Posted 15 June 2012
5x5 :: American Short Fiction :: Barn Owl Review :: Catch Up :: Conduit :: The Conium Review :: Denver Quarterly :: FIELD :: Fourteen Hills :: The Greensboro Review :: Hanging Loose :: The Hudson Review :: Iconoclast :: Image :: Juked :: Light :: The Lindenwood Review :: The Massachusetts Review :: The Mom Egg :: Poet Lore :: Raleigh Review :: Sententia :: The Southern Review :: Spinning Jenny :: Sycamore Review :: Vallum
Review by Sean Stewart
For such a tiny ephemeral-seeming publication, 5x5 delivers the goods with style. Not only is the publication itself small, but the literary pieces within are short, making 5x5 the ideal magazine to carry around with you everywhere you go. It fits nicely in your back pocket, and you can pull it out and read one or two pieces at a time whenever you have a spare few minutes.
At first glance, a reader (me, for example) may think 5x5 is one of those journals that doesn’t designate its fiction and nonfiction, but these labels are actually displayed in faint grey type in the footer on the first page of each piece. Almost missed that! There is a pretty even mix of nonfiction and fiction, as well as a few poems and some visual art (including one very cool full-color comic).
5x5 chooses a theme for each issue, and the theme for this one is “Divided.” Their themes are pretty broad, allowing for a lot of different interpretations, which I like. 5x5 also encourages submissions from high school students, even offering them free subscriptions. This particular issue includes several high school contributors, which is nice to see along with widely published writers, MFA candidates, and college professors. It’s a good mix of contributors, and not one you see in many journals.
Some of my favorites from the issue: Nick Straight’s comic “Saplings,” which had an otherworldly fairy tale quality to it; Michael Krumboltz’s satirical craft essay “How to Write” (“Whenever you don’t feel like writing, you can simply say that you didn’t have your coffee, or your coffee was crappy, or that asshole waitress must have given you decaf. It’s a perfect excuse machine—like an imaginary sick cat.”); Kimberly Burke’s dystopian story “Incurable” (“Dull eyes stared at us, but mine were too preoccupied with patches of irritated skin, flushed from the incurable disease.”); and Mona Sfeir’s poem “Contour Line” (“we build images to populate / and sleep to keep moving”).
5x5 takes its name from radio terminology “used to signify that the signal has excellent volume and perfect clarity.” It’s a fitting name for this neatly presented and easy to read journal. Next issue’s theme is Backwards, which is sure to bring in some interesting submissions.
Volume 15 Issue 54
Review by Shannon Smith
American Short Fiction differs from a lot of other literary journals in that, as its name implies, it only publishes short fiction. The Editor’s Note for this issue says that the stories explore “the voice of the collective—in particular, the women’s collective,” and while that description is not one-hundred percent applicable to all five stories in this issue, it pertains to more of them than not. The Editor’s Note also claims that these stories contain an above average share of violence and that “all this first-person plural and womanliness (womynliness?) and crime and violence may not sound like a blast to read. And yet it is.” That description, too, is a pleasingly accurate one. Many of the stories explore the edges of darkness but then allow light to resurface through reflection and humor.
A particular example of that is Laura van den Berg’s “Lessons,” which starts with a group of female bank robbers who wear gorilla masks during their Midwestern robberies. Pinky, the younger brother of one of the Gorillas, is unsuited to life as a robber, though he assumes the role of lookout during their escapades. Through the story, the Gorillas contrast themselves with a better-known group of female bank robbers who are making headlines in California—The Go-Go girls, who wear Snow White masks and carry semiautomatics. The Go-Go Girls supposedly perform acrobatic tricks with the guns during their robberies. Van den Berg writes of the Gorillas, “They are criminals, but they still have rules: no hostages, small scores, never stay in one town for more than a week.” Of course, havoc ensues in the story when some of these rules are broken, as the Gorillas try to step outside of their small niche. “Lessons,” though, is not all about light-hearted set-up and robberies: van den Berg fills in the back-story of the characters’ lives before they banded together and left home.
Another stand-out story is Robert Boswell’s “American Epiphany,” which follows a former PhD student named Tera as she picks up her husband, her former professor—whom she has been cheating on with one of his other students—from a mental health recovery facility. The story takes place in the middle of a tornado in Kansas where Tera’s car breaks down, and the only person she can apparently think of to rescue her is her lover, Kenny, whom she broke up with as soon as her husband, Dmitry, figured out she was having an affair (and then came undone). Kenny is perturbed but shows up to help and remains there to meet with Tera and Dmitry. They seek safety from the tornado clustered together in the girl’s room of a Hardee’s—a bathroom being the safest place during a storm—as Tera is trapped between “her men.”
“Souvenirs” by Tate Higgins also explores remorse and revenge. Set in an alligator park, the story tells the tale of Crawl, an employee, and an unusual encounter with a female visitor to the alligator park—which seems to consist of a souvenir shop, a display pool where the employees interact with the alligators, and a sketchy alligator farm hidden out back, away from the view of the visitors. The story investigates the emotions of attraction and compulsion, anger and perhaps (or maybe not) a hint of reconciliation.
The writing throughout this issue of American Short Fiction is excellent and surprising showcasing five powerful stories with raw but not exploitative emotions. [www.americanshortfiction.org]
Review by Lesley Dame
You know that cousin you have who is really weird but whom you would defend to the death if anyone badmouthed him? He may be a little different, but you mean that in the best sense. He’s eclectic and creative and bound to do something amazing with his nontraditional life. That’s kind of how I feel about Barn Owl Review (BOR). There were times I was reading and shaking my head in wonder at the same time. BOR is definitely not bor-ing.
In fact, BOR is clever and quirky. It’s publishing some awesome contemporary poetry. Sometimes, the poetry makes me feel like I have ADHD, but again, so does my weird cousin. That’s okay. I guess what I mean is that a lot of the poems feel very rushed and scattered. They jump from one image or idea to another completely different one. They change tone or style midway through. They are sometimes odd but always intelligent, striving for meaning in a world that often seems random and meaningless.
Alison Pelegrin’s “Self-Portrait as a Voodoo Doll” begins, “Chicken livers for a heart / and everything hurts.” Ugh, that line makes me hurt, too, a sort of gross heartache. The speaker goes on to describe herself in voodoo doll details, yet the doll also seems to be abandoned in the woods. She says “I startle awake with moss in my hair, / afraid to wonder where I’ve been.” I’m afraid to wonder, too. I don’t really want to know what’s happened. The feelings of loneliness and fear are enough. Let’s not open that wound. Pelegrin ends: “I can’t believe what I’ve become, / muddy feet, black dogs following everywhere.” Great image. Great lines. It could mean so much and I’ve no doubt it means something wonderful and terrible and personal to each reader.
Pelegrin’s poem is gritty, but it doesn’t have the rushed energy that many of the others have. For example, Matt Hart’s “The Power is Wrong” sort of makes my head hurt, yet I read and reread it out of literary pleasure. It begins with “Cherry pits and stems on the edge / of the kitchen sink” and ends with “Take off your clothes, / follow me.” And in the middle? Everything from “I’m angry about / birds” (my favorite phrase) to “Go / to your monster and never come out” (my second favorite phrase). This is a man frustrated with the world but simultaneously hopeful and passionate and determined. Right before the last line, he says:
Let us be pigs, black mud coursing
through us. Let us take the light
from delight and make it obvious.
I want to swing from murder
to rapture in an instant.
It’s some sort of call to arms, and I’m answering.
Next, in the middle of the issue, there’s a folio (labeled in pages i through x). Why? Not sure. This folio is a selection of eight poems by Sandra Simonds. Although several poets in BOR have more than one poem published in this issue, this folio is intended, I think, to be a featured collection, a mini-chapbook of sorts. The journal never comments or editorializes on its choices or design, which is at times frustrating and at times endearing. Your weird cousin should not have to explain himself!
Simonds’s work is good. It’s funny, gritty, and honest. Simonds is feisty. Simonds likes to curse. Simonds might be one of your cousins. She says things like “I wanted love—not deceit. Eat shit, / deceit!” and “So what if a man hits a woman in the throat?” In fact, she makes you forget that you are not, in fact, at a family get-together listening to the crazy shit your exceptionally well-spoken and intelligent cousin is saying. She’s got great first and last lines, drawing you in and then punching you in the gut. Take that, she seems to say.
BOR is a poetry magazine that stands out and stands alone. I’ve no doubt it will continue to do amazing and nontraditional things.
Volume 1 Issue 2
Review by Sean Stewart
Catch Up’s cover art bucks the usual trend of staid literary journal cover art. This issue features a lurid red, blue, and purple drawing by contributor Max Bode of a menacing figure with its head ringed with dynamite and its gloved hands holding detonators. So, the cover made me think more underground “litzine” or comics anthology than literary journal. However, I found, on the pages within, the work of some very widely published writers. Mixed in with this literary work are a few comics, including a nice series from Box Brown on Andre the Giant’s interactions with various cast members on the set of The Princess Bride, presumably from the comic biography of Andre that Brown is currently working on.
The other comic in here that I thought was hilarious was “Nice Guy Sub” by Max Bode (former art director and cartoonist at The New Yorker). It’s a deceptively simple series of panels about a grumpy submarine and its various encounters at sea, primarily with other watercrafts. Bode’s genius lies in his ability to create a distinctive and amusing persona for Sub using a minimum of text and design. I’d love to see a whole book of these strips, although Max’s website indicates that he has a lot of irons in the fire, and I didn’t see “Nice Guy Sub” book in the list.
Catch Up is strong on poetry. First are a series of prose poems from Hannah Gamble called “From the Farm Records (June-July 2005).” These do appear to be actual notes and observations from living on a farm, much of them reflections on the narrator’s interactions with the various farm animals. From “Cows II:”
It occurs to me that I best like animals when I expect nothing of them other than that they keep breathing, in other words, co-existence. When I have to make them do what they don’t want them to do for their own good, I am irritated with them, and may hurt them in ways that their brains do not allow them to resent me for. I will never have children.
Bob Hicok’s epistolary poem “Dear Kitty” is written from the perspective of a narrator standing outside of Anne Frank’s house, feeling reluctant to enter:
If I imagine rooms
the size of a glove box, or a rose
carved in a floor board, or that she touched herself
here, in a hall in my thoughts in the dark,
but didn’t write that down, didn’t cry out
or ask paper to remember, my mind grows backward
into time, and the winds that come to blow me away
find I am rooted with more cunning purchase.
Matt McBride’s poem “Structure Fire” is short yet violently descriptive:
A throat of smoke opens,
pulls itself through itself
and the orchestra watches,
holding their aluminum violins.
