorrain articulates many insights about the process of writing poetry. She believes that a poet should seek her/his “secret well of interiority”—since “individuality is interiority.” Poetry must be free from the constrictions of group thinking, conventions, cerebral abstractions, and narcissism. Rather, poetry “speaks about one’s interior world, and how it opens to the unknown beyond.” As such, poetry is not what some “write from their heads.” Instead, it is “emotionally organic” (healthy) and “loyal towards life.” “Being alive—and the feeling of being alive—is the key,” says Sze-Lorrain, who is also featured in the volume as the author of eighteen poems. One of her pieces, “Towering,” seems to be a well-chosen application of her ideas about writing as the following excerpt demonstrates:
I can’t speak for accidents elsewhere,
only for forms, lines and thoughts
trying to dialogue
on charts and water. Believe me,
answers are always small.
Sze-Lorrain’s romantic-intuitive concepts regarding the creative process seem pertinent with regards to the poems by other authors as well. The “loyalty to life” reverberates in recurring images of specific places and moments evoked in the entire collection. For example, in Robert Pesich’s poem “And What Will You Admit,” a grieving person finds himself on a “shoreline / where nothing more can be done / but let the birds and breaking / waves speak.”; It reverberates in the image of a destroyed city in Ray Gonzalez’s powerful poem “The Enraged Angel”: “I move down San Cristobal and see / the empty well, the house of the espanto / refusing to burn.”; And finally, it reverberates in Alan Britt’s poem “Plus the One Before That”: “Eventually we entered the garden of Spain; / it was night; I’m certain; the piano / was made of jasmine, gardenias & wild roses.”
Due to such concentration of images evoking space and spatial relations, the issue becomes a sort of a collection of “poetry of landscape,” whose details vary from minute ones—such as the details of a flower in the poem “Flower” by Yi Lu’s: “How does it know … / that pistil must spiral like a pond for a look more placid and reserved”—to the more cosmic ones—as in Laurence Werner David’s “Wash”: “The moon herself flows / over what of the wharf has remained silent. // Clear is her center, / unknown her native ores.”
The “landscape” created by such spatial details is filled with philosophical and moral significance. Thus, Yi Lu’s flower leads to the ontological question: “How does flower invent itself”; whereas David’s personified moon “Wants her too shiny flesh to be stripped off. / Her cleft is swollen”—which evokes the sense of bewilderment characteristic to the human rather than natural world.
Another interesting feature of this volume is that the poems—some of them in Chinese, Faroese, and French, followed by English translations—bring to mind their authors’ native landscapes. For example, Randi Á Ryggi’s cycle “Weathersick” brings the unique aura of the Faroe Islands: “i walk north í stong / to watch ritan cross the fjord. // southerly winds.”
Also the four pieces of short fiction included in this volume evoke unique “landscapes.” Peter Tieryas Liu’s “Gradients” presents the American-dream-in-reverse, as it focuses on a homeless community dwelling in an abandoned amusement park. The story surprises us also by revealing how much history and truth can be found through studying human excrement.
Antoinette Constable’s “Spiderweb Crack” is a moving tale of a child’s tragedy caused by violence and the adults’ inability to read the child’s emotions. Stephanie Dickinson’s “In the Forest” focuses on children with disabilities. The narrator’s painstaking efforts to involve her pupils in various activities clash with the bureaucratic approach of her supervisors. Finally, translated from the Estonian, Kristiina Ehin’s “Lena of the Drifting Isle” is a part-fantasy, part-myth, largely told by its title heroine who is a skeleton! The story brims with humor, as for example in the scene when Lena “took a sip of her lemon water [which] trickled down along her beautiful white bones.”
In summary—“Read the volume! It’s worth your time!”
Review by John Palen
“No easy answers” is the watchword for this issue.
Devin Murphy’s short story, “Off Dead Hawk Highway,” concerns a fire at a Girl Scout camp, terrible injury to one camper and equally terrible guilt to a camp employee who blames himself—though no one else does. Rejecting a tidy conclusion of healing and forgiveness, it ends as the employee wanders off “into the gray—where in the evening and beyond, there is only a loose interpretation of how we should go about living.”
Steven Belletto’s memoir of a harrowing charity trek across India, “Rickshawing for Dummies,” likewise avoids a neat completion, because that would mean “checking India off the list—much better to wander Bihar, land of the Buddha, to bring a fever down with some meds cadged from the rival pharmacy across the alley . . . to admire a sadhu sleeping naked in the train station, to disappear elsewhere.”
Every piece of prose in this issue, in fact, refuses the comfort of closure. To experience how satisfying it is to be challenged in this way, read the short stories “Crush” by Barrett Hathcock and “Sunken Mariner” by Graeme Mullen.
Top off the experience with Mathew Gavin Frank’s “Rapunzel, Clara Peller, and Other Beasts of Burden.” In this memoir of a troubled couple seeking a place to lay their heads in Oaxaca, Mexico, the “dust blows upstreet, and we follow it, this apparition of the Earth and entropy, aimlessly as always into the village, our own tracks not deep enough to leave a lengthy mark, erased even in the lightest of breezes.”
