Literary Magazine Reviews

Posted January 15, 2013
Berkeley Poetry Review :: The Briar Cliff Review :: Camera Obscura :: Chautauqua :: Copper Nickel :: Found Poetry Review :: Gargoyle :: The Laurel Review :: The Malahat Review :: The Meadow :: Ping•Pong :: Sheepshead Review :: Southwest Review :: Western American Literature :: Western Humanities Review

[Back to Magazine Review Index]

 

Berkeley Poetry Review CoverBerkeley Poetry Review

Issue 42

2012

Annual

Review by Sarah Carson

Reading the Berkeley Poetry Review gave me one of those “grass is always greener” moments. It made me jealous that my town doesn’t have a journal like this, dedicated to highlighting local talent and the local scene.

The editors write in BPR’s opening pages, “Since the journal’s creation a little over four decades ago, our core values are now legacies we still revolve around: the first is that BPR has and always will serve as Berkeley’s cultural and literary thermometer, the quiet hand on the pulse of Bay Area poetics; the second—but equally important—is our dedication to the highest standards of poetic praxis.”

And having published such literary heavyweights as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Hass, and Ishmael Reed, it’s worth noting that BPR is produced by undergraduate students at the University of California Berkeley, giving it the distinction, the editors say, of being “one of the few internationally-released, fully undergraduate-produced poetry journals in the country.”

As one who’s never been to the Bay Area but has always wanted to, it was easy to see “Berkeley’s cultural and literary” influence on the work selected for the issue.

For instance, the social activism and cultural awareness that Berkeley is known for is prominent in the issue. A series of poems by Judith Goldman demonstrates this in fragments about the lives and struggles of immigrants in America. And Kathryn Hindenlang serves up a series of telling, arresting visuals rife with unrest in “Verse Intelligence:”

Democratic Investigation is moving
to Copenhagen. They propped up
a dead soldier disguised as a woman
coughing up seawater, death a victory
waiting list, the capital undertaken for
dollars, dinner wines . . .

One of the issue’s highlights for me was LeConté Dill’s “Bulldozed,” an ironic, spirited song of a poem. Dill’s use of rhythm and language paired with a keen awareness to the realities of injustice make for a beautifully visual commentary on race and inequality:

Slave gal
C’mon down to
Congo Square
Dance a jig
Trouble don’t last always
Shake the devil off
at St. Augustine’s
A price was paid
for you to pray
for free

But the most compelling feature of the issue is probably the translations section. This issue features three poems in their original languages alongside the English translations: one by Rebecca Gould of a 1924 poem by Russia’s Sergei Esenin and two translations by Adriana Campoy of work by Uruguayan poet Mario Benedetti.

My favorite was Benedetti’s “Mediums of Communication,” a romantic meditation on the power of love to transcend language:

and I come from myself to tell you
that the river the sunflower the star
go round without hurry /
the future approaches to meet you

One of the issue’s greatest strengths is the variety of voices and subjects it offers. Featuring work from poets in a number of stages in their careers, this issue of BPR is not just a great reflection of the Bay Area but of poetic talent from every walk of life.
[berkeleypoetryreview.wordpress.com]

top of page

 

Briar Cliff Review CoverThe Briar Cliff Review

Volume 24

2012

Annual

Review by Kenneth Nichols

As always, The Briar Cliff Review makes a strong impression from the second it is placed in your hands. The journal’s large pages offer poetry, fiction, and nonfiction room to breathe and allow pieces of graphic art to be reproduced in flattering detail. In her introductory note, Editor Tricia Currans-Sheehan affirms her obvious desire to embrace the “print-ness” of the review. The magazine, she says, “is for holding and looking and for leafing through—with a treat for the eye and mind on each page.”

The fiction in this issue examines the human experience on both the micro and macro levels. Kevin Leahy won the journal’s latest fiction contest with “Remora, IL,” a story that depicts the economic recovery and cultural evolution of a small Midwestern town. Leahy’s third-person narrator speaks for everyone in the community: “We were desperate, it’s true. That doesn’t excuse what happened, but we don’t know what we could have done differently.” The city, Remora, had been kept alive for decades by an auto plant that was shuttered, leaving folks to stretch whatever remaining dollars existed. Corvus Correctional offered a lifeline, turning Remora into a prison town. Leahy measures the effects on small businesses, the schools, the folks fortunate enough to land a job as a guard in the new facility, and even on Helen Bree of the crumb cake social. Melancholy abounds as those in Remora reflect upon what they have gained and have lost.

Steven Wingate’s “Davey’s Room” centers upon a far smaller focus that is just as meaningful: a man’s regret that he hasn’t met the long-lost son he and an ex-girlfriend conceived years earlier. The title refers to a secret room in an abandoned silo that served as a secure and convenient place for young people to spend time together. Wingate employs a delicate touch that allows the narrator’s private anguish to emerge. “I’m a 98 percent husband and father even on my best days,” the narrator admits, “keeping that last 2 percent for a kid I’ll never see.” The story’s concluding image is both appropriate and poignant.

“The Meaning of Meat” is Deborah Thompson’s sad meditation on the rational meaning of death, to creatures great and small. Thompson examines the issue through the prism of two important events: the death of her partner Rajiv and the adoption and death of a stray cat they took in. After Rajiv’s death, Kitty commemorated the human she loved and cared for by leaving an eviscerated squirrel atop the man’s car. A sacrifice. Thompson later had to deal with Kitty’s death alone, making her last years as happy as possible, cramming the cat’s menu with as much meat-based food as possible. The “meaning of meat,” it would seem, is related to the relationship we all share with the natural world: we emerged from the biosphere and will return to its bosom in due time.

A wide range of materials and aesthetics are represented in this issue’s graphic art. Particularly striking works include Hal Holoun’s “Morning Watch” and Ken Peterson’s “Fiddlehead No. 4.” The former is a sunrise painted in oil on linen in somewhat impressionistic style. The burnt orange light cast from the sun is reflected in a calm stream in the middle of a field overgrown with wild brush. There are spots of electric light on the horizon; could these represent humanity preparing for another day? The latter work is a repositionable wood sculpture that evokes the gothic whimsy of Tim Burton. The work’s alternating white and black cylinders taper as they curve, resembling a strange kind of tentacle. The way light plays upon the sculpture is interesting; the parts closest reveal great detail and the parts furthest are in muddled shadow.

The Briar Cliff Review is a perennial favorite because it appeals to a particularly wide demographic. The volume looks great on a coffee table, and the work inside is good enough to immediately captivate anyone who browses through the journal’s pages.
[www.briarcliff.edu/bcreview]

top of page

 

Camera Obscura CoverCamera Obscura

Volume 5

Autumnal 2012

Biannual

Review by Shannon Smith

Camera Obscura is a journal devoted to both prose and photography. This issue contains eight stories and twenty-seven photographs.