Some of the other poems in the issue seem less literal, and perhaps less accessible, but still beautiful in their language. For example, Lytton Smith writes in “Your Light Experience:”
Colour did not exist for you and does
blurred at the edges. The sound of an emergency,
voices passing the open window, and you are
no longer sure what light is as it surrounds you.
My favorite poem in this issue was Tom Hunley’s “No One to Ask for Directions.” I read this poem as a meditation on the world’s vastness and the sometimes unknown differences between its inhabitants, both animate and inanimate. The narrator is in a reflective, wondering mood. For me, the most poignant lines appeared in the poem’s center: “Some people live with songs lodged in their throats. Others / let the insides of their fingertips itch / with chords they will never play.”
There is considerably less fiction than poetry in this issue. A couple of these pieces warrant a mention, though. Matthew Baker’s story “Shovel + Face” is essentially a crime story set in recent times, yet told from a point far in the future. Baker establishes a unique cadence to the story through his curious use of language in the narrator’s explanatory notes, such as in this description of the character Z:
Z had not eaten in hours. Her organism was sending her pain/desire data in multitudes. Her brain ached. Her arms felt weak. Her stomach desired salt, mayonnaise, and Wild Berry Pop-Tarts. Also: the mother of Z had once again forgotten to feed Z her medicine (pink pills that could be obtained at the supermarket [and that were believed to improve mental focus and agility] in exchange for paper banknotes). Thus: Z was feeling slightly, a little bit, on edge.
Lastly, Lawrence Osborne’s story “The Wave” relates a grim series of events experienced by a British entomologist collecting specimens on an island off the coast of India. I don’t want to spoil the story by giving away more details, but I will observe that Osborne displays a keen perception of the complexities of human nature. I’m still thinking over some of the themes he explores in this story.
This issue of Catch Up contains almost 200 pages of quality writing and comics. Now only in its second issue, Catch Up shows great promise for the future.
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
Who doesn’t dig the moon? This issue of Conduit is all about that orb out there beyond our atmosphere spinning around our planet while our planet, in turn, spins about the sun. For any lunar fanatic, this issue is a must have item. While non-poetry readers may puzzle over some of the poems in here, everybody is going to be down for the Buzz Aldrin interview—yes, the very same one-time astronaut Buzz Aldrin who touched down on that astro-hunk of lunar wonder. His perspective is counterbalanced by an interview with scholar Evans Lansing Smith titled “The Myth in the Moon.” In addition, a plentiful supply of attractive artwork featuring the moon is scattered throughout these pages, ranging from Warhol’s Moonwalk (1987) (here reclaimed from being used as an infamous ad for MTV) to Caspar David Friedrich’s Two Men Contemplating the Moon (ca. 1830) along with plenty of other art in between, everything from photography to sculpture.
Among the poets included, there is a generous sampling of four poems by Bob Hicok, four poems from Noelle Kocot, three poems of Dorothea Lasky, three by John Beer, two by Matthew Rohrer, and a meaty two-pager by Alice Notley. Nearly all the writing in one way or another directly mentions the moon or lunar activity. Nate Pritts’s poem “Desolation Moonlight,” for example, focuses on that lonely, timeless feeling that comes, perhaps of a night stroll or gaze out an open window, when things feel a tad miserable and doubtful:
The whole night like a piece of shell
protecting the softest parts
of the sky. The radio can’t remember
how it wants me to feel.
Or for others, alternately, as in “Are You Crazy Brittle Glass?” by Dara Wier, the moon serves as direct allegoric and/or symbolic reference:
There isn’t air on the Moon.
There it is airless on the Moon’s surface.
The funniest thing that has ever been written:
If a circle is not round is it a circle?
If it doesn’t have the characteristics
By which it is known
It is not true to its kind.
If its circumference has gone missing.
Gazing at a picture of a mirror with your reflection
Either way, that old rock swinging around in orbit serves as Inspiration Point from which the writing leaps off.
It is the interviews, however, providing as they do alternate perspectives of our relationship to the orb and thereby the universe, that serve as dueling forces to cohesively bind the issue together as a whole. Aldrin is the hard, snub-nosed realist and Evans the Druidic, starry-eyed imaginative dreamer. The only thing that would be better than having each of them interviewed between the same set of covers in this issue is if cosmic forces (or just dumb editorial luck) had brought them into conversation face-to-face. The possibility of such a conversation is an utterly fascinating bit of whimsy.
Turns out that Aldrin’s mother’s maiden name is “Moon,” of all things! That alone would provide Evans plenty to spin off on as a skeptical Aldrin sits there resisting the chagrin tugging at his sleeve. For Aldrin, the spinning rock is mainly just that: spinning rock. So too, and somewhat disturbingly, is the rest of the universe. He has a tough luck scenario outlook on future space exploration, Mars in particular. Aldrin believes a permanent colony on Mars is the future: “I want people to realize that the first humans who set foot on Mars are not coming back. They’re going to settle there, they’re going to be colonists. And that’s the way it needs to be and that’s what I’m convinced it will be.” Aldrin sees this as do-or-die territory for the United States to act on before another country does. The Nationalism of an earlier generation shows when he’s asked why he thinks colonizing Mars is so vital:
We had a civil war that sorted out who we are and then we dealt with other nations in World War I and World War II and finally we were put in a position of confrontation in the Cold War where we learned that supremacy in science and technology is very important. . . . Certainly if we engage in the wrong kind of competition, like going back to the moon again only to be welcomed by the Chinese, that wouldn’t be a wise decision. Because while we’re spending money doing that, I’m convinced the Russians will be landing on Mars.
This is the sort of talk which too often encourages military action resulting in loss of human life. Yet, this kind of attitude does nonetheless often get things done. There is a place for it. That’s why the thought of Aldrin in discussion with Evans is so damn alluring. Meantime, even read as separate texts, each is mutually enriching.
The Conium Review
Volume 1 Number 1
Review by Kenneth Nichols
The Conium Review takes its name from a small but significant genus in the plant kingdom. Their delicately detailed leaves and small white flowers give little indication of their danger. Why, one wonders, would the editors name their journal after hemlock? The leaves of the plant contain chemicals that disrupt the victim’s central nervous system. The lethal dose Socrates consumed caused progressive paralysis that eventually prevented him from breathing, depriving his heart and that powerful brain of the oxygen they needed. The fiction and poetry in The Conium Review inspire the same feeling as a mild dose of the drug. No worries; this kind of conium is not deadly. The stories in the journal do not draw the reader in with whiz-bang narratives and cliffhanger plots. Rather, the pieces draw you in with character work that is compelling in a calm manner.
Margarita Meklina’s short story “Buy Your Own” trades on some powerful themes. How many times have you thought about the artists behind what you find in a secondhand record shop or bookstore? Meklina’s first-person narrator finds cheap and rare LPs and auctions them on the Internet. Each of the albums has its own story; soon, friends and relatives of each artist are asking to buy the vinyl for a discount. The conflict between art and commerce is an old one, and Meklina does a good job earning sympathy for both sides. The narrator seems a bit callous in messages to people who knew and loved these obscure artists but is redeemed in the end of the piece. After thinking about all of those unpleasant messages, the narrator realizes that the businessperson can set themselves
apart from those raw and uncultivated roots from which the art itself grows. And it grows from noticing the loneliness of an old man, from seeing the first small, smiling steps of a woman who just stood up from her hospital bed, from glimpsing the bashfulness of an adult who creates dazzling and innocent kite-like paintings.
The protagonist of Isaac Coleman’s novelette “Ten Dollars” drifts through an appropriately disjointed narrative that is bookended by the acquisition and loss of the titular sawbuck. Fritz (who hates his name) just can’t seem to make any productive decisions. Fate and bad choices have left Fritz in the doldrums, and it can be very hard to get momentum going in those kinds of conditions. Fritz doesn’t seem to learn anything along the way, though he does gain some measure of introspection with regard to his situation.
In the short story “Charity,” Jen Knox employs a narrator who looks back on her senior year with longing and regret. The story is about friendship and class struggle; the narrator’s family is part of the hard-working middle class. Her friend James is robbing his own father; she disapproves, but still goes on a shopping spree with him and another friend. There is a nice scene at the end of the story in which the narrator must hide the shopping bags from her mother. (After all, mothers tend to ask questions about these sorts of things.) Instead of a confrontation, the story builds to a sweet and meaningful mother/daughter talk.
The storytellers and poets whose work appears in this premiere issue of The Conium Review seem less interested in how characters come to be what they are. Instead, these writers are content to devote attention to the small moments that reflect our true identities.
Volume 46 Number 3
Review by John Palen
Most magazines will tell you they’re not concerned about subject matter or esthetic or stylistic approach—only about good writing. This one means it. There are poems here as rewardingly difficult as Leora Fridman’s “A Fattening,” and as direct as marc t wise’s “new jersey”:
when you’re hungry you eat.
there really isn’t
any other choice.
There are ample short stories that build their impact, slowly and cumulatively, like Travis Eisenbise’s “Independence, Kansas” and David Milofsky’s “The Spite House.” And there is a generous helping of prose of flash length—some clearly poetry, some fiction or non-fiction narrative, some inhabiting the marches.
I was delighted by two prose pieces by Lance Larsen, “A Brief List of Discoveries on My Paper Route,” and “Spots of Time.” The latter, a riff on childhood memories, begins innocently with “Happy as a painted house, west windows open and opening.” But soon there’s a hint of sex, and then we’re in the emergency room, and then there’s a brush with evil, and we’re “happy as murdered rooms we dream to keep our lost ones breathing; happy as my sister sleeping in a sleeve of couldhavebeenme.”
I also could immediately click the “like” button for Joyelle McSweeney’s series of “Interflug” poems (referring to the old East German airline); Greg Gerke’s flash story “The Lute Music CD”; Francine Witte’s “Suspect,” which flirts with the mystery genre; and Elizabeth Hall’s interview with Dodie Bellamy, whose most recent publication is the buddhist, which began as a breakup blog and is now a book.
But even though I’m reluctant in old age to acquire new things to put on shelves, I’ll find a place for this issue. I want to come back and reread so much else here that is intriguingly challenging: ambitious work by Kim Chinquee, Eric Weinstein, Lawrence Giffin, James Shea and Lynne Potts. Denver Quarterly is a keeper.
Review by Mary Florio
In Dana Gioia’s essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” published in May 1991 in The Atlantic Monthly, Gioia offers a prescription for poetry that includes writing prose about poetry more often. He observed that poetry as an art form had been partitioned within the wider culture. I quote his essay’s final paragraph here:
It is time to experiment, time to leave the well-ordered but stuffy classroom, time to restore a vulgar vitality to poetry and unleash the energy now trapped in the subculture. There is nothing to lose. Society has already told us that poetry is dead. Let’s build a funeral pyre out of the desiccated conventions piled around us and watch the ancient, spangle-feathered, unkillable phoenix rise from the ashes.