Among the poets, I call your attention to Mary Jo Bang’s contemporary English translation of Canto XXIX of Dante’s Inferno, and Elton Glaser’s “Down on the Farm,” a stark evocation of what it’s like to be young, oppressed and futureless in rural America.
Don’t miss Christina Cook’s witty “Messier 31,” in which astronomers finally locate God at the far edge of space and “christened him Spiral / Galaxy M31 (NGC224) type Sb. God pronounced this naming / good: he’d always wanted to rid himself of his himness.” And David Wagoner, still publishing at 85 (thank Messier 31) has two poems here. The remainder of the issue is filled with fine work.
Cimarron Review is one of those treasures among lit magazines—a publication whose commitment to high standards keeps us honest.
Review by Mitchell Jarosz
Opening any collection of international literature and art always generates a bit of apprehension on my part. So much depends on the credibility of the editors (whom I don’t know), the quality of the translators (whose skill I’m being asked to trust), and the value of the selections (read on) and their creators (whom I probably don’t know—“unsolicited manuscripts are encouraged”).
For comprehensiveness, this volume of The Dirty Goat covers a respectable amount of prose, a lot of poetry, a little bit of the visual arts, and an essay. It’s safe to assume that the assortment will vary with every biannual edition. So, is it new, is it mainstream, is it a coffeehouse collection, do I have to Google every name?
There’s no explanation provided, except the material itself, and it’s quickly obvious that it’s pretty good. All of the contributors and translators have excellent credentials, (and they’re not all academics!). The majority of the pieces (versus the authors) may have less appeal to the average reader/person on the street. I exclude the Peruvian pieces, because they all speak, and speak well, to current issues.
The organization is the shortest collection to the longest. The sole essay, by Jeremy Larochelle on “Trends and Themes in Recent Poetry from the Amazon: From Abundant Rain to Dying Lakes,” is actually the introduction to a collection of, yes, poetry from the Amazon. The introduction implies that most of the poetry is Peruvian but offers us reassurance that, as one of the translators, the contributor is sincere in providing us with a view of the concerns and views of the poets. The pieces certainly read that way.
Although some of the English word choices are not part of our daily language, both the English and the original Spanish clearly carry the sensuality, the imagery and the weight of the message. Even while the poets are attempting to ‘send a message’ about what is happening to the Amazonian rain forest, they provide a depth of feeling that carries one readily into the context.
In the sections where the poems and prose are translated from the French, they are pleasant, thoughtful, and, thankfully, not predictable. The works are ‘modern’ without reaching to be ‘cutting edge,’ with some of the longer French prose pieces in the memoir style.
The visual art in this issue is transference work, photographs (of video games) processed and then used as a reference for paintings. They’re visually appealing, and an interesting experiment. This brings up another limitation of international collections. More background and biography would be nice. We have short professional biographies, but the works that have the most impact are the ones that give us the context and intent at some length. This would be a concern with the anthology, not the authors, of course.
The prose of Charles Lowe is both entertaining and thoughtful, as are all the stories in this issue Each of the authors leave the reader with the feel of established and practiced craft. And there are surprises, works by Silvina Ocampo—a friend and colleague of Jorge Luis Borges. Her work is as stimulating as his. The other authors may not be as well known internationally, but there are few that don’t prompt one to look for more.
The works cover much more geography than I imagined a collection could garner on a regular basis; “Literature from Around the World” is an accurate claim. The languages/nationalities include Russian, Lithuanian, Persian, Eritrean, French, Italian, Finnish, and German, with Spanish representing much of South America. But it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to add the word “quality” to the claim.
Review by Hazel Foster
Before receiving my copy of Gargoyle 57, I had heard a lot about the magazine. I’d even ventured to their website a few times. When I actually received my copy, I had mixed feelings. Gargoyle 57 is gargantuan. It reaches nearly six-hundred pages. Unfortunately, due to its girth, I found it hard to invest myself into reading it cover-to-cover. The level of work inside also seems a bit unbalanced. Some pieces are great, while others don’t stand out. But putting aside my reservations about this issue, I did find some lovely work inside: “Dear Jimmy Connoll” by Patricia Smith, “Ye Ol’Fashioned Olfactory” by Alexander V. Bach, “Perfect, for You” by Susann Cokal, and “Jasper Owen Interview, 1957, Excerpt No. 6” by Benjamin C. Krause to name a few.
I especially enjoyed “Ye Ol’Fashioned Olfactory”:
I have teeth, and yes they are sharp. And yes there are prosthetics too; they help me to smile and light my way through the dark. I show these prosthetics to women on the street who blush. They think of my teeth on their insides. They think of my teeth inside them, chomping, gnawing upwards to their bellies.
As with most of the pieces in this issue, “Ye Ol’ Fashioned Olfactory” is fairly short. Despite its length, it is a particularly violent but richly detailed story. The narrator alternately discusses, in short sections, his body, his killings, his family, and a sexual encounter with the girlfriend of one of his victims. From this, the image of the narrator, both physically and mentally, is impressively complete considering the story’s length.
“Jasper Owen Interview, 1957, Excerpt No. 6” also struck me as inventive, using succinct language and mimicking a transcript of a damaged audio recording.