The first story, “The Selected Mugshots of Famous Hungarian Assassins,” is the winner of the Camera Obscura Award for Outstanding Fiction. Written by Tamas Dobozy, it is narrated by a man about his three–months-older cousin, Imre Aszok—nicknamed “Aces”—who is often left to stay overnight with the narrator’s family when they are young, but never for a “good” reason. Aces makes up stories that the narrator knows are ridiculous and amusing, but he lets Aces tell them anyway. Many of these stories utilize old photographs that Aces claims are pictures of Hungarian assassins, with the lists of the people each assassin had killed on the back of the photographs. Eventually Aces runs away, and the narrator’s parents inform him the photographs are really family—only, the parents have trouble determining who’s who in the extended family from Hungary. The story gets more convoluted after the narrator finds a book called Hungarian Assassins 1900-2000 in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s bookstore. The book contains photographs similar to the narrator’s, but with different names. The rest of the story is an intriguing bit of lost and invented history.

Jennifer’s Spiegel’s “Killing Castro” also deals with history. The story follows the life of Erin as she moves from political radical to political student to political science professor, becoming less and less engaged with idealism along the way. The opening introduces Erin as once passionate, but “By the time Erin got to Cuba, though, killing Castro wasn’t her mission.” The story moves back in time to trace how she arrived at her current dispassionate self, and then, near the end, returns to investigating what about her school travels in Cuba will possibly change her.

One of the shorter pieces in this issue is Emily Koon’s “Nancy’s Rat.” In the four-page piece, a young woman named Nancy argues outside a pet store with the owner, who alternates between convincing her to buy the rat and acting as if he doesn’t care if she buys it. She deliberates if she should bring the hairless animal home to her apartment, where she is not allowed pets. Eventually, the pet store owner says that the rat will keep her company. She asks how he knows she needs company, and he replies, “Girls with boyfriends don’t stand on the street arguing about whether they’re going to buy a rat or not.”

Most of the photography in Camera Obscura is quite memorable, and the printing of it lush and glossy. One of the highlights is Pierre Hauser’s Longest Night, a black and white photograph of two skyscrapers cast at a specific angle against a faded night sky. Nocturnes 3 by J. Gayle Stevens, another black and white photograph, showcases the ruins of what is probably either a train trestle or a pier, a row of repeating faded architecture. Heather Evans Smith’s The Heart and the Heavy is a grey and sepia tinged photograph of a woman, more of a blur in the wind than a clear figure, holding a dollhouse, against a field of trees.

Camera Obscura is a journal that skillfully and thoughtfully blends photography with prose.
[www.obscurajournal.com]

top of page

 

Chautauqua CoverChautauqua

Issue 9

2012

Annual

Review by Kenneth Nichols

Subtitled “The War and Peace Issue,” this offering considers the stated themes from a wide range of situations and viewpoints. Aside from an introductory editor’s note, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is given the first word. In an address given in Chautauqua, New York, Roosevelt lamented that he had seen “the dead in the mud” and “cities destroyed” and declared how much he hated war. Unfortunately, the nature of war is such that the same man was forced to wage one several years later.

The editors have split the issue into sections: “The Life in Art,” “Life Lessons,” “The Life of the Spirit,” and “Private Lives in Public Space.” The first section introduces the reader to art exhibitions begun in April 2004. “The Light” is a series of portraits of survivors of the Hiroshima bombing. Each survivor has been immortalized in paint on canvas and is presented with a written account of where he or she was on August 6, 1945. Chautauqua reproduces eight of the paintings and each subject seems to stare from the page with haunting dignity. “The Light” seems to point out that human dignity is the first casualty when war is waged; it is willfully discarded by the aggressor and stripped from the victim.

“Life Lessons” is dominated by a powerful essay by Jeremy Collins. “When We Were Young and Confederate” accomplishes two complicated goals: to characterize the psychology of the Confederate South and to admit how that ethos shaped his development. Collins is brave and unflinching in dedicating his adolescent self to the page. Young Collins bought into the propaganda he heard dog-whistled by politicians. In a great scene, he describes winning a Black History Month essay contest. The prize? A front row seat to see Jesse Jackson speak. While shaking the man’s hand, Young Collins leans in and—“part recycled Rush, part teenaged prank”—asks Jackson, “How does it feel to be the most racist man in all of America?” Who can blame Collins for how he felt? He grew up surrounded by people maintaining emotional ties to a slavery-drenched past who simultaneously cheered Herschel Walker as he led the Georgia Bulldogs to victory. Although I would have loved to have seen more of his personal struggle with the dichotomy, Collins does a very good job of elucidating the Southern relationship with the past and its effect on the present.

The pieces selected for the section entitled “The Life of the Spirit” examine the way that people betray themselves and others. Kathryn Winograd’s poem “The Lives of Cells” is about and is seemingly dedicated to a seventeen-year-old Kurdish woman who was stoned to death in an honor killing. Winograd invokes the billions of years of evolution and tens of thousands of years of human interaction that resulted in the woman being born. Winograd’s breathless sentences immortalize the fate suffered by a single woman that decreases the quality of life for the rest of us.

The poetry and creative nonfiction in the “Private Lives in Public Space” section reminds the reader that participants in war remain individuals. Liam Corley’s “Unwound” is “a poem for the other soldiers / citizens who never fired back.” Susan Jo Russell’s poem “Today’s Little News of Death” indicts the citizens back home who wage war by proxy, “as if elsewhere were not a place.”

Perhaps the only hope for the elimination of war is enhanced understanding between people and cultures. This issue’s “New Voice” is Gerardo “Tony” Mena, a highly decorated veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom who returned stateside, attended the University of Missouri, and “surrounded himself with music and poetry as a means of dealing with the events he experienced in the war.” Mena’s “I Was a Heisman Trophy” describes a brief on-campus incident in which he was hit by a car driven by a student who was speaking on her cell phone. Mena delights in feeling a strong jolt of adrenalin, but soon notices that few around him have noticed the accident. He is reminded of the lesson he learned in Iraq, as the work he and his friends were doing was “reduced to a tiny scrolling death toll residing in the bottom right corner of a TV screen.”
[www.ciweb.org/literary-journal]

top of page

 

Copper Nickel CoverCopper Nickel

Volume 18

October 2012

Biannual

Review by Mary Florio

Copper Nickel states on the submission page that the journal publishes no more than 2% of the submissions it receives. After careful study of its October edition, I can easily perceive the appeal: the value proposition of this particular journal exceeds the usual draws—presentation, print and polish. The journal is intelligent in a bold way, showcasing surrealist efforts in at least three of the prose included, and I cage the statistic in “at least,” because the classification “surreal” has been thoroughly extended by popular vernacular: sometimes an exotic dragon making a holographic appearance truly tests the limits of the term. (See Leslie Rakowicz’s short story “Celia,” for an illustration of same.)