I read this issue of Field in Gioia’s spirit of electricity, dog-earing page after page of poetry that spoke to me in a specific way. I also read the prose reviews of recent books of poetry, underlining the most powerful lines, sketching commentary on the commentary in the margins. I found that the achievement of the poetry was only equaled by the eloquence of the reviews, and I was thankful to read the criticism, the ilk of which Gioia lists as an important part of the poetic ecosystem.
Take David Young’s “The Bye-and-Bye Log,” in which he examines Charles Wright’s Bye and Bye: Selected Late Poems, published last year. Young writes, “the reader realizes that he or she has joined a giant circulatory system that involves the seasons, other poems and poets and questions or meaning and purpose that preoccupy the speaker.” I think that joining “circulatory system” and “the seasons, other poems” is one of the most fantastic achievements of my modern reading life. Young notes that Wright is concerned with whether “paradise is located here or elsewhere,” and it is this kind of incisive criticism that allows Young to guide the literary traveler to Wright’s poetry.
Pamela Alexander provides a similar miracle, guiding me through Richard Grossman’s The Animals, also published in 2011. We learn the skeletal organization of the work—that the poem involves 200 articulate animals, “a group with a shepherd on subjects all over the epistemological and emotional map: astrology, shyness, civilization, time, sex, literature, light.” Alexander walks us through transcendent maps herself; we learn that the book pursues “the individual’s place in the universe, which he now sees as a network of beings connected in divinity.”
I approach the poems of the volume in the language that they speak to me. Amy Newlove Schroeder ends her poem “The Magician’s Assistant” with the haunting, “In some dreams I even keep my own name.” It is a poem where surrealism and truths chase the lead. When I say surrealism, it is not to reference a specific artistic movement; I mean that, like so many of the poems, the stories border on the real without being confessional, that narrate without the obligation to index references, that fight the good epistemological fight without being limited to a poetic school or philosophical camp.
Take the opening of Franz Wright’s poem “Four in the Morning”: “Wind form the stars / The world is uneasily happy— / everything will be forgotten.” The poem unfurls like fireworks, and you agree to it by the force of language. The work evokes “language poetry” but reaches wider constellations. You feel moved, shaken; you feel as though you are in the sanctuary of the not–yet-named.
I liked Elton Glaser’s “After the Evening News” in the raucous meditation on nature and the work that Dolan Morgan’s poems on the HBO television series Mad Men did with the titles, approach, and captioning.
An intense hypothetical workshop member might ask as to the material intent of a poem—demand a degree of identification in the work—suggest that language alone will not suffice. With Field, readers might want the kind of orientation that Morgan provides in the title and subtitle of the work, but Field does not typically require an explicit statement of subject and intent. It is lovely and elusive in its entirety, but, despite groundings, nothing in the journal is obvious. You can trace a kind of explicitness that is beholden to the mystery of the art in Vijay Seshadri’s “Trailing Clouds of Glory,” but the poem also weaves out of identity specifically, reaching for the effervescent.
For a look at austere craft, check out Meredith Martin’s “Apology” and Chris Santiago’s “A Year in the Snow Country.” For wild tour-de-force, peruse “Testimony (after Daniel Heyman),” a poem by Philip Metres that might have come out of the post-modern playbook but, despite its obligation to recent incantations of the form, is precisely unique.
Field is not a literary stereotype; it welcomes a variety of voices. If you turn to the final poem, Nancy Willard’s “The Path Not Taken,” you see this spirit. One would, as the poet writes, feel one's way through the dark waters of, perhaps, tremendous literary exposure—with diverse poetic traditions to guide the traveler:
Stranger, if you sailed a ship you would turn
At the clink of the buoys, chained to the water,
Singing of cliffs hidden in the fog’s fist.
You would listen for its horn, for its path
As you feel your way through dark waters.
Volume 18 Number 1
Review by Julie J. Nichols
Fourteen Hills, staffed by graduate students of San Francisco State University, publishes “a diversity of experimental and progressive work by emerging and cross-genre writers, as well as by award-winning and established authors.” The journal claims that because it is independent, “its aesthetic is dynamic and fluid, ever changing to meet the needs of the culture and the historical moment as the staff perceive them.” It is a well-bound book, a nicely-edited artifact with a fabulous cover by John Masterson (is it a “real” photograph or a digitally enhanced one? I think the latter but I can’t be sure; it’s of a nine-point buck standing among the detritus of an overturned garbage can in a blue and silver winterscape), but I found the writing in it uneven, and not always to my taste. As the website makes clear, 14H does not aspire to extend the tradition of canonical literature in English or to demonstrate a high-minded cultural or theoretically-grounded aesthetic. Reviewers before me have lauded it for its diversity and spontaneity.
The best fiction in this issue is by Susan Straight, with whom there’s an interview. The interviewer calls attention to Straight’s blonde whiteness and to the fact that she “loves to talk about books and writing,” as if the latter were surprising for the author of six novels, numerous articles, and much prize-winning fiction. The interviewer keeps saying s/he wishes s/he had turned on the recorder to catch the Q/A session in Straight’s classroom or the conversation in the car; I found myself becoming impatient with this throat-clearing apologetic, wishing we could just get on to the part s/he did manage. Questions focus on Straight’s cross-racial point of view, and how that came about, and the resistance she meets among readers about it (or not).
There is some thoughtful discussion about e-books: “when people are saying it’s the death of the book, and it’s all going to be about the e-reader, they aren’t acknowledging that there are people in America who will never own an e-reader.” When we turn to the fiction—“Coffee-mate”—that very issue is at stake, i.e. socioeconomic/racial/ educational divisions between friends and among co-workers:
Now I drink thick espresso from a French press after I grind the beans I buy at this one store on Valencia. San Francisco’s sun never rises that color. I make my coffee black black. Could anyone imagine having an open bowl of Coffee-mate and a spoon stuck in the heap of week-old snow? . . . When most of the time they bring their own half-caf soy caramel macchiato from Starbucks?
In this story, every sentence matters; the character’s conflict is affecting, the narrator’s voice utterly believable.
There is other good fiction, too: Junse Kim’s “My Brother’s to Tell,” a multi-layered stunner in three pages, shows a Korean father speaking unimaginable words to his son (the brother of the narrator); the son rejecting those words, refusing to acknowledge them; and the narrator looking back at the implications of this very brief moment in the family’s life. The last line strikes through the previous scenes like a stroke of lightning. This is a very fine story.
“A Hardship Post” by Adam Klein, from the American University of Afghanistan, is also taut and edgy. Roger Card is an alcoholic American in Bangladesh, observing and being psychologically crushed by the corruption there. Klein reveals Card’s character cruelly, inexorably; nothing he does can reverse, or slow, or even remotely affect the decay and violence that fill every stratum of the society in which he lives. He is a man of weak will—but there isn’t anyone in the story who’s any better.
It hurts in a different way to read Scott Kreeger’s “Company,” where Robbie and Les fumble toward friendship (or more), ultimately failing to break through their respective islands of isolation. Likewise, the poetry in this issue celebrates “[knowing] again that feeling / of a resonant place, until it is so familiar / I forget it & it’s gone” (“tinnitus” by Brad Henderson). There is no story in this issue where redemption happens, where transformation is even possible; in the poetry, the only redemption from death and violence is in the occasional striking image (“a plague of bees / stinging from childhood beatings and icy touches,” Christopher Ankney). But clearly this is “the [need] of the culture and the historical moment as [14H’s staff] perceives it.” Kudos to the students and to Davison. They seem to have achieved what they set out to do.
Review by Alexandra Hillen
The Greensboro Review, part of The University of North Carolina Greensboro’s creative writing program, is simply clad in thick paper which has a natural-pressed feel, with the title and names of the contributors on the front. The magazine opts for a simple cover, choosing instead to spend its efforts on the contents within. It is no surprise that the collection of pieces provided by MFA students is superb. The review features fiction and poetry, all of which feels effortless in its precise crafting. It’s handmade literature at its best.
“To Have Been on Fire” by Jill Osier is a prize-winning poem. It is cerebral; it reads as a cohesive stream-of-consciousness, effortlessly intermingled with solid imagery that provides a unique experience. Osier introduces this with the opening line: “The mind goes, eventually, / where it needs to go.” The reader then witnesses this journey. The poem is itself the manifestation of the idea asserted in the opening lines, a stream of thoughts travelling to and landing exactly where they needed to be.
“The House the Thompsons Bought” by Isadora J. Wager is a short story with a startling and obviously fictitious premise: the Thompsons have bought a new house with “a hole to hell in the kitchen.” This situation is treated casually by the characters, and so the reader is also able to accept the detail. As the story progresses and people begin to climb out of the hole fairly regularly, an intelligent situation arises; there couldn’t be a more literal metaphor. What’s beautiful about the story is how simply the author crafted it. There is a tangible, physical action here that is recognized and participated in by the characters, even recognized for its oddity. And so the characters are actively interacting with and being affected by the device the author is using—it’s a tangible manifestation of literary device within the story! What it means is left up to the reader, and the story begs to be read.
Poems work for different reasons. Perhaps my favorite type of poem is the one that exists to bring the reader back to a moment. “Small Boy Blowing Bubbles” by Chelsea Wagner is a beautifully simple interaction between the reader and the boy, and the reader and his own memories. The measured carefulness of a child performing a task is just as carefully crafted by the writer: “He exhales slowly, / as delicately as he’s been taught.” Though the poem is short, it has no lack of generosity in descriptive language, distilling as a written photograph a cherished and nostalgic image of childhood. The poem doesn’t end, however, with the image. It is followed by a powerful notion, one that sheds a new and mature light on thoughts we have returned to since childhood. In the final lines, the simple fascination of a child with the task of blowing bubbles is explained in a way that’s startlingly beautiful, and startlingly true. Poems like this present you with something familiar and then suddenly deepen one’s own memory with a clear realization of the truth about the moment. They bring a beautiful kind of contemplation that is new and wonderful to something so familiar it is second nature.
Literary magazines are as varied as people in what they present. It is refreshing to come across a publication like The Greensboro Review: a distilled collection, true to its purpose and honest in its simplicity. It’s a morsel, a staple amongst more elaborate diversions that will always be the anchor and is inevitably returned to.
Review by John Palen
Hanging Loose marks its 100th issue with a demonstration of why it’s been around so long. “Couldn’t put it down” is usually reserved for novels, but Hanging Loose keeps you turning the pages, wondering what strong, sly, smart or stunning piece is next.
