Posted July 15, 2015
Birmingham Poetry Review :: The Bitter Oleander :: Cactus Heart :: Chicago Review :: Concho River Review :: CutBank :: The Georgia Review :: Grist :: Gulf Coast :: High Desert Journal :: Jonathan :: Literal :: The London Magazine :: NANO Fiction :: Pembroke Magazine :: Post Road :: Quiddity :: Stealing Time
Review by Anne Graue
The twenty-fifth anniversary edition of the Birmingham Poetry Review presents readers with a special feature: six poems and an interview with Pulitzer Prize winning, former Virginia Poet Laureate, Claudia Emerson. The six poems demonstrate her range and proficiency as an acclaimed American poet; from her historical poem “Virginia Christian,” a narrative of the “first female electrocuted in the state of Virginia in 1912,” to the “Lightning” sonnet that brings us to the electric moment when the poem’s persona “hears the strike that splits the pecan tree,” readers are treated to language that at once is immediate and powerful.
What follows are highly crafted poems from an array of poets. David Kirby’s dexterity with social commentary is a priceless offering that makes readers both smile and wonder at the sad state of the world. Describing dope dealers in an audience listening to an address by Jefferson Davis, Kirby observes:
What makes dope dealers so fat? I know, it’s because they
can make thousands of dollars each week by making a few
phone calls rather than hundreds delivering stuff and throwing
their backs out or mowing people’s lawns only to have
them say, “You missed a patch over there” and not tip you.
Kirby’s Civil War irony that follows is set up perfectly to show the struggles in the U.S. both then and now. Further on, Harvard graduates and Helen of Troy join the group in elevating the dealers historically and socially. Kirby’s second offering is one that every poet who has ever read publically and every student who has ever attended a poetry reading will value for its candor.
The range of poets and poems provides readers with glimpses into lives, moments, and reflections that hold universal significance and reach readers with language that echoes its meaning long after they have put down the magazine. Meg Sexton imparts her poetic memoir, “Crabapples,” in a prose piece that perceptively demonstrates the meaning of perspective. The speaker wonders about her long-ago friend and furnishes readers with this insight: “Thinking now of that place is like peering out a plane ascending to 30,000 feet: the higher we rise, the harder I squint to see.”
Similarly discerning, is Jehanne Dubrow’s “Milagro Umbrella Factory,” which brings readers into the world of umbrella manufacturing, demonstrating the success of the speaker’s grandmother in knowing what consumers wanted from an umbrella. Her organization and courage were keys to her success:
In the beginning, every shade was black. But grandmother wanted scarab green, purple, the pink of bougainvillea. Parasols for sun, umbrellas for rain. Everything had its proper name. Her columns always added up.
But the poem is much more than anecdotal or reverent. It speaks of sweat shop workers, working conditions, as well as inventions and the ideas that spawn them.
This issue is filled with gems of poetic intuition and bravery encompassing a wide range of subjects and prize winning poets. The issue closes with four reviews of recently published poetry collections, illustrating even more the bounty of poetry extant in the world. We should all partake of what Claudia Emerson calls “the highly ordered language of poetry.” All of the poems in this issue fit into this high order and ask readers to soar with them.
Volume 19 Number 1
Review by Melanie Tague
Theophrastus wrote that the root of Oleander when mixed with wine makes the temper gentle and more cheerful. While Theophrastus never got the chance to read The Bitter Oleander, he surely would have had similar sentiments about what reading it could do for a person. The Bitter Oleander strives to provide readers with deep, image-driven work that will “open eyes to a world our habits and blindness ignore everyday.” This issue is a testament to that goal.
“A Storm Brewing” by Patty Dickson Pieczka is a meditative poem that does what The Bitter Oleander wants poetry to do: it asks the reader to look at what they tend to ignore, to make a connections with the world around them. The poem is rich with naturalistic imagery and maintains a steady, even pace:
Sun melts from trees as their cello
souls unfurl in long whole notes,
leaves smoky with dusk. If I could,
I’d soothe the wounds inside you:
old scars opening a thin crack
in the night, when quince petals
bleed to the ground and voices
of wind rise through thorns.
Those who love nature will find beauty in this poem. It is also a piece that asks you to do what it is does: meditate.
Nicole Bell’s short fiction piece “Shadow in the Dust” is a story of actualization. The protagonist, a girl named Cassie, is trying to survive a dust storm and an abusive home in the barren land of Kansas. The storm and land ultimately become a metaphor for her and her life-situation. The story begins with Cassie on her porch watching the dust storm creep closer and closer:
The once thick sea of grain was now the barren landscape that stretched for miles past the invisible boarders of Kansas . . . Her narrowed eyes were sharply focused then widened at the rising red mass that grew over the horizon as bits of fence post disappeared in its wake. Cassie felt she was watching thunder being born.
Cassie’s father blames Cassie for the storm and subsequently beats her for it. She decides not to stand for this any longer and leaves. “In front of her all Cassie saw was a land stripped, penetrated, and ripped apart. She has seen it break, but now, just as she imagined that she has willed the storm to stop, she began to see that she could change the fruitless soil.”
This issue contains a forty-page feature that highlights the life and work of Tótoddur Poulsen, weaving his experiences growing up on the Faroe Islands with his work, allowing the reader to see what influenced him and how it did so. Each poem takes the form of morsel of his life story, such as his poem “Super 8” which contains only 17 words and one image. While the feature itself is very interesting, it is a bit disappointing to see so much work from a single poet in a journal (regardless of how good he is).
“The Ascetic Attempts to Speak” by Paul Stubbs is an ekphrastic poem after Portrait of George Dyer Talking by Francis Bacon, 1966. This poem can be read with or without prior knowledge of the painting itself and also serves as a sort of history lesson. Dyer and Bacon were lovers and were both obsessive about their outward appearance, a sentiment which can be found embedded in this poem:
as, for you, all that exists is
perfection and your eternal
failed search for it
—So what have been the results
of such a painstaking wait?
the daily build-up of phlegm
beneath your tongue
The body of the poem is contorted much like the body in Bacon’s painting. The language expresses frustration and a longing that is unattainable:
While your tongue,
a syntactical stump,
it continues to de-alphabet the world and root you
always deeper into the mud of man’s mind; you, silent
passing again from atom to atom
in prayer . . .
Regardless of your familiarity with Bacon, Dyer, or the painting, this poem serves as a catalyst for exploration into their history and their story.
The Bitter Oleander has a great mission statement, and the editors made sure that this issue adhered to it. Each work opens the reader’s eyes in a new way and many have a calming meditative effect that can recharge your own creative battery.
Volume 3 Number 5
Review by David R. Matteri
I’ve never eaten a cactus before, but I hear that it’s very good once you make it past the prickly exterior. Editor Sara Rauch of Cactus Heart magazine explains on their website how literature and art should be like the succulent interior of the desert plant: “It should shock and wound and delight us; it should fill us with delight and terror and mystery. It should survive.” This issue is their first print issue, and it is certainly a delight to read.
It is no surprise that Jenny Qi’s poem “Cactus Heart” appears on the front cover of this issue. Qi’s poem shows how vulnerable the human heart can be when abused or exploited: “In the desert, / you turn yourself into a cactus / or you dry out too fast.” It is difficult to trust anyone from getting too close to your heart again because the sun “makes you tough and a little prickly,” and “You don’t want anything / getting near enough to cut.” Qi makes great use of descriptions in this poem. Every line radiates with heat, and you can feel the “wind whipping your spine” as you read. This poem and this journal were definitely made for each other.