What inspired you to [tape damaged]
a dog that’s just been neutered. Pa knew this so [tape damaged] local guy by the name of Bulldog Brown, with a crocodile’s snarl and a grape-sized hole where he lost his eye [tape damaged]
The poem continues with such gaps, allowing the reader to fill in the damaged areas. I find that poems are often asking readers to fill in missing pieces in some way or another. This poem uses this innate feature to build the lines and narrative.
On the whole, there is worthwhile work in Gargoyle 57. Don’t let the length throw you. Take it as an invitation to skip around and find the pieces that really satisfy your reading hungers.
Reviewed by Lauren Smith
For Inkwell’s Fall 2011 issue, the editors chose a super-charged theme: “Ripped from the Headlines.” Its poetry and prose takes subjects that range from crooked high school wrestling teams to private acts of heroism in the WWII Philippines. Because this material is “newsworthy” already, all of the writing has a pleasing urgency—none is here to play.
The best work in the magazine, though, features an ironic self-consciousness about this urgency. The most successful pieces ask fun questions about the idea of notoriety as a whole. What happens when we make the front page for the wrong reasons? What if everything we hold dear, everything we believe sacred and important, wouldn’t even rank as a buried lead?
Regina Murray Brault’s poem “The Pompeii Statues,” for example, ends with this image:
These are the men who once walked stone streets
built for wheels of chariots, entered the building
of the chiseled phallus symbol and played
on the athletic field in the shadow of Vesuvius,
never dreaming they would one day be remembered
for lingering too long
The protagonist of Ron Darian’s “On the List of Historic Places” is a stand-up comic who has the misfortune of sharing the Ed Sullivan stage with the Beatles. “Like most things that don’t make sense,” he reflects, “there’s usually a way to turn it into a joke.”
While choking on a potato chip, the narrator of “Instant Gratification” by Angela Rydell imagines the obituary her artsy, pompous ex-fiancée would write. She’s certain it would contain his merciless observation that she hadn’t washed the chip down with enough Diet Coke: “And Diet? What a pity she didn’t indulge in Coke itself, the real thing, on, of all days, that of her untimely death.” During moments like these, the theme “Ripped from the Headlines” soars.
A few poems and stories do sink under the weight of their own seriousness, and a handful seem more interested in creating atmosphere than making tangible, fresh meaning. Still, this issue of Inkwell offers a lot to adventurous, sophisticated readers of contemporary lit. All unafraid to laugh at themselves and this earnest, ultra-hyped world will enjoy it.
Review by Sean Stewart
The haunting cover art, an oil painting by Clint Carney titled “Humanity,” belies the diversity of content within this annual volume of Inscape. Inside, more full-color artwork and photography break up clean, airy pages of prose and poetry. One of the first observations I made was of the graphic design elements. It may be subtle, but the pages are laid out in a way that makes it easy to flip through the issue to find a particular writer. The writers’ names are underlined and aligned with the left margin, while the page numbers are set halfway up the page, close to the edge. This allows you to quickly find both writers’ names and page numbers. I’m not sure why this jumped out at me, but it did. Multiple-page stories also include a running title in the footer, which I thought was a nice touch.
The poetry ranges from the humorous (David Wiens’s “Love, Awakened” and Tess Wilson’s “Oil and Water”) to the clever (Briony Gylgayton’s “Some Old Boyfriends”), and from the disturbing (Grace Wasserstein’s “What You Saw on October 21, 1989”) to the staccato (Anna Frantz’s “Dream Aubade”).
On the pages between lie intriguing works such as Stephanie Dickinson’s prose poems “Lust Series #92” (“A shiver of 1905 sun and locust as the wedding buggy stops beside the road.”) and “Lust Series #93” (“I learned sea jelly and hair coral, amberjack and mullet, snouts and fins full of messages.”). In Ronald McFarland’s “Euthanasia,” a bee prepares to meet its literary end. Marilyn Page’s narrator outwits a birdseed-raiding squirrel in “An Unplanned Reward” (Note from reviewer: I sympathize and share your joy!). Lin Wang marks winter’s slow passage and its effects in “We Thought We Knew Where Winter Ended”:
At solstice, we trap the sun, but its warmth
does not console us. I wrap it in high hopes
and our new silence, hoping spring will melt
the frost on your lips.
Moving on to prose, Craig Parker’s well-crafted nonfiction narrative piece “The Hand Under the Pillow” speaks of children growing older and losing their preconceived notions about the world and the people around them. Parker entwines his childhood experiences with his present observations of his own daughters. As a boy, a harrowing incident causes him to lose the illusion that his grandfather is always in control. He reflects on his own role as a parent in creating and then inadvertently helping to shatter one of his daughter’s own childhood illusions.
I found the prose piece “All the Lights Are On In the Master Bedroom” by Matthew C. Crawford to be particularly moving. It’s an atmospheric vignette narrated by a child. The piece explores the confusion of childhood fears and anxieties, the things we wonder about when we’re still starting out in life and feeling unsure about so much of what’s around us.
The stars were still flashing from the blue-black sky. I tried to open my mind wide enough to grab hold of the concept of space. Was it never-ending? But how? Just a small boy here on this planet, alone in this dark room; these questions began to seem unbearable. How could everyone go about calmly in life if this was the situation? If the universe went on forever and the earth was less than a speck of dust? With no landmarks in the universe for my mind to hold onto I began to feel frightened.
