Posted August 15, 2012
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Volume 41 Number 4
Review by Tanya Angell Allen
The latest American Poetry Review has an immensely quotable essay by C.K. Williams “On Being Old.” In it, he says he doesn’t “blab” about poets whose work he doesn’t like. He once, to his current chagrin, dismissed the work of the great Elizabeth Bishop. He writes, “I think we all tend to believe we can see through the vagaries of our moment to some absolute standard of judgment—this must be a characteristic of human consciousness itself—but the conviction is absurd.”
It’s awkward to try to write either a good or bad review after reading this essay; if one writes negatively, one risks sounding like one of the “obnoxious” young poets Williams mentions who passionately wants to protect the world from bad poems. (Williams writes, “Danger! they’d cry. Don’t even look! You might turn to poetry stone!”) If one writes a good review, though, one runs the risk of sounding overly influenced and intimidated by Williams.
Luckily (or not) for this reviewer, it is difficult to find anything negative to say about the July/August 2012 issue of The American Poetry Review (APR). Its newspaper-format isn’t pretty, but the low cost of its production keeps it affordable for grateful readers. The prose is often dense, but well worth working through. The selection of poems is so varied that although not all readers will like all the poems, few will be able to call any of them bad or even mediocre. Most readers will find much to “blab” about, including the heart-breaking Kaddish-like “The Griefs” written by Stefi Weisburd about a mother’s death. Also worth noting is Catherine Barnett’s “The Right Hemisphere,” in which she says, “The part of the brain where music gets processed / is close to my memories of a few men / in flagrante . . .”
In a special supplement, there are selections from Four Hundred Men on the Cross by Henri Michaux, translated and introduced by Gillian Conoley. Some are concrete poems, written in the shape of crosses. Some are one-liners, such as “Number 42, a lout” or “(254) If he prayed to God, it would be for the crowd to be sent away.” The overall effect, even of APR’s short excerpt, is mind-blowing.
This issue also includes work by Sherman Alexie, Matthew Dickman, Jeffrey Skinner, Dara Wier and many other excellent poets. It is worth reading for Adélia Prado’s poems alone, however. In “The Mystical Rose,” translated from the Brazilian Portuguese by Ellen Doré Watson, Prado talks about the first time she wrote in form about her father dying and of how she “understood that words grouped like that / made it possible to live without / the things they describe.” It was as though someone had painted a picture of a basket of fruit and said, “now you can eat the fruit.” Prado and Watson have given us an ars poetica poem worthy of anthologizing.
In “On Being Old,” Williams says that although he no longer “blabs” about work that doesn’t move him, there is still work out there that does move him to speak: “But there are, however, thank goodness, poets the power and force of whose work once nearly knocked me down with delight and envy, and still does, so that when I read them again I feel like an apprentice.” He follows with a poem of his own entitled “Whacked,” about how he gets “whacked” every day by reading “some great poet or other.”
Readers looking to get “whacked” by great contemporary poets themselves should check out this issue of The American Poetry Review.
Review by Sarah Carson
If I had to choose a metaphor for the 2012 issue of Artful Dodge, I’d liken it to one of those brown paper grab-bags they sell at the dollar store. You know the ones—unmarked and mysterious, they could contain something awesome just as easily as they could contain something you could just as well live without. This issue is a huge literary grab-bag, containing a wide assortment of essays, fiction, poetry, and art spanning a varied range of themes and subject matter. Some of the work is surprising, gripping, and moving, while others, not quite as much.
The editors of this issue obviously spent a lot of time working hard to arrange the pieces. One of the strengths is how delicately and deliberately each piece leads into the next. There are graceful, nuanced transitions from work sharing just the smallest theme or subject in common. The presentation is expertly done with close attention to the smallest of details.
That said, the result of such careful arrangement is sometimes a piece of writing that, while making sense thematically, might not have found itself published had it not fit so well into a thematic sequence. For instance, while I was absolutely in love with Joel Lee’s fun and thoughtful essay “Self: A Musical” in which the narrator leads us through his life via his iTunes playlist, the work that precedes it, while also playing on fun and funky themes, doesn’t necessarily measure up.
Weaker pieces aside, though, there are many highlights. The issue includes a Q&A with former poet laureate Rita Dove as well as a visual art section dedicated to photographs of art found on eBay.
Another strength of the issue is the care taken to present translations, with each accompanied by an essay from the translator. I loved getting a glimpse into Alexis Levitin’s process and conversations with Rosa Alice Branco. In the essay accompanying her two translations, Levitin says, “Since the literal meanings of such constructions can sometimes be rather bizarre, I am grateful for the poet’s reassurance that what I am encountering is indeed deliberate, a stylistic liberty . . .” Both translations are carefully crafted pieces. My personal favorite was “Cloth Squeezed Tight against the Wheat,” a meditation that, as Levitin says, does get a bit too bizarre for literal interpretation, but the language is beautiful: “We take shelter under the awning / of a café, in the steaming tea cup where you sip me / in order to forget the cold. You come to the surface like a fish / from whom they have taken the sea . . .”
I was a little disappointed that the issue didn’t include an editors’ note; editors’ notes are a way to get context and insight into an issue. I would have loved to have heard more from the people behind the collection, their process, and their highlights. Overall, though, the issue contained many pieces I’m glad to have encountered.
Volume 18 Number 2
Review by Sarah Gorman
In Atlanta Review, it’s all poetry, all the time. No visual art or prose (save for the editors’ introductions and contributor notes) finds its way into this journal. With all this space, the editors will consider up to five poems by a single author for a given issue, and they take pride in publishing the works of both new and established authors. The editors evidently prefer brief works and excerpts: in such a small space, 59 poets (in addition to Kabir, Tukaram, Akho and Nandeo, who turn up in translation) and 92 poems appear. On its website, the journal is described as “a haven for our common humanity, the things that unite us across the boundaries of nation, race, and religion.” Each Spring/Summer issue therefore devotes space to literature from a single nation.
In this issue, material from India is featured, in the form of poems, contributors’ notes, and a detailed introduction by the India Section Editor Bhisham Bherwani. Some of the Indian poets, all of whom write in English here, have also published in Gujarati, Hindi, Malayalam, Oriya, Kannada, and Marathi. They are notable also for their collective accomplishments in law, business, law enforcement, medicine, journalism, the visual arts, and political activism. They were chosen by Bherwani, himself an award-winning poet, from those who “came of age after 1947,” the year of India’s independence and sovereignty. Six of the twenty-one modern Indian poets are recently deceased.
Bherwani’s introduction promises “erotic love poetry,” and the statement of welcome by Editor Dan Veach refers to “the sultriest love lyrics you’ll ever see.” But unless the mere inclusion of the terms “shivalingam” and “crotches” are counted (in two brief and witty works by Eunice de Souza), the eroticism sprinkles rather than saturates the selections. References to the polyvalent spiritual tradition of India, as expressed in its architecture, music, costume, and customs, far outnumber mentions of deflowering, breasts, or thighs. But more prevalent still is a penetrating tenderness for everyday experience, as in E.V Ramakrishnan’s “Calligraphy”:
My daughter stands sharpening
the pencil: a summit of graphite
emerges from the shavings of wood.
As her crawling hand builds
a word letter by letter,
a letter by its curves and strokes
and each letter by its awesome
turn and steep climb,
the fine tip of keenness spends itself
in the deviant ways of transcribing the banal.
Travelers to India will find much in this volume that rekindles a sentient memory—sandal oil, squatter toilets, coconut trees, giant Buddhas, a faded sari in a field—or the shock of seeing temple rats, elephants and monkeys up close and personal, with nary a fence to protect them (or you). It cannot be easy to make a limited selection of poems to transmit a vast culture, but the works here invite further exploration of the people and ways of India. The 17th-century saint Tukaram, a devotee of Krishna, is represented with seven poems, translated by both Arun Kolatkar and the late Dilip Chitre. Some spiritual teachers say it is human ignorance that led us to agree to leave the presence of God to enter the fallen realm of earth, and here Tukaram describes an attempt to honor a commitment made in blithe ignorance:
Today, I face the toughest test of life:
Whereof I have no experience,
Thereof I have been asked to sing
I am the innocent one asked to sin,
Without a foretaste of what I must commit
I am just a beginner, untutored in the art,
My Master Himself is unrevealed to me.
Illuminate, and inspire me, O Lord.
Says Tuka, my time is running out.
(translated by Dilip Chitre)
“The Poetry of India” section is bookended by groupings of poems from America. The editing is artful, placing translations of two short poems by the 12th-century Korean poet Hyesim between the India section and the concluding modern American poems and leading up to the international feature section with three poems about India—one about Ravi Shankar’s music, one about Indian women washing clothes in a pond, and one about touring India, by the poets Lavinia Kumar, Sankar Roy, and Mark Aiello, respectively.
