Posted December 16, 2013
Volume 11 Number 1
Review by Melanie Tague
Each issue of 32 Poems is an intimate encounter that is made the perfect size with clever cover art that makes me want to carry it around everywhere. This issue of 32 Poems features cover art from Elliot Walker as well as a humorous back cover titled “32 Things We Really Should Apologize For” by Aaron Alford and Liz Anderson Alford. Literally, this issue of 32 Poems is a must read from front to back.
Luke Johnson’s poem “Burn the Scarecrow” captivates readers immediately; it has numerous levels and is well worth a read. The poem tells the story of a son who is burning a scarecrow because his mother, who is receiving chemo, told him to do so. The scarecrow serves literally and figuratively as a dummy for which the chaos of the situation to move through. The poem has a ritualistic and elegistic feel; it begins:
Remember the smell of the match gone out.
Remember gust after gust bending stalks
as you cupped your hands around slow-burning
cornsilk jammed in the wristless sleeves.
Remember night, heat on your palms.
And your mother, chemo-ravaged
The constant use of the word “remember” combined with words such as “match”, “gust”, and “slow-burning” alludes to ritual, to a conjuring, to remembering. In just the first three stanzas, Johnson displays a very tight writing style in which every word has been carefully chosen to reinforce another. This ritualistic conjuring continues and reaches almost a delusional point:
and still, watching from a candlelit porch.
she reached for your wrist that morning,
said only, I want you to burn the scarecrow.
So you did: you soaked its workshirt in kerosene
and watched black smoke lick button-eyes
hollow: an effigy burning itself to a cross.
The speaker’s memories of interactions with the mother are fragmented, and when this notion is put next to watching “black smoke lick button-eyes,” the sense is of a room spinning or some ritual-induced delusion.
Another ritualistic poem worth mentioning is “Moon” by James Henery Knippen which uses the art of repetition along with some compelling linguistic work to leave a major impact on the reader. It begins:
Wet moon on bluestem, if sound
is enough. If sound is enough,
Trillium tryst. Mouth full of
dark roses, if image is enough. If
image is enough, weeping gladiolus.
A typical aim of repetition within a poem is the attempt to rid the speaker of some sort of trauma, and Knippen’s way of ending a sentence with the same few words and then beginning the next one with the same set of words seems to approach this. “Mouth full / of dark roses, if image is enough,” followed by beginning the next sentence with “If image is enough,” challenges the reader, saying: If image is enough, then imagine weeping gladiolus because that is really what I am saying. The speaker wants the reader to imagine these sounds and images so the speaker no longer has to. Knippen uses repetition to raise the intensity as the speaker tries to forget the trauma, until the poem ends with the speaker asking the reader to “incinerate” everything:
when the hedge is one fire. If Love
is enough, chrysanthemum kiss.
Blue light licks the lakeshore
if the moon’s a damned liar. If the
moon’s wet enough, incinerate this.
Sasha West’s poem “We Navigate the River of Tar Under that Tethered Balloon of Light” begins by commanding the reader to “Listen,” which brings urgency to the situation. The speaker is trying to warn about a deceitful man by drawing on the act of fishing:
Listen: Failures skin was a sheet
stretched to be a screen
the rough weigh of canvas;
those things he showed me flickered
on his flesh like a tide of luminescent fish,
like lapping tongues of fire, without
the images changing him. . . .
After creating somewhat of a surrealist feel with mention of “tongues of fire” and “images changing him,” the speaker explains the haunting feeling, and the poem begins to turn cold:
. . . I never learned
what projected those stories–if
you could dissect him on a table,
would you find the apparatus?
These lines remind me of a biology class or a surgical procedure, which creates a cold and desolate tone. It resonates as the poem reveals how and where the speaker’s relationship with this man ended.
Not only should you pick up the most recent copy of 32 Poems right now, you should probably buy a copy for all your friends for the holidays. Then, you should just go ahead and subscribe to it because if you don’t, you’ll regret it. It truly is a well put together journal with work from tons of great writers. It is only proper to end this with a quote from the backcover’s list of “32 Things We Really Should Apologize For”: “#27 That time we tried to be cool and said, ‘You only YOLO once!’”