There are forms and styles to satisfy many tastes in this issue of Inscape. I urge you to seek out a copy and discover your own favorites.
Review by Julie J. Nichols
I’ve taught creative nonfiction writing many semesters, but I had never seen Memoir before this issue. Had never heard of Jacqueline May, whose “But All Can Be Endured Because . . .” is so perfectly satisfying a story about ordinary family and miraculous marriage, I think it must be fiction. Or Cindy Clem, who writes the flip side of May’s coin in words so beautifully measured—“My Husband Clive” is the title, but the first line is “Clive is not my husband”—I’m actually grateful not everyone’s relationship is terrific. Or poet Dianne Bilyak (“Reparation,” and “How He Described Her”), whose tone drops over youthful wounds a lightness that makes me smile. How could I have taught creative nonfiction (CNF) and not known these?
CNF is a hybrid genre, I tell my students—it can look like poetry or fiction, sound like reportage or verse, produce a visceral emotional experience and a frontal lobe transfer of information. This journal proves it. Claudia Sternbach, editor-in-chief, leads an expert editorial board with a combined résumé that would make any would-be autobiographer fall at their feet—or at least beg them to come teach a workshop in the writer’s hometown. At one point, Sternbach says, “Submissions come in. Hundreds, thousands”—this must be a) because the quality of the journal is so high, memoirists scramble from all over the world clamor to be in its pages, or b) the cause of that high quality, which could only be achieved by a discriminating, downright loving editorial board with a deep respect for the myriad shapes life stories can take.
Memoir is not a whole life story, but a section of one, and if you doubt that there are as many forms of memoir as there are sections of life, or if you need jaw-dropping examples to inspire your students, this issue satisfies. “No submission is too unusual or traditional to be considered for publication,” say the Submission Guidelines. One of the pleasures of this issue is that not a single piece is either “too unusual” or “too traditional.” They are all, simply, outstanding.
Every issue awards substantial kudos to grand prize, second, and third place winners. This time, the Grand Prize went to Colette Inez. “Mother Country” weaves images of mapping and drawing through a prose lament for a scholar-mother who committed her child, conceived by a scholar-priest, to an orphanage in France. As all memoirists strive to do, Inez achieves a tightrope balance between emotion and objectivity, personal involvement and fact. What we know of her life by the end of this short piece, we know through the lens of longing for both a mother and a mother country.
Memoir typically uses “the upright pronoun.” “But All Can Be Endured Because” by Jacqueline May employs the second person point of view, and Jean Leblanc’s poem “Spring Floods” is similarly addressed to “you,” recounting events that could have happened “on Main Street / or Central or Broad . . . the Nashua / or the Assabet or the Swift,” ending with an anecdote of a father who, like so many of us, makes a life decision on the basis of seasonal disasters, other factors (even sensible ones) be damned.
Rachel May’s three letters addressed to “Some Artists That I Need to Talk To” evoke the subjective intelligence of museum-critique, love for art, and non-narrative storytelling. These choices remind us that the hybrid genre is personal and universal, specific and generalized—that you can mean “I,” then can mean “now,” and all can mean “for everyone, always.”
Eduardo Vinueza’s internationally-acclaimed narrative photography constitutes a less-well-known form of memoir, with arresting representations of New York City beautifully described by editor David Rompf’s notes:
Lone figures pushed to the far corners of a frame tempt assumptions of melancholy or marginalization; we see many backsides but few faces…[the] images conjure the alienation and anonymity of individuals in a city that welcomes all but embraces no one…imbued with a pleasing—and teasing—ambiguity that tips most often toward human resilience.
Always the stories (ten), poems (twelve), and reviews draw us in, and the writing astounds. A hitchhike goes wrong (Melissa Henderson’s segments, “Four Shorts”). Girlfriends come and go (Pauline Carey’s essay, “Best Friends”). A cousin’s death profoundly affects a boy in ways no one notices (Paul Dickey’s terse, moving “For Almost a Year, I Stopped Everything”). A Korean grandmother comes to stay (Leona Sevick’s sweet poem, “Harmony”). A boy enters the doorway to you-know-what (Mark Beaver’s delightful “Boys and Sex”). I may never have heard of this journal before, in all my semesters of teaching CNF, but I now stand informed, agape with pleasure. My classes will never be the same.
Volume 6 Number 2
Review by John Palen
Coming from the low-residency Master of Fine Arts program at Murray State University in Kentucky, this issue of New Madrid includes several stories that show how powerfully style can be used to concentrate narrative force.
In “Trying to Save Some Fat Chicks from the Burning Wreckage of a Minivan,” Josh Gerald Wheeler’s narrator comes upon several women trapped in a burning van. His compressed, frantic thoughts go in a circle—from the van’s spinning wheel, to flowers on the license plate, to his dying mother, to an increasingly intense and detailed memory of adolescent sex interpenetrated with filmed pornography. Because Wheeler never lets us outside that spinning mind, the story picks up almost tornadic power.