Another piece of writing that deals with the heart is Pippa Anais Gaubert’s “Heart Closet.” The author reflects on two conflicting memories of the day she came home from school to find her mother dead: “Both versions lead up to me coming home from school that day and finding my mother shot in the heart in the closet in her room. Both exist side by side in my mind like two stone pillars of a great and immovable building. And like stone they are cold and hard.” Both versions of the author’s memories involve her mother and father being unhappy in their marriage. They want a divorce, but the social pressure of living in Texas during the 1950s prevents them from doing so. The author imagines her mother shooting herself in the first version of her memory: “Mama is sitting at the kitchen counter, drinking, while I am at school. And her thoughts are getting darker. She’s figuring there is no way out of her hell.” The second version is much darker. The author imagines her father coming home, drunk, and fights with her mother, also drunk. The result is grim: “She wants to get away from him and she tries to lock herself in her bedroom but he follows her in there and he is angrier than he’s ever been and for a moment her eyes are wide because she knows he’s a violent man, she’s seen it in his eyes before.” The mood of this story matches Cactus Heart’s goal of presenting literature that fills you with “delight and terror and mystery.” It is not known which version is true, but either way, Gaubert’s words will stay planted in your mind like cold, stone pillars.
“Innocence” by Stephen V. Ramey is another dark piece of writing that will give you chills. The narrator of this short story admits to having an affair with something not of this world: “Where were you when I stood on the forest’s edge looking for signs, wishing to know love and lust and longing? It was the man in the goat skin who came—not you—the man with the horns.” Sexuality plays a big part in this story, and I like how Ramey strings his words together to create a dark and sensual mood: “I fell to the ground, and like a snake, I writhed. The goat-man writhed with me. Heat pulsed between us, venom. Delight. And then it was done, we were done.” Who is our narrator speaking to? Could it be another lover? God, perhaps? It is not clear who or what this other person may be, but this mystery makes the story more interesting.
Let’s leave the dark chambers of the heart for a moment and visit the beach in Peycho Kanev’s poem “Big Fish.” It is a short poem about our speaker meeting a giant fish sunbathing on the beach while reading a book of poetry: “I met you by the shore. Your enormous body / was left for the sharks and Japanese tourists.” Kanev writes so that one can hear the seagulls and the waves against the shore: “The seagulls flew / above us as usual, captivating our thoughts. The / eternity crept up between us . . .”
Matthew Woodman’s “Dear Moon” is a poem that reads like a Dear Abby column. Our speaker writes to the moon asking for help about a mysterious pregnancy: “Apparently, I’m pregnant. Though I’m not sure how.” The Moon replies with an interesting letter:
These things happen.
Parthenogenesis is common
among frogs and sharks, though “common”
and may have a flexible population
This is a small issue with a simple design, but there are plenty of strong writers here. So go ahead and take a bite of Cactus Heart. You may find yourself wanting more.
Volume 57 Number 3/4
Review by Melanie Tague
Chicago Review is “an international journal of writing and critical exchange published quarterly.” And they are not falsely advertising; it really is just that. This issue is jam-packed with fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and discourse on ecopoetics that takes the reader around the globe in 218 pages. From first page to last, the reader is kept engaged and moving. If anyone is looking for a reference on how to organize and put together a journal, this issue of Chicago Review is it.
The short story “Entourage” by Helen DeWitt is told from a third person limited point of view. The story works to show the main character’s disinterest in everything he does, no matter how extravagant. The main character is a delusional rich man. Throughout the piece the reader encounters short, concise sentences that reflect the main character’s disinterest: “He went to Krakow for no particular reason.” And “His Life was quite difficult at this time for reasons we need not discuss.” The perspective also helps to keep the reader at bay from any emotions the main character may be feeling. Any time the reader might begin to understand the man on a more personal level, the reader is interrupted by facts in order to quickly reestablish distance. At one point, the man excitingly begins to daydream about a new business franchise: “ . . . Skipping up and down, he wears a bow tie. Studies have shown that a talent for delaying gratification is integral to success in our complex society.”
In a translation of “Seven Against Thebes: Three Choral Passages,” originally penned by Aeschylus in 467 B.C., John maintains an increasingly sexual, chant-like, and warlike tempo throughout, giving the reader a sense of urgency as preparations for war are made. The first stanza of the poem serves as a thesis for the rest, telling the readers where they will be taken:
The empty house,
inhuman and strange,
there in premonition.
The Furies descend,
called by desire,
by a mindblind Oedipal curse.
They’ve come for the children.
Tipton tells the reader of the impending “Furies” called by a desire, an “Oedipal” curse that resulted in children. Toward the end of the poem is a violent, sexual intensity:
Come. Come. Come. Come.
Hear the rattle of chariots.
Come, queen Hera.
Axles scream on the frames.
Come, good Artemis.
Spearshook air. A mad shudder.
What will the city suffer?
What do the gods intend?
Tipton has laid out this piece so that a reader with or without background knowledge in ancient Greek history or mythology can still fully appreciate the work.
There are several nonfiction pieces in the issue and all lean toward the scholarly side of nonfiction versus creative nonfiction. One of these essays is a translation by John Hoffman, “Introduction to Rhyme: Its History and Theory” originally written by Viktor Zhirmunsky. This essay brings to surface issues that arise within definition of rhyme as well how and why translation can affect rhyme. There are also a couple of essays on ecopoetics and several reviews that are worth checking out.
Martha Ronk’s “A Photograph of Shadows and A Side Window” at first glance looks like prose, but upon a close examination the reader can tell the piece is not; Ronk is communicating something with the prose-like format. Ronk uses this format to drive home the point of her poem: things aren’t always what they seem. Is it art or an artifice:
an eternal return located in its technological reproducibility
its time repeating, its grasses and the feeling of grass, never simply itself,
but moving forward as walking across it to get to the window
and the rarity of seeing oneself in the glass reflection by chance
and wondering how she got out of the place she’s usually in
The line breaks work to create a sense of monotony, which the “she” in this piece seems to be feeling as well. This sense of monotony does not hinder the poem though, nor does it deter the reader; it works with the poem to engage the reader.
There is no way I could sum up everything in this issue of Chicago Review, but there is something in it for everyone.
Volume 27 Number 1
Review by David R. Matteri
Concho River Review, published by the Department of English and Modern Languages at Angelo State University, presents a strong list of talented writers in this issue. Most of the prose and poetry here revolve around country life or the outdoors, but these are not the unifying themes of this journal. The only connection is solid writing “from Texas and beyond.”
“A Gutting on the Camino Real” by Jeffrey DeLotto is a murder mystery set in the rural landscape of east Texas during the old West. Our narrator is Two Hawks, a Native American who sets out to uncover the truth of a grisly murder near the Neches River: “But here a white man had been killed, gutted like a fish, the entrails of the living man wrapped around his legs.” Two Hawks digs the body out of a shallow grave and examines it with the analytical eye of a modern crime scene investigator. I enjoyed his brief musings on the white man’s burial process:
No, they had not honored this man with one of those long wooden boxes the traders and Spaniards used to enclose their dead . . . Why, with all their talk of their kind god and spirits, would one want to so trap a spirit or create any kind of impediment to that soul’s wandering for another world?
Two Hawks then sets out to question the locals about this man, and the startling truth behind his death slowly unravels. DeLotto’s style blends western and noir themes into one thrilling and satisfying mystery. I hope he writes more stories like this in the future.
“Odell Among Them” by Mark Walling is another piece of thrilling short fiction that grabs you right from the start: “Shadowed by black oak and box elder, Odell looked down on the lighted throng and recalled the time when he too hoped heaven might be real.” Set during the Great Depression, Odell is sneaking into a tent revival with a pistol hidden in his boot. His motives are not clear at first, but his troubled past and his dangerous goals are revealed in flashbacks threaded into the narrative. Hate and anger are central themes in Odell’s sad life. Walling does a great job translating Odell’s destructive thoughts onto the page: “Odell’s anger solidified, as if his guts were fingers balling into a fist, during his sojourn down the hill.”