HL, as Hanging Loose refers to itself, has published many of these writers before. Jack Anderson, who had work in the very first issue 46 years ago, has three fine slice-of-life poems in No. 100. Marie Carter, with two books from HL Press, writes an essay, both chatty and expertly controlled, about her mother’s wedding in Scotland. Gerald Fleming, whose book of prose poems Night of Pure Breathing came out from HL last year, offers three short, perfect fusions of the flash fiction and prose poem genres.
There are many others, including Gemma Cooper-Novack, whose first appearance in HL was as a Writer of High School Age, one of the magazine’s wonderful regular features. Back then, Cooper-Novack’s poem, “Shooting the Rat,” provided the title for HL’s third anthology of high school writing. In Hanging Loose 100, she contributes a fine poem on the malleability of experience in the mind, “Yesterday and Australia.”
HL is still publishing Writers of High School Age. In this issue, they are Abby Spasser of Augusta, Ga., Richard Yu of Fresh Meadows, N.Y., and Annakai Geshider Hayakawa of San Francisco, whose poem “The Words Have Eyes” resonates with these lines:
he wouldn’t be so mighty, full, deep-voiced
like a thick and sweet wood-smelling guitar with shoulders,
Japanese salty sweet rich soupstock
that he is
Another writer who got a start in HL was poet Paul Violi, who died last year at age 66. Mark Hillringhouse interviewed Violi several times over seven years, and the lengthy, wide-ranging result is published in this issue. Here’s a slice, on deconstructionism: “I don’t think that there’s no such thing as a meaningful poem. Too much humanity and too much heart have gone into poetry for it to be trivialized.”
Every issue of HL also showcases the work of a visual artist. There’s double measure in this issue: a portfolio of darkly detailed ink drawings of northern buildings by David (R. C.) Oster and a whimsical collaboration between artist Toni Simon and poet Joanna Fuhrman, “After the Letters Collapsed.”
Standing out even in the context of this issue’s consistent high quality are poems by David Lehman, Elana Bell, HL editor Robert Hershon, Jan Heller Levi, Dan O’Brien, Paula Alida Roy, Sarah White, David Wagoner and David Wright, and a great story about how things go bad, “A Weekend Fling,” by Richard Spilman.
Hang in there, Hanging Loose, for another hundred issues. And several hundred after that.
The Hudson Review
Volume 65 Number 1
Review by Julie J. Nichols
The Hudson Review is more thoroughly an academic/cultural review journal than many of the magazines reviewed at NewPages. Its essays, “Chronicles,” “Comments,” and the six pieces actually categorized as “Reviews,” are all provocative, erudite reviews of literature and the arts, aimed at an audience of well-educated, well-informed critics equal in measure to the authors themselves. This is a serious, high-minded journal well worth your time if your interests include analysis of the dramatic verse of Ben Jonson, the music of Philip Glass, or the autobiographical fiction of Gregor von Rezzori. Flawlessly edited and professionally impeccable, the writing here is secular, humanistic, and strong.
Harold Fromm, coeditor of one of the first anthologies of ecocriticism and author of this issue’s meaty essay “How We Became So Beautiful and Bright: Deep History and Evolutionary Anthropology,” is a regular at THR. His contribution to this issue synthesizes three books “exploring different ramifications of the enlarged perspectives provided by anthropology, archaeology, philosophy, and the hard sciences” for the phenomenon called “deep history.” The three volumes include Andrew Shyrock and Daniel Smail Lord’s Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present; Robert G. Bednarik’s The Human Condition; and Daniel E. Lieberman’s The Evolution of the Human Head.
Fromm’s synthesis shows how, according to these texts, not only has the very chronology of human history been radically altered by increasingly specialized technology and method but so has scientific understanding of the relations between such heretofore segregated activities and areas of study as cooking, “cognition, diet, locomotion, speech, language, social networks, creativity and other forces that fall partly into the categories of cultural and environmental.” Fromm is enthusiastic about the implications; the nontextual evidence regarding the role of art and symbolic cognition in the evolution of human consciousness leads him to concur, with Bednarik, that our “beauty and brightness” is a “gradual process of both physical and mental evolution.” Like the texts it synthesizes, the essay is dense with new theories, new data, and new conclusions regarding our human condition. Read it—study it—for the pleasure of a potential major paradigm shift.
William H. Pritchard, another THR regular, discusses many critics on Ben Jonson’s dramatic poetry—T.S. Eliot, Edmund Wilson, Anne Barton, Ivor Winters, Stanley Fish—all in service to his balanced, informative review of Ian Donaldson’s new biography. David Mason provides an admiring overview of Ambrose Bierce’s short works, including “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” but encompassing much more, that tempts me to revisit Mark Twain’s lesser-known contemporary.
Mason also contributes poetry (“Earth, we cannot cling to you any more / than to each other. The life already over / is the one we love”) as do eight other fine poets. Of these, I especially liked Cally Conan-Davies’s “Under the Sun” (a not-so-simple nine-line image of beach undress in rhyme) and Deborah Warren’s cynical take on the wizened Sleeping Beauty. Asako Serizawa’s agonizing story of postwar Japan, thrumming of desperation, rounds out the main features of this issue.
The remaining half is printed in a smaller, closer font, and includes a considerable review by musicologist Gavin Plumley of Philip Glass’s 9th Symphony, its history, influences, and effects; reviews of three films that “play with archetypes,” by Brooke Allen; a layered, knowledgeable comparison of two recent productions of Hamlet by internationally-known drama expert Richard Hornby; and R. S. Gwynn’s negative review of the new Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, substantially supported by example and allusion.
And this is far from all. Two letters to “H,” one from London (by John Spurling), the other from Beijing (by Guy Sorman), bring THR up to date on significant cultural and historical developments in their respective cities. Further reviews analyze new translations of the poetry of Eugenio Montale and William Carlos Williams, the film version of My Dog Tulip, and the fiction of Bukovina-born Gregor von Rezzori.
But best of all is the article by long-time reviewer and editor Alan Davis of new works by Jack Driscoll, Jim Harrison, Ann Beattie, José Saramago, and Alan Lightman. Davis’s judgments resonate with good taste and pleasure; his transitions are tight; his quotations send us scurrying to buy the books. (From Ann Beattie: “Writers live an odd life, in which they face forward while spending much time looking back . . . When you meet them, they often seem remote.”)
Make no mistake: if you choose to read this or any issue of the savvy and trustworthy Hudson Review, you elect yourself a diligent partaker in the world of art, literature, and thought. Tread carefully. You may not be able to extricate yourself.
Review by Aimee Nicole
Although Iconoclast may not appear to be your typical magazine, it contains a plethora of magical writing just waiting to be discovered. The magazine itself is stapled-stitched on non-glossy paper, and some works share pages based on size (which to me seems like the ecologically friendly route to go). Something that also intrigued me is that they have a lifetime subscription to any country for a base rate. If you like what you read, this seems like a great investment. The magazine is mostly poetry and prose; however, they normally include reviews which were excluded from this issue (their next issue will be even bigger and include the reviews).
Early in the magazine, Kevin Driscoll’s poem “An Ode to a New York City Sidewalk” both entertained and intrigued me. It begins:
Oh great, flat, gray mass of stone,
In a vast metropolis, you make your home.
And through this city’s screeching drone,
Do you sometimes say, “Please leave me alone?”
Upon your soul, other “soles” are placed.
The poem really made me think about how much a New York City sidewalk would see and live through—what a great idea for personification! One could argue that there are few things in the whole world that have lived through as much. Driscoll continues to point out: “Do they not realize what you have lived through? / Of prohibition and pushcarts and the depression too!” The sidewalk is recognized for the trash people throw all over it, and if you’ve been to New York, you know how true that is. This was a really fun poem that broke the ice for me with the magazine.
Scott Abrams writes a story full of family memories after his grandparents pass away. Each of the characters has distinct and believable personalities, and it was a pleasure to get to know them. The father is gone a lot and only returns home every other Friday and must promptly assimilate back into family life. The narrator takes you back to a Sunday afternoon when “for an hour [my father] grilled lunch at the hibachi in our yard (the size of a large sandbox). When finished, he’d plunk burgers and beans and dogs onto the kitchen table. Below the front window, the meal suddenly seemed cramped by his sneering demeanor, as if overnight the world had rotted to its unspeakable core.” There is only one thing that calms him, and that is washing his “rig.” The act of washing and lathering was a physical act and required no mental stimulation. The family dynamic is interesting to read about in this two-page story.
“Maraschino Sunday,” a poem by Gene McCormack, shows the battle between hope and reality. Every Sunday night, alcoholics meet for an AA meeting even though they are described as “damaged beyond repair.” The last bit of strength the alcoholics use up is described as:
the maraschino cherry atop
the Sunday morning church congregation
sitting in orderly pews, singing and clapping
and praying for someone else to heal them.
The poem reminds you to take responsibility for your own life and your own choices. As Ernest Hemingway once said: “Never confuse movement with action.” Just because people go to meetings or go to mass does not mean that they are fully embracing the ritual at hand. There are lots of little things like this that Iconoclast made me think about; it turned into a bit of a soul searching experience. Happy hunting!
Review by Julie J. Nichols
In its two-plus decades of existence, Image has garnered a reputation as “a unique forum for the best writing and artwork that is informed by—or grapples with—religious faith.” This is no small calling. Not content to provide rote answers, convinced that beauty transcends trite aphorisms, the editors of the journal focus on verbal and visual art that “embody a spiritual struggle, that seek to strike a balance between tradition and a profound openness to the world.” In this issue, the fiction is compelling, and the nonfiction and poetry illuminate with heartbreaking effectiveness the tension between contemporary socialized intelligence and the fierce desire for God. Its theme seems to be fervent searching. I found it very moving.
The certainty that the material knowledge that fills our textbooks is only one side of truth leads to many kinds and degrees of seeking. In the excerpt from Jessie van Eerden’s forthcoming novel Glorybound, two backcountry West Virginia sisters, Aimee and Crystal, battle their demons—a father in prison, an unresponsive mother, betrayal, abandonment—by trying to live so as to get “to heaven and the Overjordan. When the rapture comes.” The dialect van Eerden puts in their mouths as well as the clothes and other props she lays on their backs marks them “white trash”—simple people without benefit of education or helpful practical religion. But, oh, they hope for better. The complexity of their yearning, their complicated relationships with each other, their separated parents, their friends, and God, keeps us reading and hoping, with them, that they will in fact find peace.
But the essays and poetry lead us on with even greater impact. Isaac Anderson’s magnificent “Lord God Bird” weaves together images, facts, and questions about the fabled ivory-billed woodpecker (Does it live? Has it been seen? Shall we continue to seek it?) with the story of his own praying the Psalms. Do they help? Is God coming? Am I worthy of his attention? The story says that like the woodpecker, sought passionately by amateurs and professionals alike since its last official sighting in 1944, God is elusive, wondrous, worth the wait. Anderson splices stories about the ivory-bill into stories of his own birding history—he was given a zebra finch when he was ten; it flew away; he got it back. “My hand wrapped around charcoal feathers. I climbed from the tree and leaped from the last branch to the ground. And I ran home ecstatic, jumping every few steps, stunned by my dumb luck.” This is the story of searching for God: we “get” him, he enters us (with the help of the prayers, the psalms, our effort); we lose him; we find him again, often times by sheer dumb luck.