In Emily Howorth’s “September,” the narrator, Linda, must deal with a demented mother, an immature daughter heading off to college, and a husband who does nothing but watch music programs on TV. The mundane tasks Linda undertakes are described in language of such unremitting claustrophobic ordinariness that eventually we come to understand her heroism. She is the stubborn center that, at least for another day, keeps this family from flying apart.
The most daring stylistic adventure is “Salty Water” by Kristin Lieberman. From a fifth-grade teacher who cries puddles on the floor to a science teacher whose body parts are mostly plastic or metal, the story has elements that would fit nicely in a picture book for young readers. But it’s also the touching story of a boy dealing with sadness and fear while his soldier father is away at war.
While relying more on traditional character development and plotting, the other stories pack their own punch. In Michael Gills’s “The House Across From The Deaf School,” the narrator breaks into his childhood home, where he recovers and reconciles with painful memories of marital infidelity and abuse. George Hovis’s “Checkpoint Charlie” shows how a lie—and a good bowel movement—can save the day for a couple married long enough to know each other all too well.
This issue also offers several engaging non-fiction works. Elena Passarello is an actress as well as a writer, and her witty essay “Playing Sick” meditates on all the different ways to say “Eew.” A second, shorter essay dissects Marlon Brando’s famous “Stella!” scream from “Streetcar Named Desire.” Both give us non-actors insight into what it’s like to practice that craft and art.
In “Descending the Staircase,” Dean Kostos writes a compelling memoir of friendship and loss among the young, talented and mentally unstable. Gro Flatebo, in “River Ice,” gives us another look at the familiar difficulties of parenting. She finds that a childhood memory of falling through ice both complicates and helps her come to terms with the competing claims of protecting her own sons and letting go.
The issue includes terse, nut-hard poems by Adrian C. Louis, Lee Upton and Rachel Bennett; translations by Peter Golub of the Russian poet Aleksey Porvin; two ghazals by Eric Torgersen; and many other accomplished poems Fifteen short book reviews round out the issue.
Review by Julie J. Nichols
Notre Dame Review is a sophisticated, erudite lit mag, not always an easy read, certainly not a quick one. “Our goal,” says the website, “is to present a panoramic view of contemporary art and literature—no one style is advocated over another. We are especially interested in work that takes on big issues by making the invisible seen.” This is an apt goal given the theme of the issue—The Gone Show—and how its contents reveal subject matter that seems to have disappeared, making it visible again.
In this issue, a few of the offerings to lend further support to NDR’s goal. In its five stories, 59 poems (or 68, depending on how you count Jere Odell’s “Six Poems” and Nasos Vayenas’s “Three Poems”), four works of nonfiction (one academic/literary; one lyric; one biographical; and one personal), and many reviews, short and long, Issue 32 brings to light the multiplicities inherent in complex issues. And in every case, the second stated intention of the publication is met: “Excellence is our sole criteria.” These selections are not easy or quick, but they require good readers, and they reward attentive reading.
Big issues come in all genres. In fiction, Kelcey Parker addresses capitalism and its relation to mental health in her surprising and (sort of) hilarious “Estate Sale at the Interior Castle.” “The Goddess Complex,” by Christine Sneed, one of my favorite pieces, revolves around the tragic/fateful mother-push from the nest toward individuation, especially in regard to the college experience. These stories aren’t merely entertaining, aren’t merely a good read—they’re also profound. What we are is what we buy, so it behooves us (and our spouses) to be mindful, says Parker; and Sneed reminds us that becoming adult is a tricky, two-way business—if our parents never grew up, we might not either, but we certainly wouldn’t be alone, lonely as we might be.
David Hoppe’s personal essay “Tschaikovsky in the Livingroom” tells a poignant set of stories from his life revolving around “the eroticism of aestheticized violence”—no small problem in our society, though one we turn away from if we can. And the excerpt from Peter Michelson’s nonfiction work in progress, An Autobiography of Postmodernism, which he has titled “Drummers for the Dream,” treats American exceptionalism, especially in the literature of Ayn Rand and Jerzy Kosinski. This academic piece is no less sizeable in its significance for our time than Hoppe’s personal work, proving that “big issues” deserve all kinds of treatment. In corroboration, Michael Perkins’ memoir of Edward Dahlberg paints a diarist’s portrait of a difficult genius—yet a third method for studying an aspect of human nature; it benefits us not to forget.
Perhaps no poem treats a “little” topic, since the fact of its form gives it heft and weight beyond mere exposition. But the subjects of the poems in this issue have particular gravity: the right use of prescription drugs (“Into the Apothecary,” by Heather Treseler and “Xanax/Theseus and the Minotaur,” by John Hennessy, complemented by Seth Taylor’s story “Ritalin”); the artist’s relation to his art (Cynthia Sowers’s “Winter Poet” and “Still Life Among the Shades”); and the inevitability of human failure and striving (“Devil’s Darning Needle” by Stephen A. Allen and Michael Homolka’s “A Priori”, two of this issue’s best poems). I must quote from Homolka:
Sometimes it returns to me—that place where it is not anomalous for solitude to flake off in cinders . . . I remember now—cruising the moonlight, night after night. Bliss and despair, obvious synonyms. I remember the day their face, too, split. . . . I was there—searching out the live dirt, the slippery river banks, the weightless song.