Allen Gee’s personal essay “Fraught with Masculinity” examines and challenges what it means to be an Asian man in American society. Aside from the great Bruce Lee, Gee did not have many Asian-American role models to live up to while growing up during the 1960s: “The martial arts vein held little appeal for me; I was impressed by but couldn’t see myself executing jaw-snapping roundhouse kicks or delivering lightning-fast flurries of nearly invisible punches.” Gee had to live with racial stereotypes hanging over his head for most of his young adult life, stereotypes such as “the mathematics geek; the youthful music prodigy; [and] the fumbling Asian nerd who can’t speak English or pronounce his Rs.” The reader is drawn into Gee’s struggle for personal identity, but there are moments where Gee shows how humor is the best defense against a lifetime of degrading labels: “You understand just how powerful stereotypes are when your first girlfriend in your late teens tells you with breathless approval that you’re not how she expected you would be.” Funny, suspenseful, and deeply personal, this essay is a great read for anyone struggling to find themselves and break the chains of racial stereotypes.
There is a lot of strong poetry in this issue. My two favorite poems are “Motel” by John Bennett and “The Ascension” by Chris Ellery. The motel in Bennett’s poem is not a real brick-and-mortar building, but a building of the mind that needs a good scrubbing:
When I wake at night, a guest
of the John Bennet Inn, I’m careful
not to curse the sloppy cleaning job
done behind the toilet in my bathroom,
because I’m the manager and staff,
and can predict what’s coming on the
comment cards at check out. . . .
Loneliness and unhappiness appear to be frequent guests at the John Bennett Inn. My favorite stanza is about the speaker needing a concierge to “jolt” him with questions such as: “How are you, sir? / Are you enjoying your time here? / Has your stay been satisfactory?” Good luck finding anyone who can honestly say they are satisfied with their personal motels.
Chris Ellery’s poem is about a twister bringing devastation to an unnamed stretch of highway. The speaker observes the wind flipping an 18-wheeler into a ditch, but then sees a “thing” in the pile of twisted metal: “But one of us / knew enough / to feel a pulse, / and it became / a man again.” The speaker and his or her friends provide comforting words to the man as rescue crews arrive, but they do not seem convinced of the man’s survival because “The whole cab / pushed his head / into the mud.” I love the structure of this poem. The stanzas are arranged like a twister or maybe a long line of backed traffic on a lonely, two-way highway. The words are few and simple, but they resonant with the power of the human spirit in the face of tragedy.
Concho River Review is full of literary gold, dear reader. All you have to do is jump in and dive for it.
Review by Mary Florio
Nimble language and arterial ideas spur this volume of Cutbank, although the thematic diversity and innovative riffs of the journal make any sweeping introduction to the volume impressionistic. The journal veers from the fantastic to the postmodern, crossing the continental (two widely disparate counts of Paris) to the nuclear (stories warbling on familial love and deception.) This issue reflects the editorial organization and voices of many worlds—be it that of a Youngstown Lolita or the fractured narrative of someone seeking the seamless whole after anorexia.
The magazine reads like the cold water candy test. Throughout the prose, the water boils away as the temperature rises. There is a profound sense of process. The quality of the storytelling tests genre. Rewarding, but you have to watch every bead to be sure what the parameters of interpretation are. Take, for example, Jay Kauffman’s essay “Shooting with Helmut,” with cinematic pacing and such a lens as one might expect from a work of fiction. Review it against Ian Golding’s story “Notable Deaths in Major League Baseball,” which weaves together a narrative in a careful and surprising design such that the reader cannot believe it isn’t a web of clippings from the notebook of a rising Cinéma Vérité screenwriter. Because the prose itself is so well-crafted, the stories become alive in other traditions, eking out other messages, other interpretations, other truths.
Daniel Tyx’s nonfiction essay “As the Crow Flies” concludes the journal with a bildungsroman that merges a meditation on place and family. I use the word “bildungsroman” unconventionally because Tyx modernizes the coming-of-age story and makes it more universal. Structured neatly along the lines of a travel narrative (not exactly a travelogue), he studies his son’s passion for birds, the landscape, and familial pressures to relocate, the essence of space. He notes a forgotten birthday toward the end of the essay, and in this oversight betrays his own ascendance to adulthood. Paired elegantly with the Valley and the carrion birds that his son masters fluently, one recognizes a new kind of coming-of-age, one which opens up a vortex of possibilities—the idea that every person will come of age again and again.
Cutbank awarded Ursula Villarreal-Moura first prize for her flash fiction “Rosicrucian Triptych,” which appears in this issue. The language, story, and characters literally electrify the page. I quote from the section “Of Pesadillas, 1987”:
Nights later I intercepted Fatima in her dreams. We lingered in front of my grandparents’ house, the sky musky with secrets. A business envelope rested securely in her hands . . .
She warned me before turning away, “He’s coming to meet me. It’s best you leave, Tatum.”
The back of her head, a maze of black zigzags, pointed to future generations.
It’s lovely enough to stand on its own, a lyricism that is like all nightmares (pesadillas) a rainy message from our waking hours. If you read all three sections together, they are clear as ice, an achievement in precision that any newspaper writer would envy. You can see the economy throughout the issue but what makes the laws from Strunk and White work so well here is the ability to generate ideas and images that are robust and beautiful—without a lot of extra words.
Volume 67 Number 1
Review by Cara Bigony
The Georgia Review consistently delivers the best of contemporary fiction and poetry. Given its hefty reputation, it is no surprise that this issue is packed with high-quality writing from established authors. But above all else, this issue is an investment in Mary Hood, whose feature consumes two thirds of the journal. You may have never heard of her. I hadn’t. Hood is a southern writer whose history with The Georgia Review dates back to 1983, and whose fiction has been published in Harper’s Magazine, The Kenyon Review, The Gettysburg Review, and more.
After reading the story included in the feature, “Some Stranger’s Bed,” I’m off to the bookstore to buy one of her two short story collections. Often compared to Flannery O’Connor, Hood’s very typically “southern” piece reminded me of Woolf in her distorting time and expressions of the subconscious. Hood’s story starts with an intense passage about the first few moments of waking. As the narrator ascends from the abyss of sleep, reclaiming both a sense of her identity and the room around her, we are carried on an unlikely journey of shifting memories.
While this story gives us a taste of Hood’s style, William Walsh’s interview shows her rare wisdom, humility, and a fascinating understanding of how she fits in among her southern predecessors and peers. Undoubtedly the best interviewer for Hood, Walsh’s reverence for her writing seeps through at unexpected points in the conversation. Having interviewed many Southern writers before, Walsh’s only regret is not having discovered Hood sooner. Her discussion of her cultural inheritance (which she describes as bipolar), her painting, and her passion for reading that drove her to steal books, reveal a woman who has spent a lot of time reflecting on where she came from, what makes her happy, and how to make things happen for herself. With Walsh’s short, focused questions as a gentle guide, Hood speaks at length about writing. Surprisingly, she speaks about writing as a precision. She aims at the right word, the well-defined setting, and the polished draft until she hits it, head on.
I imagine anyone who knew of Hood before this issue will devour her correspondence with Stanley W. Lindberg. Not as familiar with Hood, I caught myself gliding over sections of it, as anyone might if they aren’t invested in a writer’s career—regardless of her merit.
While the editor’s note asserts that everything else in the journal is a “complement” to Hood, her centrality in the issue certainly does not overpower the other talented writers included. This issue’s poetry is standout. The shroud in Andrea Hollander’s “Portrait with Purple Shroud” highlights a purple spot that plays both the gossamer pall and the bruise, a wound wrapped and draped. Her second poem “Blue” shows sharp divisions—of a laundry line cutting across the blue sky, of a blue china bowl broken. Told from the voice of a recently separated woman, the poem reaches a fragile equilibrium of both broken halves. She tactfully ends the poem with second person to bring in a final, unexpected missing half. And while Friman’s poems are stunning and best read out loud, seasoned poet Goldbarth’s are rich and textured by historical and cultural references.
