Literary Magazine Reviews

Posted February 17, 2014

Big River Poetry Review :: The Carolina Quarterly :: China Grove :: Field :: The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review :: Meat for Tea :: Rattle :: Reunion: The Dallas Review :: So To Speak :: Tampa Review :: The Texas Review :: Thema :: Transference

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Big River Poetry Review CoverBig River Poetry Review

Volume 1

July 2013


Review by John Palen

Big River Poetry Review publishes lots of poems online—eight in January 2014 and nine in December 2013, for example—then gathers them all annually in this journal. This first volume covers the period between the review’s founding in late May 2012 through the end of the year. Based in Baton Rouge, LA and published in an unwieldy eight and a half by eleven format with a bright red cover, it includes 154 poems by almost as many authors. The magazine is open to a wide range of styles, subject matter, and skill levels, including poems that would benefit from being workshopped.

That said, there is some good work here, including accomplished handling of rhyme and meter. Some poems are flawed but contain a great line or a great stanza, waiting to be built upon. Others cohere, get to where they need to go. Some are ambitious; for example, Martin Willitts Jr.’s six ekphrastic poems on Van Gogh. It’s too bad that they are scattered throughout the book instead of being grouped so they can be read as an ongoing project.

Other standout poems include Thomas Zimmerman’s “Pont du Gard,” a lean, angular sonnet, rhymed and metered. “The bridge is high above the river Gard,” it begins, “and we are in its plumbing.” I also liked Angie Harrison’s “Black Box,” an in-your-face presentation of the self that ends: “My back braces the wall. Three men / would suffer to move me. Lightning feeds / into my guts; I spark and speak.”

J.S. Absher’s “Commission” remembers the cockerels that adorned the hoods of the Dodges and Plymouths her father sold in the backyard: “. . . these ornaments stretch and crow / and the pale sun obeys, rising like smoke, / then catching fire on the green cusp of the sky.”

In her exuberant and edgy “New Orleans Roulette,” Lindsey Bellosa catches the spirit of the Big Easy:

You want something? Of course you do, we all do.
We want the moon, that queen in her wet jewel sky.
We open our mouths and our eyes: red and groping.
This city has so many things to put in them.
You might swallow the night or it might swallow you.

My award for the freshest language goes to Wanda Morrow Clevenger, whose long-lined Homeric narrative, “Return Unto Me the Self-Righteous Ones” tells the story of a feud, a hanging and a ghost that kills babies. It begins, “Come one Sunday in the early Appalachians, the Stanleys / shot up a church, dropped a Tilley preacher where he stood / and Tilleys where they’d cleaved bias and faith . . .”

It will be interesting to see where Big River Poetry Review goes from here. I hope it moves toward a format that is easier to hold in one’s hand and keep on a shelf, and that it attracts more work from its better poets and others like them.

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The Carolina Quarterly CoverThe Carolina Quarterly

Volume 63 Number 2

Fall 2013


Review by Mary Florio

Because of its length (about 133 pages), this issue of The Carolina Quarterly relies heavily on the strength of each of its components. Every sentence must move its alphabetical weight, more so than in one of those torrentially heavy volumes that seek to delight and have enough statistical room to dare to dismay—this collection is systematically frank and urgent.

I enjoyed Brandon Amico’s “Poem Beginning with a Line from Eugenio Montale,” perhaps because it does just that: “Upon me, upon you, and over the lemons”—and the miracle is that he keeps going, and going, and crescendos:

          She cried first, then I cried
first. The cicadas overheard were a globe
of even thinner glass, near invisible. We had
our own names but those meant nothing; I exist
twice, I am both here and gone . . .

Leslie Bazzett’s short story “Preludes” explores the mutability of love when a step-daughter comes home from college and inadvertently throws her stepfather’s predictable, quiet life into disarray. Bazzett deftly recasts T.S. Eliot’s eponymous poem in his collection “Prufrock and Other Observations.” From the story’s beginning, a mosaic of memories lays the groundwork for the inevitable tension, and yet we see this Prufrock in the forgiving aura of Thelonius Monk and the Club Grandean in Brooklyn.

Bazzett creates empathy for the protagonist in the third person. The first-person point-of-view might have been an easier method to engender it, but doing so would have, to borrow from Eliot, “assured [us] of certain certainties.” The delicacy of her language, along with the elegance of her insights, achieves a compelling portrait. She writes of an “upside-down topographical map,” spelling out the devastating truth: “Was it then he first saw himself reflected in her? The solitary boy, wandering fatherless along the hallway.”

Aaron Apps’s nonfiction essay “Barbecue Catharsis” is successfully disgusting. He depicts a shockingly nauseating scene in a department store bathroom, not to mention two grotesque eating scenes and filthy sex. One might recall certain fictional scenes by Chuck Palahniuk. Of course, the essay is only graphic and lurid on one level, and on that level it conveys original shock in the preciseness of the description. The fact that Apps was able to pull it off as nonfiction is critical to the achievement. Many writers can describe epitomes of germy, finely imagined horrors of the everyday bodily function, but not many would be gutsy enough to create cinéma vérité out of it. It also functions successfully on other rays of the philosophical and canonical spectrums. I credit the writer and the press for daring to pull it off, thinking of Joyce and those other ‘foul’ dreamers blacklisted and banned for aesthetic innovation.

R. Jess Lavolette also innovated formally, integrating the format of a video game into fiction called “Leave Luck to Heaven.” The communications between the story and the player create compelling vignettes that are a pleasure to read in the carefully crafted prose, but the interspersions also help drive the movement of the message. I was impressed by the dialogue, which reads clearly even when there are elements of the interface adjusting the interpretation of inputs (such as the refrain “Select yes”). It is tougher than a villanelle but more instinctive than an American sonnet. The voice, characterization, and plot are highly original, and the structure remains understandable even if you have never played a video game in your life and suspect you will miss certain trade references. I don’t think you will; like great genre literature, it tells you enough to participate without betraying its ruse or neglecting its sleight.