Review by John Palen
Jelly Bucket is the literary magazine of the Bluegrass Writers Studio at Eastern Kentucky University. As previous reviewers have noted, this magazine welcomes a broad diversity of work in fiction, nonfiction, interviews, poetry (including translation), and art. Graphic design is bright and lively without sacrificing readability. Big pages and proportionally ample margins present writers and artists well. The quality of the work is a bit uneven, but overall, standards are high and there are some really fine works.
The one that I will remember the longest, because it is so unusual in the current climate of literature, is Alexander N. Tan Jr.’s short story “Sea Voyage.” Tan, a practicing physician in the Philippines, has written a tale of refugees crossing stormy, shark-infest open water in a small boat. It is a survival story of mythic proportions, told with all the stops out and not a bit of irony. There are a handful of characters, each one finely chiseled. By the time their fates play out, we know them and care about them. Some live, most die. There’s no justice in who lives and dies. The story ends as the narrator, convulsed with anger, “turned and shook a fist at the grinning sea.”
Equally strong is Adriana Paramo’s memoir “Chocolate Water Running Down Her Legs.” It’s an account of Paramo’s efforts to get medical help for Lucy, her Indian servant in Kuwait, where abortion is strictly forbidden. Lucy’s alcoholic husband has gotten her pregnant, and they cannot support another child. An illegal abortion goes wrong, and Paramo races against bleeding, infection, official callousness and medical cowardice in an effort to save the lift of this gentle, uncomplaining, suffering woman. Want to know how it turned out? Get the magazine. Read the story.
In addition to the standard practice of publishing one or two poems by a number of authors, Jelly Bucket does readers a service by presenting several poets at more length. I particularly enjoyed Joel Peckham’s eight-poem sequence “Psalms for the Fallen World” and Daniel Bourne’s translations from the Polish of five poems by Bronislaw Maj. Like Tan’s short story, Maj’s poetry admits us into a style different from what we are used to—in Maj’s case, the short, pithy, interior monologue, the poet talking to himself and perhaps “the God / disowned from his own house.”
The 180 pages of this issue also include many more poets and prose writers as well as interviews of Adam Day and Glen Retief. Art portfolios by Brian Dettmer, Marco Ambrosi, Monica Dengo, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, and Patricia Dahlman all deal with the written word as an art object. They are eye-catching and provocative.
Review by Danielle Rohac
Harvest time is my favorite time of year, so I was naturally drawn to this “Harvest” issue of Kindred. From the photographs to the stories and poems to the how-to pieces in this issue, Kindred not only brings the harvest season to life on the page, but also accomplishes its goals of bringing the sense of home and togetherness, fusing two themes of harvest and community.
The piece “Brought to You by Anonymous” by Noah Milligan brings this sense out in an unusual way. This short fiction takes a very subtle futuristic story line; if it wasn’t for one law the world has, it could easily take place in 2013. The characters in this story are not allowed to mow their own lawns, and over the course of events, end up living in suburban jungles with run-down cities. The protagonist, an eleven-year-old, socially awkward girl, takes on an almost vigilante-type personae as she leads a group of other girls to illegally perform lawn services on the city by night. The only low point of this story is the out-of-tune parents. Anyone who has ever suffered teen angst of any kind will appreciate those moments.
Probably my favorite piece in this issue is “Four Bosc Pears” by Jenn Blair. The poem is rich in its language and descriptions of the four pears, creating a vibrant image that exceeds simply four pears sitting in a red bowl:
Four yellow bodies
in a cheery red bowl.
One has no stem.
Another wears a gash
like a sash. One’s complexion
was marred by a relentless
storm and branch. The
last has an uneven edge
from swelling cells sewing
up its sides all wrong.