Reading The Georgia Review makes for a sensational afternoon. Not only is each piece beautiful in its own right, but their diversity, presentation, and assembly have been paid equal attention. Whether readers dwell on Hood, sample pieces randomly, read only for the poems, or attack the whole journal chronologically, reading this issue is going to be a bloating indulgence.
The Journal for Writers
Review by Julie J. Nichols
What sets Grist: The Journal for Writers apart is its “commitment to the writer’s occupation.” To begin with, three interviews with working writers provide appealing insight. Then there are two craft essays, one on metaphor in poetry, one on time in fiction. Mostly, there are 148 pages of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction (no book reviews or criticism) of exciting quality. And don’t miss the online companion, a smart nod to the online presence all writers, these days, must have.
The print journal is an attractively bound 6 x 9 book, easy to hold in the hand and to read on the treadmill (which is important to me), with ample margins on most pages that offset the effect of the dismayingly small text font. (One of the reasons for the online companion is the opportunity for a larger format.) Never mind; it’s still readable. Oh, better than readable. The interview with poet Adam Zagajewski, for example, contains advice every poet needs to hear:
. . . try to always consider the flip side, to have second thoughts, to revise not only our words but also our ideas. And in your reading, in your general orientation, try to go beyond poetry. [Wislawa Szymborska gave me this advice:] read books on history, on biology, geography . . . a year and a half ago, she still complained that critics don’t read anything besides narrowly defined literature.
In Julie Orringer’s interview she describes the writerly concerns and processes that have occupied her during the production of her novels (syntax that’s true to both character and time period; research; humor). And the short interview with Linda Gregerson reminds us that “tradition” is often less on a writer’s mind than staying “true to a rhythm of thought, an image, a question, a fragment of idiomatic speech.”
Nicky Beer’s short essay on metaphor in poetry practices what it argues: “To encounter metaphor in prose is much like riding in a car at night and passing a dilapidated motel’s midcentury neon sign, vivid with age-spotted, vamp-red parabolas . . . in poetry, however, . . . metaphor is the dead cardinal under the chokeberry bush, the cicada husk perched on barbed wire . . .”
Maud Casey’s astute essay on time in fiction analyzes intersecting chronological systems in three novels, including Mrs. Dalloway, which Paul Otremba’s poem “Clarissa in Uptown” echoes marvelously: “Like a great big clock, you wouldn’t look for it / if you didn’t already know it was there . . .” For the writer, all these observations are manna. Thanks to Grist for providing them!
Equally nourishing, though, of course, are the examples of “innovative literature” which the journal “endeavors to articulate and frame.” In poetry, John Cullen’s “Small Town Romance, 1968” perfectly captures the time:
The television replayed assassinations
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Turn it up!
We yelled, excited.
Turn it down! My father bellowed,
downstairs. We wanted Janis
Joplin’s heat in our faces as she nursed
a Southern Comfort. Her voice
caressed us deep
into her mouth, and the revolution
crashed fences, except
the ones in our town.
It also captures the feeling: “My tongue / nudged her lips and slipped / inside and both of us / fumbled with an unknown/ language . . .”
Amorak Huey’s “Origami Figures in Winter” delicately juxtaposes the idea of haiku with the image of origami in a poem whose every line matters, so that it’s difficult to quote representative perfection. Christina Cook’s “Summer Requiem” also works by finely spun connections—this time the pervasiveness of death with that rich condition of full fruitful summer.
The fiction is similarly stimulating. Vanessa Blakeslee’s “Perfect Conditions,” though it’s ostensibly about surfing, and making films, and negotiating parent-child relationships, is a directive about the perils of navigating any artistic endeavor, including writing. So, too, is Jennifer Stern’s wrenching “The Art of Movement,” whose excellently-evoked first-person protagonist, a married woman with MS, chooses not to have a baby in honor of her own needs.
My favorite of the creative nonfiction is Dana Staves’s online-companion contribution, “This Closet Smells Like Chicken.” Staves explores complexities of “sin.” Product of a Bible-belt childhood, she is now out as a gay person who loves Chick-Fil-A. The first “outing” is frowned upon by fundamentalist religious communities, the second by gay people. Sin is complex; this essay is simply a pleasure to read.
Grist’s website calls it a “resource,” an apt synonym for “grist,” grain to be ground into meal for working and baking. This well-edited, finely-tuned collection of writing by and about good writing, intentionally sown and gleaned by graduate students in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Tennessee, deserves your attention as genuine grist for the serious writer’s mill.
Volume 25 Issue 2
Review by Justin J. Brouckaert
Gulf Coast Editors Zachary Martin and Karyna McGlynn claim in their editor’s note that while many literary journals announce themes in advance, they are partial to “themes that announce themselves gradually.” In “The ‘Issues’ Issue,” we see the effects of that thinking: a vibrant collection of prose, poetry, and art diverse enough so that you forget about theme while reading, only realizing much later how subtly and cohesively each piece fit into the issue, binding the journal together.
Some issues are easy to spot. Craig Reinbold’s narrative essay “Holding the Plank” treats the sensitive topic of body issues head-on, using a torturous 10-minute plank exercise as framework to chronicle a history of bulimia, sickness, obsession with body image, and the different ways of putting oneself on display. An already tense story is made all the more urgent by the essay’s voice, one that reaches out to the reader more strongly as the difficulty of the plank position escalates.
In Jamaal May’s “Thalassophobia,” the issue is spelled out in the subtitle: Fear of the sea. The poem is an elegy for a lost friend, one whom the speaker can’t help but remember:
Your laugh pours like thick honey. Your arms
open like the gap between your teeth,
and I am uncomfortable like only you
can make me, you stubborn stubbled kiss. You
are that friction on my cheek, and this
is how I learned to kiss my father. . . .
May is particularly adept in his use of rhythm, and the poem offers wave after wave of memorable images—images of the speaker trying desperately to remember and to forget, images of purging, images of clinging, images that unearth emotions of denial and lamentation, hope and unease. Increasingly, the speaker’s memory of his friend becomes entwined with the image of the sea:
I want everything to happen at dawn,
sand between toes and plum
light on the water. You know
I get like this sometimes. I listen
for footsteps that will never come,
remember waves I’ve never seen.
In other pieces, the issues at heart are subtly framed, but equally as strong. In the poem “Apology with Whales and Coyotes,” Chelsea Wagenaar uses the communication of animals to explore communication between humans, the attempts they make to find one another. In “A Brief History of Evolution,” Jim Daniels offers a playful take on the evolution debate. Zack Mueller’s poem titled “my regrets / I will not make it to Rio / too much going on / perhaps some other time / thank you for the invitation” is a kaleidoscope of issues: identity, trust, authenticity, and everything in between.
The fiction in Gulf Coast is also strong. J. David Stevens’s “Art Builds Bridges: A Romance,” one of the standouts, deals chiefly with the issue of love and redemption. A couple devotes themselves to building bridges out of refuse—first is the Bridge of Grocery Tins, then the Bridge of Used Chopsticks, the Bridge of Old Batteries, the Bridge of Spent Incandescent Bulbs and the Bridge of Frayed Unitards. When their bridges slowly begin to decay, the couple’s skill as bridge builders—and their love for each other—is tested. In one last attempt to prove their skill and to bind themselves together, they use their own bodies to span from Alaska to Russia.
“Trust me,” she said and slid her skin against mine. Then she tilted, and the cold Bering Sea rushed to us, our bodies flat and lengthening. The water tumbled over my head, but I still heard the echo of my breath. I could feel Meredith’s lips pressed to mine.
Likewise, the winner of Gulf Coast’s 2012 Barthelme Prize for Short Prose also had a hint of the magical. Selected by guest judge Ander Monson, Josie Sigler’s “The Compartment” tells the story of children who lose their wings as a rite of their passage into adulthood: “When children lose their wings, the compartment opens briefly at the crux of disintegration, in the tender upper back.” Sigler provocatively builds the myth and mystery of what’s inside this compartment, what the “wing-thieves” hope to steal, saying that “in any case—wish or resist—the laws of physics apply: you can’t take in hand what you beheld then. You can’t see your compartment.”