Alexandra Reisner’s memoir “Nerve Damage” is more than a Craigslist heartbreak, although it may deliver such to a certain extent, and Manuel Martinez’ short story “What Presses Against Your Bones” will sustain you on the function and premise of memory through deep darkness. Juan Ramirez captures a kind of commentary on the volume’s cohesiveness head-on in his fine poem “Homestead”:

Homestead lies half-faced deep in muck
east of the Everglades,
his beard and cheek form fields of cultivated marl
where winter crops are ready for harvest.

As such, with all of the darkness notwithstanding, this journal’s spot-on prose and winning poetry make this magazine a sensible read for the oncoming spring.

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China Grove CoverChina Grove

Number 1

Fall 2013


Review by Mary Florio

Through this riveting inaugural volume of China Grove, an editorial team rooted in Mississippi unveils the identity of the last of the great Southern literati, Mark Twain’s intellectual property battles, and love stories real and apocryphal, in one polished collection.

Co-editor Lucius Lampton explores “China Grove” as both a ghost town and an editorial perspective in his opening essay. He describes the many meanings of the journal’s title: an extinct town, the Chinaberry trees of the Deep South, and “a spiritual China Grove for those who love literature and art.” The journal editors orchestrate a compendium of more than twenty talented writers of this latter persuasion. Place and tradition (ebulliently originating in, but not limited to, the South) overlap tidally across the included writings.

One of the more distinctive features of the journal is its inclusion of reproductions of primary sources and its focus on interpretation of the past, or things passing. Take, for example, the exploration of Mark Twain and, separately, of Eudora Welty through extant documentation. It remains an exceptional way to broach literary discussion.

In 1898, Mark Twain had lost his beloved daughter and his fortune and was forced to pursue speaking tours to raise funds to protect what he had left. He pitched a manuscript to McClure’s Magazine as he followed the copyright debates being waged contemporaneously in English courts. China Grove reprints the pitch so that the reader can see the letter in Twain’s own hand, on his mourning stationary. Lampton comments, “In the ‘Peanut Stand’ the voice of Twain emerges . . . in a 7,000 word discussion over the idea of copyright and an author’s right to fair compensation for literary creation. The essay is easily Twain’s most expansive and serious writing on copyright law.” The examination Lampton prompts is a vital one to the present as copyright laws and other intellectual property vehicles—such as international drug patents—that are still under evaluation for continued protection.

An examination of Eudora Welty, herself a Mississippian, follows. Lampton unveils Welty’s relationship with literary detective fiction writer Ken Millar (who wrote under the pen name Ross Macdonald) through primary sources in this journal. Use of original materials in analyzing truths is one of the features that sets the magazine apart—the diversity of genres and evidence that appear neatly in its pages. Even in the final “Back Gate,” drafted by perhaps the other co-editor, R. Scott Anderson, one can read verse, memoir, and the entertainment of fiction—by an author who throws identity into the lottery machine.

For the premier issue, the editors recruited a renowned Mississippian, Ellen Gilchrist, to discuss writing—and it is the reader’s privilege to ‘hear’ it. Between 1981 and 2008, Gilchrist published more than twenty books of fiction, winning the National Book Award in 1984 for her collection of short stories Victory over Japan. A Vicksburg native who studied under Eudora Welty, Gilchrist granted the editors of this volume a vantage look, through fiction, about how our lives have changed in an age of increased terror—and how they have not.

The editors examine in their interview with Gilchrist whether she is one of the last Southern writers, which is, however wryly posed, a tough question. In a region of Rick Bragg enthusiasts and the poetry of bible study, Gilchrist remains maybe one of the last Southern classical storytellers, post-O’Henry but not quite disintegrating into Salinger. She might appear to represent the last of the classicists, one who invokes Chaucer and the tri-delts of Vanderbilt in a setting of history, family lineage, love and survival, but not the last of the Southern writers.

The short story she provided to the volume, “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” reflects the narrative discipline of a literary fugue that has been dominated by Southerners: Styron, Wolfe, O’Connor, Faulkner, Porter, and on and on. Speaking as an American and not only an American from the South, she writes in her concluding paragraph, a triumph against terror: “This is our parade and I’m marching in it.”

Meanwhile, a century after Twain, and living in the same general region as Gilchrist, a writer illuminates the Southern Transcendenta: nature and community that incorporate the best of both philosophical and literary movements. A physician explores her daily travels to and from the clinic where she works, describing the people and place that characterizes that passage.

The first dwelling on my detour once belonged to that cantankerous Verrell ‘Pappy’ Miller. Pappy knew my schedule and about once a week would flag me down on the roadside, sometimes to ask for a refill on a prescription (because he ‘didn’t want to bother me at work’) but often to give me a whole smoked pork shoulder (because he ‘knew I didn’t have much time to cook’). The cadence of his signature greeting phrase “You better GIT SOMEWHERE!” has become part of my own vocabulary.

Dwalia South’s essay concludes with a promise of spring, and the “daffodils planted perhaps a century ago.” We, too, look toward spring, toward a botany that survives the centuries, and this volume marries it to the autumn in which it originated, rich with stories and poems that transcend time and place, without forgetting where you might be from, or who you are, somewhere in the leaves of printed words.

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Field CoverField

Number 89

Fall 2013


Review by Brian McKenna

Rather than mar pristine journals with my unkempt scribbles, I’ve taken to flagging particularly insightful or arresting passages in them with sticky notes. Suffice it to say, my copy of Field’s latest issue has more flags in it than the parking lot of a Toby Keith concert. Where other journals can feel bloated with uneven material, the new issue of Field weighs in at a lean one hundred pages. Sporting cover art by British artist Gary Hume, as well as poetry and essays by established and emerging writers, the new issue eloquently makes a case for Field’s place near the top of the poetry heap.

It begins with a wise and lovingly curated symposium on the work of Gerald Stern, which intersperses some of Stern’s most gut-wrenching poems with essays from the contemporary poets indebted to them. That the editors of Field received new work from poets that was strong enough to counterbalance such a stellar opening section without the issue feeling completely front-loaded makes me optimistic about the state of contemporary poetry.