Translation, an interest and specialty of Veach, figures prominently throughout. The hallmark of all the works in this volume is their accessibility. The translations, no less than the poems of contemporary Indian and American writers, make good on the editors’ online claim that the Atlanta Review is “real poetry for real people.”
A Journal of Character
Review by David R. Matteri
Conclave is a journal that revolves around strong characters in poetry and fiction, so don’t let the lady on the cover of the latest issue scare you away. Think of her as a concierge waiting to show you to your room. But this isn’t your typical hotel. Here you will rub shoulders with guests from out of space and time. Some of these guests are (or were) real people staying for the night while others come from the imaginations of talented writers.
Some of the poetry in this issue features noteworthy characters from history. Sara Backer’s “The Nameless One (Ivan VI)” depicts the tragic life of Ivan VI of Imperial Russia. Although proclaimed Emperor of Russia as an infant, Ivan never reigned because Empress Elizabeth threw him in jail. He remained a prisoner until he was murdered by his guards. Becker does an excellent job condensing Ivan’s unhappy life into three tight stanzas. The last one was my favorite because of its play on words and the prison-like atmosphere created by the tempo:
Jailed by murderers,
murdered by jailers,
the walls of Schlusselburg
mirrored his skull confines,
his brain awash in whispering white tides.
Lenore Weiss takes us further back in time with “The Last Days of Genghis Khan.” The poem brings us to the Great Khan’s death bed surrounded by his sons. Weiss humanizes the infamous conqueror in this surprisingly moving piece where Khan confesses his failures as a father. He offers his sons pieces of warrior wisdom such as “a loose mouth leaves crumbs for the wind / to heap upon the plates of your enemy” and says that controlling pride is “more difficult to quell than a wild lion.” The ending is my favorite part of this piece: “Loyalty to family is what you have as brothers / and the only thing you will ever have / in this smoky world of dreams laced with cinnamon.” That last bit of sensory detail was a nice touch. Most people can agree that Genghis Khan was not the friendliest of persons, but this poem illustrates a side of him that we don’t see very often in the history books.
Daniel Lee’s poem “Accounts of Lucifer” is another great poem that focuses on one of the most influential characters in Western imagination. The fallen angel presents an argument to the reader in six parts about his estranged relationship with God. The language is as disturbing and hypnotizing as Lucifer himself. For example, listen to what he has to say about his war against heaven:
Be sure to know, war is not what I’ve wanted—
it is a spectacle. I prefer sane, not demented,
revolt. Nothing is more tasteless than murder.
Lee does a masterful job of writing in Satan’s voice in the tradition of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The reader feels compelled to agree with Lucifer, even though the final stanza promises damnation.
My favorite fiction piece was “Threatlessness” by Ira Sukrungruang. It is about a boy who is sent to the hospital after being attacked on his way home late at night. The boy is a social outcast and has a taste for horror fiction. His backpack bulges with Clive Barker, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Peter Straub. He has no memory of the attack. His overactive imagination convinces him that it was a monster, but the truth turns out to be more terrifying: a group of intoxicated teenagers nearly beat him to death because they were bored and because the boy had an aura of “threatlessness” around him. As the days go by and the get well cards pile up, his head injury becomes more serious, and he loses his ability to move and speak. He retreats further inside his mind as he searches for answers. His conclusion is grim: “Evil exists. It does and it needs no explanation. It needs no cause. It just happens. In a cornfield. In a graveyard. In a home, haunted or not.” We want the boy to survive, to grow up and experience the good things in life, but the ending is not kind to the boy. You don’t have to be a horror fiend (like me) to enjoy this great story.
Two interviews are included in this issue, my favorite one being with Peter S. Beagle. Beagle is one of America’s most prolific fantasy authors, and it was a genuine pleasure to hear his thoughts about the craft of writing. Since the journal is focused on characters, Savannah Thorne, the editor and interviewer, asks him about creating difficult characters. Beagle’s response is full of insight: “I’ve always felt that if your character isn’t rebelling against you then that character might not be alive at all.” I know I’m guilty of writing flat characters (what? aren’t you?) and this bit of advice should be applied to any story worth its salt.
Not only does this journal publish great writing, but it is also trying to get literary journals in inner-city schools and libraries (you can visit the website to make a donation). Go ahead and pick up a copy of Conclave today; it builds character.
A Literary Journal of the University
of Iowa Carver College of Medicine
Volume 1 Number 3
Review by Julie J. Nichols
In May of this year, my pregnant daughter’s friend lost a baby two weeks before its due date. My daughter sobbed the news to me via cell phone, gasping, “I feel so guilty that I’m still pregnant!” Five weeks later, two days after she gave birth to a healthy girl, I dismounted badly from a horse; my blown knee collapsed under me, and I knew, horribly, that my grandmothering summer was over, faded into surgery and rehab.
The vulnerability, insights, and rueful humor that inevitably accompany such events are celebrated in The Examined Life, “a new print journal published biannually by the Writing and Humanities Program at the Carver College of Medicine” and edited by Bruce P. Brown, MD. Similar in its origins and goals to The Bellevue Review, though newer, less established, and therefore more modest in scope, The Examined Life “intends to deepen and complicate our understanding of healthcare and healing, illness, the human body, and the human condition.” In fulfilling this purpose, the journal is deeply appealing.
Because of my own surgery, I liked Elizabeth Burk’s poem, “Recovery Room” (“Kindly gnomes rush to and fro / . . . as I lie swaddled, nursing / from tubes, a newborn . . .”). Because of my daughter’s friend, I was drawn to “Honeysuckle,” by David Nichols, a scene between a husband and wife who lost a baby a year ago. The husband wants to welcome the memories, but the still-grieving mother protests, “You want memories? You can have mine . . . I don’t want them. But they’re carved in my body. I see my memories every time I shower.” It’s not just the mother’s grief that elicits empathy—it’s the rift between the parents, the chasm between their desires a year after tragedy, that “complicates [their] understanding of the human condition.” There is not a piece in the issue that isn’t rich with sensory detail and rightly-earned emotion. Not a piece feels strained or sentimental.
Flavian Mark Lupinetti’s short story, “Surgical Mortality,” is brilliantly crafted. Narrated by the chief of pediatric cardiac surgery in a West Virginia hospital, it reveals this man’s uncharacteristic fondness for one of his new interns, Danny, through anecdotes showing how smart, how personable, and how like the chief Danny is. Danny calls the chief “Skip,” and the chief calls all his interns “Jim.” But we discover—with the narrator—that Danny was not what he seemed. “I blame that fella Skip,” his brother says. “That year workin’ with Skip, that tore him up sorely. . . . How could the sonofabitch not of noticed? Next time you see Skip, tell him Danny’s death was on him.” Talk about complication! The narrator says, “I need to get back to work. I have . . . a new resident to train. . . . His name is Kamal. I’m going to call him Kamal.”
“Salt River,” written by the survivor of an accident that cost her two members of her family, is full of pain. The accident is re-created in necessary detail; her courage to go on is hard-won: “On my good days, when I’m not tired, I can safely talk about Raymond without crying. On days when I cannot, I don’t mention him. . . .Describing these feelings to someone with no knowledge of tragedy . . . is a challenge.” She meets the challenge not to garner admiration, but to set down the truth. This and many other pieces in this issue are hard to forget.
The poetry is equally memorable. Witness, among many fine poems, “Dread,” a beautifully-crafted sonnet by Linda Malm about a mammogram and its results; “The Coffin Shroud,” a stunning villanelle about a soldier’s premature death by James Christensen; and “ICU Nightshift” by Shawn Fawson, whose final image captures the complicated dynamic between a son and his dying father (“From the monitor’s left edge / green lines spike and flash across the screen—one / chained dog after another jumping to break free.”).
There is humor here, too, and speculative fiction. Kathleen Lind’s short essay, “The Nicest Young Men,” shows her aged, arthritic mother happily taking advantage of a series of Mormon missionaries who come to her door to deliver spiritual healing but end up doing her much-needed house work instead. Some solemn point about the healing power of service could be made here, but Lind chooses to give a wink to the wiles of her mother and the eager willingness of the earnest young men. And Carolyn Lieberg’s “Alyce’s Version” asks what any of us would think if we knew we had a gene for immortality.
This new journal is excellent. The cover, a paper-filigree diagram of the workings of the muscles under the skin in the face, symbolizes its purpose to bring together the art, the heart, and the reality of medical knowledge. If you’re human, you’ll like The Examined Life.
Review by David R. Matteri
I have a soft spot for university literary journals. Maybe it’s because I have a closer connection to these folks because I was a college student not too long ago and know what it’s like to wade through the slush pile in a tiny room at night with only a Snickers bar to keep me going.
Or maybe it’s because these journals have a knack for spotting damn good writing. Fox Cry Review is one of those journals. It is published annually from the University of Wisconsin Fox Valley, and this current issue features an exceptional array of poetry, short fiction, and artwork.