To praise Gulf Coast as one of the best literary magazines in the country would be redundant—it has already proven itself as such. This issue only strengthens that reputation: Although it contains many ‘issues,’ there is certainly no issue with the quality, diversity, and vibrancy of the work within.
Review by Sherra Wong
I’m a lifelong city-dweller, and reading High Desert Journal reminds me of one of my favorite experiences in travel: immersing oneself in a new normal. High Desert Journal “is a literary and visual arts magazine dedicated to further understanding of the people, places and issues of the interior West.” The key word is “understanding,” broad enough to encompass myriad means of expression, and at the same time narrow enough to tamper attempts at the pedantic or the exotic. There’s nothing fancy about the journal. The horses, rifles, ranches, and cowboy aspirations in the stories are not packaged as the stuff of artistic ambition, but rather parts of ways of life. The artwork and images bespeak the dedication of the journal to perpetuate the expression of the various understandings of this part of the world. For someone visiting from outside the region like me, High Desert Journal is a proud and easy-going host.
The entire journal feels personal. Perhaps it is because of the number of nonfiction pieces, which more than doubles the number of the fiction. In “Cowboy,” Russell Rowland recounts the early floundering of his father’s life and the strains on his marriage as he chased his dream of being a cowboy, as well as the eventual stability and perhaps happiness when he began to work at a hearing-aid business and found a creative outlet. The piece is honest and nuanced in describing the father’s flaws and the difficulties he brought on himself and his family, and yet respectful and generous toward the desires, weaknesses, and share of bad luck that he, like anyone, had.
“GG’s. Just for the Fun of It” by Ellen Waterston tells of a group of women in Prineville, Oregon that met regularly just to have fun. “Not getting smarter, more fit, cultured, beautiful, skilled as cooks,” but to go antiquing or glass blowing or riding or pan for gold. The fun and the friendships they had make me wistful. As Waterston observes, nowadays, “[g]oing to the trouble to physically gather with women just for fun competes with more serious and ostensibly more worthwhile pursuits: academic, career, cultural, financial.”
Most curious is the inclusion of “Closing the Door on the Clovis-First Theory: New Evidence Debunks the Canadian Ice-Free Corridor” by Mark E. Swisher and Dennis L. Jenkins, an argument against the theory that an ice-free corridor had opened up in central Canada at the end of the last Ice Age to allow humans to migrate from Siberia to North and South America. On second thought, however, isn’t the choice simply consistent with the journal’s expansive vision: to understand the West, from whichever angle? Literary magazines have long included the visual arts, the social sciences, and politics in their pages, but few have even attempted to bridge the gap between the arts and the sciences. High Desert Journal’s inclusion is welcome.
The journal features prints from the collection of the Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, which was formed to nurture Native American artists. The vibrancy in these prints is striking: a yellow sun claiming its place in a dark blue sky over a mountain range and a bear, a one-legged kestrel, a long-haired man with almost solid ovals for eyes and a streak of red across his face and—my favorite—a bird standing on top of a man’s head under a red cloud. Gabriel Manca’s paintings look by turns like stained glass windows, crowded lily ponds, a festival of lights, or the hanging gardens. They are a pleasure.
There is something quiet and matter-of-fact about High Desert Journal. It does not care about impressing you, and the evident love it has for the region and its people never trips into narcissistic self-regard. It invites you in; go ahead, step through.
Review by Cara Bigony
Contemporary fiction often ignores or pushes aside gay themes. That’s why it’s wonderful to have a journal like Jonathan; it spotlights what is generally left gathering dust. A journal dedicated to gay men’s fiction, Jonathan is captivating from page one. More than most journals, it reads like a chorus of voices; the ten narrators of Jonathan’s fiction are vulnerable. They are strong and insightful.
Jonathan opens—appropriately—on West 14th and 6th Ave. in New York City’s West Village. Set in this historically “gay” neighborhood, Steven Cordova’s story, like many in the collection, is an intimate first-person narrative. Cordova’s story is laced with emotional complexity and freshly stated, spot-on observations. Similarly, Aaron Hamburger’s story doesn’t hesitate to expose a man at his most insecure moments. Understated insights sprinkle his prose:
Sometimes in your life, you look backward, and you see a series of small decisions, each one seemingly inconsequential at the time, but altogether monumental, irrevocable, leading you to where you are now. And you wonder, Is this the life I was supposed to have led?
While several stories in the collection take on relationship themes, Andrew Demcak’s “1-900-GOOD-BOY” exposes a different foray into gay sex life. The hotline. The narrator’s first fumbling experience with anonymous sex is comically and intriguingly depicted. He decides to dial on a whim after waking up with a hangover, still high on Vicodin. His defensive humor as he compares the sex hotline to pizza delivery—both he calls modern conveniences—evaporates as the unsettling hookup evolves. He brings the dark room where they meet to life with sharp descriptions: “The only thing I could make out of Don was the glowing red tip of his cigarette that was floating in space about three feet in the blackness ahead of me.” We, too, are confused. We, too, squint at a phallic flickering we can’t quite make out. The story’s surprises continues to the last sentence—when our disenchanted narrator decides, despite the horror he felt moments ago, that he wants to do it again.
Jonathan Vatner’s prose poem opens yet another door in the corridor of gay dating culture—the locker room. The story arranges itself in short staccato sentences that move as quickly as the men entering and leaving the changing space.
In a chorus of voices, Robert Smith’s story stands out. Some of the issue’s most beautiful writing comes in his “Happy Birthday, Numbskull.” His command over first person and vivid imagery make for a powerful read:
But for a few moments every morning I was alone in my igloo, behind windows covered in snow and ice, with the steam coming from the old muffler growing into white, condensed clouds all around me, and I felt that was the only part of the day I was ever really safe. At least until the windows defrosted, and the crystallized corners slowly rolled back onto themselves, curling at the melting edges like a page from a book I wasn’t supposed to be reading thrown onto a fire.
Jonathan, though shorter than many of its literary companions, packs a lot of punch. The voices sing different tunes: of heartbreak, of loneliness, of homophobia, of joy, of fear, of exploration. As a collective, the chorus of voices portrays the rarely-found intimacy between reader, narrator, and author.
Review by Sherra Wong
Literal sets out to “provide a medium for the critique and diffusion of the Latin American literature and art,” and, at least in this issue, it is heavy on critique. Unlike the majority of literary magazines I am familiar with, most of Literal consists of short critical articles, with subjects ranging from a Picasso exhibit, to Philip Roth’s retirement, to social movements in Spain and Mexico. Its pointed reader is probably bilingual: while many pieces are presented with side-by-side Spanish and English versions, some are not, though the magazine offers English and Spanish translations of the others upon request.
A look at the cover—a photograph of a man in a suit, wearing a mask and sticking up his middle finger at the camera and the reader—may lead one to believe that Literal takes an overtly leftist, and maybe subversive, stance in its pages. Plenty of space is in fact devoted to reportage of movements questioning the status quo. However, the writers in Literal do not hesitate to criticize the questioners themselves. For example, Carlos Puig’s commentary on the YoSoy132 (“I Am 132”) movement in Mexico takes issue with its vision. YoSoy132 began in May 2012 at the Ibero-American University in opposition to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto and the alleged favoritism by Mexico’s two nationwide TV networks of the candidate. Puig points to the non-partisan platform of YoSoy132 as part of the reason that the movement has lost steam: “How is it that a movement that was born vigorous, as a confrontation to one candidate, call itself non-partisan and neutral among the candidates?” (Note: The piece is written in Spanish; this quote was translated by the reviewer.)