Anne Valente’s short story “Dear Amelia” neatly complements Sarah Gerkensmeyer’s short story “My Husband’s House” in unexpected ways. Valente’s story concerns a development of a community of outsiders against a second-person narration of Amelia Earhart’s voyages. Her exposition is clean with all objects clear:

Our mothers evaded explanation. They left truth to hearsay. We’d heard all our lives about a tribe of Maine Black bears, a vicious clan hiding deep inside the woods. Part human, part ursine. Born of the same strands of American legend as the Jersey Devil, as Blackbeard’s ghost upon the shore.

The story is busy on several levels—the reader is curious as to what the symbolism represents, on how the frame of Earhart is ultimately positioned, on whether the intellectual drive is feminist in totality or if one is asked to peel back a separate layer, to find a deeper meaning in the wasteland of social abandonment. I like that the speaker oscillates between the third and second person and the way that the perspective itself permutes without losing the connection to the ideas and the plot development.

Gerkensmeyer’s story is also alive with nature; she weaves a complex tale of love, abuse, and loss in the throes of a twisted Ohio river. A young woman explores a sequestered fishing community and marries into it. Her husband disappears. And reappears. And the language is rich enough that the specific realities are masked—very much like real life, where the truths of our perception twist with enough stimuli.

While Gerkensmeyer’s storyline isn’t a direct parallel to Valente’s in terms of subject matter, both stories reach toward other ways of expressing vivid emotion in a way that the form and function are successfully married. In one sentence for Valente’s story, the fortunes and courage of a flight innovator are a framework for the maturation of identity. In one sentence for Gerkensmeyer’s story, a clandestine river community and culture is a slippery, piscine pier for a woman’s marital loss. Surely we can abstract the story and extract the narrative clinically just as surely we can lose everything. Pop cultural imaginings (Harry Potter, Twilight, American Gods) aren’t the only ways we can dream big. In Copper Nickel, these courageous writers have dared to resurrect strong stylistic innovations in the literary sphere.

Adam Sturtevant’s “The Pretenders” and Bradford Tice’s “Skin” both address classical themes with engaging twists. I liked an outsider’s look at depression; Sturtevant takes a simple story of a new mother who cannot feed her infant and frames it from the point of view of an actor who faces a new role as brother and uncle at considerable professional cost. In masterful strokes, Tice takes a simple story of a loss of a pet and a love affair and frames it from the point of view of a young man who the reader suspects to be very vulnerable because of the failure to marry his lover. And yet, again as I abstract these stories into suggestions of plot, I miss the brilliance of the narration, the pull of the stories that forces me to consider every word. These writers are economical with language, but their worlds are rife with possibilities.

The poets in this issue of Copper Nickel are diverse in voice, but each poet achieves an elegant intelligence that you might find mirrored in the prose. While I do not feel obliged to reach beyond my own level of academic preparation (one certainly can), I don’t lose anything in simply reveling in the mastery of language and interpreting the strength of feeling through a basic lens. I want a poem I can read on a city bus, something to carry with me through the rain. And while these are smart poems, they do not exclude the reader, in any way, shape, or form.
[www.copper-nickel.org]

top of page

 

Found Poetry Review CoverFound Poetry Review

Volume 4

Spring/Summer 2012

Biannual

Review by Kirsten McIlvenna

Found Poetry Review features—you guessed it—found poetry. Borrowing text from anything from tweets to speeches and newspaper articles to books, the magazine is a fruitful collage of collages.

The very first poem in the collection, “The Man Who Tastes Through Life” by Danielle Jones-Pruett, is what drew me in to want to read this issue. The found material comes from statements compiled by J. I. Wannerton’s website. Containing delicious imagery of food, the prose poem is about James who lives “in a two-story townhouse, mashed potatoes, a fruit gum block.” The very best phrases are, “The only girl I’ve ever loved, milk. It spoiled.” as well as the last ones: “I still remember granny’s lap—pear drops, furniture polish, the sleeve of my favorite train pajamas, chewed into the night.”

Kristen Shaw’s “Aphasia Lecture” takes words from a guest lecture on neurological cognitive and language disorders. Short and sweet, it leaves you thinking. The line breaks make it so that it is read a certain way—that is until you move on to read the next line. Take for example the end of the poem:

         When you hear
a dog bark, you
haven’t forgotten
about dog. The dog
isn’t lost. It’s not about loss.

In Jennifer Saunders’s “The Skin Is Not Just Skin,” each line is from a different poem. Here, arrangement goes beyond determining line breaks and which words to include. Saunders draws from a number of pieces for inspiration and must match the lines together so that they read well and make sense. The last two stanzas borrow text from Marge Piercy, Susan Rich, Jack Gilbert, Sarah Vap, David Baker, Adrie Kusserow, and Traci Brimhall:

The second time I tasted you I thought:
June strawberries.
And the newness after that, and newness again,
the litter of blue-gold,
of air and silver and oh God you.
When did we drift into each other’s arms,
nudging each other blindly in the brilliant dark?
I open like a poppy
in your hand and the answer is yes.

Monica Wendel contributes two poems that come from personal emails and GChat conversations between her and another person. This certainly sounds fun, though I doubt the conversations I have with my friends are quite as lively as some of the lines in her poetry. For example, in “Collage II (Gifts)” the first two lines read, “Shower us with your gifts of bronze / skinned bots and humans holding hands.” And the last lines of “Collage IV (Humboldt Street)” are “. . . We’re keeping / things magical, carefully with slow hands / so as not to bruise, waiting for the ground to break.”

And for an even more comical take on found poetry, Joyce Peseroff shares a poem quoting students responses from a creative writing lesson prompt. The title of the poem is “Baby Shoes, Never Worn” and starts, “Look what that bitch’s selling on eBay!” Another line(s) read “. . . But didn’t / her sister tell me the baby / was born without feet.”

Other contributors include Cathryn Andresen, Annabel Banks, Paul Calavitta, Chris Cannella, Maria Cohut, Angela Croft, Deborah Dungan, Deborah Hauser, Paul Hostovsky, Andrea M. Lockett, and more. Reading through the contributor bios, I was impressed by the distance the magazine covers—contributors live in or are from Washington, North Carolina, California, Massachusetts, and even London, Wales, Cornwall, Switzerland, and Italy.

Remixing is certainly a different art form, but it is no less artful or poetic. I love being able to see what the poets have found in the everyday.
[www.foundpoetryreview.com]

top of page

 

Gargoyle CoverGargoyle

Number 58

2012

Annual

Review by Mitchell Jarosz

Can our literary senses be overwhelmed? Gargoyle #57 was “a 600-page doorstop of an issue!” Gargolyle 58 is another 470 pages. It’s been noted in previous reviews that there’s too much work available and accepted for Gargoyle, and it happened again with #58. But it’s all of great quality! Consequently, the editors decided to divide everything accepted for #58 and print two issues in 2012.

