Posted August 15, 2014
Conjunctions :: Cream City Review :: decomP :: Dogwood :: Five Points :: James Dickey Review :: The Midwest Quarterly :: Modern Haiku :: Poetry :: River Styx :: Wicked Banshee Press :: Your Impossible Voice
Review by Justin Brouckaert
The first and most obvious thing to notice about Conjunctions is that its biannual print anthology is enormous. This issue is more than 300 pages, featuring work by Brian Evenson, Laura van den Berg, Robin Hemley, Gabriel Blackwell, and others. The theme of the issue, “exile,” is addressed both literally and figuratively, with work often revolving around ideas of social exile and self-exile as well as physical displacement.
The work here is innovative and complicated. The first story to catch my eye, Christie Hodgen’s “Customer Reviews,” is written—as the title indicates—in the form of customer reviews, similar to the ones you might find on Amazon or Yelp. Five men who have dated the same woman review their experiences (spoiler alert: no one came away happy) and reveal a little bit more about the woman’s character. Though reviewing women like products doesn’t sound entirely appropriate, somehow Hodgen pulls it off. The men don’t sexually objectify or commodify the woman, but instead express a very honest frustration with how they’re unable to connect with her, to break through her neuroses and oddities. Though the reviews get increasingly frustrated and angry, the first reviewer, Nathan W. (who rated his date two stars and titled his experience, “In a Word: Disappointing”) expresses an earnest exasperation with their inability to connect:
Conversation was OK, though again I was expecting better. The first two dates were fine, because we’d read many of the same books and pretty much stuck to talking about those. But we were just saying all the obvious things, recycling what we’d learned in school, or the opinions we’d heard at parties and on the radio. Ayn Rand? Oh, please. Hemingway? Sort of/mostly. Kafka, Woolf, Faulkner? Well, duh.
The story is funny and heartbreaking, and it’s complicated by the fact that the woman who these men are reviewing is named Christie Hodgen, same as the author. The final entry is made by someone named Anonymous, which creates a lot of questions about who’s really reviewing Christie Hodgen after all.
Laura van den Berg’s “Havana” is a beautiful story, flawless in its prose and very nicely layered, with pleasantly unexpected turns. Elle and her husband Jeremy are struggling, so they try a vacation in Key West as a way to regain “The Thing,” the unspeakable and unknowable difference in their relationship that’s been pulling them apart. But when they hop on an abandoned yacht and are recognized as different people by a dangerous couple that comes aboard and sets sail for Havana to “do business,” the vacation becomes less of a second honeymoon and more like a nightmare. This is all complicated by the backstory of Elle’s elderly parents, who have begun forgetting things—a theme that comes into play as Elle daydreams about forgetting her old life, creating a new life altogether:
There were so many ways to stop remembering. A dip in neurotransmitters. Debris in the arteries. Sailing for so long, the starting point became a dark spot in your mind. A blow to the cortical tissue. A different set of names. Consider this equation: Rafa and Belén were no more able to recognize Elle and Jeremy than her parents were able to identify airplanes or lamps. Heatstroke. Infection of the heart valve. Getting blackout drunk. Subdural hematoma. Believing you were not yourself, had never been yourself, but always someone else in disguise. That you were forgetting in order to remember the person waiting beneath.
In another outstanding story, “A Damn Sight” by Matthew Pitt, a government worker named Perry has long been exiled from his tiny hometown in Mississippi until he’s called to shut it down. He’s sent back to confirm that there’s nothing worth keeping in the town so that its residents can be relocated and a hydroelectric plant built in its place, but what he finds is not what he expected. In his long absence, all of the town’s bluesmen have been punished for their frequent infidelities, their former lovers blinding them with lye and leaving them helpless and woeful. Instead of surveying the land with the eyes of a government employee, Perry walks the town like a man visiting home, meeting with all of the mournful bluesmen, including his step-father Asa, who his own mother left behind. Through these visits, Perry discloses details about his own past, revealing why he left his hometown in the first place and how that reason creates a kinship between him and the bluesmen:
No man’s fate is a replica of another’s. But these musicians’ yearning strums, their lashed fingers scrabbling for beans on tin-can bottoms? I know them. To toil in pursuit of your promise, in a town that refuses to recognize you until you get out of or out of joint with it? Of course, that puts you in a reckless state when you enter your own home. With a hundred ways to crack and only a few chords to patch you up.
The story is whip-smart and driven by an incredibly strong voice—one that is equally nostalgic, critical, and measured as Perry decides whether he can really erase a town with so much history, so much of his own history, and such important sorrow contained within its limits.
Conjunctions is one of those big journals that deserves all the praise that’s heaped upon it. It’s an exciting read, an important collection of some of our country’s greatest writing voices.
Volume 38 Number 1
Review by Justin Brouckaert
Based at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Cream City Review is a fun, slim publication that opens its pages wide to different aesthetics and styles. There are magical stories set side-by-side with realist flash fiction, and in the middle of the issue is a special feature on Native writing. It’s rare that I’m able to say I have no clue what to expect from one page to the next in a literary journal, but in Cream City Review, that’s absolutely the case. This is not a criticism, though: instead of seeming scattered or overloaded, the journal is a merry-go-round of brightly colored poems and stories.