Similarly, “15M and a (More or Less) Revolutionary Tradition” by Ramón González Férriz does not refrain from pointing out what the Spanish 15-M movement, and their predecessors, are and are not:
It mattered little whether their ideas were any good, or even possible: the protesters tended to argue from their campsite that they did not intend to create a coherent political program, but rather were expressing their unrest and conveying it to a public opinion that was enormously receptive to any expression of dissent with the status quo.
15-M refers to the protests in Spain during 2011 and 2012 that had their origins in the European debt crisis and the ensuing austerity measures taken by the Spanish government. The first of the protests occurred on May 15, 2011 (hence 15-M). González Férriz neither gives such popular movements undue credit nor dismisses them out of hand; rather, he appraises them with a dispassionate eye:
At certain moments, the selfsame act of rebelling may seem like a good idea, even though the possibilities of attaining victory are remote . . . But beyond all of that, and beyond how they see themselves, these movements act for all of society as a sample of the possibility of rebellion, of confronting power no matter what the final result may be.
John Plueker poses the question to the reader—or, rather, the viewer of the images that are the subject of his essay—“What do you really want to see of war?” The images are from an exhibition at Fotofest in Houston called Crónicas: Seven Contemporary Mexican Artists Confront the Drug War. For Plueker, the exhibition questions the ability of photographs and videos to show what is really going on. More than other media, photographs and videos promise to render reality as it is, especially on a subject like the Mexican drug war that has been reported and even sensationalized ad nauseum. However, the images reprinted in Literal challenge any assumption that the viewers may have that they “know what is happening, that they are in touch with the ‘real.’” Two boys kneel on a dirt floor, holding up packages that look like bricks or packages of marijuana in a video still from Edgardo Aragón’s Efectos de Familia: even if you have read all that has been written about the drug war, what can you know about these boys?
I love Sven Birkerts’s writing for its meditative quality, and his reflection on Philip Roth’s retirement announcement and the writing process does not disappoint. The honesty is typical: “And I do wonder: why do I care so much? What do I gaining [sic] by daily setting myself the writing task and then—I sound like Roth—so often failing to make good?” The answer that Birkerts reaches for is personal. For him, writing is a “way of inhabiting the earth,” as Natalia Ginzburg once wrote. The answer is neither grandiose nor hollow. I trust it.
Literal is a challenging but rewarding read. It also reminds the Anglophone American reader how close Latin America is: in their midst, even, as English and Spanish are spoken in the same room and side by side on the same page.
Review by Julie J. Nichols
The London Magazine (TLM) upholds a high standard of tone, diction, and point of view. The oldest cultural journal in the United Kingdom, TLM began publication in 1732; it has published a list of writers that includes Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats, T. S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas and Doris Lessing. This issue contains essays on a variety of cultural topics, including eight lengthy book reviews, as well as poetry by seven fine poets and one short story. The volume is clean and sharp in appearance; inside, the text is pleasing to the eye, neither too small nor too large, and well-spaced on the page. Color reproductions of the latest paintings by Pakistani artist Jamil Naqsh grace the cover and comprise a special section within the issue. An excerpt from the commentary, by venerable art critic Edward Lucie-Smith, will give an indication of the tone of the magazine:
Naqsh is well known for sensual figurative work, most particularly for his voluptuous female nudes, which show the influence of Picasso and of the Italian sculptor Marino Marini, but also that of Ingres, of Mughal court painting, and of the sinuous erotic sculptures that adorn pre-Mughal Hindu temples . . .
His new series of paintings, however, consists of abstractions based on Arabic calligraphy. As is well known to all students of Islamic culture, the written words play a particularly important part in the history of Islamic visual expression.
The rest of the essay provides helpful, expert information on Naqsh’s work. Only serious readers need apply.
But maybe that’s not fair to readers of American experimental lit mags, who surely can be “serious” enough to appreciate “Triple Vintage Bohemia,” the essay by Michael Horovitz (who was spoken of by Allen Ginsberg as a “Popular, experienced, experimental, New Jerusalem, Jazz Generation, Sensitive Bard”). This discussion of “a few currently circulating documentations of post-World War II Bohemia” reviews a “massive de luxe” history of Soho 1948-2008 by Sophie Parkin; a biography of Pannonica Rothschild; and various editions of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, for a thorough look at the milieu of the Beat Generation.
The photographs alone will rivet. Grey Gowrie’s fine dramatic monologue “Reece Mews: Conversation Piece” precedes Horovitz’s essay with intimate references to Francis Bacon, Muriel Belcher, Lucian Freud, and other characters who play major roles in the books treated in Horovitz’s essay.
Other serious essays include author Jeffrey Meyers’s “The Remains of the Day: Ishiguro’s Jamesian Novel.” Here he argues that the “studiously formal, mannered and periphrastic” language employed by Ishiguro’s protagonist, the butler Stevens, is not merely a product of the author’s Japanese cultural heritage, but a method of revealing Stevens’s rejection of his class, a studied attempt to rise above it, renounce the possibility of happiness with a woman of the servant class, and become the man he serves. His failure to do so constitutes a theme echoing Henry James in The Lesson of the Master.
Daniel O’Byrne’s essay “Where are our Modern Day Ciceros?” argues that “the common ground or the centre ground of politics is a concept that would have been alien to Cicero”—that the contemporary politician’s effort to appeal to all voting citizens has damaged our concept of rhetorical power. When speakers want to appear to agree with everyone, they can hardly focus on one side or another of a controversial issue.
Eva Tucker’s lovely biographical essay on Dorothy Richardson informs with pleasing clarity. Rather than providing historical or literary criticism, Horatio Morpurgo’s “Europe: The View from a Homeless Shelter” posits in personal narrative a “third view” of the falling of the Berlin Wall. He describes an encounter with a wily Polish national in Germany in 1989, who uses him to get what he needs; Morpurgo shows in understated tones that his criminality was hardly culpable given the conditions there.
Suzi Feay’s short story “Candles for Corinne” opens this issue. A five-page one-paragraph monologue, it chronicles the frustrations and failures of its narrator, whose final complaint is that he has no story worth telling. Yet Feay gives him one: his compassion for a murdered prostitute who stands in, in his mind, for the women who have let him down. This, along with the allusive poems by such award-winners as Helen Dunmore and Philip Gross, rounds out the strong contributions in this issue of The London Magazine. For anglophiles and literary/cultural/historical scholars and enthusiasts, this magazine is a serious treasure.
Volume 6 Number 2
Review by Justin Brouckaert
As an avid reader of flash fiction, I’ve long admired the diversity of writing featured in NANO Fiction. The journal’s 500-word ceiling for stories results in a showcase of quick, narrative-driven flash as well as prose that lingers with a heavy dose of lyricality. It ranges in genre from what we might call realist flash to work that is much more surreal, and everything in between. Through it all, the journal values work featuring language that is playful, explorative, and sharp.
NANO Fiction’s most recent issue features not only a host of different forms and styles of flash, but also work that obscures the borders between flash fiction and prose poetry, the real and the surreal, the concrete and the lyrical.
Among the shorter stories that caught my attention were Russ Woods’s “Hammers” and Matthew Maheny’s “The Desert,” two pieces that are vastly different in style despite sharing the very short paragraph form.
“Hammers” is founded on wit and playfulness, as the unlikely premise of the story is revealed in the opening line: “Sara was in a room full of hammers.” It’s a smart piece that always keeps one step ahead of the reader, framing the possibilities of Sara’s next move, line by line, leaving the reader not with a solution, but with a subtle shift in perspective that indicates neither acceptance nor defeat. The piece moves quickly, with crisp, clipped language throughout, each sentence feeding off and linking into the other.
“The Desert” also begins by defining a premise, with an unnamed narrator announcing, “In 1948 only one baby was born in the state of New Mexico, a boy named Samuel.” The prose snaps quickly, though not to the narrative of Samuel, but to the Santa Fe Times’s attempt to discover why New Mexicans failed to reproduce during the year in question. From there the piece begins to purposefully drift, and the answer takes the piece from quick, snappy sentences to an explanation that stretches out and lingers at the edge of story like the desert itself, leaving us “staring out at absolutely nothing but the color red.”