Which of us does not perceive a place in our subconscious past when opposites wore the same cloak, and we had to learn to rend it? Holding that memory is a big issue for me; applause, that Notre Dame Review includes it within its covers.
Finally, reviews of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Geoffrey Hill, Göran Sonnevi, Valerio Magrelli, various poets in translation, and many American authors posit the significance and necessity of partaking of world culture. (W. Wilde-Menozzi’s story “Brunelleschi’s Dome,” and myriad other titles that include terms from art and literature, confirm this position.) Alongside the social, psychological, and political “big issues” this journal takes on, the place of art in human striving may be the largest of all. This excellent issue of
NDR shrinks from none of them.
Review by Sean Stewart
Even the cover of Permafrost looks cold. And this issue of the “farthest north literary journal in the world” is solid as a hulking glacier. It’s rare that I come across a journal where I am almost equally enamored of both its poetry and its fiction. But I could not stop turning the pages of this issue.
It starts out with an excellent craft-focused interview with author Paul Lisicky, conducted by fiction editor Chris Malmberg. I enjoy reading these types of interviews because I’m always curious how writers approach their work. Malmberg asks insightful questions, which helps, as poor questions can send an interview downhill fast. One of my favorite observations from Lisicky comes in his response to a question about his novel Lawnboy. He comments that “the tension between belonging and isolation is a part of the human struggle, at whatever age.” I would add that this tension makes rich fodder for writing, as is reflected in so much of the world’s great literature.
Some of my favorite poems in this issue take their cues from the natural world: Barbara Knott’s “Ladybugs” (“red lacquered / oval shells / black spots”); Penelope Moffett’s “Tomales Point” (“coyote melts from bush to bush / ears pricked / turns to stare at silver hare / on nearby hill”); and three from Gigi Marks (from “Fuel”: “There were new leaves everywhere. / There was fuel enough for every bit / of life, it seemed”).
Fiction-wise, I’ll just mention a few of the stories that lingered with me post-reading. Brian Fender’s “Taut” captures the sometimes uneasy relationship between sons and their silent unpredictable fathers. During a fishing trip, the unnamed boy in the story “waits at the stump patiently, watching his father’s approach. He is never certain of what to expect.” When you are young, this is often how it is with adults, even your own parents. Fender deftly illustrates this uncertainty.
In Landon Houle’s “This World Made Magic,” the 2011 Midnight Sun Fiction Contest Winner, we follow a young girl, solitary and vulnerable, as she plays in a vacant lot with her little dog:
She’d learned to tell her own stories those nights when her mother couldn’t. Sometimes she talked out loud to cover the noises she heard, and though she was unafraid in the vacant lot, she’d grown accustomed to the sound of her own voice lulling.
A man shows up at the lot while the girl is there, and we, as readers, endure a tense series of scenes in which Houle draws out to the maximum suspenseful effect.
Richard Robbins’s “A Map of the World” reads to me like a prose poem, though it’s classed in the Table of Contents as fiction. While I confess to not being completely certain what it’s about, I read the piece in the broadest sense as a meditation on place:
Maybe this street has already tricked its neighbors, routed them elsewhere toward oblivion of pine or static. Somehow we have come finally far enough to know we’re hearing this intersection for the first time, without echo. The car driving by carries teenagers talking, talking, each on the way to some ultimate damage. Chickadees tick in the elm.
The finest pleasure for me in this issue was the tribute to John Haines. He is one of my favorite poets, and I enjoyed reading the essays, tribute poems, and selections of his own poetry. Haines left behind verses of such universality that I feel confident they will be read and reflected on for years to come. It seems fitting to end this review with a quote from him on his own writing and inspiration:
Much of the best of what I have written has been saturated with landscape. I have been led by this and other realizations to feel that there are always two places, dream and actual life. When the two are brought together by an act of imagination there occur those sometimes brief moments of compelling clarity and completeness. And these moments are, or ought to be, part of the real life of humankind: place and image, reality and dream made one. (“A Place of Sense”
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
What most distinguishes Poetry International from among other similarly sized (600 page) brick, behemoth literary annuals is the emphasis placed upon poetry alone. Unlike many others, there’s no fiction here, no interviews, and barely any critical commentary or other prose. This uniqueness is undeniably detrimental. There aren’t even any contributor bios! But there is good poetry, even if little of it manages to be surprising or challenging.
In an epigraph, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” W.H. Auden sets the tone:
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.
Celebration is sought. A rejoicing in the wealth of living, expounding on the wonders only poets might excel at regarding. Sam Taylor answers Auden: “Not in the bread, but the fingers and the tongue. / Not in the tongue, but the song, in the elegy sung” (“Testimony”). A few pages further, Chard De Niord adds:
I didn’t send you the pomegranate to write about,
but to eat.
It is from this world where every seed
counts for a day of life. (“Pomegranate”)
These poems declare: What’s the use of poetry, if not to offer proof of the beauty—even if damaged—of our human existence? Whiling away the hours, joining together in such matter-of-fact tone, accepting and containing the daily mundane lives of the authors, and the strongest among them remains, well, strong.