The theme of harvest runs throughout several, if not most of the poems in this issue; however, its meaning changes from poem to poem. In some, it takes on the meaning of new birth, of childhood and possibilities. In Molly Sutton Kiefer’s “Post-Op,” the theme is more one of second chances as the speaker celebrates her father-in-law’s survival of liver cancer: “It’s the last days of summer, before sun / slits its long winter eye. Out back, my husband / grills liver, a gift to his father for survival.” My favorite lines in this poem, though, are not this unusual celebration of a son over his father’s illness, but the speaker’s own connection between the harvest of vegetables to the existence of human life: “I think of my son as a root vegetable: / how can I not, when all last winter / this was how his growth was measured?”
The photographs paired with particular pieces tie in nicely, as do the two how-to sections of the issue, “Utensil Wrap” and “Gather and Make, A Collective Art Project.” This issue will make you miss the colors, smells, and tastes of harvest once more.
Review by Mary Florio
In the most recent issue of New Ohio Review (NOR), the editors feature a series of “Translation Cruxes,” inspiring meditations on the method by which we are able to access voices from afar. The trick, of course, is that the journal is full of translations—maybe not in the nature of the subjunctive, but rather in the way feelings are translated.
This issue featured fiction contest prizewinners Brian Trapp’s “The Best Man” and Bradley Bazzle’s “Crimes of the Video Age,” as selected by Stuart Dybek. Author of I Sailed with Magellan, Dybek is a master of what appears to be effortless storytelling. But “effortlessness” is just a ruse—under the joy of his craft is a thoughtful deliberation—and his choices in NOR were completely aligned with this approach.
Bazzle’s story is one of the finest I have ever read; it channels Bradbury to address serious social realities with a near Shakespearean scope. The story is very brisk, with humor and terror managed expertly. On one level, it tells the story of two clowns, a half-naked sunbather, and a world where every movement is captured on film. On another level, it is about disguise and identity and about the impact of technology on evidence and perceptions of reality.
Trapp’s “The Best Man” presents a startlingly original premise: two American expats to China are hired to stand in at a wedding to lend the bride and groom a kind of prestige. While the story is funny and bombastic at times, flowing with a kind of effervescent effortlessness, it is more than just a look at race and culture in the now with a nod to the future. Its execution is sincere, and the characters do not simply stand in for political commentary. In fact, the characters are so real that your heart will break for them. And so while the setting and the artistic value proposition are compelling and bravely negotiated, this is a story that can and does happen anywhere.
Brave experiments exist in the poetry of NOR as well. Take three poems by Michael Casey: each is a perfect translation of experience to a larger reality, which is perhaps the effect of the very best poetry, but Casey expresses sublimation in a vital and new way. For example, in “for Claude Monet” Casey crosses culture and time with an examination of perspective anchoring very different worlds. The legwork is elegant; there is no pretense to deter the reader from her own literary experience:
I mean the excitement level
was just about in negative numbers
as my sister’s basketball team
lost its seventh straight
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
no sense of perspective
in art too you have to see
my sister’s painting
of the flour mill with the water wheel
Casey’s three poems carry this style throughout. They are conversational without being confessional, brave and straightforward without any hint of cliché. What drew me to Casey’s work was that he tackled tough subjects for poets—the world of the office relationships, for example. It made me think of S.Y. Agnon simply in terms of the economy of great ideas in such disciplined language.
Tam Lin Neville’s memoir “The Skirts and Blouses are Hatched” is finely designed and orchestrated with just enough of the key elements to carry you forward: her family, herself, ultimate loss, the snow, the cycle of life. I admire her restraint and that the story—to its own tempo—still touches you innately, quietly. I thought of this driving feeling when reading Eleanor Stanford’s essay “Seven to One” when she says with perfect emotional pitch: “She hums a song whose only word is the untranslatable sodadi: longing for something you can’t have, a longing so strong that it eclipses the object of desire.”