One of the poets that should make us all optimistic about poetry’s present is Bob Hicok, who contributes an essay to the issue’s Gerald Stern symposium, as well as two new poems. His “Why We Must Support PBS” is an absolutely hilarious stunner:

“I didn’t think of it as killing them,” the executioner
from the late eighteenth century said to Charlie Rose,
still wearing a hood, his axe resting on the wood table
I’ve assumed is oak. . . .

From such absurd beginnings, Hicok manages to smuggle in genuine pathos, as well as a spot-on portrait of Charlie Rose’s interviewing style. Put simply, it’s one of those poems you’ll be pestering friends and family to read.

Another of the issue’s standout poems is David Hernandez’s “Dear Death,” in which the narrator addresses a slightly more well-known executioner. “Cool cloak. So goth,” says the narrator, trying to ingratiate himself before assailing death with all those big questions one would want answered: “I dig how the pleats / ripple like pond water when you move.” Hernandez’s poem deftly satirizes the dynamics of power in a relationship with death that most people would rather not cultivate or promote. As in Hicok’s poem, humor slowly gives way to the ineffable. In language that is both thrilling and direct, Hernandez turns his attention to those moments during the course of an everyday routine when the specter of death casually sidles up to us.

In addition to the work of Hicok and Hernandez, Hugh Martin’s heart-stopping “Frisking Two Men in Sadiyah,” Leah Falk’s wonderfully puzzling “Chatterbot #1,” and Sarah Estes’s rhythmically inventive “Charity,” are all deserving of more thorough recommendations. The same could be said about many of the poems in the new issue. Deft sequencing and a satisfying blend of accessible poems with successfully experimental ones will definitely make for an engrossing reading experience regardless of your poetic affiliations.

Even the Gerald Stern symposium, which constitutes the poetics side of the journal, is clearheaded, heartfelt, and inviting enough to have broad appeal. While all of the essays contained in the symposium have something to recommend them, I felt that John Gallaher’s “On ‘Lucky Life’” and Bob Hicok’s “On ‘Waving Goodbye’” most eloquently zeroed in on what makes Stern’s work so emotionally robust and penetrating. About his ongoing relationship with the poem “Lucky Life,” Gallaher writes that it is a poem he has “returned to for some twenty years now, as one returns to the things that help, that recuperate the emotions that are so easily debased by common, uncritical use.” Speaking of Stern’s “Waving Goodbye,” Hicok writes, “This poem makes me consider poetry as a struggle against estrangement from our deepest selves, an effort to make the immaterial real—to give flesh, through language, to what we think and feel.” The eight Stern poems included in the issue easily bear out these lofty appraisals, and then some.

With their most recent symposium, the editors of Field have created both a terrific introduction to the work of an American original, as well a poignant reminder of his originality. They have also put together another superb issue filled with some of the most dynamic voices in contemporary poetry.

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The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review Custom CoverThe Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review

Number 39

Winter 2013


Review by Brian McKenna

“Unpredictability” is the word editor Nathaniel Perry chooses to describe what unifies the many poems in this year’s issue of The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review. And whether you’re reading quatrains about pay phones, a narrative about catching dinner in a water hazard, or an inscrutable ode to the beauty of inscrutability, the narrators encountered in the new issue are an undeniably unpredictable bunch. Boasting over one hundred pages of poetry, poetry reviews, and conversations about poetics, the staff of the review have done their level best to tide readers over until next year’s issue arrives in the mail. The issue’s unpredictability even extends to its individually illustrated covers, a refreshingly communal touch from such an established magazine. Nearly forty years on, the review is still finding new ways to spice things up under its covers as well.

An undeniable highlight of the new issue is Robert Wrigley’s “Tinnitus,” a poem that takes on the subject of nostalgia through one man’s interaction with a disappearing species: pay phones. In pitch-perfect formal verse, Wrigley’s narrator sets a bank of pay phones ringing, using pay phone to call neighboring pay phone, their rings giving voice to the unspeakable joys of nostalgia. Wrigley writes about the creation of this righteous noise:

and from the third, call the next one left,
and from the fifth, call the sixth and final phone,
creating, as I do, a carillon
of overlapping, almost identical rings,
disturbing the many students studying
in this building, where there is no one home.

The musicality on display in Wrigley’s poem seems to be a hallmark of much of the poetry in this issue. One need only read the following excerpt from Don Johnson’s terrific poem “Hazard” to become further acquainted with the easy pleasures of a well-turned rhyme:

We filled the tow sack with thirty squirming
croakers, cruising the pond like otters,
scheming to return the next night to salvage
the Titleists, Top Flights and Slazengers

Johnson deftly handles the subjects of childhood and social class, crafting a resonant narrative with a light touch. Reading this evocative poem about a summer night while trapped in the depths of the meat locker that is the Midwest in winter, I couldn’t help but feel grateful to the poet.

Since we are talking about the sound a poem makes, we should include Terrance Hayes, whose poem “She Walks Right In, She Walks Right Out” is another of the issue’s standouts. Hayes’s sinuous lines and leaps in logic nicely capture the inscrutability of time and memory. About aging’s attendant uncertainties, Hayes writes that they can make one feel like “Something at the ‘of’ of its life / caught in a blind spot, something terribly immense. Anyone / can walk on water if the water is ice.” Hovering just beyond the edge of total comprehensibility, this poem dares you to walk its waters. It’s a compelling craw-sticker that demands to be read, then reread.

Whether their unpredictability stems from the strangeness of the action being described, the surprising arrival of an end rhyme, or their purposefully inscrutability, the poems in this issue feel unpredictable because a group of very skilled poets have written poems whose narrators feel authentic enough to believe.

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Meat for Tea CoverMeat for Tea

Volume 7 Issue 3

September 2013


Review by Travis Laurence Naught

This particular issue of Meat for Tea carries a theme of “Bone.” Visual artists and wordsmiths took every possible definition of that single word, and the editors did a good job weaving together a cohesive, enjoyable 91 total pages of work. A sprinkling of images kept the words from running together, sort of like commercials that I was excited to encounter.