Marvin Bell’s “from The Animals” heads in a slightly different direction. Looking to animals for some humble (and not so humble) reminders that there’s other life in the world whose song is just as important, if not more so, than humanity’s own.
We peacocks do not lie.
Listen at dawn or dusk.
We, too, can speak. We can sing.
Like the whale,
like the chimp and the mynah,
like the rooster, like the buffalo,
like the horse, the stork, the camel,
like the high vultures you fear,
we are near. And we are talking, too.
There is a focus on work in translation here as well, of course. A selection of poems from the Polish by Anna Świrszczyńska (Swir) provides a good introduction to this “severe poet.” In her poems, as translator Boris Dralyuk tells us, “Medieval and Baroque designs have turned grotesque. Rhythm and alliteration, too, make an essential contribution.” Swir’s work, “He Steals Furs,” is swift and unrelenting in its suddenness:
A shell tears apart the doors
of a fur shop.
A man jumps in,
grabs an armful of furs,
runs, hoisting them, toward the doorway.
At the doorway another shell
tears apart the man.
And there’s a selection of Caribbean poetry presented by Ishion Hutchison, Romanian poetry presented by Martin Woodsdale, a re-visiting of “poems and ritual events from the Indian Americas” presented by Jerome Rothenberg, along with single poem appearances by well recognized poet-heavies such as Charles Baudelaire, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Jacques Prévert among others.
The best of the larger selections of work perk interest, leading to new discoveries, or the revisiting of old ones. In one of the more promising galleries, Mark Weiss presents “Five Poems from Jorge Accame’s Four Poets” noting that “the four poets of the title (three of whom are in this selection) are heteronyms (to borrow Pessoa’s term), not pseudonyms, Accame insists: three independent voices, with distinct biographies and ways of writing.” It makes for fascinating reading, really, and the longing to have more included here.
Meantime, Molly Peacock turns out a solid appearance with “Elle Supine at Her Pool,” a strong, bizarre reoccurring confrontation through the years between a film actress and visitor clad in a suit of armor. Surreal, American, feminist, and eerily noir, this poem sticks around in your thoughts long after first reading.
She hardly dares to pick it up.
When she approached it, her pale, veiny
hand went right through it.
It was only apparent to her eye.
Slowly, the glove began to vanish, with a slight fizz.
It was a bit like sitting in your hotel room after your lover leaves,
except all he had done was hand her a compliment.
Also worth noting, Kwame Dawes’s “Chameleon of Suffering” delivers one of the few extensive statements of poetics to be found here. And Michael Dumanis, in “State of the Union,” takes us back to our goal:
She prays into my ears. They turn to moss.
Possibly, this is the only end: dust,
the star-addled, wind-saddled black
flag of the sky waving over us.
When I grow up, I do not want to be a headstone.
When I grow up, I want to be a book.
Surprisingly, given that it is 600 pages long, finishing this annual only leaves the wish that there was more of a few specific poets and much less of so many others. If it need be said: both quality and quantity over mere quantity.
Review by Aimee Nicole
Toad Suck Review has exploded with success since its debut issue in 2011. Volume 2 is titled “Obey” and follows well on the heels of a remarkable first issue. The table of contents is enough to lure you into a very different and fun structure. Included are: Nonfixion, High-Octane Poetix, Artist-in-Residence Features, Fixion, Translation, Eco-Edge, Critical Intel, and much more. This magazine features not only current writers, but honors great past writers as well. Everything is woven into an incredibly enjoyable read that leaves breadcrumbs along the way to find more where that came from.
I was especially blown away by “A ‘Very Nice’ Sand Castle” by Charles Bukowski. At first, I had reader’s whiplash. Hadn’t we lost Bukowski in the ‘90s? But this story brings him back to life, even larger than life. The narrator brings his daughter, Louise, to a cement wall that runs along the shoreline. As they are eating lunch, the narrator states: “It’s too bad I have to look at those people,” which sparks an insightful conversation with Louise:
“Why don’t you want to look at them?”
“They have no desire.”
“Well, let’s see. ‘Desire’ is wanting something you usually can’t get right when you want it, but if you have enough ‘desire’ you can sometimes get it anyhow . . . Oh hell—that sounds like ‘ambition,’ which is something you’re trained to do instead of something you want to do. Let’s just say that those people don’t want anything.”
“Those people don’t want anything?”
“Right. In a sense, nothing affects them so they don’t want anything, they aren’t anything. Especially in Western Civilization.”
“But that’s the way they are. Maybe that’s a good way to be.”
As the two contemplate desire and ambition and consequently drive, I thought about myself as well as others surrounding me. Great literature tends to make you think. The story continues as two gentlemen walking down the beach rough up a homeless man and the narrator intervenes. I’ll leave it up to you to discover his next insightful conversation with the homeless man.