The journal’s section on what is translatable is rife with ideas—translating sound (Patty Crane), translating Choctaw poems (Marcia Haag), translating surrealism (Mark Polizzotti), translating “the just name” (Robert Chandler), and translating “Stone upon Stone” (Bill Johnston). The essays are compact and economical, fine winter reading that teaches you about the building blocks of language and the weave of meaning buried in every vowel and inflection. And, more broadly, it is a love of language in every line—the careful choices NOR writers make—that sets New Ohio Review apart as an essential voice for these times.
Volume 31 Number 2
Review by Mary Florio
If surrealism is a vehicle for expressing the unsaid, then The Southeast Review smartly packages its fiction in a way that says a great deal through a scrim of restraint. In this way, the magazine honors the Southern vernacular tradition of saying something poignant innocuously.
In Katie Coyle’s short story “The Tether,” the narrator’s effervescent, magical twin sister eclipses the expected through a kind of “shooting up.” Coyle foreshadows the ending with tremendous strokes, both in the emotional development of the narrator and the pull of the Genesis story arc. The trick is trying to discern, in true Southern fashion, what exactly is meant by the strong narrative cloaked in such lovely language. I like that it can be read in a thousand ways—less scripted than even the archetype of twin rivalry—and that it can be enjoyed without a key to the code. But the vehicle is more than what it seems, and what you take away is a metaphorical richness.
The story is preceded in the journal by another haunting tale, woven with its own ghosts and a wrenching sorrow. In the short story “We Didn’t Say Virginia,” Lauri Anderson Alford manages a cohesive storyline that unravels along with her narrator’s psyche in an original sequence. Disintegration marries explicit events so that the surrealism Alford achieves is as hard to fathom as one’s own recollection. It works. Her craft is so well executed that even the gentlest read of it allows for clean transitions of place, time, and character. On the one hand, one might be left with the sense of witnessing a seemingly unpreventable murder in a wasteland of failed love. But on the other hand, it is about the recklessness of self-absorption in white post-Civil Rights Southern dissolution.
In both of the less strictly realist stories, you can weigh the possibilities for hours. Placed in between them is Graham Cotten’s “Resurfacing,” a neat commentary on public space, human manipulation of the environment (and vice versa), and how one manages to come of age after one has already come of age. The ending provides the reader with a sense of happiness and longing for the final frank weave of the story’s conclusion.
And as much as my premise rests on the theory that a Southern journal honors a localized tradition of saying less to say more, the nonfiction in the journal is rather clear. Joseph Chinnock captures a manic moment—and by that I mean the staccato of his words, the rapidity of his ideas—in a florid response to Nabokov. His confession is precisely not a confession: it rolls from salacious suggestion to an outlandish dinner cumulating in the one sentence that is static— “Rachel is dead to me.”
And while Chinnock’s narration struck me as kind of manic, Ira Sukrungruang names depression in a series of incantations of what “depression says.” But even though Sukrungruang may, at first glance, be talking about depression as a mood state and biological affect, he is also at his best in talking about faith, family, and a spellbinding map of the world:
Maps were easy places to dream, and my father was a dreamer. . . .And here we were. An immigrant father and his immigrant son. Wanting the world. With a map, you knew where you stood because everything was labeled, because there were roads that connected to other roads, borders outlined with thick lines, water a pale blue, mountains and hills in slight topographical curves. . . .
Take me there.
Let me breathe the air of a foreign land.
The journal becomes more concrete at that point. I admire the story of a young man learning about basketball as metaphor. I enjoy the book reviews almost as much as one might enjoy a fine book itself. I devour Katie Cortese’s interview with Paul Harding because I have been waiting on Tinkers for a rainy afternoon when nothing but the words matter, and now I can see the exoskeleton of the genius behind it. I cycle back to the poetry that opens the volume, and it is like folk art against a politicized landscape of otherwise solidly abstract verse.
The Southeast Review does not shy away from challenge; that one might perceive the stories of the fantastic lives chronicled herein to be “well-traveled” doesn’t take away from the new presentation and approach. They come at you from innovative angles, making the somehow still canonical themes wholly neoclassical.