David P. Miller’s “Tan Pond Wolf Pit” is a sestina that takes readers on a journey through varied scenic territories and different generations in the poem. It gave me the feeling of entering a different world, one that is both serene and treacherous, with lines like, “from its source in a cemetery spring-fed pool, surfaced only / as off-limits backyard boundaries, its past” and “. . . flows northwest toward farmland. Taken away / from ravine traps, wolf heads, ears cut off, brought a purse.” The multilayered 39-line poem finishes with an envoi I found made me want to pay more attention to my surroundings during any given moment.

Susie Potter wrote a bit of prose (nonfiction or fiction, the editors do not differentiate throughout the magazine) that affected me more than any single piece of writing contained in this issue’s pages. I almost cried while reading Potter’s “Home Movies,” the story of Hannah visiting her mom in some sort of adult care facility. Mother does not recognize daughter, or seemingly anyone on the tape she asks her to play. As the two women sit through the viewing, readers are guided by Hannah’s narration. Good and bad family history is explored, and I felt like I was an eavesdropper in a private conversation. The tape being viewed sets what should be an innocent backdrop of Hannah’s fifth birthday, but the narrator continues to unveil layers of more terrifying subtexts that are found too often in reality. Mortality, extramarital affairs, and molestation are all large themes tackled in this bit of writing that I will be thinking about for quite some time.

Jessica Thelen’s “Hair Loss” is not for the faint of heart, but it ends with a set jaw attitude that exudes optimism. Here is a selection from the middle of the poem:

I lift my hand again, only to touch
dandruff-laden scalp. I rake
my fingers through, gather
blades and flecks of skin,

Poet Jeffrey Alfier takes a vastly different direction in dealing with the theme. He takes readers into the world of hourly hotels in “What Passes for Lodging on the Pacific Coast Highway.” There are sexual references to be found in a couple of the stanzas, but the line I find most telling of the skeletal structures that are famished lodging is, “the rooms vacated early by transients.” Places being left behind by transients need more love.

Jeremy Edwards also takes a more sexual approach in his short prose piece titled “The Three Ohs of Judy Lipton,” which contains a powerful punch of eroticism without going into graphic detail. As a reader, it left me feeling refreshed and hungry for more!

I would especially like to comment on the wonderful visual art and photographs contained in this issue. Meg Brown and Laura Marjorie Miller did a great job capturing animal skeletons in black and white, the thrust of the theme as I would have interpreted it. Simona Candini blew me away with each of her many candy skull styled figures. My guess is that they were hand-drawn and each of them contained a lusty, youthful appearance combined with the morbidity that is a dead character. I especially liked “Kiss Me” on and “Stay With Me.”

Hours more of material that I was not able to cover here are in this issue, and I hope that you choose to find a copy and enjoy it the way I did.

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Rattle CoverRattle

Volume 19 Number 4

Winter 2013


Review by Robyn Campbell

It would be tempting. Imagine saying,
“Let there be light.” And, poof, there’s light.
The magic word is any word you want it to be—
bucket, for example, or asphalt, and into the world
tumble jet planes, hair dryers, and vegetarian restaurants.

To be fair, this quote from David Romtvedt’s “Dilemmas of the Angels: Extraterrestrial” is taken somewhat out of context. But I can’t get it out of my head. The piece, published along with another dilemma subtitled “Intention,” eloquently explores the strangeness of humanity through the use of angels, outsiders looking in. Overall, both poems are impressively written, conversational in tone and heavy in subject matter. But one of the things that stuck with me most about this stanza after reading the poem several times was how well it can be applied to Rattle as a whole. It fits so well with a journal whose aim is solely to celebrate “how moving language alone can be.” In this latest theme-less issue of Rattle, the poets get to play God. Language is manipulated and shown off beautifully in different forms. It seems that Rattle seeks only to share the worlds created by words, and this issue is packed with amazing and varied poems.

From Jill Klein’s prose-y, almost stream of consciousness “How to Peel a Prawn” to Tina Parker’s simplistic but meaningful “My Four-Year-Old Asks What Happens When People Die and When I Hesitate She Answers Her Own Question,” the heartfelt writing tugs at the cores of its readers because of its relatability. Love, sex, fear, death, birth—all of these are highlighted time and again throughout Rattle’s pages, helping to make it an interesting collection that’s hard to put down.

In “The Famine of Love” by Jenneva Scholz, for example, loss materializes in every aspect of the speaker’s life. When Cupid put down his bow, “the fruit flies fell around the fruit bowl and the air was still.” All the animals stopped mating, and soon the fields were “empty of hum and buzzing, empty of peaches / and wheat.” The speaker’s physical starvation is mirrored by his loss of love/attraction to his wife, made powerfully clear when he says, “Re-reading her letters / I think, I’m so hungry I could let you starve.” And, in the last few lines, he simultaneously expresses hope and despair:

Some things might outlast this. Tortoises, maybe.
But look at them: each grooved to fit smoothly with the other,
built to heave those heavy bodies together and lock in.
See how his belly is arched
to cradle her shell.
I keep thinking: I don’t need her.
I keep opening the cupboard to find nothing.

The flowing, easy rhythm and vibrant imagery made this piece one of my favorites in the collection.

Also included is the winner of the 2013 Rattle poetry prize and 10 finalists. Roberto Ascalon’s “The Fire This Time” comes like a desperate shout, a cry, lacking much punctuation, posing questions aimed at everyone while expecting no answers. From the 10 finalists, one will be chosen by the subscribers as a runner up—a form of prize-giving I find particularly admirable. And the best part about it? All of the finalists’ poems are incredibly impressive. It may actually be difficult for people to pick a favorite, though “My Mother Told Us Not to Have Children” by Rebecca Gayle Howell and “Laundry List” by Michelle Ornat are two standouts, in my mind.

The issue finishes out with a lengthy, funny, honest conversation between Editor Timothy Green and poet Ron Koertge about failed novels, children’s literature, teaching, and finding your muse, among other things. It’s not often that I read literary magazines consisting of only poetry, but if they’re anything like Rattle, I’d be happy to do it every day.