Unlike the infamous Charles Bukowski, I was unfamiliar with Roy Trask before reading this issue. The excerpt “Supermodel Stupor Model” highlights some of his novel Surreal Killer. The sarcasm and emphasis is absolutely remarkable; I cannot recall reading such a cheeky and fun piece of writing prior to Trask’s work. Here’s a little nibble:
Then one day Susan was stationed somewhere in the caribbean doing a swimsuit photo shoot Of Course Susan stayed at the plushest resort Because Susan Didn’t Have To Pay She was SO famous and desirable that she stayed at ALL hotels for free Ate at ALL restaurants for free She did NOT have to tip She fucking SHOPPED for free so ecstatic were any sort of business owners lucky enough to have Susan step through their doors Oh My God Gasped the help And took photos with their cellular telephones
There is no punctuation, and the spacing varies throughout the excerpt to emphasis different breaks. Normally, I cringe at the forced gimmicks of such utter breaking of the English language; however, Trask makes the English language his own, and every rule he breaks works together, just as Susan breaks the rules.
In the section titled: Critical Intel, C. Prozac offers us some “No B.S. Reviews.” Even better, they are in the form of poetry! For example, he begins reviewing John Roch’s book titled Road Ghosts as follows:
portrait of a teenage
“Howl”ing his trek
Prozac also reviews a 200 paperback titled Blank by Davis Schneiderman. Following the book’s information is a large white space. It’s just blank, down to the bottom of the page. Although I have no idea what Schneiderman’s book entails, I’m assuming it’s a big wad of nothing. Which is a very clever way to review a book titled Blank with nothing but a bit of blank page.
It is rare for me to blatantly praise a literary magazine for all its glory; however, this issue of Toad Suck Review is an incredible read. The stories are diverse, fun, edgy, comical, and really push the limits. Toad Suck Review is daring. After each piece, the editors thoughtfully include where the piece originates from and how to purchase the extended version. I am not ashamed to admit that I ordered Surreal Killer immediately after I read Trask’s excerpt. These pages will make you think, laugh, search, talk, and maybe even cry in happiness a little bit on the inside.
Volume 86 Number 1
Review by Lydia Pyne
In her acceptance speech for the 2011 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature, Virginia Euwer Wolff emphasized an enduring dialectic of human existence. She juxtaposed Homo sapiens and Homo ludens—what she described as “man the thoughtful and man the playful.” Daniel Simon picks up this pairing, in his editorial introduction to the January/February issue of World Literature Today, and uses it to frame to the experience of literature, play, identity, and thought—themes central to the work in this issue of WLT. Somewhere within Zapotec poetry, Burmese poetry, notes about post-Fukushima Japanese literature, interviews and book reviews, the reader is reminded that the shared experience of poetry and literature between and across culture ought to be beautiful and mindful.
As the majority of the collected literature in this issue is translated, Valerie Henitiuk’s piece, “The Single, Shared Text?” is particularly apropos as it articulates the complexities of translation and asks what it means to have a shared text or shared “worlded experience.” Henitiuk suggests that, “Perhaps it is because human beings are translating machines, in addition to being storytelling or metaphor machines, that we find ourselves throughout history seeking new and better ways to describe and explain the interrelations of individuals and of cultures.” She argues that engaging with world literature—in whatever language of the text—forces the reader to decentralize himself or herself in what it means to participate in world literariness. In short, Henitiuk’s question of “The Single, Shared Text?” works well to frame the broader literary collection of WLT.
More than anything else, however, the theme that captures all of the writings, interviews, and excerpts focuses on cultural identity and how that identity is formed, how it changes, and how people make sense of it. Impressively, the theme of culture and identity through its contemporary texts is subtle within WLT as it percolates slowly, carefully, and completely. For example, in exploring the cultural response to post-Fukushima tragedy, the Japanese poet Hideo Furukawa’s point of view narration ought to shift toward a first-person and away from a collective “we.” Author Takeshi Kimoto claims that Furukawa’s shift in voice is the way that one can make sense of the external tragedy. These lines written by Furukawa provide a clear example of this:
We, those who were part of the tragedy in Japan.
What should we do?
We cannot hate anyone.
If some, this is the only hope.
The only thing we can do is to keep walking, without hating someone.
Ania Spyra’s interview with Eva Stachniak, “Like Two Pairs of Glasses: Eva Stachniak on Writing Between Cultures,” explores the same theme of identity through text as Stachniak explores the world of historical fiction through the lenses of her Polish and Canadian experience and identity. In contrast to Furuwaka’s response of cultural identity and internal metaphysical exploration, Stachniak’s writing explores the “in-between” identity or the question of self-determination of identity. Culture, identity, and text are actively shaped, not responded to, as Stachniak’s describes her writing: “The two languages, Polish and English, are always with me, like two pairs of glasses, each offering a different focus. . . . I find that when I think in English I’m more specific, I notice more details that take over the emotional load of what I want to say. But my Polish is also there, always, softening my writing, bringing the lyrical, poetical notes to it.”
Between World Literature Today’s book reviews, interviews, and the excepts of poetry and prose, I found myself with a hefty list of books wanting to be read. WLT included a collection of pieces that inspires its reader to want to read more of the authors—after reading “Tree of Red Leaves, Jaén” and “The Courtyard of Colegiata del Salvador” by Nathalie Handal, for example, I found myself looking forward to reading her forthcoming book Poet in Andalucía.
The issue wraps back around fully, completely, and mindfully to Daniel Simon’s quote of Virginia Euwer Wolff in his editor’s note, “We all keep trying to make sense in language of a world that baffles, amuses, and appalls us.”