In this issue, I count 44 previously published writers, all of whom have contributed pieces that merit inclusion and can be readily enjoyed and returned to. It begins with a great collection of memorable quotes as Elison Alcovendaz provides the anthology’s first of many visits to our learning years with his “Works Cited” piece. Both intellectual and personal growth are recognizable once you read the attempts at creating a personal place, virtually and in reality. The concept of plagiarism haunts us all, and Alcovendaz’s bibliographic entries bring back memories from every level of schooling.

If you look for a theme in literary collections you read, then I’ll go with “coming of age” and “first encounter” to bring me back to this collection. Consciously or not, the editors have provided a great deal of nostalgia.

There are only five pieces of nonfiction in this issue, but they’re all entertaining and appeal to a variety of tastes, from the amusing cultural retrospective of Charlotte Safavi’s “The Nose of the Matter” to Silvana Straw’s very amusing family piece, “Half Ball.” Ethnicity is in; I hope you don’t mind the ‘sex’ in any of them. The nostalgia is in all of them, whether you’re Italian, Iranian, or just grew up “in the neighborhood.”

The poetry section starts with these lines:

So like
I just always knew,
like,
I wanted to be
a poet, like.

The poetry section is much too comprehensive to be given a just review in this short space. One of the benefits of enjoying literature over the years is the opportunity and ability to hear the echoes. And echoes there are.

Echoes of Whitman and Ginsberg occur in Nick D’Annunzio Jones’s “The True Poet Laureate of the United States.” It’s one of the best examples, but it’s a tough work to quote when you’re referring to poets who used a lot of repetition to make their point.

And the nostalgia? Jim Tolan’s “Broken” reminded me of the middle school monster years:

Lloyd Grebbs in seventh grade showed off
pictures of a kitten he had buried
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
God knows how many times.
This bought him an unspoken status,

And Rose Solari tells us a familiar story, a very familiar history, in “Who, What, When”:

It’s the same old story. Girl meets boy,
girl thinks, that’s it, but boy is already
mixed up in somebody else’s story, so
girl settles for girl-pal status. She’s
good at that. Two years on, they meet
again at somebody’s sister’s party, but
now the story’s run by her shiny new
wedding ring. A theme emerges,
something to do with time. . . .

The story goes on, as does the telling poetry. And there are far too many pieces to do them all justice. But all are a seriously good read.

The same problem exists with the fiction. Pieces of all sizes and tastes. What do you like? The flash fiction is a delight. Try Allison Harden Moen’s “Muse” for an enjoyable and lyrical trip back to what seems to have been the more leisurely time created by vinyl recordings:

I slide the slick record from the case, barely letting my fingers touch the shiny black surface and worn outer rim. I hold it with two fingers, inhaling the earthen scent deeper than a vanilla clove cigar, with more fullness in my lungs than breathing in fresh rain on concrete, or the ocean after months away from its salty blue-turquoise.

There’s more, of course, lots more, and artwork. I repeat myself; there’s a lot of really good work here, and I don’t hesitate to recommend the previous one and the next one as well. Just make sure you have lots of time to get to it all!
[www.gargoylemagazine.com]

top of page

 

Laurel Review CoverThe Laurel Review

Volume 46 Number 1

2012

Biannual

Review by David R. Matteri

The Laurel Review is another solid literary journal from the “Show Me State.” The editors and interns present a collection of strong works without fanfare or pretension. They are simply looking for good writing, and that’s exactly what you can expect to see in their latest issue.

“This Is My Domain” by Wendy Herlich features a boy genius narrating his struggle to cope with his parents’ estranged relationship and his raging hormones. Vladimir, our narrator, is twelve years old and enrolled in a university. His mother is a geneticist, and his father is a professor of Chinese history. This is a family of super intelligent people: “I can almost hear their minds working, my dad’s whirring and clicking like an old-time film projector and my mom’s purring quietly, like a computer saving data to its C drive.” One would think Vladimir’s analytical and reasonable parents would have a stable relationship, but ripples of emotional tension fluctuate underneath the surface. They talk over each other and miss important body language that speaks of an unhappy marriage. Meanwhile, our narrator develops a crush for their new neighbor, a young woman who is attending the same university where he is studying. Despite his vast knowledge, Vladimir is clueless when it comes to talking to a person of the opposite sex: “My mouth is like a rebellious spokesman. I wish it would shut up. I find I can’t meet her eyes. I turn and stare at the contents of a drawer labeled ‘NUTS’ and wish I could climb inside and transform into a metal hexagon.” Herlich’s story shows that even smart people can flounder and get lost in the labyrinth of human relationships.

Another solid work of fiction in this issue is Marguerite Weisman’s “Right Knife.” Weisman does not waste words with the beginning of her story and grabs the reader by the throat: “In the springtime, when I was twenty-two, I was raped by a boy whose name I never learned, and so I left school.” Our narrator moves in with her grandmother in order to recuperate from her ordeal, but her misery only continues. Murdered seals are discovered on the beaches near her new home and her grandmother dies shortly after she moves in. Living alone, our narrator tries to make the best of her situation by going to work at a local diner and getting acquainted with the locals. Romance blossoms between her and Ronan, the diner’s cook. She is captivated by his boisterous mannerisms and warm personality, but danger lurks underneath:

His eyes. Dear god his eyes. They were a galvanic, hurricane blue. The blue that spurts out of down power lines. The hypnotic glow of jellyfish at night. And if anybody ever asks me about Ronan, at least I can say that his eyes were peaceful, in the way that dying of hypothermia is peaceful.

The love between these two grows despite this ominous foreshadowing. We almost believe there will be a Hallmark ending for these two, but just when our narrator has finally found some form of inner peace, her life spirals back into the cycle of violence and death. It is a gripping story that leaves you shaken.

“Lok Say” by Paul Hanstedt is a short essay that reveals a part of modern China that most Westerners don’t see. Hanstedt describes what he saw and felt during the anniversary of Tiananmen Square in a crowded Hong Kong park. He is both impressed and surprised at the mass of humanity voicing their anger and frustration of the Chinese government over loud speakers blaring Canto rock. The massacre happened decades ago, but the people at this demonstration are furious as if it only happened yesterday. Hanstedt weaves in facts and commentary on the state of China in this essay with a small touch of humor:

It has to be hard to be a Hong Konger when it comes to China. On the one hand, being linked to the PRC is like being the prom date of the coolest guy on campus. Everyone knows China is rising . . . China’s economy has grown between six and ten percent every year for the last decade. For the most part it was unscathed by the recent banking crisis. And it only knows the concept of trade imbalance from the grip end of the pistol.
Who wouldn’t want to dance with that guy?

Hanstedt makes some valid points. China is indeed a powerful country and may even come to dominate the coming century. But at what cost? Can this nation continue to prosper without resolving its history of violating human rights? Only time can tell.