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Reunion: The Dallas Review CoverReunion: The Dallas Review

Volume 3



Review by Julie Nichols

This is one of the most attractive lit mags I’ve viewed. For the astonishing price of five dollars, you can hold in your hands this substantial (eight-inch-by-eight-inch) volume with a technologically progressive cover and an extremely pleasing page design, whose innards are divided between visually striking color art, outstanding poetry, provocative interviews, and stories so good from the first line you want like crazy, but can hardly stand, to reach the ending.

Reunion is a product of the School of Arts & Humanities, the home of Creative Writing at the University of Texas at Dallas, a “forward-thinking interdisciplinary unit offering “degrees that cross the normal boundaries between art and science, language and literature, technology and philosophy.” Dedication to what’s outside-the-box but integral-to-what-matters obviously drives the high quality of this magazine. Start with the cover. It’s dramatically simple (an angular “J” set just above and to the left of a techno-font “F” in the center of the stark white cover), until you download the Aurasma app to your mobile device, access the purple swirl, and view the blossoming new shapes on the full interactive cover on your device’s screen—complete with music. A great concept!

Inside, the text’s font is a little larger than usual, the leading a little wider, so that the white space frees the eyes for reading comfort. It’s not a “large print” volume—just easier on the eyes than if it were 12-point font on 14-point leading. In any case, the eyes like it. The pages are square, the margins generous, every page of text a readable feast, even before you get to the content. Kudos to the designers for this artfulness.

Content is equally exceptional. Two pieces by Rebecca Morgan Frank set the tone for the poetry. “How to Build a Rocket” and “Bird’s Eye” take us off the planet, into the stars, reminding us “Which came first, this / rocket or that / moon? Come on, / it was the rocket / maker . . .”

Jeffrey C. Alfier’s “Black Hawk Crash, Tal Afar, Iraq, 2006,” David Breeden’s “Elegy for Kevin Joe Eldridge,” and Matthew J. Spireng’s “Madison Buffalo Jump, September” all evoke, with Frank, images of life’s fragility (“a soldier at a Mosul firebase kept trying / to resurrect your voices, halted in the quiet / brutality of radio silence,” and “It isn’t the mortality / pulls me up but / missing your life / so caught in mine,” and “If the buffalo had souls, they are / here, the cliff, the steep slope, boulders / and browned grasses inhabited again”). So does Marissa Schwalm’s vulnerable “Things I Don’t Tell My Mother,” proving that poets understand survival mechanisms better than therapists.

The interview by Sarah Da Rocha Valente with poet Campbell McGrath thus resonates especially well. Among many tidbits of valuable advice for the reader and writer of poems is this on endings:

[The] goal for a poem is to end with closure that is completely satisfying to the reader. Closure has many possible types, among them narrative (what happens), musical (rhyme, assonance, etc.), structural (syntax, refrain, etc.), argumentative (what conclusion is to be drawn), and formal (crafting the artifact perfectly). Great poems often combine several of these strands, and those poems tend to conclude with resonant and complex endings.

The interview with novelist Ben Fountain is different, of course, but equally strong, revealing his take on the National Book Award for which he was nominated in 2012.

Successful prose, both fiction and nonfiction, is well represented in this issue of Reunion. The voice of the adolescent narrator navigating a crush on the Kessler’s jewelry clerk in Maryse Meijer’s “Shop Lady” is perfect, comma splices and all. Daniel Tyx’s essay “Vaquero Days” begins with the doleful (but delightful) line, “in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary [I] still believed that I could accomplish anything with a little effort.” More evidence to the contrary accrues as he tries to become a vaquero in a South Texas convention event, where real vaqueros trample his delusions.

Moira Muldoon’s mini-essay “Nerts” lovingly recalls a family’s bonding over a card game. And a number of beautiful translations—of Natalia Carbajos’s Spanish poems by Scott Hightower and of Margarita Meklina’s Russian fiction by Krystyna A. Steiger—round out the issue.

The work of no fewer than ten visual artists is featured here, beautifully reproduced in full color. Oh—except the black-and-white inkwash photographs precisely “re-developed” by Gunnel Wåhlstrand or Bill Haveron’s “Reverse Osmosis,” a pen-and-ink “metaphysical scratchpad” of “magical incantations against forces simultaneously seen and unseen.” Haveron’s artist’s statement is as whimsically Bosch-like as his drawing. The rest of the visual art all showcases this breathtaking range—Jeff Gibbons’s photograph “In Honor of the Memories of My Father and Mother,”centerpiecing a table, one wheeled leg evoking an old-fashioned sewing machine, with a well-used bowling ball arranged on top; Sarah Pedigo’s painting “Front Porch” accompanied by Liz Robbins’s delicate prose poem “Can You Hear Me?” (“On the front steps, the family web sinewy, mired, cryptic.”); and Regine Ramseier’s installation of two thousand dandelions hanging from a ceiling.

There is much more. Get the issue while you can. It’s a triumph on many levels.

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So to Speak CoverSo to Speak

Volume 22 Number 2

Fall 2013


Reviewed by Lauren Smith

A reader who gets a copy of this issue of So to Speak: a feminist journal of language and art will find that it delivers on the promise of its title. A mix of prose, poetry, and images, this print issue from a well-established publication has beauty, intelligence, and provocation. The journal doesn’t insist on any one definition of feminism, preferring instead to take whatever touches women’s lives as its subject. Anyone who cares about women and/or cares about good art will appreciate it.

In an interview with VIDA, journal editor Kate Partridge says she enjoys “finding a piece of writing that expresses feminist ideas in a way that had never occurred to [her].” The pieces I admire the most in this issue do have this sense of unexpectedness about them. The short story, “Sit Still, and I’ll Weave” by Tamar Altebarmakian, does a lovely job exploring the difficulty of being a “good daughter” (or a good niece) to one’s cultural heritage. Whenever the narrator visits her aunt, she must listen to the story of her great-grandfather, a rug-maker who survived the genocide against Armenians in the early twentieth century. While the narrator knows she is supposed to find this story powerful, she doesn’t, and she struggles to embrace the art of the rugs themselves. When her aunt gives her a swatch of rug to keep, she takes it “as gingerly as [she] can and hope[s she looks] awed.” For her, the truth is this: “I don’t really like our rugs. The designs are so intricate that they make my eyes hurt.” This deft, elegant piece of fiction encourages readers to wrestle with the connections between family obligation, history, and gender. While her husband sleeps in a nearby chair with a hookah in his lap, the aunt keeps telling stories to the dutiful niece, suggesting how although men may sometimes be considered the authors of history, it’s women who maintain it.