“The Electric Pulse” by Abigail Welhouse is a story that pinches a vital point in the human heart. It is about a girl hopelessly in love with a boy “who lit his clothing on fire just to see what would happen.” At first glance, their relationship seems to be built on a solid foundation but later proves to be insubstantial. The boy stops coming to her recitals and shuts her out of his life for no reason. She is upset, but she refuses to stop loving him: “She wanted him to love her like Sampson loved Delilah—to tell her all the secrets that would cause his strength to unravel, and to trust that she would never use them.” Welhouse deserves praise for shedding light on such a difficult subject. Some of us attach ourselves so closely to someone that, no matter how abusive or uncaring this person is, we find it impossible to simply forget him or her even if we wanted to.
Mark Vitha’s “Essentia” is a hilarious poem that pokes fun of itself and the craft. The speaker, who prides himself on being “America’s best-selling premium poet,” has crafted a rich-sounding poem that goes well with “pasta and seafood.” However, this poem causes indigestion with the folks at his poetry workshop:
“It’s like tasting on oak tree,” Peter sniped.
Julie noted its overpowering acidity.
“It impaired my ability to drive”
said the mother of three,
“And operate heavy machinery,”
my own father added.
Special praise goes to John Baraniak for his wicked little story “Good Neighbors.” The entire piece is written as a short conversation between two neighbors over the telephone. The conversation starts innocently enough about the coldness of the weather but then turns to the discovery of a dead body in a ravine of their cozy suburban neighborhood. The first speaker tells his neighbor how he used his telescope to watch the suspicious behavior of another neighbor. The setting may be familiar for those who have seen Rear Window, but the final line is a shocking twist that would make Hitchcock proud.
“This Is Not a Test” by John Kristofco is a poem that would appeal to anyone who has ever lived in Tornado Alley. One can almost hear the wail of the sirens and the shrieking of the wind as the twister touches down on the horizon:
slate clouds climb above the valley,
roll into a vortex, and
I love how the words form a tornado directly above the fourth stanza where the family is hiding in the basement. Though one cannot fully comprehend the power of nature until they have witnessed a twister ripping apart a barn or a house, Kristofco does an excellent job translating the “twisting, random rage” of a tornado onto the page.
According to their website, a contributor once questioned the publication’s title: “Does a fox cry?” Perhaps, perhaps not. What we do know for certain is that Fox Cry Review will have a future as long as they continue to publish this kind of solid writing.
Review by Sean Stewart
Garbanzo is out to break some rules. I find this refreshing in the relatively staid world of literary magazines. Perhaps it’s my background in zine publishing that makes me sympathetic to those willing to buck the trends. First of all, this inaugural issue comes handsomely clothed in a silkscreened dust jacket. How many lit mags have you seen lately with a dust jacket, silkscreened or not? That’s what I thought. Garbanzo is also bound with fancy rivets and includes an attached ribbon bookmark (a thoughtful and handy feature). On the inside there are a few fold-out pages, and even some handwritten poems that nicely break up the otherwise printed text. So, this is a nice-looking publication, a labor of love. I can’t help wondering how long the editors will be able to maintain this level of quality for their limited run print editions (they also publish a digital version), but I will suspend my doubts for now.
Another way in which Garbanzo sets itself apart from the rabble is with a sharp focus on the writing, not the writers. It accomplishes this in a couple of ways. First, titles and bylines appear at the end of each piece, so unless you peek ahead you don’t know who wrote it (there is also a table of contents, but it’s buried in the back of the journal). Second, the bios are unconventional to say the least, and while they may tell you something about the writers, it won’t be the usual stuff, e.g. no previous publications or awards.
The content of this first issue is divided into sections: arrival, soak, rinse, departure, and coda. Parts of it read like a dreamlike sequence, where it almost seems as if the writers are all continuing a single story by one narrator. I noticed that many of the pieces (poetry, fiction, and nonfiction alike) were written in first person singular. I’m not sure if that was a conscious choice on the part of the editors, but it contributed to the commonality between pieces that I felt as I read. I confess that the issue started out a little slow for me, but I warmed up to it quickly. Some of the earlier pieces were a little too out there for my taste. However, there is an eclectic mix to satisfy a range of readers, from traditional realist fiction to less classifiable chunks of prose.
In “Iowa,” we read Danielle Kral’s gripping tale of an odd marriage gone awry and the devastating effects on the two daughters who sprang from it. Greg Miraglia’s “Searching” gives us the words of a despondent narrator at sea: “I am sailing and searching the seas. The wind wails and the waves rock up and down, back and forth. I am looking for land, but each bunch of dirt brings disappointment. I like land.” Steven Ray Smith’s cryptic poem “Into the Loblollies” also caught my attention:
When you said a good word about me
I was famous on the drive northward.
But once into the loblollies,
spent fuel and groggy,
my evolution from failure regressed.
Alana Eisenbarth’s haunting “The Sound of Resilience” is one of the fold-out poems: “Angel of the silo / a grey plea in winter / finite beauty // clutching axe and spade.”
There are other fine pieces of writing in Garbanzo. Many of them are short, only a couple of pages or so, making it simple to pick up the journal and read through just a few at a time. The print is a bit small (minor gripe), but that did afford the editors the chance to pack an overflowing cornucopia of literary goodness into a still compact publication. I’ll be looking out for a second issue.
Volume 25 Number 2
Review by Mary Florio
Sometimes we look to the canon for context: the depression era philosophies and legacies of John Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, Pearl S. Buck. Would an American imagination have been materially different absent James Hilton, Sinclair Lewis, Edna Ferber? What if the novels of A.J. Cronin or William Faulkner remained galleys buried on the literary cutting room floor? I approached my reading of this issue of The Gettysburg Review with the canon as context; that is, does the literature in a climate of economic downturn answer similarly situated voices from the dustbowl terror of the mid 1930s? Not exactly. The truth may lie in other comparisons—perhaps an awareness of the hysterical faith-based tomes that characterized the literature of the climax of the Roman Empire, the deoxyribonucleic acid of other revolutions, a monk’s blood. In sum, I found The Gettysburg Review to stand on its own, neither an answer nor echo of the past but rather a collection of talented men and women who have unique stories to tell.
The expert opening of the journal was Clint McCown’s fiction “Mary Jean McKinney.” The story of a pregnant woman who wakes and emerges from a well parallels her future of giving birth: both the protagonist and her issue will have emerged from storm through a canal into an uncertain world. Her husband is missing abroad in war, and her home town in Tennessee has just been ravaged by a tornado—a desperate climate for a woman seeking any kind of security. The strength of the storytelling moves the reader through this woman’s journey effortlessly, as if there were no structural elements to secure the story. You finish it wanting to hear more.
Rebecca Gummere’s essay “The Departure” presents an ending of a lifetime in measured detail. Gummere paces the narrative with classical breaks, such as the section titled “Con Amore—With Love,” that begins “Nothing seems real. We are weeping; we are like lost children.” Gummere portrays the loss in ordered segments, but toward the end of the essay, you are so emotionally involved with the snapshots of loss that her essay becomes a mastery of continuity.
I really wanted to hate Hope Maxwell Snyder’s poem “Napping with Steve Orlen,” because it departs dramatically from the kinds of elements I have thought to seek in a poem. But I could not; the poem made me happy. Try an internal stanza:
Let’s go back to the garden at the Bavarian Inn,
drink vodka, read poems. Let’s take a walk on the towpath
in early fall, slow, while you light cigarettes and smoke.
You taught me to mind the diction in my poems,
choose words to fit my context. I loved you.
I have likewise been victimized by Yeats.
I enjoyed the diversity of voices and the way that the creative work spanned essential life stages. Paula Whyman’s short fiction, “You May See a Stranger,” had the essential pacing and characterization and emotional control that one might expect of Pam Houston. It braves a voice of a young woman who might not typically be granted voice—her life balanced between filing during the day and enjoying the buffoonery of an egomaniac at night might appear ordinary, but Whyman’s use of telling detail transforms the quotidian to the magnificent. Her concluding paragraph connects the entire story in one fell passage:
. . . Pogo leans over and kisses me on the mouth. I sit and look at my plate. My lobster is an empty shell; they’ve all taken parts of it, like I said they could. I put my hand in Pogo’s lap and find the place where he’s still warm.
Like I said they could. I found those smallest five words to be amazing.
You see the stylistic pattern if you read Charles Antin’s short fiction “Shooting the Moon,” where the dreams of an old man are couched in his narration. We have a wildly imaginative unreliable narrator, but the unreliability is character, not because he’s suffering from cognitive decline. Not at all: he’s wily and headstrong and funny. I love the frame of a game of hearts that governs the story. In fact, as it reoccurs, it becomes richer. Take this expert twist halfway through: “There are things in this world I’ll never understand. Calculus. Mandarin. Why Jean insists on losing to me at hearts.”