Since it is a new year, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about Sam Donsky’s poem “Inception” because it opens with a celebratory mood:

                                   Our
six-beer anniversary—Philly
in the spring; Happy Halloween
it is the Fourth of July. Let’s
celebrate, you say, strapped
for youth, shook to dust,
arriving younger in a stupor
at the Sprained Ankle Suite.

The poem is written in one long, unbroken stanza and the tone quickly descends into a state of drugged foolishness: “We snorted / first lines off the Floors of / Strangers. We stumped for / plot twists while you wore / your invisible dress.” Being foolish is not the same as lacking substance. Time and memories are recurrent themes here, creating a sense of regret and a longing to return to the past.

Another excellent poem in this issue is “Hidden” by Rosalynde Vas Dias. It is about an adult looking inward at the child she once was:

I used to be a doe goat
pirate, Captain of my own
ship in a picture book where the water-
color was deep and limpid and teaming.

The imagery of her animal pirate crew conjures the childish joy found in “Where the Wild Things Are” or a Dr. Seuss story. However, it is the nature of things to change and our speaker realizes she can’t go back to that world of make believe: “Animals don’t talk to me anymore. / Not in a language I understand.” But all is not lost! “The ship is gone. Sailing on / without me? Or broken, / inert in that desert under the dark water?”

The Laurel Review is definitely a journal to watch out for with its offerings of solid writing. I look forward to their next issue.
[catpages.nwmissouri.edu/m/tlr]

top of page

 

Malahat Review CoverThe Malahat Review

Volume 180

Autumn 2012

Quarterly

Review by John Palen

Two outstanding Canadian literary journals have collaborated on separate issues consisting of work from each other’s patch. This issue of Malahat, based in British Columbia (B.C.), features “Essential East Coast Writing” in collaboration with Fiddlehead, published in New Brunswick. Alternately, Fiddlehead published a West Coast issue. Malahat Editor John Barton traces the idea to a 2010 residency at University of New Brunswick and conversations with Fiddlehead Editor Ross Leckie. The result, at least by reading the Mahalat half, is a celebration of artistic vibrancy on both coasts.

The issue of regionalism has to come up in any such project. Barton meets it head-on in a short introductory note, in which he acknowledges that “last year, 40% of our contributors and 30% of our subscribers were from B.C. in comparison to 10% and 6% respectively from Atlantic Canada.” Barton hopes the collaboration alerts readers to “the windsock of cross currents” between the two regions.

It includes one of the finest pieces of short nonfiction I have read, ever: Robert Finley’s “The Approaches.” The author, who grew up in Halifax and teaches at Memorial University, is one of a four-person crew sailing at night and early morning into a fog-shrouded harbor. It is a journey from a place where humans mean virtually nothing to a place where the most mundane human activities give meaning to life.

Of night sailing far out, Finley writes: “None of it has anything to do with us, except for the few things we have brought with us: the faint outline of the sails against a starless sky, the contours of the hull where wave foam inscribes it, the compass with its lick of flame, like a locket opened.” Later, nearing land: “This is where the place names start with their stories of panic or of plenty: Portuguese Cove, Bear Cove, Halibut Bay, Hangman’s Beach, Neverfail . . . And with them the first small sounds, with their pressing intimacy, are carried out to us through the sound-amplifying fog.” Finally, in the sounds of human voices, he gives us a Whitmanesque catalog of people known to the sailors: “the soft-voiced cook, the nurse, the social worker, three sisters who made their own way; also the novice who threw his books in the sea and suffered a sea change; the school principal struck down by a street car . . . “ and many more. In its detail and reach, its language both technical and poetic, this essay transforms a place into a universe for the human spirit. Don’t miss it.

Other favorites from this fine issue include Kris Bertin’s short story, “Your #1 Killer & Extra Hands,” in which the narrator finds her deeply troubled son growing up at last—but not in a way she anticipated, not in a way that is comfortable.

Chris Donahoe’s memoir is of being a young man from Nova Scotia working in the rough Alberta oilfields. And among a generous serving of good poetry, Steve McCormond’s “They” is a portrait of a generation of masters of the universe:

They perfected the machine-human interface.
They left their footprints in the dust of other worlds.
They didn’t know what they didn’t
know. They disabled the fail-safes.
They reverse-engineered the Big Bang.
They reintroduced the wolves.
They mea culpaed toward the door.
And they loved to dance.

For me, the collaboration between the two magazines helps to clarify the distinction between a literature limited by its regionalism and one brought alive by its sense of place. This issue of Malahat is definitely alive.
[web.uvic.ca/malahat]

top of page

 

The Meadow CoverThe Meadow

2012

Annual

Review by Mary Florio

While The Meadow, an annual journal published by Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nevada, is not exclusive to any region in its scope, it appears to reflect a cohesive sensibility, a conversational approach to creative writing. It begs the question as to whether or not someday we’ll look back to the poets of the West as a distinct school, like the New York School with O’Hara and Ashbury, except that instead of the MOMA we’ll see the glittering of the Vegas slot machines, the boiling petri dishes of Los Alamos.

In “Blue Apron,” a short story by Catherine Austin Alexander, we find a young woman whose promiscuous mother creates a kind of bittersweet tension and exacts a toll on their vulnerable family. And while the story is delivered in a child’s voice, we find a natural wisdom in both what she observes and what she leaves out. The voice is well-suited to the plot and wry, not a refuge for a writer afraid to tackle an adult perspective.

I know Mom can charm the pants off of any man. Take the Lakeview garbage guys, for instance. Everyone on our street carries out their trash to the curb the night before. Not us. When we first moved into the house, Mom saw the garbage men coming down the street, threw her fur coat over her lingerie and went running out to meet them. ‘Oh, gentlemen, I wonder if you can do a lady a big favor . . . I don’t think I can lift those heavy cans from the backyard.’ Then she opened her coat just enough . . .

I deliberately cut the anecdote because the way the story rolls out you will be surprised—not by a dramatic plot turn, but by the way the protagonist reveals the plot.

In the poem that opens the journal, Jane Rosenberg LaForge’s “Morning, Las Vegas,” the speaker is no child, and yet there is exposition: “Look at me: I’m on narcotics, / quoting Chekhov about guns.” As you read on, the poet reveals expectations, piercing explanations—the Las Vegas sunrise is “depressed,” but not without assigning and naming its parts to flesh out the assignment.

About 20% of the journal is written by students of the college. One of the poems by a student, Angelo Perez’s “For Nathan, After My Third Manhattan,” is rich and complex, mapping out an A-B-A narrative structure that emerges especially strong with such lines as: “How much longer must I wait until I have your ‘soul’s full intention,’” and the arresting opening, “Amber skies, as if a fire ignited on some distant planet,’” which pulls the reader into the work like a stretch of taffy—we are introduced not just to an expression of nature but to the longing created by distance. We read on, only to have a major break in the form of the poem—centered after the first stanza—“even now (and always)” that is again a method of separation of text that reflects the separation that we feel in the speaker’s gossamer den of isolation.