As for other genres featured in the magazine, I enjoy Lauren Banka’s free-verse poem “Queer is Like.” The poem offers a nuanced meditation on sexuality. It compares being queer to driving, to leaving a green, pastoral environment where “everything is simple” and entering a busy highway that “shouldn’t work at all, so many people shouldn’t be able to move in such complicated ways all the time.” This poem is expansive, giving the reader the idea that discovering difference can be dizzying, fun, and ultimately manageable (the last line: “the road is solid & now & now”).

Stephanie Dickinson’s nonfiction piece, “New Jersey Noir,” takes a new-journalism approach to explore a writer’s fascination with a famous murder case. A young woman goes into New York City for the night and ends up in an apartment with a man and his girlfriend. The man then rapes and murders her, and the girlfriend looks on, seemingly disinterested. The narrator of the piece follows the investigation and exchanges letters with the imprisoned girlfriend. This piece is striking for its gritty, plainspoken tone and its sharp commentary on female relationships; the narrator imagines the murder victim thinking to herself, “nothing really bad can happen with another girl in the room, can it?” When the narrator asks the girlfriend why her own mother—a prostitute and an addict—had children, she makes a guess: “welfare checks.”

So to Speak started in 1993, around the same time I began to identify as a feminist. As I read this issue, I feel a little sad that much of its material deals with two well-worn “women’s topics”: reproduction and male violence. Are these things really the scope of women’s experience? Yet, in a time when patriarchy not only maintains its grip but gets better at concealing itself, it’s crucial to continue to address them. Any scan of Google News shows how literature and art have more work to do to advance women’s causes. I encourage all readers to seek out this important publication, and I can’t wait to see what 2014 brings.

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Tampa Review CoverTampa Review

Issue 45/46



Reviewed by Sarah Gorman

If you are a starving artist, take $22 from your last hundred bucks and purchase a subscription to Tampa Review. Every time you behold the volumes, you will feel rich. This journal is one of the most lavish and beautiful publications in the world of literary magazines. Hardcover, with a four-color dust jacket and visual art throughout, the large-format Tampa Review is an instantaneous wow. The dust jacket flaps contain an eloquent orientation to the content, indicating the editorial goal of creating an integrated experience within each single issue. Contributor notes are relatively lavish, providing almost five pages of information about the 55 artists and writers represented in this issue.

The journal, published by the faculty of the University of Tampa, features visual art that complements, not to say illustrates, various of its literary selections. The journal wants to be known as “a gallery space in print,” embracing art, conversations, essays, fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and translations. Editor Richard Matthews produces the journal with a relatively small staff. Contributors feature Florida writers, but include writers from around the world. As Tampa Review celebrates its 50th year in 2014, it can claim pride of place on any shelf of contemporary literary magazines.

This issue opens with a photograph of the sculptural installation featured on the cover, followed by a poem, followed by two digital photographs, followed by a short story. The editors appear to have an organic concept of the journal’s content, an idea perhaps that the reader will read the issue from front to back with a strong sense of a throughline. As a result, it is not always immediately evident whether a prose piece is fiction or essay. A first-person narrator may be telling a story or recounting a memoir. Any uncertainty is quickly resolved by a moment of close reading, however. This “Cuz” and the absence of quotation marks around dialogue must mean fiction, in Mark Krieger’s “Scar.” In fact, Krieger’s work is the current winner of the journal’s short fiction prize. And Mark Beaver’s “Lone Baritone,” a lovingly detailed account of a turning point he reached in sixth grade, is memoir.

Matthew Vollmer’s “Winter Wedding,” the melancholy last work of prose featured in this issue, limns a feckless middle-aged man full of regret who maintains the crazy hope of re-encountering his former wife after decades alone; his role in his daughter’s wedding; his discomfort in his own skin. The story is beautiful and sad. After this, we read Rachel Hadas’s powerful poem “Aubade: The Nest,” a densely imaged evocation of the twined pain and exaltation in sharing childcare. Why is Marjorie Stelmach’s poem “Autumn Dialogue” the last work in this issue? The editors hint (in the dust jacket notes) that it is because the speaker is elderly, balancing the image of dawn that appears at the beginning of the volume, in M.P. Jones IV’s “A Prayer for Lethe.” 

Each work of visual art, specifically selected to pair with one of the literary works, has been either commissioned or found. “Lone Baritone” is accompanied by a digital pen-and-ink work of the same name by the Croatian-born Daniel Mrgan. And Virginia Pye’s bleak story “White Dog” is illustrated by Neverne Covington’s charcoal drawing of a menacing “White Dog.” Serendipity may explain the pairing of Dan Taylr’s 2008 manipulated photograph “Level 2” with Gina P. Vozenilek’s bittersweet (aren’t they all?) memoir “Tri-level”; and creation of the imaginative soil-on-cardboard “Soil Flowers” by José Lerma that accompanies “The Shadows of a Queen Bee” by Caroline Sutton predates the memoir. Sutton’s delectable work blends a meditation on gardening with reflections on mortality and mystery, making the choice of the soil-on-cardboard medium particularly apt.

Ann Keniston is represented by four strong poems, filling two double-page spreads. Keniston here is fascinated with skin, perhaps symbolizing inside/outside or the two-edged awareness of being embodied. The images capture the ick factor. “The afflicted body itches,” the poet observes in “Morgellons Syndrome,” and a daughter in “Coming of Age” “goes to her room and tries to chip off / something from herself.” The essays in this issue include J. Malcolm Garcia’s account of connections to Afghanistan and Ellis J. Biderson’s recollections from his second career as a teacher of writing—both works blessed with a searing self-awareness that elevates the narratives from journal entry to literary art.