People I know like to prognosticate about the American Novel or the Short Story Recession; they will make statements to the effect that “The great American novel will not take place in America.” But these are folks who have evidently not been to Gettysburg. I’ll wager that the next best American short story happens here, that the best American poem starts out in these pages. If this issue is any harbinger, I’m betting on Gettysburg.
Review by Charles Davenport
A good poetry journal is like one of those good coffee-table photography and art books. You can open them to any page and find something so thought-provoking that you are carried away and forever changed (NOTE: This is one great challenge of a paperless world). The editors of the Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review have certainly accomplished this. HSPR has been around for more than thirty years and has had just two editors. Since 2008, the review’s second editor, Nathaniel Perry, has done an excellent job of picking up where Tom O’Grady, the founding editor, left things when he retired. In the past, The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review has published the work of a Nobel Laureate, several Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners, and two U.S. Poet Laureates.
Perry and his team of editors did a masterful job of pulling together an impressive collection of poetry from an equally impressive group of poets that includes Billy Collins, Tomasz Różycki of Poland, Gabriel Spera, and Irish poet Dennis O’Driscoll. What is particularly interesting about The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review is what the editors have done with the last twenty-five pages, making this a journal that is as much about poetry as it is a showcase for poetry.
In the “4 x 4” section of the journal, four of the journal’s contributors are each asked the same four questions about literary influences, their musical proclivities, their conception of the “poetic line,” and the need for solitude. The answers from the four poets—Lavinia Greenlaw, Reginald Flood, Connie Wanek, and O’Driscoll—are almost as entertaining as the poetry and left me wondering why more journals aren’t doing the same thing. For instance, on the topic of music, Minnesota poet Wanek says, “. . . mostly what I feel toward music is that it has to be very good to be superior to silence.” In her answer to the question of solitude, English poet Greenlaw’s answer is illuminating and maybe a little reassuring:
I am suspicious of the contrivance of solitude and have found it hard to write when spending a month alone on an Alp or a North Sea island. I talked to cows or clouds, swam and drank beer. . . . What I want is to be left alone in my head. I could be writing on a train or in a concert hall. It doesn’t matter. To write a poem, you do have to go somewhere where no one can follow and this becomes a habit of the mind.
When it comes to the issue of how lines are formatted in a poem, O’Driscoll points out that his own lines “expand or contract” depending on the rhythm of each poem, as well as the “verbal considerations.” When it comes to the “hyperactive lineation” of contemporary poetry, he is nothing shy of being blunt, saying that the lineation is, with few exceptions, “a kind of visual rhetoric: novelty in the service of triviality; eye-catching distraction from mind-numbing content.” Ouch!
Maxine Scates of Portland, OR contributes three beautifully crafted and deeply moving poems. Though her style is much freer than Theodore Roethke’s, her attention to the smallest of details and the intermingled relationships between life and death and nature is reminiscent of the father of the Pacific Northwest poetry movement. All three of her poems concern themselves with images of dying, specifically her mother’s. Scates’s poetry reveals a sense of certainty that can only come from wisdom and years of observation. However, in the last few lines in the third poem, “Old Garden,” Scates allows us to see clearly that taking care of her mother and her mother’s garden consumed a good portion of her days and left her unsettled and wondering about herself and her place:
It’s here we try to forget
what we can never forget, my rake, my hoe
out in the wed forsaken roses, my mother
who loves roses. I tended her garden,
now what will I do?
Much of the poetry in this issue is personal and reflective, even when it borders on being meta-physical. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, in his poem, “Whoever You Are,” creates a visual arc that begins with orange and yellow flower and continues on to connect to his shoes and the stone wall that he is sitting on. As with so much of his poetry, there is an underlying sadness or regret that he never overtly identifies but we know exists. And, it is in this knowing of its existence that doorways of introspection are opened for the reader. As is often the case with Collins, we often wonder if he believes that what he’s writing is ever worth thinking about beyond the moment, as in these lines about the flowers:
Too bad they don’t remind me of anything,
and it’s a shame I am not seeing them
as parts of larger system or realm,
pretty iotas in the greater animate cosmos.
Then we might have something here.
Who am I to tell him they are part of something larger? Who is he to suggest, just because he has the blues, that they aren’t?
Any journal that can bring a reader to asking such questions has done its job. This issue is now on my coffee table.
Volume 38 Number 1
Review by John Palen
Several of the poets included in this survey of “Voices in German” were familiar to me. The Expressionist Ernst Stadler, killed in battle in World War I, is represented by three evocative landscapes translated by Martin Sheehan and William Wright. Gertrud Kolmar, who disappeared in the Holocaust, mourns a child “(n)ot born because of my sins.” Her moving poem “Fruitless” is translated by Sandra Dillon.
It was also good to see more work by Volker Braun, an important figure in both East and reunified Germany. He has five Brechtian poems in this issue, translated by Karen Leeder. “(Berlin-Mitte),” the title of which Leeder leaves untranslated, is my favorite in this collection for its existential, sex-in-the-face-of-death exuberance. Tehran-born SAID, who won the Goethe medal in 2006, contributes four bitter, ironic poems of political and mythic content, translated by Amy Strawser.
Finally, I was grateful to be put in touch with five new poems by Zehra Çirak, translated by Heike Henderson. A Turkish-born poet living in Germany, Çirak has often dealt with the theme of “the outsider.” She revisits that theme in an excellent poem, “With the Eyes of Someone Else,” that includes these lines:
To see like the neighbor
when he stands at his window
to hear what he can listen to
in a way to be like him
to walk with the same dog
sleep with the same woman
have his fear of me
and no fear of him
Many of the other poets in this issue are new to me, and I was interested to see the broad range of experimental approaches in the younger poets, as well as the diverse international background of those who use German as their poetic language.
In its 38th year, International Poetry Review continues to do English-speaking readers an important service by issuing them visas to observe what is happening in poetry around the world. This collection, IPR’s first all-German issue since 1975, continues that valuable tradition.
Volume 51 Number 2
Reviewed by Kenneth Nichols
An inherent complication arises when writers (or editors or critics) consider the meaning of “place” in literature. It’s certainly true that an author is influenced by the geography and communities that shaped him. It’s equally true on another level that people are the same all over, filled crown to toe with the same hopes and fears. This issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review contains pieces that are accented by the flora and fauna and hardy inhabitants of the Great Lakes region. The contributors indeed communicate the unique feeling of being lost in the Minnesota prairie while tapping into the pathos that unites us all.
The issue begins on something of a sad note with Editor Jonathan Freedman’s kind eulogy for Gerald Shapiro, whose story “A Drunkard’s Walk” immediately follows. There’s something bittersweet about it after discovering its author so recently shuffled off this mortal coil. Shapiro’s story tracks the experience of Sherman Lampert, who recently lost his wife of thirty-five years in a freak accident. In an effort to connect with Barbara’s past, Sherman attends her high school reunion in her stead. Shapiro effectively blends Sherman’s life story with an account of the big night. Sadly, Shapiro’s friends and family learned the same lesson that Sherman does, that the randomness of the Drunkard’s Walk brings us both joy and misery. We are all like the narrator’s shooting star that “streaked across a black corner of the night sky above the city: a comet, perhaps, or a bit of space debris, an asteroid, just a fleeting pinprick of light, there and then gone in a breath.”
Adam Regn Arvidson’s “Lines on the Prairie” tracks the author’s search for the prairie bush clover, an endangered plant that seems to offer a bow to those intrepid enough to find a field lush with its stalks. Arvidson begins his story by briefly dramatizing the work of men such as James Nowlin who, at the behest of the federal government, carved an invisible grid into the wild prairie in preparation for the settlers who would populate the land. Arvidson’s search for the elegant prairie bush clover culminates in a reminder of the power of the natural world to inspire us, no matter how hard we try to bend it to our will.
As a devotee of the Bard, I fear that I’m somewhat biased in my appreciation for Jane Gillette’s short story, “Revenge.” The story depicts a strange, silent war between Harry and Miranda, two literature teachers at a small Jesuit university. Appropriately, their cold war is also a strange kind of romance. The story begins with a focus on Harry, who taught the college’s introductory Shakespeare class for years. Until, that is, Miranda arrived on the scene with her Yale Ph.D. and a dissertation just a breath away from becoming a revolutionary work in the field. Relegated to teaching freshman comp, Harry begins staging Shakespeare plays as part of his curriculum. Miranda’s appreciation of the plays is lofty and intellectual; Harry casts a spotlight on their primal vitality. Gillette gracefully carries the reader through Miranda’s journey, the kind of evolution that is shared by Gertrude and Lady Macbeth and Measure for Measure’s Vincentio. Once she looks within herself, Miranda at long last sees the true measure of her beauty and failure.