In the confessional “Ritual,” the speaker, Jonathan Callard, a Christian, does one of those nondenominational New Age man-things (there are woman-things like it) with Dudes named Odin and Wells and DT where they sit in nature, speak their truths, take a substance, drum on drums (“transform gut sounds into something holy, and then, then, the weight . . . would vanish for a moment and that moment would kick me forward into this new life that I had sought”), and then are done. Man-like, the Dudes scramble to a bar to put their ritual behind them. The narrator juxtaposes the images from the ritual with his memories of Episcopal communion, of talk therapy, of moments with other leaders, other healers. He has still not found what he seeks, but he knows what it is. It’s in all of them, somewhere. But it isn’t, too. You know he will not abandon the search.
Lauren F. Winner’s “Middles” praises those colors in art between black outline and white blank space.
Middle tint is going to church each week, opening the prayer book each day. This is rote, unshowy behavior . . . Maybe this is prayer most of the time, for most of my life; I will barely notice it; you will barely notice it; against this landscape of subtle grays, occasionally I will speak in tongues, occasionally I will hear an annunciation.
As a person who goes to church each week, opens the scriptures every day, but also reads lit theory, teaches postmodern fiction, and wrestles with daily differences between my education and my faith, this resonates with me deeply. I want to thank Winner for writing it and read the full book from which it is excerpted.
Image is not exclusively Christian. Valerie Wohlfeld’s satisfying poem “World” enumerates the thirty-six tzaddikim (truly saintly people) who, according to Jewish tradition, keep the world going. Daniel Tobin’s “Late Bloomer” pulls Romanticism, mythology, and soul-work into an intricately rhymed set of couplets. Lance Larsen’s poem “Tabernacle” sows Old Testament imagery right and left. Gena Ochsner, in an interview, discusses her writing about Muslim characters mired in universal conflicts.
Art by Guy Chase and Adrian Wiszniewski, reproduced in color plates with commentary by Karen L. Mulder and Richard Davey, rounds out the richness of Image’s self-imposed charge to explore in multiple media the dimensions of the search for God. Mulder writes:
Chase realized that a big part of the art-making process, for him was simply “getting out of the way” . . . “I would work, concentrate, pay attention, be available, see what happened,” he said, taking pains to ”make sure that I wasn’t imposing my own will.”
This is deeply Christian language from an artist who came of age at a time when “students of the Logos wrangled with Saussure . . . Derrida, and Foucault, trying to unscramble critiques of language that attempted to explain why meaning was meaningless.” It’s this reaching for spirit in the face of academic and secular rejection of it that informs Image. Readers who have definitively bought into that rejection might not like Image, but the many of us who reach find it nourishing beyond telling.
Review by Shannon Smith
Juked’s website says, “We don’t adhere to any particular themes or tastes, but some people tell us they see one, so who knows.” I’m not going to make any broad declarations of a theme connecting the stories, poetry, and interviews in this issue; I’m just going to highlight a few of the better selections.
Matthew Baker’s “The House of Jenny, Jen, and Mrs. G” starts with the opener, “You can’t judge a man on the things he’s done, only the things he’s doing. Like the me I used to be—we don’t share shit except a body.” It goes on to say that the current “me,” if given a baseball bat, would walk to the nearest ballpark, but the old “me,” if given a baseball bat, would walk to the nearest mailbox—and so how do they compare to each other, or function as the same person? The rest of the story is narrated, by the supposedly new “Mutt” (the main characters name) about the old “Mutt.” Mutt steals the vice principal of his high school’s magnificent chair, leaves a portable toilet in its place, and then drops out of school, moving into the house of a woman who stops to help him when his car breaks down (after stealing the VP’s chair). This woman is a drug dealer and comes with a baby and husband who doesn’t live with her but who still harasses her. Over the course of the story, Mutt struggles to find his place, either in her house, on his own, or possibly with his parents. The writing is crisp, compelling, and darkly hilarious.
Benjamin Rybeck’s fiction piece has the best title in this issue: “Shop, Drop, and Roll.” The story follows a woman who’s maybe not all there, who’s maybe a little too caught up in her past and what didn’t happen even though she wanted it to. The open-ended image that concludes the piece lingers, even after the story is finished. Another interesting story, perhaps more for its set-up than content, is Jenn Scott’s “Narrative Time.” The content of the story is “A day passed, and another day.” That line then contains a footnote that makes up the bulk of the tale, in small print, which is about time passing in a café.
David O’Connell’s poem, “Influence,” contains rumination on Woody Allen and the role of comedy. The poem is about Allen debating between two types of films and which is more satisfying—escapist films or films that investigate existential questions. The writing in the poem is clear and uses examples from Allen’s films to illustrate the narrator’s thoughts, concluding:
he’s come to see that comedy
may serve the greater good, if only
since—his words—like air conditioning,
it gives us all a break before we face it
That line is demonstrative of O’Connell’s compelling style, which is deceptively simple while pushing a broader point.
There is also a fascinating interview with Caitlin Horrocks, author of This Is Not Your City, in which she discusses topics ranging from her new novel about Erik Satie to “Befuddled American Abroad” stories and how she wished to avoid that, although her writing often features locales outside of America. She gets around that genre, in part, by featuring characters who are not American. The interview nears its close with the question of her favorite beer—because she mentions that where she is currently living, Grand Rapids, MI, is a beer town.
And, so, if I were to make one conjecture about a potential theme for this issue of Juked: it’s the type of journal where an interviewer can ask, what’s your beer in the middle of a wide-ranging, and in-depth interview. A bit casual, a bit fun, and always interesting.
A Quarterly of Light Verse
Review by Tanya Angell Allen
Near the end of the latest issue of Light—which is twenty years old and probably the most important venue for humorous verse in the country—there is a note saying that unless financial support or volunteer editors come forward, the upcoming issue will be its last.
The magazine’s founding editor, John Mella, passed away in April. If his gift to the literary world folds, the loss will not only be a blow to light verse but also to the formal poetry world. Light is one of the best forums for metrical verse we have.
The humor of good light verse hides the hard work that went into its creation. Many great poets have honed their craft through doggerel of the sort Light delights in. The current issue even has a review of Mortal Stakes/Fake Thunder—a serious book of poetry written by one of the magazine’s contributors, Timothy Murphy. Richard Wakefield writes that Murphy’s poems “display an unfussy craft . . . that sing in harmony with the high plains wind.” Much of this musical proficiency probably comes from Murphy’s light verse experiments.
Reading Light is also just plain fun. This issue begins with a section by featured poet Fred Yannantuono that contains amazing palindromes, including “Instructions to a Masseuse Palindrome”: “Ahem! No leg gel on me, ha!” The rest of the magazine contains gems like Claudia Gary’s “The Video Call,” which begins, “You are not here. I am not there. / You try and fail to muss my hair,” and Mae Scanlan’s Shakespearean riff “My Mistress,” starting, “I’d have to say she’s easy on the eyes; / I’m sure at one time she was rather stunning” and talks of how “when she calls, I naturally come running,” and turns out to (spoiler alert) be written from the viewpoint of a dog.
There’s great literary-geek stuff here—riffs on Frost (Janice Riggs’s “Shopping for Goods on a Snowy Evening”) and Larkin (Alexander J. Blustin’s “This Ain’t The Verse,”) and Jeff Saperstein’s ditty “No Fear Shakespeare,” named after a series put out by Spark Notes:
Have no fear, my dear,
it’s only Will Shakespeare,
who liked his beer,
may have been queer,
This is humor for an engaged, educated audience.
On Light’s website, you can read several excerpts of the magazine that are witty, relevant, and brief enough to go viral. They have the potential to draw in a younger crowd, and young, light verse lovers are very much needed now.
We live, as John Hollander wrote in his introduction to American Wits: an Anthology of Light Verse, “in a literary age of what jazz musicians used to call a tin ear; there is less light verse written, and probably less capacity to appreciate it, than ever before.” Lose Light and our ears may become even worse.
Review by David R. Matteri
I am not a native Californian. I was raised in the great state of Missouri, thank you very much, and it is a state that I sorely miss sometimes. This is why it was an immense pleasure to find in my mailbox The Lindenwood Review, a literary journal from Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri. It was like receiving a love letter from a friend I haven’t heard from in years. Cultural biases aside, the inaugural issue of this university press features a strong line-up of fiction, poetry, and essays from various talents across the country and abroad.
Jenna Devine’s short story “Naked” is (if you’ll forgive the pun) a revealing look into a relationship between a model and the artist who paints her. The story begins with Dahlia, a middle-aged woman, stepping inside an art museum with her husband and feeling dizzy from “the rush of a twenty-five-year-old memory.” The gallery is featuring never-before-seen works of a recently deceased artist who painted Dahlia when she was a young woman in New York City. The narrative switches back and forth between Dahlia’s visit to the museum and her memories of posing nude for the artist she fell in love with. Dahlia worries about what her husband will think when he sees these nude portraits of her, and she struggles with her own conflicted emotions with the now dead artist. Devine has great command of the language in this piece. Her sensory detail places the reader inside the hot city of Dahlia’s memory: “It was New York City in August; she could taste the melting asphalt with every intake of breath.” Dahlia’s desire for the painter is as palpable as the paints used to draw her:
While he painted she thought about making love to him. One of his cracked-paint hands reaching out for her, not to arrange her limbs or brush hair out of her eyes, but to touch her, to pull her over to the mattress with its wrinkled navy blue sheets.
Devine examines the artist at work and delivers a wonderfully sad love story through the transformative power of art.
The poetry in this journal was extremely pleasing to read as well. The speaker in William Stratton’s “Face Down Days” knows how miserable life can be when a loved one dies: “I have seen the weather grieve, seen / it tear a woman apart, // the ropes that bind her body / to the world snapping taut ends.” He knows how depressing funerals can be, and he knows how those who are still living must “face down” those dead days one by one. Stratton then delivers the final two couplets like a shot to the kidney:
I hope you die first.
If one of us is to sit on a faded porch of the future,
trying to remember the curve of a jaw, or the feel
of something soft on the lips, I want it to be me.