Tanisha Shannon’s poem “Rain,” is classical in four tight stanzas. While the writing is disciplined and austere, the poem coveys a story where the action is neatly, almost visually, complemented by the setting. The rain from the title functions not just to invoke ablation and purification, but also to mirror the flow of the biological elements that are referenced. For additional emphasis, the poem itself flows—in the simplest language it crosses the page, flows to its gentle blue resolution.

If you enjoy the writing style of William Carlos Williams, Linda Pastan and Tom Perrotta, this journal could prove indispensable. It certainly delivers an opportunity for newly published writers to have voice in a competitive field.
[www.tmcc.edu/meadow]

top of page

 

Ping Pong CoverPing•Pong

2012

Annual

Review by Shannon Smith

Ping•Pong is the journal of the Henry Miller Library. Their mission statement maintains that they publish a journal because continuing the literary and artistic legacy of Henry Miller does not mean just publishing Miller, but also others, and that “Given our interest in these peculiar and often-overlooked centers and margins, not everything published in Ping•Pong will be pretty.”

This issue of Ping•Pong contains two short stories, one piece of nonfiction, an interview, many poems, and artwork. Some of these poems are a folio of responses to the French poet and artist, Jean Arp, specifically, Arp’s poem “What is That?” as translated by Joachim Neugroschel. The poets who responded were asked to choose either to respond to the entire poem or to pick a few questions voiced in the poem to focus on. Matthew Burgess provides the excellent first response, which not only contains the line “In the season of haircuts / we zipper to soundtracks / asymmetrically” but also name-drops Patrick Swayze. Pamela-Evitt Hill gives another interesting response entitled “Mask,” which closes: “But, the popcorn is still popping / through her senses.” Chris Martin’s “Chat” is a playful yet angry response with the lines, “I am a sort of bird laughter // You are a liar. // Exactly.”

Merlin Ural’s story “Crux,” a short vivid piece, takes place in Istanbul. It’s narrated by a man who wants to get out of military service, not simply with an excuse of being gay—as the military doctor accuses him of—but because he actually is gay. The story describes how the photograph he has provided of him having sex with his boyfriend is not enough—the doctor requires that he pass a physical test that proves he has been a passive partner. The story begins and ends with the narrator looking for a partner who will help him become disqualified from the military service.

David Hancock’s “Head Fountains,” is a more experimental story about someone named Steppenwolf who teaches the narrator “the way of the gun, to crave the smell of burning flesh, to live by the code”—that is, to be what seems like an assassin in something called “the Order.” The narrator then becomes involved with someone named Sarah, and for a while it seems like they might rebel against the Order until he receives an assignment, a contract—to kill Sarah. Although the plot seems like something that could be affiliated with the worst of genre fiction, Hancock’s brusque prose renders the story into a compelling work.

The interview in Ping•Pong is with Thurston Moore, better known for his work with the band Sonic Youth than his association with poetry. Yet as the interview shows, Moore has been deeply involved with poetry for years and is now running a publishing imprint called “Flowers of Cream.” Released on the imprint will be “small chapbooks that are perfect-bound with silver card covers,” which are referential to Telegraph Books, a press that Victor Bockris ran with Andrew Wylie that is known for publishing Patti Smith’s Seventh Heaven. Moore notes that the type of poet he wants to publish is “very interested in the academics of writing as well as the new ideas of liberations from that academic.”

Ping•Pong sticks to its mission of publishing writers who, while they may not be influenced by Henry Miller directly, do seem to follow in the footsteps of his lineage.
[www.henrymiller.org/ping-pong]

top of page

 

Sheepshead Review CoverSheepshead Review

Volume 35 Number 1

Fall 2012

Biannual

Reviewed by Sarah Gorman

NFL fans who take pleasure in the arts will affirm that Green Bay has more to offer than the Packers. From the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay comes the Sheepshead Review, now in its 35th year of publication. Offering fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and a healthy serving of the visual arts, this publication arrives with the smell of a new book, bearing an elusive whiff of fresh bread. Bold graphics lead the way throughout, and not just in the pages designated for the visual arts; the hefty paper and 4-color format contribute to the satisfying feel of the journal.

Layout Editor Jake Jenkins and Creative Editor Matt Vanden Boomen have designed one of the visually strongest arts journals in the current landscape. The look of the magazine, black and white and red all over, contributes drama to the experience of turning these pages. The color palette provides a useful semiotic for readers wishing to go directly to the poetry section, for example, where white type ornaments solid red pages.

Two poems by Samantha Smrz appear 12 pages apart, indicating the editors’ decision to arrange poems according to some organic rubric, rather than the common practice of placing one poet’s works together. Smrz’s “O, Come now Sailor,” a wry yet lyrical love poem, reflects both classical and contemporary themes. Satisfactorily embodying the factitious concepts that can thwart young love, the speaker luxuriates in the sense that “you use such indecorous language / To say such lovely things,” yet admits that “We are both held so far from our minds / And so close to our love of things / We’ve forgotten we are the same.”

Instead of featuring just one, as is common among literary journals, Sheepshead Review in this issue confers space upon 16 different visual artists, most represented by more than a single work. Media and subjects range from “Lady Bug’s World,” a close-up photograph of the insect on a cactus spine, by Paige Konitzer (also represented with the poem “Face-Plant”), to a gory mixed media piece, “The Mannequin Murders” by Willy Conley, to the abstract “Emma, Ink in Water #4” by Cambrie Davis. The pastel “Coquette,” one of three works by Kerstin Torgerson that lead off the visual arts section, compels a second and a third look. It could serve as an illustration for Julia Maack‘s nonfiction piece “A Kept Man,” an account of her grandfather’s excursions into titty bars and his series of mistresses du jour.

Among the four short stories, two are quite brief, approaching the flash fiction category. Sarah Overland’s longer first-person narrative “The Iron Skillet” is a skillfully paced and progressively engaging recollection near the end of her life, voiced by a tiny woman who married a drunk in the 1930s and a bully in the 1940s, yet prevailed over all the challenges of her family life.

Elisha Wagman’s nonfiction piece “Entwined” reflects a strong narrative voice which remembers a relationship of over 30 years involving mental illness, unmarried pregnancy, suicide attempts, adoption, and, finally, redemption for the subject of the piece, though not for the narrator.

The emphasis on graphic design is not the only unusual characteristic of Sheepshead Review. The editors have chosen to omit from this issue a web address, other contact information, submission guidelines, background information on the journal for a new reader, and biographical sketches of the contributors. Granting them their creative choices, I searched for their web site. At the slightly out-of-date website, you will find all the information needed, including an explanation of the magazine’s title and an encouraging account of its resurrection in 2003 after dropping out of circulation for four years.