Destruction and renewal are also a theme to be found in Melissa Stein’s poem, “Low Bend.” It is occasionally necessary for farmers to burn the fields they wish to till, just as a child of the country must sometimes disavow her heritage in order to fulfill her dreams. No matter how far away we are from home, however, we will probably find ourselves in the same position as Stein’s somewhat homesick narrator:
But sometimes I think of myself rising, crosslegged,
above the creek, above the broom trees, shrieking louder
than any hellcat. I gather the old farmers in my ample arms
and squeeze them senseless. . . .
The pieces in this issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review illustrate one of the defining qualities of the Great Lakes region and its people. Both are characterized by a simple surface honesty accompanied by a complex and diverse passion that burns underneath.
Volume 33 Number 1
Reviewed by Kenneth Nichols
I can’t speak for anyone else, but the New England Review represents so much of what I hope to be when I grow up. In addition to choosing high-quality fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction to represent the present and future of literature, the New England Review also features scholarly material that puts the writing of the past into context.
Beginning college students often make a mistake when cracking open scholarly books; they skip the introduction and go to the first chapter. The typical introductory chapter of a scholarly book provides a powerful distillation of the arguments made in the whole book. This issue of NER contains two excerpts from recent scholarly books. Richard J. Smith’s “How the Book of Changes Arrived in the West” traces the methods by which the Eastern tome became an influence on Western thought. Smith goes far beyond listing translators; he isolates the many points through history that the Book has come into contact with scholars across the Western hemisphere. A book that was seen by eighteenth-century Jesuits as a confirmation of their faith eventually became a counter-culture inspiration for creative people such as Bob Dylan and Philip K. Dick.
Joseph Fruscione discusses the rivalry between Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, two men who “saw each other as dueling artistic siblings, [and] painted each other as worthy competitors . . .” We all love a good literary feud; how could Hemingway resist getting his own swipes in after Faulkner answered a question by ranking the best contemporary writers as Thomas Wolfe, himself, Dos Passos and then Hemingway? Further, Faulkner said that Papa “has never been known to use a word that might cause the reader to check with a dictionary to see if it is properly used.” Those are indeed fighting words!
Matthew Vollmer’s “Keeper of the Flame” offers an eye-catching first sentence: “On Thanksgiving my father asked me if I wanted to visit the Nazi.” Vollmer’s father was the Nazi’s dentist and brought his son along to see the Nazi’s secluded home. The first floor of the immaculate house seemed normal enough (aside from the small swastikas hidden in the design of a set of china). The basement was another story, filled with relics of the Third Reich. Vollmer grapples with a few interesting dilemmas. Was it his moral obligation to tell the Nazi that his views were unacceptable? Should Vollmer’s perception of his father change because he considered the Nazi a friend?
In his poem “Father, Son,” C. L. O’Dell considers that special relationship in something of a new light. O’Dell paints with words and captures the sad moment in which the boy realizes his father is not, in fact, a lower order of god. While completing a project by pouring concrete, the narrator of the poem, the excited son, points out that “Romans used volcanic ash, and lime.” The father says that, “things aren’t supposed to last forever,” a truth that causes one of the first of many emotional wounds that will change the young narrator’s life.
Paul Plagens’s work of creative nonfiction takes the reader into “The Ding Tank,” the part of the jail that holds the “prisoners with mental or emotional problems.” Plagens, a successful musician, had a heroin problem that resulted in his loss of freedom for a time. The tone of the piece is relatively matter-of-fact, allowing the anecdotes to evoke emotion on their own. Particularly suspenseful is the section about Rocky, a hardcore criminal who seems to prefer the power dynamic on the inside to that beyond prison walls. Rocky sees that Plagens isn’t accustomed to prison life and shows him the ropes for reasons Plagens can’t discern. “The Ding Tank” is representative of the rest of the writing in the journal, bringing the academic modes of thought to universal stories to which we can all relate.
Volume 13 Number 4
Review by Julie J. Nichols
Open Minds Quarterly, whose subtitle is “The poetry and literature of mental health recovery,” is a welcome contribution to the growing body of discourse by and about “consumer/survivors of mental health services.” OMQ is a project of the Northern Initiative for Social Action (NISA) based in Ontario, Canada, whose purpose is to “eliminate stigma” by informing “mental health professionals, fellow consumer/survivors, and their family and friends—as well as society at large—of the strength, intelligence, and creativity” of its authors. A small, glossy, 8 1/2 X 11 journal, OMQ is a showcase for persons who have stories to share about mental illness; it’s not a literary feast. But it’s worth reading, and submitting to, especially if your concerns coincide with NISA’s.
Eighteen poems, one work of fiction, two essays, and a book review constitute this issue of the publication. The book review is heavily personal—well, everything in the issue is, appropriately enough. Katherine Tapley-Milton, a much-published writer who has suffered from schizoaffective disorder since she was fourteen, describes the lengthy questionnaire that makes up the bulk of Len Boller’s book Mental Recovery by Recognition Rationalization. She admits that “it would take a very determined person a lot of time to fill out the questions, but at the end the person would know themselves and their mental illness inside out.”
Still, she concludes that since her voices “tell [her] to self-harm,” Boller’s self-talk/journaling therapy is “like asking the fox to guard the chicken coop.” Mental illness comes in so many forms, as this magazine makes clear, that no one therapy can be relied upon to heal, even the ones for which it was specifically developed. Still, Tapley-Milton’s bio serves to assure that she has lived productively and well. Boller’s therapy may not work for her, but something certainly has.
This is the overriding message of the magazine. The one piece of fiction (“The Pit,” by David O’Neal) sounds like a verifiable case study of a chronic depressive, describing his recurrent trips to “the Arbor Hospital, a short-term crisis center for the mentally ill,” and the cycle of illness and recovery, concluding that “hospitalization was a ritual that would, in the end, keep him alive . . .He knew there was hope.”
Similarly, the two essays in the issue describe “Anxiety” (by Orville Lloyd Douglas) and “Three Accounts” (by Brett Batten). The man who succumbed to anxiety disorder finishes his essay by declaring that “Being proactive in improving my mental health is my responsibility and I now understand this.” “Three Accounts” (probably the most literary of the prose pieces here) describes the symbolic and emotional effects of keys, labels, and plants, asserting (validly enough) that “Who and what I am as a human at this moment is in part due to my experiences.” The author’s bio says that he has written a book about his involvement with Corrections Canada and the Forensic System in Ontario, and that he “evocatively references this material in his public speaking.” Again, the message is clear: “As more and more people bravely step forward with their illnesses, their success stories can only help to alleviate the stigma associated with mental illness.”
The poems corroborate these good tidings. Though some of them are cries in the dark (see Nathan B. Spencer’s “Your Trumpet Hurts,” where he insists, “You place a hurtful twist / in my top story marble / I feel so vulnerable now . . . // You still trumpet / and the twists still redefine / my mental annotation . . .”), many other poems end with triumphant affirmations of strength, such as “A Bleeding Heart” by Gail Kroll “It’s easier now than it was / now I’ve decided to see it clearly.” Rania S. Watts’s “Metamorphosis” also ends this way (“I cannot be manipulated now: / I am clean, fed and embraced—”) as does Ardith Powell’s “Becoming Free” (“Reality will come to you. / Hope will prevail.”)
Largely prosey—general descriptions of the atmosphere that mental illness casts over a life—these are still powerful expressions of the “intelligence and creativity” of their authors. The bios are inspiring. The magazine’s very existence should comfort and console anyone grappling with mental illness—their own or that of their loved ones. This small quarterly deserves to be read.
Volume 86 Number 2
Review by Shannon Smith
Although not the leading story in the Summer 2012 issue of Prairie Schooner, Justin Taylor’s “Flings,” is the one that seems the most summery, as it takes place in that in-between time of adjusting to life after graduation, soon after a group of friends leave a “semi-elite liberal arts college” in Ohio. The story follows each of the friends individually, as they make their ways to Portland, Oregon, bumbling through the friendships crossed with the romantic entanglements that define post-collegiate life. Many of the characters are vaguely artsy, with Andy working on an epic novel, and two of the female characters having internships in an experimental film festival, before “rapidly learning the extent to which they had overestimated their interest in experimental film.” Taylor’s writing excellently explores the confusion of this period of life, when one is trying to define one’s self in the world, as well as the narcissism that can come with a headlong pursuit of the arts. He understands the messy, crisscrossed relationships of a tight-knit group of friends right out of college. His writing is tinged with a sense of humor about the overly sincere and serious.