Stratton’s words hold great meaning here. It is far better to die than to live alone with the memories of someone you loved. Jamie Thomas’s “Song of Saturday Morning” would appeal to those who grew up eating their cereal “Indian-style in front of the snowy TV screen.” The speaker in Thomas’s work is an adult reflecting on “Batman & Robin days,” “Days of no remote control,” and days of “three channels, no cable.” The poem ends on a more serious note of loneliness and isolation. The speaker comments on how he never had to worry about the responsibilities of adulthood in those days and how he never “thought to wonder why / the superheroes led such solitary, phone-booth lives.” It’s a bummer to find out that your heroes are just as flawed and alienated as you are.
My favorite essay in this issue is Lisa Vaas’s “The Saddest Tootsie Pop Ever.” Her essay starts with her visit to a therapist, but quickly escalates into a frenzied jaunt through her “glucose-starved brain.” Vaas’s essay is a fascinating look into the mind of a diabetic, and the quickness of the language reflects how challenging it can be to get the brain to focus when it constantly needs food to recharge: “The brain doesn’t store glucose, it burns it, burns it on the high holy altar of cognition, burns it as it flips Cartesian cartwheels and writes or reads sentences like these.” It left me hungry for more of her work (and a Tootsie Pop).
Despite suffering a power failure that forced them to work in the dark for their first staff meeting, the folks at The Lindenwood Review have produced a strong first issue, and I applaud them for their work. You don’t have to be from Missouri to appreciate the great writing found in this journal. And if you’re not from the Show Me state, then don’t feel so bad; nobody’s perfect.
Volume 53 Number 1
Review by Julie J. Nichols
There’s something faintly whimsical about this issue of The Massachusetts Review. Maybe it’s in the tone of “Bad Meditator,” a poem by Doug Anderson whose list of distractions isn’t a complaint but rather a love letter to all the occupants of Monkey Mind:
In fact I’ve grown fond of the things between the things
I used to think important . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
My mind comes back to center where it’s empty
for a blink and then I’m back to the boogie fugue
and where the strands touch, sparks.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I’m back to center where I’m fine
for three breaths and then the dog starts to whimper.
She wants love. And I want it in spite of having it.
Or maybe the whimsy is in the fictional voice of “Bone’s Blues,” where Colin Fleming’s slightly bewildered but positively worshipful musician narrator tells the story of his mad-genius bandmate who knows that “eventually, if we’re lucky, we get one. From inside of us. A way we didn’t know was there . . . I hit that note, and it’s like, Hello, beautiful. We gonna have a time tonight, baby.”
You might never call an essay about (re)claiming the Holocaust whimsical, but the very title of Steven Schwartz’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Not Being There” unweights a singularly heavy subject, and the premise it spins around is that Schwartz is “the very epitome of the Jew who drags his faith behind him like a sack of bones, a Holocaust obsessive, a man who will not let go of a past that did not even happen to him or any of his immediate family.” His experiences traveling the concentration camps with his family are not exactly hilarious, but the responses of some of the people they meet—to whom the Holocaust did happen—are more than a bit ironic. And sometimes irony borders on funny.
It’s not exactly light-hearted, this issue, but it doesn’t take itself so seriously that you wander the empty chambers of your abandoned heart morbidly contemplating the vast uncommunicative stars. No, instead you acknowledge the satellite “sailing through Cassiopeia” (Dan Gerber’s poem of that name)—you’re not alone, our human efforts connect you to us, you belong on the planet. I think that’s the real situation: not frivolity, not caprice, but vulnerability and warmth pervade this issue of MR. The personal, the human, the universal, overrides the strictly objective, critical, or academic.
Three more examples, all of them essays—Jefferson Hunter’s “Roadside Albania,” Carol Moldaw’s “Craft as Conduit,” and Jacob Paul’s “Jacob and His Friends Work Out the Difference Between Post and Modern”—don’t use academic diction, though that last one sounds like it might; the point of view in each is benevolent, individual, approachable, even sociable. Each provokes thought via benignly reasonable narrative.
Early in his account of travel through Albania, Hunter points out that “Faced with an exotic landscape, we have to learn how to see it, and it is natural to begin with analogies to what we know.” Then he proceeds to compare Albania to California and to contrast its “un-California-like details, the minarets of mosques or the Greek or Roman ruins high up on their rocky settings. Even the poppies, initially a reminder of the Sierra foothills, grow to seem more local in significance, more Albanian.” His subtitles—“Bles America,” “Lavazh Special,” “Trash,” “Winnie-the-Pooh and the Evil Eye,” and “Memorials,” all focus on customs and sights he is wont to call “amusing,” and to render personable: “From your table under the awnings it is possible to look up over lunch and see the faithful worshipping. . . . A tiny elderly woman . . . enters the tomb and busies herself there, looking a little like a cleaning lady, though one made blissful by her rite.”
Moldaw’s essay is a gentle statement that poetry “reveals what otherwise could not be seen at all” and is a story about Tom Ashcroft, whose circular motto, “Examine, discover, report, explore,” has become Moldaw’s own.
Finally, Paul’s excellent narrative about navigating the academic thickets of critical theory should be required reading for all English majors, as much for its non-jargon language and its structure (narrative as argument) as for its striking, accurate assessment that “postmodern texts divorce themselves (or the reader divorces them) from all ethical responsibility. That, I think, is a big deal for all of us.” This issue of MR successfully closes this and other big deals with sympathetic purpose.
The Mom Egg
Review by Tanya Angell Allen
Before reading The Mom Egg, one might question why, if thousands of successful contemporary writers are also mothers, do we need an annual literary publication which “publishes work by mothers about everything, and by everyone about mothers and motherhood.”
The first answer is that Editor Marjorie Tesser compiles a magazine that’s both as good as any middle-range literary magazine on the market and better than many anthologies. Sure, it’s inspiring to see the good work of so many mothers gathered together, but it’s inspiring to read good literary work, period.
The latest issue marks the magazine’s tenth anniversary. It focuses on “The Body.” Some of the pieces are loving, like Leah Mooney’s “First Frost” about helping her daughter back to bed during “that season / where everything clings // to the last, burrowed, // tea colored hours.” Some pieces have bite, like Lois Marie Harrod’s “The Real Spine of the Milky Way”—written in the shape of a tornado about a witchcraft-performing sister—and Claudia Van Gerven’s “Sun Bonnet Sue Pushes Up Daisies,” about a dead woman who “loves the shape of / the grave.” Most of the poems are written in free verse. Some are by fathers or grandmothers.
Nina Schuyler has a fine fiction piece called “Mother” about a boy who feels ignored and puts on his mother’s clothes and lipstick to feel close to her. The story tells an emotional truth about cross-dressing that probably couldn’t be told as well in nonfiction.
This brings us to the second answer: fine creative work like this belongs in the larger conversations about private life and women’s issues. Donna Coffey has a poem about helping an eighteen-year-old daughter give birth to a child she must give away for adoption. Nancy Vona writes of how an outbreak of lice among her friends’ children reminds “us that we are both human and animal, whether we like it or not.” Susan Rukeyser discusses how having a miscarriage tested her belief in a women’s right to choice and how now she knows “a woman’s power results from choice but also voice: speaking aloud our bloody secrets.” Reading these bloody secrets could be valuable not just to regular readers but to journalists, bloggers, and others looking for new anecdotes to cite when writing about complicated topics.
The one regrettable thing about this issue is its artistic design. The cover might be too hippy-ish to reach a broader audience. Although there are some good photographs scattered throughout the magazine, the main illustrations seem to be clip-art. It’s all well-chosen, but looks amateur and brings down the overall power of the magazine. It would be better if The Mom Egg commissioned artists to make small illustrations instead. Professional-looking packaging might give this excellent magazine the hope of being taken seriously by more than just literary, liberal moms.
Volume 107 Number 1/2
Review by Alexandra Hillen
Poet Lore was established in 1889 as a brilliant exploration of literature. It expanded through inspired conversation and has grown over a century into a repertoire of well-known and new authors, each issue a beautiful collection of work that deserves the reputation. The spring/summer issue is no exception.
“Read With Dick and Jane” by Josh Rathkamp starts the issue with a blast of Americana and a breath-taking twist of nostalgia. The poem opens as, “My daughter bends / her head close to the cover” of a very American-dream children’s book. As he guides his daughter through the story, the narrator’s tone is as bare as the empty roles his narration lays out. He comments on the illustrated, smiling faces in the picture book as parents and children play their parts in the American dream. Though a poem like this provides the opportunity for bitterness, the narrator’s tone is one of acceptance. Though he can see what stories like Dick and Jane mean for his culture, the scripted parts and expectations that burden every generation, he still guides his daughter through them “to land in the arms of a man / no better than her father.”
The editors of Poet Lore laid out this issue as a sort-of unconscious stream of thought. Each poem relates to the next, resulting in groups of themes that weave together into a very complete experience. All of them share a tangible contemplation of lives in motion, from the left-behind to the lying-ahead. John Bargowski’s “Strip Poker” is a clear memory, read as if spoken and simplified in a way that provides an entire experience in a few choice details. It’s a coming-of-age story, a matured look-back on a moment that stilled a room of almost-teens as they beheld a symbol of themselves amongst “the table’s sticky stains tugging at [their] sleeves.” “Those lovely empty cups” were the result of a bold game, of pushing and daring and curiosity, and they were all in it together, would all leave it and move on to bolder things and lives. It was the symbol that stopped the game, and that moment became a tangible starting point for the new life of awareness and searching that is characteristic of coming-of-age.
This issue of Poet Lore is consistent, providing a concise and contemplative experience with each piece. Though some are more obscure than others, no poem lacks the possibility of interpretation, and each prompts a quiet moment of absorption after reading. “The Great Wall” by Vuong Quoc Vu reads deceptively as a stream-of-consciousness, flowing from a conversation, to an experience, to a through-the-walls connection. Though each thought stems from and leaves the last like a stream-of-consciousness piece, they are still connected subtly to “The Great Wall” of the beginning conversation. There is an intentional metaphor in each scene, contemplating the nature and consequences of the literal and figurative walls we build. The poem ends with a touch of irony. The narrator has spent this time contemplating and building walls, but she still felt the pain of her neighbor through them—“the walls between us were so thin.”
Famously, Poet Lore includes more than poems for the pleasure of the reader. As mentioned in the editor’s note, the publication has been an activist in shaping the literary community throughout the years, including its “groundbreaking contribution to translation early in its history.” For the active reader, Poet Lore includes essays and reviews. In this issue, a special showcase titled “World Poets in Translation” is included, in which Thomas E. Kennedy not only translates the poet Dan Turèll of Denmark, but also provides a short article about the author. Turèll is a pivotal figure for Danish poetry, and Kennedy undertook the serious task of translating his beloved works into a language they had seldom seen: English. Five pieces are included.