This journal is a treat for the eye, the heart, and the mind. Its editorial sensibility as well as its physical beauty will reward the reader at first glance and justify repeated consideration of all its richness.

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The Texas Review

Volume 34 Numbers 1 & 2

Spring/Summer 2013


Reviewed by Sarah Gorman

As a south Texas native who relocated from the state in 1966, I immediately associate the town of Huntsville with its state prison. The Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville is the oldest of the state’s prisons, having been in operation since 1849. The unit boasts two distinctions: it houses the execution chamber where the largest number of prisoner executions in the United States are carried out, and from 1931 through 1986 it sponsored the Texas State Prison Rodeo. The rodeo arena was razed in early 2012, marking the end of a colorful piece of Texas history. Today, according to the Texas prison inmates’ handbook, the authorized team sports available to prisoners are softball, volleyball, and baseball.

I was glad to expand my view of Huntsville as I read through this issue of The Texas Review, published by the English Department at Sam Houston State University. The journal publishes fiction, poetry, reviews, and essays; other than on the cover, it does not contain visual art. The compact soft-cover volume is well designed, providing the reader with many points of orientation to the content.

This issue opens with a short story by G.C. Cunningham. His first-person narrative evokes a suffocatingly narrow world circumscribed by poverty, prison, nicotine addiction, and family strife. The work is set in Alabama, not Texas, but nevertheless evokes a world that must be familiar to many of the Huntsville prison’s inmates. The story is hard to read but at the same time impossible to abandon, in part because of its effective use of dramatic irony. The dreadful conditions that define the narrator’s options and those of her nephew, a convicted sexual predator released after twenty years of hard time, are leavened by the promise of a flawed redemption, symbolized by a “corny Valentine” that appears in the story’s conclusion.

Like many other journals, The Texas Review publishes groups of poems by some of its featured writers, offering readers a wider glimpse of the poets’ sensibilities. Writers afforded such an opportunity in this issue include Sarah Cortez, Erin Ganaway, and William Wright, while James McKean and Susan Palwick are represented by single longer poems. Ganaway’s compressed lyrics, expanding from the timeless tradition of pastoral poetry, wring pathos from nature. Her “Unengaged” calls images from the night sky to accompany the dissolution of an engagement:

Days from now,
when this moon is drained from the sky,
when her star has rejoined the others, she will have
only a phantom limb. She will make a fist to keep
the ring from slipping as she washes her hands.

The essays in this issue cover a wide range, confirming the editors’ statement that anything they deem to be “of excellence” is welcome. The entertaining “You’re Not the Boss of Me,” by Lori Jakiela, recounts a series of prickly but amusing encounters with her mother, who is quoted in the title. An excerpt from Thomas Dabbs’s forthcoming book Genesis in Japan: the Bible beyond Christianity depicts some of the author’s experiences teaching the Bible at a university in Tokyo. Concerning the story of the Fall, one of his students asks, “Why would any fruit be forbidden?” Concerning Noah and the flood, another asks, “Do Christian people think this story is true?” Dabbs finds himself advising his class, at one juncture, “Reading the Bible is not the best way to learn about Christianity.” The third essay is a lengthy scholarly article in MLA style, complete with a list of “Works Cited,” by Anis Shivani, analyzing the use of satire in George S. Schuyler and Nathaniel West.

The reviews in this issue range from consideration of Philip Levine’s News of the World to coverage of Harold Jaffe’s OD: Docufictions. Tara Tatum relies on extensive use of quotations from Levine’s work, effacing herself as a reviewer in order to elevate her subject. Each concise review points the reader to a poetry collection or experimental work which promises substantial rewards.

Some former inmates of the Huntsville prison are associated with creative work, including the rappers Chad Butler (“Pimp C”) and Carlos Coy; the artist Henry Ray Clark; the musician Jack Purvis; and Duane (“Dog”) Chapman, who starred in the TV show Dog the Bounty Hunter, suggesting the complexity of human choices that help determine our destinies. In its hospitable treatment of unconventional sensibilities expressed through familiar forms, The Texas Review provides a wide range of readers with opportunities for broadening their understanding of life.

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Thema CoverThema

Volume 25 Number 3

Autumn 2013


Review by Julie Nichols

Thema’s distinguishing feature—the prompt that drives every issue—is still and always its delightful strength. Like a well-designed skeleton, each issue’s prompt provides a scaffolding from which to build a full body of coordinated limbs, each of which is, in its imperfect excellence, a strapping member of an unexpectedly vigorous whole. You want to examine every one, especially carefully in this issue, since its theme is perception, seeing well: “Eyeglasses are needed.”

The droll cover image by Cheryl Hicks, from a distance simply a woman of a certain age and type adjusting her large glasses, is, on closer view, an illustration of art’s demand to take exactly that closer view, to employ a certain kind of perspective. Close up, what looks like fine shading on the skin of the woman’s hand and face is actually a collage of film quotations. It’s part of a series Hicks calls “I Just Don’t Read Like I Used To.” Perhaps none of us ever read like we should, closely, carefully. Metaphorical eyeglasses are always in order. And real ones? Maybe, sometimes, they’re not needed as much as we think they are.

The stories and poems prove both halves of the equation. The half-blind war veteran in Kemp Pheley’s “Dunken” suffers flashbacks and OCD pacing in his equally OCD shoes, but he and his VA brethren keep each other alive with their shared memories and sympathy until finally a couple of “Special someones” show up who recognize the brave humanity behind their ugly wounds.

The mourning mother in Susan Fenner’s “Seeing the Imprint,” a photographer who, in her grieving, has ceased photographing, is shocked by the impact of a bird against her window in the opening scene of the story. But when her dead son’s girlfriend comes by unexpectedly to talk about the boy’s compassion—his tendency to “leave an imprint” wherever he went—she is able to see the titular imprint of the bird in the glass, perceive its perfection, and pull out her camera once again. In both stories, discernment of a particular kind is required. When it’s accessed, redemption reigns.