Also about confusion, and bearing a fantastic title, is Garth Risk Hallberg’s “That High, Lonesome Sound.” The story centers on Terry, a past-his-prime pothead college professor who is worried about his estranged son, Ben, who is on a tour of duty in Iraq. While Terry is worrying about Ben, Ben’s girlfriend, who Terry has met only once—disastrously—finds Terry and tells him that Ben has actually been home a week. She invites him to their wedding, because Ben won’t, and Terry, never one to avoid causing trouble, goes, dragging along his step-daughter who plays in a “post-riot-grrrl thing” called Napalm Pig. Hallberg’s dark sense of humor reaches its pinnacle as Terry and his daughter attempt an awful live rendition of a song that is supposed to be an apology to Ben. Hallberg memorably and skillfully depicts a family in turmoil.
Although not united by any particular theme, this issue of Prairie Schooner contains a number of other stories that revolve around different types of confusion. Melissa Yancey’s “Firstborn” is a tender, depressing story about an aunt who is running out of money, but wants to take her niece to Paris. By her own admission, the aunt has always been a mistress, never marrying and never having children of her own. She is now cycling into alcoholism and looking for an escape. The arrival of her niece seems to bring a chance, but the story has other plans.
Gerald Shapiro’s “Last of the Cowboy Poets” follows a former radio announcer who exaggerates his familiarity with writing poetry in order to obtain one of the few remaining radio jobs. The story plays on perceptions of the American West, poetry, and family obligations.
Nancy Welch’s “Free Country” shows how a burgeoning friendship between two fourteen year old girls, one of whose fathers is a strict Methodist, and the other who might be considered by that father to be from the wrong side of the tracks, can go horribly wrong, in unexpected ways. Welch masterfully explores the experience of being an impressionable young girl in a new town who wants to make friends.
In the essay, “The Nothing That Is,” Scott Nadelson provides an interesting take on why and how he became a writer, setting up a contrast with an English graduate student who taught him in college.
The inclusions in this issue of Prairie Schooner are diverse, but the fiction, especially, is quite strong. Many of the stories boldly walk the sensitive line of how to present a story with a sense of humor about an awful situation. Prairie Schooner contains a number of stories that deftly illustrate the messiness of humans trying to live their daily lives.
Volume 35 Number 2
Review by Sarah Carson
Room’s website describes it as “Canada’s oldest literary journal by, for, and about women. Published quarterly by a group of volunteers based in Vancouver, Room showcases fiction, poetry, reviews, art work, interviews and profiles about the female experience. Many of our contributors are at the beginning of their writing careers, looking for an opportunity to get published for the first time.”
Flipping through the contributors bios of this issue, I didn’t recognize many names—which only made the experience of reading Room for the first time all the more delightful. This is a beautiful issue. From its wonderful cover art and design to the writing inside, it’s a well-put-together collection, and I felt I was discovering an entirely new literary scene.
The fiction in this issue is stunning. Each piece reflects a unique voice and perspective. Many of the stories are told in first person, allowing us to hear from a variety of women—from teenagers struggling with love for the first time to a young artist working in a coffee shop to a housewife trying to find their place in suburban life.
One of my favorites in the issue is Andrea Routley’s “Reflection Journal,” an essay in the voice of a teenage girl confused by a relationship with her male English teacher. We discover as we read, the girl is serving a detention for giving an inappropriate comic strip to the teacher, and her “journal” is a writing an assignment given to her by the guidance counselor. Within the snarky, sarcastic, sometimes outright mean comments of the teenage narrator, a relationship unfolds between her and the teacher—one that ends in confusion, regret, and innocence lost.
I also loved Rhonda Douglas’s “God Explains the Collapse of the Cod Fishery.” The story is a first person account of God’s own regret in not stopping a tragic event from occurring. “And the world no longer wants to hear about answers that can only be found in the slim moving shadows of the sea, or in the ragged bands of early morning light,” God says. “I want to tell you it will never happen again, I really do.” As can be expected, God has a way with words.
God also makes an appearance in Jane Redford’s heartbreakingly funny “God or Boys,” the story of a young, recent Pentecostal convert struggling to balance a crush on her older brother’s friend Cam with the fact that she’s been born again for two months and still hasn’t “led one lamb to Jesus.”
I do have to say that the fiction tends to be stronger than the poetry. Much of the verse in the issue leans toward the overtly narrative and sentimental—the exception being Linda King’s two poems which are both gems. My favorite is “approaching the terminal” which reflects upon a journey through a foreign city:
you fumble with your drag-along suitcase
filled with battered sentences
history is of no use to you now
your documents gone missing
snow into the ocean
As someone who doesn’t know a lot about Canadian literature, I found Room eye-opening. It was an interesting glimpse into a new landscape told through the eyes of the women who live there. I can’t wait to read the next issue.
Volume 17 Number 2
Review by Justin Brouckaert
They say not to judge a book by its cover, but to be honest, I do it all the time. Of course the work in a journal always ends up speaking for itself, but I’d be lying if I said first impressions didn’t influence the way I approach new lit mags. In this case, between the title and the cover art, Salamander had me feeling a bit uneasy.
As it turns out, my gut was right: I wasn’t ready for Salamander. Fortunately, this issue was surprising and even discomfiting in the best of ways: daring, absurd, awkward and playful.
Salamander’s all-fiction issue includes stories that reflect, according to Senior Editor Peter Brown, “two of the primary debates raging in America at the moment: war and health care.” This link, however, is incidental; Brown says that the selection process for him and Fiction Editor Catherine Parnell was much simpler: “We both knew it when we saw it.”
There is indeed something distinct about each of these storiesoften just a subtle moment or a well-placed line that stands out and defines the work. It starts with the title of the first story (Katiea Kapovich’s pleasantly absurd “Who Will Save Batman”) and doesn’t end until the final line of the final story (David Abrams’s “The Bridge”), a phrase that emphasizes the mundane repetition of military routine and everyday life for American soldiers overseas: “And it’s never gonna stop.”
Siobhan Fallon’s “Tips for a Smooth Transition” also hones in on an aspect of military life: in this case, a woman named Evie welcoming her husband Colin home after his deployment in Afghanistan. The story is separated by quotations from Battle Spouses’ Tips for a Smooth Transition, a book that Evie is reading. The advice the book offers is constantly clashing with reality, and that’s not the only obstacle for Evie and Colin. The two have different ideas about what life should consist of after Colin’s return: he wants to kayak, surf and swim with sharks, while Evie would rather spend quality time talking to her husband and pursuing more leisurely activities.
Despite Colin’s new penchant for danger and a brief moment of infidelity that Evie can’t bring herself to confess, she eventually finds a sort of comfort in him being home, embracing the security she feels in the two of them being together, at least for the time being. It is this acceptance that defines the story.
“You’re OK. I’m here,” she says over and over like a lullaby. She’s not quite sure when the refrain changes to “I’m OK. You’re here.” She does not think of all the years ahead, when she will be alone again. Colin is here, and Evie is content. At last she is certain of what she needs: her arm around her husband’s chest, his warm breath on her wrist.
In Sarah Hulse’s “Breakwater,” the moment that grabbed me and made me cringe until my jaw hurt was when Elias embraces his niece as if he is her father, his identical twin and a war photographer who disappeared in Yemen and is assumed dead:
She looks at me another long moment, then comes around the table and climbs onto the couch beside me. “I missed you a lot,” she says. I can feel the words on my chest, her breath warming the fabric of my shirt.
I stroke my hand over her hair. Her head is warm beneath my palm, her hair damp where it clings to her neck. Oh, this child, this piece of him. “I missed you too, Beanie.”
Hulse doesn’t show this moment just to make her readers squirm in their seats, however. Throughout the story, Elias struggles to admit that his brother may be dead, feeling that if something had truly happened to his identical twin, he would feel it. This attempt at impersonation, at preserving his brother in his own actions, hints that the truth about his brother’s death is finally winning over, much like the weather that overpowers Elias in the final scene when he observes that “everything is sharper and harder and stronger, and me feeling it less and less and less.”
Other gems include Shane Castle’s “Loch Ness Bigfoot,” a story about bigfoot moving to Loch Ness in search for peace, quiet and his kindred spirit, and E.A. Neeves’s “The Bowrider,” a story that is daunting in its hopelessness, leaving its readers feeling as trapped as the teenagers that were looking for adventure and ended up beached on an abandoned island without food, water, a boat, or a prayer.
This issue is worth reading. It’s worth cringing at and laughing at and questioning. Here is my advice: Don’t judge; just let the work leave you out for the sharks, drowning in the sweat of awkward confrontations, finding comfort in the hope that while Salamander may leave you stranded on a deserted island, it will certainly bring you back with stories to tell.