Translated work naturally reads with a unique camber, and the subject matter is engaging in its similarities and enthralling in its nuances to the reader’s native language and culture. Turèll’s poems are almost unsettling in their bluntness. In the way they boldly lay bare the nature of life and of single lives and do so in a way that is a bit nostalgic and a bit sad but bluntly true and somehow persevering. “It Isn’t Easy” captures glimpses of interconnected lives, and, though the picture isn’t pretty, it’s real and moving. All of the pieces in this small collection grasp the same idea.
Poet Lore provides a few solid hours of intelligent poems and lively, relevant articles with each issue that’s published. The Spring/Summer 2012 issue is wonderfully pertinent, providing a reading experience that prompts looking backwards and forwards, as well as a sweet relishing of the present.
Review by Erin F. Robinson
A young magazine, only on its second volume, Raleigh Review pulls off an understated maturity in its choice of fiction and poetry pieces, while the artwork is playful and quirky. It is a magazine that takes itself seriously, but not to a fault, with an impressive list of heavy hitters. The interior and exterior artwork are the creations of Geri Digiorno, a set of themed mixed-media collages, intricate paper mosaics that are jolting, haunting, and yet strangely sweet and light all mixed in together, a lovely invitation to read what’s inside.
Shabnam Nadiya amazes with her flash fiction piece “Eating Bone.” Old Islamic custom says that if a man wants a divorce, all he must do is say “Talaaq” three times. Nadiya’s character Disha begins by sharing her wishes and also deep fears of her husband saying the word three times and what this would mean for her as a woman in an Islam nation. She writes, “Disha knew all his usual jibes: her fleshy belly and sagging breasts, her barrenness, her dark skin, her unkempt domesticity, her lack of property. What was she good for?” Nadiya’s story is beautifully tragic, bittersweet, and holds a complicated and layered plot for such a short piece.
Equally tragic and complex is Renee LaGue’s “Tilton Hill,” a fiction piece about a father and his young daughter in the throes of a crisis on a snowy day at their farm. In a family that lives off their land and livestock, the father agonizes about whether or not to save an ailing cow while also being distraught about an affair he has had and the wreckage it has caused in his family. His daughter mentions the other woman, and he grapples with how to respond, “He knows—he opens his mouth but no words come. He is simply a man who moves stones, fingerprints erased by the granite he lays. If it is a sin to love and let love, has he not done penance?” This is a tender, melancholy, and touching story that begs introspection of the reader.
As for the poetry, an immediate standout is Maria Nazos’s “Tits and Violin,” in which the narrator sits at a bar and is annoyed by the Cassanova-type barfly who uses as a pickup line that “he loves nothing more / in this world than tits and violin.” She spends the length of the poem waffling between telling him to get lost and keeping her cool—something she notices she has gotten better at in her 30s. Of getting older and more mature, she writes that “I began to say the fourth / or fifth thing that came to mind / instead of launching the first missile from my mouth.” I think we can all sympathize with that self-deprecation. Nazos is honest, witty, charming, and hilarious. I was left wanting more of her poetry in this issue.
Jermaine Simpson lays it all on the line in his poem “To Light a Cigarette,” a gripping account of how he and his mother mourned his father’s death. His writing has a visceral, raw feel to it as he describes his mother looking for a new husband:
After my father died, she began roaming bars, searching
for my role model. She was
never good with choosing and I referred to those men as
lighters. Cheap, plastic, the kind
that left your thumb raw and callused on a cold day . . .
Simpson is masterful at creating an emotionally charged scene with so few words.
Another master at brevity, Sherman Alexie offers four short poems with titles that say it all. “The Eternal K-Mart Layaway Odyssey,” in six lines, paints a vivid picture of the narrator’s childhood struggles, and does so in an endearing, sad and earnest fashion. The narrator tells us that, as a child, he would collect aluminum cans: “Late August, and I was desperately trying to earn enough cash / to make the last payment on my new school clothes.” Alexie’s honest (autobiographical?) work never disappoints and is the icing on the cake for Raleigh Review’s Volume 2. A lovely read with a refreshing new voice.
Review by Alexandra Hillen
Sententia opens with a kind-of abridged editor’s note on the inside of the front cover. The title name is “Latin for sentence, but also means thought, meaning, and purpose.” The magazine couldn’t be more appropriately named, and, in fact, I would’ve described the works in the journal with these three adjectives prior to reading this note. The editors of Sententia had a goal in mind, and they achieved it.
Without prior experience reading the Sententia journal, I can’t compare this “All Women Writers” issue with the overall publication of the journal. However, if the previous issues are any bit as thoughtful as this one, then Sententia is a publication worth backordering and collecting in the future.
A smooth matte finish encases a clean and striking cover design, and, as the issue is on the thicker side of literary magazines, it almost feels like holding a small book. In fact, Sententia does almost transcend the genre of literary magazine as each piece meshes with the last into a cerebral and meaningful reading experience.
The opening piece, “The F Word” by Meg Tuite, cleanses the palette of the readers and prepares them for the slow and savory pace that elicits the (very necessary) thoughtful reading of the rest of the issue. The story is successful because it’s real. It’s set in the trudging details of a mundane and thoughtless routine, with characters that “moved as if in a dream,” and described so intimately that the reader can immediately relate to it. Slowly, the story becomes punctuated by livening jolts as the characters unconsciously rebel against habit. They begin to revolve around a mutual support of each other, as the past forces its relevancy and uproots the sleepy denial they both have been living in. The story culminates in a shocking climax that neither character can ignore, and one that haunts the reader and provides the perfect physical culmination of the secrets we all hide and the habits that help us do it.
A common thread throughout Sententia is immediacy. “With the Silence of a Deer” by Heather Fowler operates on a specific element of a surreal reality, yet is still bare and starkly relatable to the reader. It opens with a scene that the reader later discovers is, in fact, the reality in which the characters live rather than a strange dream or metaphor. “Artelle found herself outside his cabin in a green wire chair, wearing the head of a deer.” As the narrative unfolds, it becomes the bare bones of a relationship, laid out as it disintegrates. All the while, the narrator has the head of a stag. “With the Silence of a Deer” is worth reading not only because it is contemplative of one’s relationship with relationships, but also because it is clever writing. Ironically, the narrator even comments on the use of a deer head as metaphor. It is one of conquest, a plaque for her lover to put up on his wall. The deer head is a metaphor that is inserted, literally, into the story for the characters to interact with and even recognize. Brilliant.
The poetry is laid out per author, most with their own short collections. Khadijah Queen has three short poems that differ in subject but unite with each other and with the rest of the magazine in style and theme. Queen’s style is starkly blunt. It consists of naked thoughts, which by their very nature are made to instantly connect with the reader. “Solicitation” is about just that: nakedness. In a short and clever play on words, Queen manages to reveal not only herself but also a sad narrative that is real and familiar. This is all accomplished within a solid word-play convention, which is impressive because such styles can sometimes be alienating for human element of a poem. The convention really gets going in the second line: “A poem on nakedness refused / to reveal itself, remained close-legged, rough-clothed.” As the poem continues, Queen manages to showcase not only her practical skill as a writer but also an intangible quality of connection that is vital to the reading experience.
Each author in Sententia is as worthy as the last, and the magazine is one that deserves to be read cover-to-cover. As is turns out, Sententia is also a small press with two books in circulation in addition to the four issues of the journal. This kind of work is refreshing. In a reality that circulates around the mundane and necessary, it is has become easy (and almost inevitable) for readers to lose connection with their humanity. Work like this brings you back to yourself.
The Southern Review
Volume 48 Number 2
Review by Mary Florio
“Foreign countries exist.” – Geraldine Brooks, The Best American Short Stories of 2011
In her introductory essay to The Best American Short Stories of 2011, guest editor Geraldine Brooks provides the above-captioned direct advisement. She takes the statement one step further to conclude: “[Go] as far as you can, for as long as you can afford it. Preferably someplace where you have to think in one language and buy groceries in another.”
Brooks’ aesthetics are not new. American literature, as the emissary of the mid-century’s so-called melting pot, has often concerned someplace else. This issue of The Southern Review reflects a broad sensibility that captures such a literary philosophy (or subject politics), without being contained to a required subject matter and, at times, unleashing the magnificence of the ordinary. Take J. David Stevens’s short fiction “Ubernanny” where surrealism is delivered in an almost classical mode. The story alludes at times to a Ray Bradbury science fiction, such as “The Veldt” (1950), with a modern approach and fabulist conclusion suited for a world where the positions held by parental (and even child-familial) roles are essentially interchangeable.
To Brooks’s prescription, The Southern Review is conversant in worlds beyond American simplicity, but, from my reading, the stories told in these pages are not outside of the Southern experience. In fact, by metaphor, love in French Canada, language in Polish Americana and designer suits, and Muriel Spark in Scotland, the stories are not so strange to a Southern diaspora, a member of which might use different words and observe different customs than her Northern counterpart. The journal is excellently edited to achieve the universality of this approach—it succeeds in pairing works that echo each other and also suggest (to me) a kind of parallel to the separate world of regional character.
For an example of the concept of cultural translation for a kind of new geography where origin is essential, try Chelsea Rathburn’s poem “Acquisitions”:
Having learned each other’s bodies and habits,
we turn, improbably, to Polish,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
But language comes less easily
than love, which is difficult enough
but does not have seven cases.
Rathburn may be more remote in locale than Karen Kovacik’s translations of Agnieszka Kuciak, also in the journal, but I admire her reach across the ocean in the inverse of the Polish American story, which usually goes in the opposite direction.
You find the same reversed path in Jane E. Martin’s short fiction “Jumelage.” Martin’s elegant prose opens a story not just of national or ethnic identity but also a fresh vantage into a character also seeking to express a sexual identity. In Martin’s words: “For a moment, Maggie feels like the best of New York and Montréal and Paris combined, as though her new friend’s loveliness will never be redirected elsewhere.” Martin’s story is a love story but also a meditation on the webs that unify and separate in many dimensions. It is not unlike Susan McCallum-Smith’s nonfiction essay “Tartar” in terms of seeking meaning in a place or tradition, eking out a half-way point between experiences that lead to considerable growth. McCallum-Smith’s essay is careful and compelling, providing insight into a family, the London fashion world, and the literature that McCallum-Smith weaves through her essay as a way of expressing connections in shrewd and lyrical analysis.
The Southern Review also addresses faith and culture in an evolutionary context, so that vectors are neither leaving nor going, but simply changing. Eric Weinstein’s poem “Instructions for the Proper Disposal of Holy Books” directly follows Dina Nayeri Viergutz’s short fiction “A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea.” The Viergutz is mesmerizing—a gathering in Iran of the young with their potential to change amid traditional leaders. The storytelling power is so overwhelming that I was moved by the characters more than the political philosophy, but that, too, resonated, inseparable elements in a compound that was at once a kind of rebellion, a personal Tehran Spring, but also about love and friendship that transcends place and politics and a yearning for something else.