Humor reigns as well, in this issue. “Oval, Owl,” a poem by Matthew J. Spireng, and “Lost at the Party” by Nathan Alling Long, are jokes about bad eyesight. You have to read them to get them; I mustn’t give them away. But poignancy also has a place. Valerie Loveland’s “Optician Apprentice” gives tender voice to the parts and purposes of the optometrist’s office (remember the drawers full of frames, the walls covered with temples?), while the speaker in “A Reading” by Abigail Wyatt recalls the world before glasses, the world where “there were whirling colours / shifting shapes, false imaginings,” and the only safety was in “the pages / cradled inches / from my nose.”

Age has a significant place in the annals of eyeglasses, of course. “Blip” by Debbie Lampi, “Cataracts” by Robert Cooperman, “A Vision” by William Guy Gallagher, “First” by John Grey, and “Old-Timer’s Dis-Ease” by Robert Funge all lament the eye-related problems that come with age—macular degeneration, the need for bifocals, resistance to change made necessary by failing eyesight. Beautiful lines shine out of these pieces; take, for example, this excerpt from “Optician Apprentice”:

I’ll tell you a secret: prisms hide in every lens.
When I open and turn on the lights, the optical
shop shines with glass and mirrors. When I close,
the spectacles sleep in little lined beds.
Each case squeaks shut as I tuck them in.

And listen to these from Kristin Camitta Zimet’s “Revision,” another poem about age:

Easy as put-and-take, to fish
my old lens, warty trout,
deep dodger, shadow-lodger,
out of the gloom it lurks in
under rocks gone mossy-slick
with up-creek ooze

And the Gerard Manley Hopkins-like alliteration and assonance continue in this delicious vein till the visually rich, age-defying conclusion.

“Rescued,” by Susan Duke, deserves particular notice. In this story, eyeglasses are needed for multiple practical and symbolic purposes. Without them, a pair of stranded sisters cannot start a signal fire to direct searchers’ attention to themselves. One of the sisters has hidden behind them for tragic reasons for too many years. Giving them up may change her life forever. Fortunately the two purposes dovetail.

Clearly, the power of the prompt to create unexpected resolutions (yes, in the case of eyeglasses a pun!) achieves its purpose again. Thema has a winning premise. Read this issue—you won’t need eyeglasses to see for yourself.

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Transference CoverTransference

Volume 1 Number 1

Summer 2013


Review by Denise Hill

I’m going to refer to this publication as a “class in a book” for its incredible depth and breadth of content (in only 78 pages); ambitious would be an understatement. Transference is a new journal of poetry in translation published by the Western Michigan University’s Department of World Languages and Literature, which includes Arabic, Chinese, French, Old French, Classical Greek, Latin, Japanese, and Russian.

In addition to publishing English translations, each work is accompanied by commentary from the translator, which may include background on the poet, historical context, choices made in translating specific words, choices made in “translating” the poetic form, and general analytical commentary on the poem itself as well as poetic form. In other words: Class in a book.

Missing from the volume are the original language poems, always a tough call for translation editors to make. Does it add to the reader’s experience to include these? If the reader knows the language, certainly. But, practically speaking, it also adds a great deal to the cost. I don’t mind not having the original included, as the editors note: “We encourage our readers to seek out the original poems in the original languages.” Sure enough, a quick Internet search of a couple landed them on my screen.

Reading each poem is like taking a unique trip through geography and history. Andrew Gudgel focuses on “lesser-known” dynasty poets of China, while Roselee Bundy gives her examination of Fujiwara Shunzei’s thirty-one syllable Japanese waka poems from the 1100s, and several other translators take readers through Germany in the late 1800s and 1940, Russia, France, to current day Iraq.

There is an inconsistency in the commentary information each translator offers, which can be acceptable or irritating depending upon expectation. Some provide simple background information on the originating author and cultural context, while others just dive into a discussion of their work of translating. So this content feels uneven in the sense of sometimes seeming to want to fully educate the reader on culture and context and sometimes just wanting to discuss and defend the translator’s work. I personally appreciated having the fuller content, being hungry to learn about these poets and their lives. Certainly, readers can seek out this information, but having it as an all-encapsulated start point is handy. (Class in a book.)

The poems precede the translators’ notes, which works well for readers. Read each poem—no deeper context of information—then read the translator’s comments, then go back and reread the poem. This in itself offers an exercise in reflection, as no doubt re-reading the poem offers a new and different experience. Better? That’s for the reader to decide. Certainly having some cultural context helps to understand parts/the whole of the poem, and having some insight into the work of the translator allows for reconsideration, even mental argument, with how s/he may have chosen to work with the poem.

In some cases, I was more perplexed after reading the translator’s notes, as in Levi Thompson’s translation of Sa’dī Yūsuf’s poem “Condoleezza Rice’s Piano,” which begins, “Hey, ho Bob Marley / O Bob Marley / How do we stop that train?” Thompson explains the poem “brings to mind the defiance of early punk rock anthems,” so he attempts “to intertextually evoke the rebelliousness of that genre by making reference to the line ‘Hey! Ho! Let’s go!’ from the Ramones’” song. I’m guessing he was working with a line that couldn’t be directly translated, or was he taking a greater liberty in attempting to insert a rallying cry that would be more readily recognizable by the reading audience while keeping it in the context of style of Yūsuf’s writing (“percussive, chopped verse bursts out onto the page”)? This was among the briefest commentaries in the collection, which may be translator’s choice, but could have used a bit more editorial coaxing to get more information like so many of the others. A consistency issue perhaps.

Other translators provide greater context for their work, creating arguments that read almost like a threaded discussion throughout, such as Maryann Corbett’s statement: “In translating a medieval poem for a modern audience, the first decision has to do with form. Should the translator’s first concern be with making the text as attractive as possible to the widest range of readers in the target language?” John Perry seems to answer this (albeit six pages earlier): “It is the test of validity: if the translator can’t at least simulate the packaging, then the whole undertaking is mere plagiarism.”

Lucky readers, all the works published in Transference are available on the publications website. Great for classroom instruction, great for self-instruction. Works in translation, commentary and analysis—Transference is not only a bridge between poets and translators, but an effort which wholly engages readers in the process.

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