Issue 25 Volume 2
Review by Mary Florio
Above the lintel of a passageway in Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol is a quote from Dante that reads: “Abandon all hope all ye who enter here . . .” The struggle for Irish independence mirrors this bleakness, but that struggle also corresponded to a pantheon of literature that no occupation could suppress. In this issue of The Stinging Fly, a literary journal based in Dublin, the Irish spirit is robust enough to signal outward. Not only did the editors cull a magnificent, relentlessly balanced collection of short narratives, they did so through translation. Voices from Brazil, Morocco, Belgium, Italy, China, Rwanda, Poland, Ukraine, Greece, The Netherlands, Spain, Austria and Finland come through translated from their native tongues into a worldwide map of disciplined craft.
Zou Jingzhi’s story “Eight Days,” translated by Jeremy Tiang and marvelously mapped out through a temporal framework, provides a sentence that could stand on its own: “A person inscribed with words became those words, and nothing more than those words.” It is that kind of expression that takes a story immersed in an unfamiliar cultural framework and makes it universal. And yet it fits with the narrative for the plot’s purposes and successfully evades the trap of editorializing. Rather, the story functions on many different and compelling levels, and the wisdom suits it elegantly.
Scholastique Mukasonga’s story of a Tutsi family in Rwanda, “Hunger-Iguifou,” is translated by Melanie Mauthner and portrays a desperate childhood battle with the demon of hunger that the speaker calls Iguifou. “I feel sorry that Death’s door didn’t open for me, sorry that someone came and rescued me from the threshold, for Death’s door is a beauty to behold, I’ve never seen stars so bright!” Her prose glitters on the page and forces an unnamable experience to be named. The story of starvation is almost holy in delivery, as the speaker ends the passionate and unforgettable missive with light once again: “It’s at that point when the memory of that light begins to burn me alive.”
Christos Ikonomou’s short story “People are Strange,” translated by Avgi Daferera, achieves resonance with an outstanding meter and pace to his narration. It begins:
Seven whole months without dreams. Seven whole months. It was the twenty-first of May when I had my last dream. I remember it well because it was the last time it rained at Perama and the surrounding area . . . Lena was celebrating her name-day and I said it was a good sign that it had rained on the same day and I had had a dream after so long. Since then nothing. No rain no dreams.
In reading it, you might find yourself pulled into the cognitive response of certain Lost Generation writers—I did, and was not disappointed by Mr. Ikonomou’s symmetrical ending: “. . . we look at the rain approaching from the west. We look at the black curtain closing slowly and soundlessly, slowly and soundlessly swallowing the shapes the colours the noise of the west.”
Naima El Bezaz’s short piece “Taboo,” as translated from the Dutch by Michael O’Loughlin, is funny and heartbreaking at once. We have lovely meditations on exile—“What kept them going was the dream of return”—along with a shocking plot twist that distinguished the effort as entirely masterful:
I stared at her, speechless. There was no stopping her. It all came out . . . she missed her mother. She missed the Moroccan soil from which she had sprung. She was afraid of the community which was always judging her. She wasn’t free and didn’t know how to protect her children. Her tears were louder than mine.
El Bezaz’s narrator navigates the unsightly tar of depression with an incredible ability to look beyond her own sadness and find healing for a parent who had initially sought emotional redemption through a folk spiritualist. El Bezaz’s voice is resilient and exceptional, looking out.
My mother, president of an expatriate Gaelic Arts society, taught me a lesson that applies to this volume in particular. She said that Ireland rising meant more than an ability to plaster the poetry of Yeats on your walls, which she did, or revel in a Celtic Tiger economic rebirth, which she could not afford to do. What those of her aging Arts society wanted most of all was to come home to an Ireland so phenomenally liberated that it could turn its gaze outward. This journal shows, in a way, its fulfillment of the dream of that Irish diaspora. This journal, which has conquered the four corners of the world in its scope, shows that the Ireland of today is not just kilts and Kells and Molly Malone in bronze. Each interview is magnificent, illuminating, instructive without sacrificing a strong pull towards intellectual engagement. This issue of The Stinging Fly is not just thirteen voices in translation; it is a thoughtful, international literary achievement.