Weinstein’s poem is measured and spartanly beautiful. I hate to quote the ending out of context, but it is worth repeating: “it will find you singing a psalm of thanks // for the timbre of wind, for the smell of earth, / for the pang of sunlight―”
Paula Closson Buck’s fiction “The Sea Grass Icons” was a great look at a poet emerging beautifully into prose. I enjoyed thisperspective on Greece and all of what a particular seaside life would be like, couched in the beauty of Buck’s prose, even if it were just the simple flag of a lovely fable.
Review by Alexandra Hillen
The Spinning Jenny team at Black Dress Press has put forth no lack of effort. The magazine’s cover design, as well as the first few pages, index, and footers, speaks of a literary sense of humor. The editors manage not to take themselves too seriously while also producing a line of beautifully fashioned issues, and issue number twelve is no exception. An equally as well-designed website for the magazine sports past issues and reviews, all of which are positive and a good introduction to a first reading of Spinning Jenny.
At first glance, the pieces in Spinning Jenny might seem a bit too obscure to interpret; they seem frustratingly vague, even. But a second glance, and perhaps a different approach, it is well worth the effort. The poems are a challenge. However, poetry does not always have to be easy. Like a brisk walk after a long day indoors, a bit of active reading allows the reader to warm up and stretch his legs.
“Yes, say there was a . . .” by Andy Nicholson is at first a little awkward to read. There are no sentence breaks or whole ideas. Rather, there are many tiny, fragmented ideas that blend together and carry off, as one, in an expanding direction. This is a poem that can’t be read traditionally. Rather, readers must free themselves of the confines of complete sentences and even complete thoughts. It should be read as though it were spoken aloud, and gently followed. The poem starts with, “Yes, say there was a / way to ware the/ river back.” This poem works in images, and from this point, it is a kind-of reversal of nature. It’s like a written version of a video in reverse, the supposed results of un-doing nature (specifically the land-altering path of water) and of man and his construction. The visual journey ends with a reminder that “there / is no choice now, no.” We cannot reverse time and nature and must live with what’s happened.
“You say promise” by Matt Mauch is similar in that it relies on imagery. This poem is short, and it does have a central idea framed in chilling imagery. It consists of only seven lines, an elaborated metaphor for empty promises. “The recently hatched, featherless / and blind” are the pitiful, doomed promises of the addressee. Though the poem is short and its message simple, it’s striking simply for the skill of the writer and the beauty and accuracy of the images used. Poems like this frequent the more challenging pieces in the issue, as morsels of energy to help the reader along.
Poetry like Spinning Jenny’s is closer to thinking than anything else I’ve read. Once you’ve become accustomed to riding along with the words— to floating along like on a river—your mind becomes clear, and you can watch the words, images, experiences floating by without missing a thing. Relish them. Every now and then there’s a rock to bounce on, a poem like Mauch’s that’s still traditional enough for an easier read. For the most part though, the best way to float is to do just that—float. Spinning Jenny isn’t just about a collection of beautiful and challenging poems—it teaches you a lesson. It’s a packaged, instant guide to better reading and freer thinking. Ingenious. Beautiful.
Volume 24 Issue 1
Review by David R. Matteri
“A conversation,” says Editor-in-Chief Jessica Jacobs of The Sycamore Review, “involves two people who know each other sitting down in a familiar room. But as anyone who’s ever picked up a book and had it speak to her knows, conversations can also occur in which not even a single word is said aloud, in which two minds engage each other outside the immediacy of same time, same place.” Jacobs’s words provide an appropriate introduction that mirrors the fantastical cover art by Kathleen Lolley. The latest issue of this journal from the Purdue University English Department wants to have a conversation with you, dear reader, and to share its poetry, fiction, essays, interviews, art, and book reviews.
Michael Martin Shea, in his prose poem “J. Robert Oppenheimer’s Open Letter to Japan,” asks what would happen if one of the great scientists behind the Manhattan Project felt remorse Shea fills his work with guilt and a longing for forgiveness that hits the reader like a nuclear blast: “Dear Hiroshima, I can’t sleep. I kill everything I touch.” There are even moments of light humor and an allusion to a particular Dr. Seuss story: “Hiroshima, I wish you were here. Feed me warm oatmeal, play soft music on my refrigerator, tell all the birds in town not to shit on my car. Any good deed a man does returns to leave nasty messages on his answering machine, you can’t kill two birds with one nuclear reaction, cats always land butter side down, & so on.” Dropping the atomic bomb on Japan may have ended the Second World War, but it was also a choice that will haunt our national consciousness for generations to come.
Ian Stansel’s “The Tall Lake Grasses” shows how strange attractions can emerge from tragic events. The central plot revolves around the disappearance of a teenage boy in a small, middle-American town. We see the story develop through the point of view of his neighbor Beth, a girl slightly older than him, who begins a secret masochistic relationship with social outcast and classmate Silver. Stansel does a good job making the reading uncomfortable. The scene where Beth gets whipped in Silver’s basement made me flinch:
A few seconds passed, but she remained in place, determined to be patient. Then she felt the whip cut across her skin. Her eyes and mouth burst open, but she saw nothing, nor did she make a sound. She could not hear a thing, no movement, no breathing. She might have disappeared, she thought. She or the world or both. Become gone. The pain pushed out from the source in hot waves, like the wake off a vessel. She pressed her forehead into the carpet and concentrated all her mental energy on the sensation. After a few moments the undulating sting subsided and she was left with a simple channel of heat.
“The Tall Lake Grasses” is an odd story that lacks a moral compass. The missing boy falls into background noise as Beth and Silver come together in violence while being surrounded by the threat of violence. The psychology of these characters is fascinating, and I commend Stansel for daring to dive into that darker side of the human mind.
Rob Nixon tells us a childhood memory in a short piece of non-fiction called “Baboon.” He shows us what it is like to live in South Africa and to have neighbors who owned “a flock of racist geese.” Tension slowly builds as Nixon and his friend ride by a seemingly abandoned shack surrounded by a chain linked fence where a ferocious Doberman and a baboon live. Nixon eventually gets bitten by this dog and discovers that a wound can be a badge of honor: “A wound, I discovered, was a fabulous thing. It made me feel older than I was. A wound was a fine place to keep a story that you could pull out and tell like a man.” This certainly rings true with all good storytelling. Conflict is always essential, and old wounds are always a good starting place to tell stories.
My favorite portion of this issue was an interview with author Dorothy Allison called “If you Can’t Find Work, Make Trouble.” Allison’s wit is razor sharp as she talks about her career as a writer and touches on practically every branch of the writing profession. “Writers,” Allison says, “have to be ruthless, writers have to shape a story, writers have to have somewhere they’re going that will end—that they have a goal in mind. Otherwise it’s like, ‘Is she never going to shut up?’” She drops other pearls of wisdom such as “Fiction trumps reality every time—if it’s any good at all” and “Story happens because the world is unbelievable.” Allison makes it clear that one does not go into writing to make money. Writing “is a way to scandalize people and to flirt with pretty girls and have a good time.” Probably the best advice I ever heard about the craft of writing.
Even though I finished reading this issue, it doesn’t mean that the conversation is over. In fact, it rarely ever is because there’s always a story out there waiting to be told. As long as Sycamore Review is talking, I’ll be listening.
Poets From Pakistan
Volume 9 Number1
Review by Alexandra Hillen
Vallum has been encouraging an international literary collaboration of established and forthcoming writers for a little over a decade. The publication is dedicated to fostering communication in and around its home in Canada as well as with countries that range from Australia to India. This issue features a special focus on Pakistani poets. Pakistan is “often portrayed as one of the world’s most dangerous countries,” and so it is no surprise that a collection from its poets is astonishingly beautiful and powerful.
“Silent Birds” by Zulfikar Ghose opens the issue with a note of quiet grief. Birds are traditionally symbols of instinct—they are the first out if something goes wrong, they fly away from danger, the fly south for the winter, and they caw as a warning for torrential weather. The narrator has made a trip back to his childhood home, as instinctually as a bird migrating to its nesting grounds, to find it an echo of his memory. His words ring of emptiness. Though people aren’t mentioned, the scarcity of birds and their lack of natural sound fills the setting with a gaping hollow feeling. This is reinforced as the words themselves reverberate: “My / family home shook as in an earthquake.” Through simple diction and the barest images, the author expresses his own feeling of emptiness. Even the birds know that something is wrong in their homeland, and yet “the priest shrilly called the faithful / to prayer as if nothing had happened.”
Mehvash Amin also writes about birds in “Crow,” a poem that is deceptively short and simple. It is a reversal of the role of the crow, “Scavengers, we call them.” As an apostrophe poem, it addresses the miss-nomered “scavenger” birds. In simple words, it rectifies the reputation of a scavenger animal. This idea serves as a metaphor. In the opening poem, Ghose used birds as a symbol of instinct and emptiness. Here, they not only make a statement about mankind, but they also represent mankind. The writer justifies, even beautifies a gritty and feral act. The final line solidifies the idea: “Pick bare with grace.” Survival is honorable, and “in a new world,” it is necessary and beautiful.
Tastefully, Vallum also includes full-page spreads of works from Pakistani artist Faiza Butt, courtesy of fine art dealers Rossi & Rossi Ltd. The pieces are bold in their messages and style. They are statements about the culture of the artist, featuring grainy outlines that converge in bold darks and soft lights. Several of the works are plays on traditional-looking eastern figures, intermingled with modern images in an unapologetic statement about the modern and the ancient and the vast area in-between. The final image “I’ll be Safe in my Own Mind” is in heavy black-and-white and showcases subject matter that is, in some circles, inflammatory and all the more beautiful for the risk. The choice to include the artwork in Vallum is effective not only because it provides stunning visual breaks from reading, but because the works couldn’t blend more effortlessly with the overarching idea of the issue: an unflinching showcase and evaluation of the state of Pakistan and the world.
The final section of this issue of Vallum includes the two Vallum poetry contest winners as well as several reviews. Including reviews in a literary magazine changes the experience, and in Vallum’s case was done well. The reviewed works vary from a translated book to a Modern Poetry Book of Pakistan, which couldn’t be more appropriate for the issue and the overarching idea of international collaboration that Vallum advocates. What’s more, the inclusion of reviews, or any type of article in a poetry magazine, brings the reader out of the deep hazy place of contemplation and back to the present world. This natural occurrence couldn’t be better utilized than it is here, as the main idea, shared by the pieces, is a look at the modern state of affairs of the world, especially Pakistan.
One could say that the final reading experience, the journey of deep contemplation and then of rising again to the current moment with clear eyes, is itself a larger metaphor for the ideas presented in each piece and in their collaboration. Well done, Vallum.