Review by Shannon Smith
The allure of the Spring 2012 issue of Salt Hill starts with an enticing cover, a black and white illustration by Aaron $hunga where a character named “Mr. Rhombus” is told to get ready “to enter Xenocave.” More of $hunga’s graphics detail a fantastical story in the concluding entry in Salt Hill. As if that graphic wasn’t enough of a warning about the kind of fiction contained in this issue, the editors’ note reads, “The twenty-ninth issue of Salt Hill is evidence of how capricious and flimsy our perceived world is, how gray and clouded the separation between phenomenological reality and the science fictions looming behind it. Or in front of it. The fantasies stuck between its dark matter. Either which way, the work in this issue pursues out-there dimensions.” Perhaps because of this dipping into strange avenues, the best work in this edition is the poetry, as well as amazing artwork done in ink on paper by Faye Moorhouse.
Karyna McGlynn’s conversational “Russel Says Everybody is Aubrey” starts off, “R&I sit among the wreckage of my last relationship and wonder what to do with it.” It seems that Russel felt washed up at 24, and now at 34 is totally lost, or “hot but hopeless, a smart cookie who’s just depressing as shit.” The narrator doesn’t want to be in the same predicament as Russel, who hates his ex-girlfriend Aubrey (everyone hates her), but Russel thinks they’re all going down together, saying, “I’m starting to think that everybody is Aubrey.” Aubrey is “a 30-year-old stripper who works at Neiman Marcus. She has an MBA.” The poem’s flat tone of multi-directional unhappiness is quite piercing.
Caroline Crew’s “the animals have lived here longer” is a harder to parse poem, with ghostly language. She writes,
please start creeping behind doors
at least then I won’t be imaging you
some of the small energies
I put into working other shapes
into softer geometries
The narrator references the ambiguous, unknown sounds of a house, but much else of the poem is undefined, beautiful, open language.
Tony Mancus’s “the knot you worry is your skull shaped into a square and populated with minutes” has the most memorable title in this issue, and the rest of the poem does not disappoint. Christy Crutchfield’s “Parking Lot Poem” is another dense but spare linguistic turn, containing lines like “and my thoughts / should have been destination / like radios fuzzing back / like beer can debris blowing by.”
Jeff Alessandrelli’s “Poem with Limbs” is fragmented, image-laden piece. One of the more absurd entries is a piece of short ficton: Ulrich Haarbürste’s “Roy in Clingfilm Conspiracy,” about Roy Orbison, his glasses, and clingfilm.
The art in Salt Hill also stands out. In addition to the otherworldly story by $hunga and Moorehouse’s eerie work, there are some more comical drawings by Rudy Rucker. My favorite features a number of boxy, ancient computer monitors or TVs stocked on top of each other, floating in space.
This issue of Salt Hill is an amazing detour from realism. The writing is unique and striking, and the ideas original.
Review by Tanya Angell Allen
Snail Mail Review prides itself on being a print magazine that maintains “mail-only interaction” with its writers. Interestingly, although this magazine revels in the virtues of print, one main reason that it attains the amount of quality work as it does might be because of its online presence. Although the magazine is amateur-looking (they hope to move from saddle-stitching to perfect-binding soon), Snail Mail Review is professional in the way that it belongs to LinkedIn, has a Facebook page, Gmail address, and many calls for submission on literary websites and blogs. These calls work. In the introduction to this issue, Editor Christine Chesko writes of a gigantic stack of submissions sitting on a chair in Co-Editor Kris Price’s house.
Much of the work that the editors select out of their submission pile is of good quality. Standouts in poetry include Caleb Bouchard’s “Interruption.” In this charming piece, Bouchard talks about all of the different types of poets he’s read, including “the punk-rock poets and the drunkard poets, / the happy poets (like hell) and the sad poets (hell yeah).” Gillian Wegener’s elegant “Consider the Amusement Park Sparrow” is also good, as is John Ronan’s amusing “The Five Good-byes,” which tells us, “Women like five good-byes. Guys, no: ‘See ya!’”
Fiction-writers Alan Steinberg and John Brantingham have the strongest pieces in the magazine. Steinberg’s “The Aspen Flasher” is about a member of the ski patrol who encounters a “flasher,” i.e. a man in his thirties or forties trying to hide his age by pushing himself too hard on the slopes. Unfortunately flashers usually also boost their egos by pushing their companions—sometimes, as in Steinberg’s story, with tragic results.
Brantingham’s “The Phone Call” is also about an aging man playing his last prank call on his ex-wife while remembering similar ones during their marriage. It’s a sad but thoughtful story—one of the sort that readers might hold like a worry-stone when ruminating about their own past relationships. Also, it provokes ruminations on the lost art of prank calls at the same time Snail Mail Review itself provokes nostalgia on the lost pleasures of postal mail.
The editors of Snail Mail Review combine a quirky concept with good taste and online advertising sense. It will be fun to watch their magazine quickly grow.
Review by Mitchell Jarosz
Perhaps it’s only my personal attention span, but I believe that focused collections of any art can be easily perused and set aside for any number of reasons. A collection of one type of literature or art must be read or looked at one piece at a time and held for reflection. A combination allows for any mood and many returns. Such is the Still Point Arts Quarterly’s summer issue and their idea to showcase their current site exhibit.
It begins with photos from the gallery’s current exhibition (since it’s a real place, this could be its catalogue). The choice to showcase the current exhibition is a very good one; the only down side to such a presentation is the small size of the graphics. Fortunately there’s more access online, and the presentation provides a temptation to go there in order to take a larger and longer look at the quality of the work. Throughout the journal, the photography and pictures capture the quality and intent of the theme; an artist can hold something still: and idea, a moment, a sight.
Since the gallery is physically located in Maine, this summer issue also encourages the reader to take a vacation to the northeast coast. Another plus is the listing of every artist’s website and web address. Even the promo for the texture exhibit beginning in August becomes inviting when you have both pictures and well written text. (I can’t find any of those confusing theoretical/philosophical statements that artists put on their exhibits; you have to like their writers just for that.)
Personally, I believe this is as good as it gets. Poets capturing a moment; writers describing process, painters clearly explaining their work. And a collection that draws one in rather than just publish another issue. How else could you enjoy Charla Puryear’s “a sampling of paintings based on rubbings of trees and rocks” without hesitation.
Peggy K. Fletcher’s poem “Emily Carr’s Struggle” is accompanied by two Emily Carr paintings; K.S.Hardy reviews a collection of Van Gogh paintings for us; Elias Wakan shows us how a journeyman carpenter can make woodworking an art form that would enhance anyone’s private or public space.
Perhaps my responses are neglecting the poets and writers; the visual arts are so appealing and accessible in this work that as much as I’m enjoying the written work, I keep stopping at the visuals. I assure you that I return to both. I read Peggy Martinez’ profile, and then stop to show her watercolors to my wife (at the risk of making comparisons to her work); I read Kat Collins’s comments on art and censorship, pause, and reflect on how the ideas can be taught in my film course. I don’t neglect the writers; this issue of the Still Point Arts Quarterly is like a rainbow: I have to consider one color at a time, step back and look at the whole thing, and forgetfully start looking at one color again.
Volume 24 Number 2
Review by Aimee Nicole
A great literary magazine is one that makes you think and ponder and take several moments out of your busy life to just appreciate art and life. Thema offers some absolutely remarkable writing that grabbed me and forced me to sit and reread several times. I found myself thinking about the economy, relationships, writing, reading, art, and even the galaxy at large.
Janis Butler Holm instructs her readers to sing her poem “The Pirates of Finance” to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Major-General’s Song.” There are many pieces written about the economy, but this poem was both accurate and funny at the same time. The entertaining piece begins:
We live in an economy
where sharing wealth is blasphemy,
so just a few folks have the means
to live the life we call “the dream.”
Though equal opportunity’s
the ruling ideology,
we’ve race and class inequities
and gender inequality.
Holm continues to comment on how the upper-class is made up of criminals who do a lot of jail time and CEOs of big companies make a lot of money while the working class is taken advantage of and really struggling. She also makes you question what makes people celebrities: is it their intelligence or talent? The ending is just as genius as the meat of the poem you have to read to appreciate and chuckle along with:
On gasoline their money’s spent
with nothing left to pay the rent.
When jobs are outsourced overseas,
folks can’t afford their groceries.
So here’s to our democracy,
its fables and hypocrisy.
While others dream of Florida,
I’m looking into Canada.
I won’t lie, I completely relate to running out of money for bills after buying gas to get to work and know that most of us are really struggling. How long will we have to wait for our finances to get a little bit easier . . . or should we consider fleeing the country? While Holm utilizes humor to get her points across, the serious subject of the poem is not to be overlooked.