Since Editor-in-Chief Kelsey DuQuaine discloses that contributors to this issue include “UW-Green Bay’s students as well as artists and artists from across the world,” it appears that the journal has expanded the goal described on its website: “to produce one journal of creative work to showcase the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay students, faculty, staff and the Wisconsin community each semester.”

Hurray for the creators of the Sheepshead Review. Readers who solve the visual puzzle posed by the journal’s cover are rewarded by diverse, provocative and polished work. The magazine deserves a slot in the literary magazine playoffs, and has at least as good a chance as the Packers do to win out.
[www.uwgb.edu/sheepshead]

top of page

 

Southwest Review CoverSouthwest Review

Volume 97 Number 4

Autumn 2012

Quarterly

Review by Julie Nichols

This is one of those issues that’s a pleasure to read cover to cover. The fiction, including the winner of the 2012 David Nathan Meyerson Prize for Fiction, is outstanding; the brilliant essays take us from Greek isles to the chicken farms of Arkansas, from Salinger to Alain-Fournier to Twain; and the poetry is, without exception, beautiful. Don’t miss any of it.

Southwest Review, from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, presented its first issue in 1915 (then the Texas Review) and is, by that reckoning, the third oldest continuously published quarterly in the United States. It counts among its contributors such names as D. H. Lawrence, Quentin Bell, Margaret Drabble, and many others from both sides of the Atlantic, but in this issue accomplished North American writers fill the pages with excellence.

Each of the two bookend essays, Patricia Vigderman’s “To Persephone’s Island” and Paul Crenshaw’s “Thinking of Chickens,” is a delight. Vigderman takes us with her on an exploration of “a Greek world enduring outside Greece.” What works is the fluid, continuous movement between present reflection and engrossing descriptions of artifacts of the past, as when Vigderman quotes the architectural historian Vincent Scully on a “mysterious and isolated” unfinished temple at Segesta, including a photograph, so that we visualize its haunting roofless columns and shudder at a “terrible and unexpected” precipitous drop leaving “a gulf, tremendous in depth and width . . . between the temple and the mountain.” Then she says this:

The week before our visit, however, a chunk of stone had fallen from the architrave onto the base, and it was no longer permissible to come upon the terrible and unexpected by walking through the temple. The solidity and shock of its ancient presence had been distanced by a low wooden fence, and the great gulf was no longer linked to the architectural experience. A walk around the temple now reveals the wide valley below as an apparently fertile bowl of fields and a few farmhouses. . . . the overwhelming experience of the sudden abyss has been mitigated by the nervous gods of safety.

Throughout the essay’s seven sections, we feel the inevitable imposition of the current world onto the millennia of Greek influence in what were once its outposts. Photographs, verbal depictions, and travel anecdotes cohere into a story of original discovery until, at the end, a horrible incident reminds Vigderman, and us, that “all the tricks invented to hold onto the moments as they pass are doomed to fail.”

Crenshaw’s essay is similarly adept at weaving objective “fact” with a personal tone—in this case wry and knowing—so that the smells, procedures, and sights of chicken farming are laced with ironic (but humorous!) distaste for American infatuation with chicken regardless of its stinking provenance:

Pre-1930s . . . chickens were valued for their eggs. . . . They lived a life of leisure, pecking around the yard, finding worms and bugs, laying eggs, et cetera and et cetera and et cetera, until the day came when grandma stepped out back carrying a hatchet and they fled for their lives, which may be the reason so many of them decided to cross the road.
With the advent of hatcheries, chicken houses, and slaughterhouses, the life of the chicken changed dramatically.

Crenshaw concludes with another take on why chickens cross the road, one that’s both funny and dismaying. This is an essay I’ll have my CNF students read and emulate.

Between these two pieces are three engrossing works of short fiction, three delectable literary-critical essays (each in a trustworthy, appealing voice), and nine strong poems.

“Soldier’s Joy,” by Paulette Livers, is the Meyerson Prize winner, a beautifully-structured account of two victims of war, Giang and Harlan, who meet, comfort each other, and give each other up for obvious but compelling reasons. Jacob Newberry’s “The Long Bright World” vividly depicts New Orleans in four devastated days after Katrina from the point of view of one of the newly homeless. My favorite, though, is J.F. Glubka’s striking first-person “Heat Lightning,” also about victims of war, past and present, and the reverberations they feel no matter how distant or close the fighting. All are heartbreaking, all eminently worth reading.

Brian Culhane’s “The Stoic Pine” is a poem to appreciate for its form as well as for its theme: the eponymous white pine learns philosophy from a young reader of M. Aurelius, and in the face of the chainsaw “Would recall that serene equipoise and calm / An emperor once praised as the surest sign / Of the settled soul . . .” The stanzas rhyme abcbac, clean and smart, so that the notion of a stoic tree has dignity and rightness. Other poems resonate as well.
[www.smu.edu/southwestreview]

top of page

 

Western American Literature CoverWestern American Literature

Volume 47 Number 3

Fall 2012

Quarterly

Review by Julie Nichols

Western American Literature, currently housed at Utah State University but seeking a new institutional home, regularly publishes ten or so book reviews plus three or four critical essays on the culture of the American West in each quarterly issue, to an audience focused on critical analysis of the literature and culture of the American West. No fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction is presented here.

Given these parameters, this issue is very rewarding. Reviews of the following titles, among others, appear here: Riding Shotgun into the Promised Land, a novel by John Lloyd Purdy (reviewed fairly, as a book in which “there is little that threads it together beyond the protagonist’s undeniable urge to keep moving,” by Dallin Jay Bundy, of Utah State University); Writing the Irish West: Ecologies and Traditions, an analysis by Eamonn Wall of “Western-ness” in Ireland as American theoretical approaches like ecocriticism and ecofeminism help define it (reviewed helpfully by David Mogen of Colorado State University); and No More Heroes: Narrative Perspective and Morality in Cormac McCarthy, a close reading by Lydia R. Cooper of McCarthy’s novels to underscore “the crucial role of narrative in ‘bearing witness to moral courage’” in that author’s work (reviewed thoroughly and cogently by Trenton Hickman of Brigham Young University). As an English professor in a teaching university in the middle of the American West, I find these reviews thoroughly satisfactory: scholarly, current, useful to me in summarizing and judging the value of the books in question, and indicative of the wide variety of issues surrounding the literature and culture of this region.

The three scholarly essays in this volume are similarly commendable in their academic scope. Having just read Hickman’s review of Cooper’s book on McCarthy, I dove into Alan Noble’s fine “Narrative, Being, and the Dialogic Novel: The Problem of Discourse and Language in Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing” with an already-clear sense of the language issues inherent in McCarthy criticism. Noble begins by briefly introducing explaining Bakhtin’s concept of the “polyphonic” novel, a text that “allows for several conflicting voices to coexist without a single privileged voice overtaking the work.” He summarizes Christine Chollier’s Bakhtinian criticism of McCarthy, asserting that because she focuses on internal dialogism, she “leaves room for other critics” to analyze “how individual voices [in McCarthy] are presented as valid even as they compete in the same text.”