Volume 15 Number 1
Review by Melanie Tague
This “Wild” issue of Tin House is special in that it contains both cover art and a feature from Matt Kish’s illustrated version of Conrad’s classic Heart of Darkness. As usual, Tin House features great work from poets, fiction writers, essayists, and reviewers. It has everything from essays on Vegas brothels or snakes to a “Readable Feast” that ends with a recipe for barnacles. Fair warning though, with a cover this visually stunning, you may never be able to actually open it.
Lauren Groff’s fiction piece “Salvador” captures the “wild” theme this issue of Tin House has chosen to embrace. “Salvador” is a story told in the third person that follows a middle-aged woman named Helena on a vacation to Salvador where she is forced to confront herself and her life and embrace both. The story progresses in a downward spiraling fashion picking up momentum with each sentence. Helena spends most of her time taking care of her ailing mother, but at least once a year she is able to go on an extravagant vacation with money she is given from her two sisters who can’t help out most of the year because of their jobs and families. Helena spends her vacation clinging to her “slowly departing” mother and having her way with men. This particular vacation, however, teaches Helena something no other one has: she is a caretaker, regardless of how much she wishes to exploit her beauty, bed men, and live carefree.
Tin House sticks close to home in the issue and publishes an essay “The Last Days of the Baldock” by Inara Verzemnieks. Verzemnieks takes an in-depth look at residents of a transient community that has been formed on a highway rest stop near Portland, Oregon called the Baldock. Verzemnieks recants the history of the Baldock as it was told to her and as she witnessed its final days; it is a story of basic humanity. Verzemnieks seeks to bring understanding to readers about people who become part of communities such as the Baldock because they are not the stereotypical transient community dwellers most people picture. Many work hard, such as a man named Jack who, despite working full time at a factory job and budgeting his money every month, is forced to sleep in his car at the Baldock every day. Jack tells Verzemnieks they want to pay taxes again, “They want to feel normal.” Not only did the residents long to feel normal, but they longed to have a place to call home where they are not forced to face the fact that they are truly alone in the world.
Kimberly Grey’s “System of Becoming Quite” is a poem about “quietness,” containing multiple levels that are all well-crafted. This poem expresses how love can come to seem perfect. To express the inability to truly become something, Grey uses the suffix “-ish” multiple times to convey having the likeness of something: “. . . once we were happyish people, we were / unrecognizable in our yellowish folds. It was / a pretty way to start . . .” The “happyish” explains a certain romanticism that often happens when people look back on horrible relationships and say that at the beginning they were good. Grey continues: “almost beaming. If it is brutal, then brutalish / is a way to live. Lovers never sufficiently love / anything. It’s a wildish thing . . .”
Even in the moments when Grey is not using “-ish” to convey “quiteness” the orchestration of words still convey it—“almost beaming” and “lovers never sufficiently love” for example—all of these things work together to display the trivial attempts we all make to do something perfectly or embody something perfectly. This is one of two “System” poems Grey has in this issue of Tin House and is part of a bigger project Grey has been working on. All are well worth reading.
In the Matt Kish feature, Kish discusses his Heart of Darkness and the “terrifying feeling of claustrophobia” to the story, and the sense of “only moving downward”—which he acknowledges is something each illustration had to follow. Kish discusses the challenge of not just illustrating Heart of Darkness but even more importantly, conveying that what happens in the novel is “horrifyingly universal.” Kish explains that to accomplish this, he had to pull the illustrations away from reality so the viewer could not place them in a specific time or place but could still relate them to the story itself. The feature includes ten pages from Kish’s illustrated novel, and each one is captivating and allows you to get a sense of the “downward” progression Kish describes.
Whether you are a writer, an illustrator, or a casual reader, let this issue of Tin House make you wildish; pick up a copy today and see where it can take you.