Casey Hannan’s “Till Now” is a longer piece of flash that utilizes dialogue, a strong first-person voice, and the freezing of a powerful narrative moment. “Till Now” tells the story of two men who meet and share a moment of intimacy at a distillery tour. The intimacy isn’t stated outright, however, and the piece itself is driven by a quiet secrecy that gathers momentum from subtle touches of language, gathering momentum off the page to culminate in a moment of highly charged sexual tension.
In another narrative-driven piece of flash, Jacqueline Kharouf takes a seemingly bizarre situation—finding “the perfect miniature buffalo” in an alley—and turns it into something very real. After the narrator brings the buffalo back into her house, she tells him, “You’d think people would be more interested in you,” a line that stands out and gains power as it becomes clear that the woman’s investment in the creature isn’t just something crafted for whimsical effect. Kharouf made me care for the woman and the buffalo—their vulnerability, the ways they rely on each other—in just a very small space, and that’s what gave such power and raw emotion to the story’s final line, the woman’s assertion, “I needed him, I told myself. He needed me, probably.”
Included in this issue is also a new section titled “State of Flash in the Classroom,” which features three short essays about the educational value of flash fiction at the post-secondary level. The essays cover a host of pedagogical topics, including the use of flash to teach elements of fiction, teaching flash exclusively in a class void of creative writing majors, and using flash in writing/art hybrid courses.
It’s an intriguing addition, and—I would argue—an important one to include in the conversation as flash fiction emerges, as Associate Editor Sophie Rosenblum argues, as “an important teaching technology for the 21st century.”
In all, this issue of NANO Fiction is like the many issues before it: stocked with diverse interpretations of flash fiction, all of them smart, sharp and wildly entertaining. These are stories that push boundaries, stories that challenge classifications and genres, and above all, stories that continue the conversation of what the term “flash fiction” means, and how it means it.
Review by Mary Florio
If you want a devastating collection of modern literature, reach for Pembroke Magazine. The journal was launched from North Carolina in the late 1960s and has matured to a strong print presence among the small presses. From the variety of vantage points and voices, you might not even realize that it showcases the best of compilation out of the Edenic East Coast—one hundred miles from Charlotte, one hundred miles from the sea. But it manages to capture this in time and place with a rich lyricism and insightful prose.
Poetry opens the volume with a range of subject matter and presentation. This leads into prose with a review of Glenna Luschei’s Leaving It All Behind. The review, by Perie Longo, reaches toward an element to carry you forward in the journal with its prescient beginning: “To enter Glenna Luschei’s latest book you might want to take plenty of water, Vitamin C, and a flashlight.” If more of us took to the dark with a flashlight and a book of poems—especially, perhaps, Luschei’s—surely our ailments would fold into the imaginations of our forefathers.
Gilbert Allen’s short fiction “Peers” opens the fiction section nicely with a little bit of law and a little bit of literature, not to be limited to the law and literature movement per se, closer somehow to the classical—Chaucer over Grisham in character development and plot vicissitudes. As you tidy up the loose ends in a lovely glow of happ-ish endings, that is, the marriage of happenstance and happiness, the mood of the story rocks gently into Neil Connelly’s “The Lost Art of Believable Make Believe,” a meditation on parenthood and responsibility that borrows the examination of righteousness we inherit from Allen’s piece. It reads like a lullaby stitched together with licorice—we learn about fatherhood in the first person and his dreams and stresses. But as we move forward within the story, the candied auspices of the introduction flash and sizzle. We see a murder and a divorce roiling across the caramel skies. Accountability? Do we even evaluate causation, can we believe what we have seen? Send in the clowns; rearrange the chairs. Righteousness blurs like a festival of parenting and light.
Wiley Cash’s insights about his new book A Land More Kind than Home, warm the center of the journal and animate the work around it with its daring premise and the writer’s humility and hope. I was then whisked away by the fresh verve of Katie Burgess’s short essay about love and faith, “Rahab’s Thread.” Stories making light of conservative, restrictive faith practices, or by those who use faith to effect restriction are not unusual. But Burgess is heartbreakingly funny. I tried valiantly to be offended, but it was impossible. Here is an example of Burgess making a well-traveled premise completely new:
“Whore!” the man yelled.
I wasn’t sure if he meant me, but I turned and looked back. He was pointing in my direction. It hit me how in another time and place a man like him might have stoned me or burned me at the stake. Now all he could do was wave a sign around and call me names. My heart swelled with love for the twenty-first century.
Burgess seems to have riffed on a shtick honed by David Sedaris (in his early years), but she does it with her own confidence and mastery of the form. It is easy to derive inspiration from the modern greats, but to make it your own, as those in this journal do consistently—we might call it the biosimilar feature of literature—classes you in your own circus, however measured or far away.
Review by Julie J. Nichols
The blurbs on the back and in the ads in the middle of this issue of Post Road say things like “I often give away literary journals to my students . . . but I can’t give away Post Road—all I can do is show my copies to my students and then protectively snatch them back!” And “I trumpet Post Road not out of kindness but out of the purely selfish pleasure I take in a frisky, alert, independent magazine whose words and images spring off the page and sometimes turn a somersault or two before they stick their landings in my brain . . .” The former, by Aimee Bender, and the latter, by Walter Kirn, add up to something sounding too good to be true. However, let me reassure you: even a skim through this issue confirms their joie de la lecture.
Every page is rollicking good fun, a reward for all the time you’ve spent learning to make sense of letters linked together into words and sentences since you were a kid. It’s a reader’s mag, indeed. Jo Ann Beard’s “Seven Books in Seven Days” reminds you of all the ills that have befallen you since screens took over, then commands you to unplug and read. Books. “Read like it’s 1999,” she says and gives you her titular seven books in seven days so deliciously you pat yourself on the back that you’re already not at the computer but reading this magazine.
Did I say “delicious”? That’s the (almost) penultimate word in “A Tremendous (Experience of) Fish,” by Craig Reinbold, a marvel of a short work of creative nonfiction in which the quest, the search, the longing of a lifetime is finally achieved at Pier 39 in San Francisco: “It was all righteously delicious. And then, a little later, we went for a swim.” But I’m not giving you a spoiler. This compressed and concise meditation on what it means to trot after the thing we seek, whatever it is, and then be upon it, and in it—this will remind you why you like to read every word of a piece significantly longer than 140 characters.
Ryan Boudinot’s story “Readers and Writers” (which I hereby nominate for Best American Short Stories’s next collection) gives us a reader’s dream: the person who’s read every single book you’ve ever read, is reading what you’re reading while you’re reading it, emails you about it, gets drunk discussing it with you, and then gives you the gift you gave up hope for about the time you got married and took a lucrative job: the novel you were meant to write. Precise, sharp, hilarious—this story epitomizes all that’s good about Post Road.
But the whole section of the journal titled “Recommendations” (where Beard’s piece is located) also constitutes a most satisfying reader’s category. Pithy recommendations for Love, an Index (poetry by Rebecca Lindenberg), The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine (Donald Barthelme’s children’s book), and How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (literary sci-fi by Charles Yu) all had me searching Amazon, eager to follow Beard’s advice and spend seven days doing nothing but turning the pages of physical, paper-and-cloth books.
There are also some non-reader-oriented pieces in this issue of Post Road that nevertheless make the reader glad to be a reader. The entire Guest Folio, “Writing the Body: Creative Nonfiction,” lovingly introduced by Amy Boesky, illuminates the power of CNF to illuminate our mortal coils. My favorite is Priscilla Long’s “O is for Old,” which urges readers alphabetically to consider “uber-old” age as an imperative, by really learning (not just doing Sudoku) and otherwise intentionally claiming alert, active lifestyle habits. Another alphabet piece, “The ABCs of Parting,” by Gail Hosking, is in a different section, but clearly our readerly need for the alphabet is at work on a number of levels. Back in the Guest Folio, Floyd Skloot’s beautiful personal narrative about managing new aspects of his disability, “Elliptical Journey,” is also my favorite. And so are the four other pieces in this section.