Robert L. Jarrett, another McCarthy critic, also employs Bakhtinian terms as he explores McCarthy’s use of various languages and dialects in The Crossing to create a “heteroglot” text. But Noble extends these critics’ notions of McCarthy’s dialogism. Though it can be said that the leveling voice of The Crossing’s narrator appears to nullify the polyphony of the Spanish, priestly, and gypsy voices of the three principal storytellers whose anecdotes constitute important themes in the novel, Noble argues that the themes themselves are confirmed by the consistency of the narrator’s voice. Noble contends that the purpose of McCarthy’s novel is to explore “the belief that life is comprised of and validated through narratives such that the referential value of the stories we tell is secondary to the telling.” The narrator’s consistent translation of the characters’ stories into his Biblical, archaic style renders them all variations on that theme. Language alone constitutes meaning. Things don’t “mean” in and of themselves. Thus, the intrusion of the narrator’s voice into these stories intensifies the ontological questions the characters’ stories set up: where does meaning reside? His excellent essay demonstrates that the complex use of point of view in the novel is part and parcel of the theme. The logic is clear, the proof well-chosen. I am convinced that McCarthy criticism is a rich field for the student of the American West.

The remaining two essays in this issue of WAL present equally stimulating and persuasive material. Martha L. Viehmann’s essay “Speaking Chinook: Adaptation, Indigeneity, and Pauline Johnson’s British Columbia Stories” responds to a common objection to mixed-race, mixed-motive artists of the West as it investigates Johnson’s double life as “Mohawk Princess and Victorian Poetess.” Though Johnson “performed” her stories in late nineteenth-century London wearing a faux Indian dress, using the Chinook language, but poorly, and playing up to stereotypical expectations about Indians, Viehmann (who admits that her first impressions of Johnson were negative) takes pains to show that Johnson, like other cross-cultural artists, actually played an important role. Such mixing of traditions as she exemplified is necessary as cultures meet and adapt.

Too, Amy T. Hamilton and Tom J. Hillard’s “Before the West was West: Rethinking the Temporal Borders of Western American Literature” is fascinating, historically rich and theoretically relevant. With this issue of WAL I am convinced that criticism of the American West is far-reaching and meticulous. The journal is a deep well of scholarly concern for a thoroughly significant, multilayered, dynamic subculture of our literary landscape.
[www.usu.edu/westlit]

top of page

 

Western Humanities Review CoverWestern Humanities Review

Volume 66 Number 3

Fall 2012

Biannual

Review by Julie Nichols

Western Humanities Review is the literary journal of the University of Utah’s Department of English. This special issue, the product of collaboration between the Western Humanities Association (WHA) and the University of California Global Health Institute Center for Expertise in Women’s Health and Empowerment (CEWHE), “represents the intellectual work of contributors as well as the exchanges and discussions at both the annual WHA conference meeting [and] CEWHE colloquia seminars.” There is no fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry in this issue. Instead, five scholarly essays discuss “the intersection of women’s empowerment, health rights . . . and new science and technologies that are transforming health and health-care in an increasingly globalized world.” Singly and collectively, these arguments are consummate examples of passionate, knowledgeable, logically persuasive prose. The attentive reader is well repaid for her diligence with timely interrogations of political, economic, and ideological assumptions driving global programs allegedly dedicated to women’s empowerment and health.

The issue has been ably edited by Galen Joseph and Dorothy Porter, who contextualize and summarize the five articles in their succinct introduction. It is tempting to praise both editors and contributors for the thorough literature review, theoretical situating, and persuasive synthesis that is simply to be expected of the best academic writing—which is to say that this issue reflects an admirable standard of thought and expression. If you donate to FINCA or Heifer, as I do; if you are avidly pro-choice; if you foster strong opinions about the oppression of sex workers—you will find your presumptions radically questioned and reformed here in the cause of re-framing the larger question of women’s empowerment. Global programs that have sought to “aid” women suffer from their own unquestioned assumptions, on which these five articles turn a clear, illuminating light.

In “Women’s Empowerment in Critical Focus: Healthy Reproducers, Political Agents, and Market Participants,” Rachel Niehuus and Carolyn Sufrin show that “empowerment [is] a rich nexus of histories, presumptions, and power dynamics.” Recounting a brief history of global development programs since the 1970s and working with the Foucaultian framework of “biopower,” Niehuss and Sufrin suggest that “when women’s health is used as a vector for empowerment, women are reinterpellated as mothers of the nation, which can promote stratified reproduction and a limited version of citizenship”; that “the focus on political participation in women’s empowerment programs overlooks the multitude of creative ways in which women already act as political agents”; and that “the training of women as market participants in empowerment programs may reinscribe microcredit beneficiaries in new networks of discipline, subjection, and dependence.” They suggest pairing consciousness-raising with “‘translation’—explicitly putting the premises of intervention discourses and their agents in conversation with the assumptions and values of the presumed recipients” (emphasis added). Readers may ask whether the authors’ assumptions about the efficacy of articulation and discussion might be interrogated as well.

Leslie Butt’s report on “Young Female Sex Workers’ Experiences of HIV/AIDS Testing and Treatment in Conditions of Political Violence in Highlands Papua, Indonesia” introduces the idea of “rational sex”: “the [Eurocentric] expectation that people will apply reasoned thinking around changing sexual behavior in order to reduce risk . . . This paper argues that the expectations found in rational sex are put to use at the local level to reinforce the political realities of a contemporary colonial regime.” Butt describes incidents of violence against sex workers in Indonesia to demonstrate how “testing, counseling and medications are made to fit within existing political realities, and the ways they are organized are made to affirm and strengthen existing inequities.” The point is clear and disturbing: assumptions about what should be done in regard to women’s health are rife with complications stemming from the disparities between Eurocentric prescription and local conditions.

In like fashion, Kelly Ray Knight analyzes the complexities of “the public discourse that developed and circulated in the debates about whether prostitution should be decriminalized in San Francisco” as set forth in Proposition K in November 2008. Sharmila Rudrappa argues that labor rights are a more useful category that reproductive rights as a rubric by which “justice in transnational surrogacy” might be addressed. Tracy Weitz asserts that when both pro-choice and pro-life advocates cede authority to scientific “facts,” they downplay or negate the authority of individual women to decide when and whether they can terminate their pregnancies.

All five articles persuasively suggest that basic assumptions about women’s empowerment be revisited. As inevitably happens with the best writing, engaged readers will want to enter and extend these conversations. Western Humanities Review has delivered an excellently-conceived, expertly-executed special issue here, especially for those interested in the intersection of global women’s empowerment and new science and health technologies.
[www.hum.utah.edu/whr]

top of page