In her poem “Standard Questions (at the Reading),” Sandra Berris takes an unorthodox approach to structure and the relation of information. Without even hinting so much as a question, Berris lists her answers that the audience either has asked or would ask. The incredible thing about it is that while reading the poem, you can really insinuate what the questions would have been. For example, the opening line is: “Anytime, anywhere.” An audience member presumably asked when and where Berris usually writes. Some writers can only write in their favorite coffee shop or attic, and others only in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning. The reader really gets to know Berris both as a writer and a person through this poem. Another line: “Iced soy chai,” is probably her drink of choice. Also: “No one. Well, Kinnell, Collins, / Adonizzio, Olds, Pinsky” is probably her response to who inspires her. Two of my favorite lines fall about halfway through the poem. Often, readers pick up on metaphors and other crafty things that writers had not originally intended to which she responds: “I’ve never noticed that.” Readers can also find interesting connections and coincidences that quite frankly do not exist (“Are you sure? . . . I’m from Nebraska”). This is the beautiful part of writing, the readers are allowed to interpret stories, poems, and books and make the reading experience their own.
Lisa Alexander Baron writes a crafty poem titled “Best-selling T-shirts for Dogs,” in which she delivers phrases to be printed on these T-shirts. While it almost physically pains me to be limited from sharing every single hysterical idea, you will have to just buy the issue to read them all. Still, here’s three to get your feet wet:“Alpha Female,” “Go ahead, scratch me,” and “Because the cat deserved it.”
Appropriately named “Wisecracks & Poems,” this issue will have you chuckling until the last page. Happy reading!
Review by Charles Davenport
Nearly 50 years ago, a few poets gathered near Princeton, NJ, to read their poems to each other. According to the editors of U.S. 1 Worksheets, this small group of poets formed the U.S. 1 Poets’ Cooperative, and many of the original poets are still involved in the Cooperative and continue to submit to the journal, which is headquartered in the Princeton suburb Kingston, NJ.
Who could blame the editors if they chose to publish only poets living along the corridor, or at least poetry that addresses life in the hundreds of communities along its path? After all, U.S. 1 is the eastern most U.S. Highway and snakes its way up the Eastern seaboard from Maine down to Florida for nearly 2,400 miles. Thankfully, at least for those who don’t live along the East Coast, the U.S. 1 Poets’ Cooperative includes poetry in Volume 57 of U.S. 1 Worksheets from as far away as the Philippines, as well as a good sampling of work from some notable poets across the United States.
A fair amount space in this edition of U.S. 1 Worksheets devotes itself to dying, especially from one form of cancer or another, and worrying over what will or won’t be left behind. An example of this concern is illustrated in Vida Chu’s simple but elegant piece, “The Last Family Portrait,” in which the signs of chemotherapy have not begun to visibly manifest themselves in the poem’s narrator. A photographer composing a portrait of a family of three small children, the narrator, and the narrator’s wife is unaware that this may be the family’s last portrait and that the narrator wishes for a quick resolution. To the photographer, the narrator says, we are just another family:
Thankful that I still have hair on my head
I curl my lips, watch my wife squeeze out a brave smile
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I wish the piano hanging over
my head would drop
dying is such hard work
Some of the most poignant moments in this edition of U.S. 1 Worksheets are in poems about aging. Carefully chosen combinations of consonants and line breaks produce quiet certainty and long-drawn sighs in the best pieces. It isn’t quite sadness reflected in these poems, but rather a sort resignation on the part of the poets that seems to trump any deeper thoughts about whatever the “meaning of life” might be.
In his poem “The View from Assisted Living,” poet Hayden Saunier describes a landscape in which the appearance of objects change as the angle of sunlight changes over the course of a day. In fact, all the windows of the assisted living facility face west; consequently, as the residents and the narrator look out the westward windows, the only evidence they have of a rising sun is its yellow light that “first colors the top of a huge construction crane” where a new hospital is being built. How sad to always miss what you know exists, but can never see; even sadder is that a new hospital must be built to accommodate even more patients, more elderly in assisted living. On good days, as the sun moves lower in the western sky, the residents become almost angelic in its glow; on others, the transition from day to night is more like a candle has been extinguished:
Light slides up our faces,
our brows, what’s left of our hair,
burns our eyes as it burns up
the back side of maple and crane.
Some days, who knows why,
The light simply goes out and it’s night.
Poet Janice Wilson Stridick is a member of the U.S. 1 Cooperative and lives in New Jersey, and her most recent collection of poetry, which is still largely a work in progress, is about her mother, Alice Steer Wilson, and the art her mother created. Underneath the biography, as is the case with most biographies, is the author seeking the approval of deceased parent. Janice compares herself to an unfinished portrait, one that her mother considered too flawed and too raw to ever accept. Near the end of her mother’s life, when the portrait is finally finished, Janice receives the approval she had always wanted:
She painted through chemo
initialed, at last, my portrait
as I opened a chapter
about her, preparing to live
The U.S. 1 Poets’ Cooperative holds weekly meetings and workshops in the homes of its members and the group encourages anyone with an interest in poetry to attend. While some of the poetry in U.S. 1 Worksheets is not as strong as the pieces discussed here, so many of the poems in this journal are good that it is apparent that the workshops are productive. Additionally, the group co-sponsors a monthly reading series at the Princeton Public Library, and the editors nominate poets for the Pushcart Prize. With its 50th anniversary issue on the horizon, U.S. 1 Worksheets is worth keeping an eye on.
Issue 3 Number 1
Review by Sean Stewart
Watershed leans in the environmental direction, at least in this issue. Given that it’s a journal celebrating the Susquehanna Watershed, this makes sense. The issue includes poetry, narrative nonfiction, and an oral history focused on contemporary Native Americans living in Pennsylvania, a state that doesn’t currently recognize any existing Indian tribes within its borders (yes, there’s some bitterness there, as expected). Black and white photos dress up the text of this slim volume.
Barbara Crooker’s poetry was among my favorite in this issue. Her poems address nature, in particular the seasonal changes. The first is called “Tu Wi’s: The Winter Diaries.” Crooker notes that Tu Wi’s is an imaginary poet of the S’ung Dynasty. The diary stretches from January to March, covering the deep winter (“Even the shadows / are freezing.”) to the ambiguity of early spring (“One day, warm sun, / crocus open their throats / of gold; the next, an icy / wind from Canada / snaps them shut—”). Crooker’s second poem touches on the effects of Hurricane Hugo:
something out there,
huge, an animal force,
the wind turned feral;
grey clouds collide and coil,
timber wolves tearing ruffs and fur.
Her third poem, “Late October,” heralds the end of the warmer seasons while also marking the coming winter months: “Soon, water / in the bird bath will freeze solid as rocks, / and the trees will have stripped off their coats / of many colors down to their elemental bones.” Her final poem “Paradelle for October” covers similar chronological ground but focuses less on the practical matters of the season. Utilizing Billy Collins’s paradelle form, Crooker finds the right words to repeat, leaving an indelible visual impression of October in our minds:
O October! Leaves fall, mustard and caramel.
The loss of the sun, the dark blind stars
stitch and tuck, row on row, the long sky.
Now, zero blankets you
across the too early parting.
There is something about the seasons that stirs the deep unconscious river inside us all. Dana JS Washington’s two poems also speak of the seasons. Her first one, “Outside My Window,” is essentially a vivid portrait of what the narrator sees outside a window:
Morning light slants
down across the lake.
Brightness and shadow,
warm water, cool air: autumn mist
Steam rises from my coffee.
I’m a little envious of the narrator’s view, although I can’t complain too much about the blooming crape myrtle outside my own window. In the poem “Wood Heat,” Washington’s narrator describes in a visceral way the hard work of stockpiling firewood for a long winter ahead:
Three across, three down, and repeat; we complete each others’
patterns, years of stored sunlight against a single season
When the snow flies, we will unstack and carry them again,
across brown ground, through the door, to the stove
Taking up the mantle of narrative nonfiction, Mark Sturges uses the framework of a solo five-day back-country hiking trip with his dog Manny to expound at length on his medical condition and the profound effect it’s had on his life. Bolstering his prose with literary and philosophical references, Sturges delivers strong descriptions of both the environment he is traveling through and the cold facts of his disease. Along the way, he dispenses some advice: “But one thing I’ve learned, you never manage a disease by necessity alone, for necessity arises only at the doorstep of death. Instead, you have to make conscious choices in your daily life.”
Finally, there is the oral history. As stated above, Pennsylvania does not recognize any Indian tribes within its modern borders. Many of the original Native Americans left this region and eventually settled in Oklahoma. Those that remained assimilated into the new European society. Over the last few decades, though, they’ve begun to reclaim their Native heritage, despite the state’s lack of official recognition. This section of the issue consists of interviewees discussing a number of topics: assimilation pressures, tension between Oklahoma and Pennsylvania Lenapes, the significance of eagles, the environmental caretaker role, Native spirituality and Christianity, powwows, and a final message from one Pennsylvania Lenape man to the people of his state. It’s an enlightening read and underscores the importance of identity to us all.
Watershed is a relatively short read, but the content has clearly been chosen with care, and the journal as a whole eloquently fulfills its mission. Readers should come away with a strong sense of the history, culture, and natural beauty found along the Susquehanna River.