I haven’t even approached the poetry, or A-J Aronstein’s “#GentlemanlyPursuits in Paul Kahan’s Chicago,” a hilarious account of would-be journalism gone horribly awry. A central full-color art section by Valerie Brennan, Molly Herman, and Lucy Mink rounds out the joy here. Bender and Kirn just may be right. Readers, rejoice. Post Road is really, really good.
Volume 6 Number 1
Review by Mitchell Jarosz
Quiddity has the variety anyone can enjoy: the new works of poetry, prose, art, and interviews are drawn from around the world. And the results and advantage of combining a literary and art journal with public radio programs is always intriguing. I don’t know how the radio station handled the paintings, but here we can view George Colin’s nine untitled pieces as support, counter-point, accompaniment, or just plain enjoyable.
Among the really enjoyable prose pieces are Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s “Thaw” and Kelly Martineau’s “Bounty and Burden.” They provide us with events and views of life at stages of emotional heights that we can identify with, even though our experiences may been different. The feelings continue with Haider Al-Kabi’s “Little Hamida” and Patricia Caspers’s “Losing Your Daughter in the Bookstore.” Ethnic background and cultural differences have no effect on feelings in pieces such as these. We move with the emotions that come with loss and fear of loss, noting only different circumstances.
And in pieces such as these and Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer’s “A Different Place” and Nadia Ibrashi’s “Why Afghan Women Risk Death to Write Poetry,” the time and place reinforce our responses because they bring us closer to the people than the news media can. These are not news casts; these are the true reality shows. All of these pieces deal with events that we can relate to even when we haven’t been in a war zone or a natural catastrophe such as the characters in Vilhauer’s tsunami relocation or Ibrashi’s poetry.
The collection is as moving as it is ‘entertaining,’ but I have to strongly recommend a really fine piece by Trellan Smith, “A Leg to Stand On.” This piece is so poignant and nearly lyrical, I hate to call it prose. The rhythm and color of the phrasing carry the feeling as well as the message:
As if it mattered, we thought. As if all this attention to detail was necessary. As if that foot would feel a crooked seam under its heel. As if that foot had any use for a sock at all. As if, she seemed to suggest, we might each pull from our pockets and bags, backpacks and purses our own missing parts, stand-in confidences and fabricated facades, and bare their necessity and our minute care of them for all to witness. As if it might be possible to expose oneself and not die of shame.
For those interested in literary history and biography, there is an excellent interview with Jennie Battles, Site Administrator of the Vachel Lindsay Home State Historic Site in Springfield, Illinois. This blend of preservation conservation and insight into Vachel Lindsay’s life provides a fascinating view of the forerunner to today’s slam and “new American” poetry. We are not only introduced to Lindsay’s “tramp” years and his relationships with Monroe, Yeats, Sandburg, and Hughes, but also his concerns for the use of language and what would be today’s ‘political correctness.’
There’s more, of course; Quiddity provides quality and variety; for those who want added quantity, the biographies of the authors guide the reader to other sources and publications that I’m sure will be just as rewarding.
Volume 1 Issue 3
Review by Holly Zemsta
Stealing Time is a magazine for, about, and by parents. When I discovered its existence, I was immediately intrigued, yet wary as well. Would it have an angle, an agenda to promote? Would it rise above the content of most parenting magazines out there? Thankfully, the answers are no and yes. Stealing Time lives up to its mission statement: “To provide a venue for quality literary content about parenting: no guilt, no simple solutions, no mommy wars.”
Published quarterly, with an additional annual issue on pregnancy and childbirth, the magazine features a theme for each issue, this issue’s being “Relations.” Like the magazine’s take on parenting itself, the theme seems open to interpretation, which I found to be a positive thing.
The opening editor’s essay, “Built By Hand” by Sarah Gilbert, kicks off the theme of relations by discussing the strained relationship she and her husband have with his side of the family. After three decades of tension, communication begins to trickle in from various relatives, including her estranged father-in-law. Having only been in contact with her mother-in-law’s relatives, Gilbert finds the wealth of new information enlightening: “This was where my boys’ strong hearts and problem-solving brains had come from. . . . This was how my youngest could run two miles without stopping at almost my pace.” No easy miracles occur, however. She is unable to let go of her anger toward those she blames for the family rift: “I want to let my anger die away to ash, but this new half a family kindles both my sense of pride in my boys’ heritage and my wrath. I let it smolder.”
Fiction and nonfiction pieces continue along these lines. Jason Squamata’s nonfiction piece “A Noir Aspect” details a relationship that doesn’t work out, seemingly for the best—the narrator seems somewhat unprepared for a life with a woman who has a three-year-old child. One gets a secondhand sense of the difficulties of dating for single parents: “I worried for [the child] and felt guilt over the confusion my love affair with his mother had brought into his world.” Jackson Connor’s “Limited Spiritual Access” describes the difficulty of being a stepfather in a Mormon family. Despite helping to raise his wife’s four children (and having their own child together), the author notes that “only the first marriage in Mormon culture is eternal.” But despite a persistent feeling of being on the outside looking in, by the end of the essay he comes to understand his own role in their lives.
“Snow and Coffee,” a story by Bhaswati Ghosh, follows the life of Aruna, an Indian woman who moves to Toronto with the assurance that her husband will follow within the year. Nine years later, she is still alone save for her son, whom she struggles to support by working in an Indian restaurant in a nearby shopping plaza. After years of experience as a journalist in India, Aruna had been confident she would obtain the same type of job in Canada, and the story is a bleak vision of what must befall many immigrants. Yet it ends hopefully; her relationship with her son is solid and healthy, and Aruna learns to cope with her single parent status and find her own self again.
The magazine’s poems are a little more loosely centered around the “relations” theme, probably necessarily so. “Wolves Eat Children” by Heather Bell delves into the death of a child: “. . . And so I am here to tell you what the doctors // will not: that when you lose a baby, you will feel like a Nazi and the sadness will fill // the room quietly on stilts, hovering at the ceiling. . . .” Kristin Camitta Zimet’s “Choker” goes to the other end of the spectrum, beginning with a child tasked with untangling her mother’s choker necklace and ending with a different type of necklace as the mother dies: “. . . Your arms raise an O, / clasping my neck as you go out for good.” And in Changming Yuan’s “Codicil to Allen Qing Yuan,” the narrator entreats her son to inter her remains on the Internet: “In an e/cask, and send it / To a site that will / Never be on hiatus.”
My favorite piece in the magazine is Lisa Sinnett’s “No Organic Allowed,” a story that begins as a deceptively simple day in the life of a woman in Detroit. Elisa has just dug her car out after a blizzard so she can take her two small children to the supermarket. She needs to go because she has just received her WIC coupons and they are desperate for food. The conflict of the story comes when the cashier refuses to let her purchase organic cheese, despite the fact that it’s on sale and is the same price as regular, WIC-approved cheese. As the people behind her grumble and the cashier and manager treat her with barely veiled contempt, Elisa remains calm, even when her toddler ends up wetting her clothes. After leaving, she returns home to find the parking spot she labored to clear taken by someone else, yet she still manages to find hope in the nearby pine tree that is “still living, growing, and rooted in its own space.” The story is a heartbreaking, human look into the reality of poverty.
Stealing Time also features wonderful black-and-white
photography that serves as the perfect backdrop to each of the
pieces. I enjoyed almost all the work in the magazine, and I felt
that this is a quality addition to the lit mag world that anyone, parent or not, would enjoy reading. It’s a thoughtful look at the world of parenting, but with a broad enough lens that everyone is included.