For me, the cream of the crop on the fiction side was Keith Rosson’s “Baby Jill,” an inventive—and darker—take on the oft-told story of the tooth fairy. This reimagining isn’t announced directly and immediately, but developed as the story goes on, as the reader begins to question things like the tens of thousands of teeth the narrator Carol (the tooth fairy) keeps in a room, waiting for collection. The story’s first line reads, “On Wednesdays, Gary comes to collect the teeth,” and readers know from that opening at least one crucial way this story is different from the folklore: Carol is definitely not in charge. And when she breaks the rules enforced by Gary, the tooth collector, she has to face the consequences, too:
It’s not right, I say.
For the first time ever, I hear Gary laugh. It sounds terrible, like someone hammering cement. Carol, there’s no room for right here, he says. Right and wrong’s in a whole different building.
There’s plenty of good work in this issue’s Native writing feature, “Returning the Gift: Indigenous Futures,” but I’m partial to the Denise Low’s fable-like story, “A Jackalope Walks into an Indian Bar.” It starts with what reads like the beginning of a joke, feeding off the title:
As he hops to a stool, an old man yells, “Whoa. That’s a Jackalope.”
Jack freezes and waits. Then the old man says, “Ayyy” and everyone laughs. Jack jumps up and orders wheatgrass straight.
It’s a funny start to a page-long story that evolves into something more serious, a sort of meditation on mythology and fact.
Another good short story is Brian Phillip Whalen’s flash fiction piece, “Air.” It’s the type of flash that slows time and reveals the importance of a specific moment—in this case, a father and a son blowing up an air mattress together. It’s a story ripe with implication, exploring the idea of memory and how it can warp, differ or fade. A lot of the relationship between the father and son is developed through dialogue, which is sharp throughout:
“In Nam,” my father said, hugging the mattress with his tree-trunk arms. “They dropped me from twelve-thousand feet with nothing but a bed sheet.”
He huffed and puffed and slid the mattress to me.
I said, “I hope they let you keep the sheet.”
There’s a good selection of poetry in this issue, too, all different in style and form. In “Ode to Dreaming the Dead,” Keith Leonard writes beautifully about what we would like to ask of those who have already left us:
I have wished it were law
that each person
before they die
record one song, just one—
and if they couldn’t sing
they could blow
a terrible trumpet
or kazoo, it wouldn’t
matter since such
clamor could be hummed
along to—a little
last whistle and testament,
maybe, a little ditty
infusing the dark rooms
which are too quiet
Though there are many good journals that stick to a particular aesthetic, I find that the ones I like best are the ones that aren’t afraid to mix and match. Cream City Review seems open to lots of different types of work, and if you’re looking for a quality literary journal—which this one is—then open is what you should want to see. This issue was short and sweet and strange, the perfect mix.
Review by Kirsten McIlvenna
With a mix of flash prose, short prose, poetry, and book reviews, decomP delivers an online literary magazine monthly, with a fair tasting of good literature and samples of audio readings throughout.
Adam and Eve's marital and sex life comes to life in the first included piece, Adam Gnuse's "Adam, at Night." Although Eve is comforted by her child, Adam worries and is resentful about his eventual death, seeming to say that even in the beginning of life, the first man to live still questions life after death: "He wonders whether it will be like going back somewhere dark and warm, somewhere safe. Whether it will it be something like growing up. The thoughts don’t comfort him."
Death is addressed again, this time in Amy Scharmann's "Heart Attack" in which the narrator struggles to let her mother die and move on, even after she has in fact "left this earth": "I don’t know what I thought I’d find, but I didn’t do myself any favors studying the dry and empty darkness she’d left behind—I knew her needs had been transferred somewhere else."
Jonathan Kosik's "Remnants" is the only longer piece, showcasing the life of the narrator who cleans the cabins in Gatlinburg and his visits from Sheryl, a woman from Knoxville who can't seem to stand the heat or her visit. Sheryl's character sketch was excellent; I felt like I knew her by the end. But my one complaint was that I was missing what the relationships were supposed to be between the characters.
Uncomplicated and short, Julie Babcock's "Big Boy Ohio" was probably my favorite among the poetry. Playing off assumptions and illusions, it shows that the world isn't so natural and put-together as some people may have you guess:
"Hey honey," they say before they order burgers
so neatly she might be a virgin
who sleeps under a field of stars
and soothes cows for the dinner table.
decomP has perfectly sized issues for someone looking to
squeeze in a little literature where there is time, and the audio recordings only enhance the experience.
Review by Sherra Wong
This issue of Dogwood serves up a generous helping of surprising and original reading. The talent is evident; even when a poem or story can use more polish, I am interested and compelled to read on. A variety of styles is represented, some more experimental than others, but I never feel lost, either literally or emotionally, or feel that the writers draw too much attention to themselves at the expense of the writing.
This issue includes the winners of the Dogwood prizes. The physical minutiae and wide spaces in Rebecca Olson’s winning poem “How it starts” give only hints of its context, but its details paint a complete picture and a slightly wistful mood, especially during the delightful and subtle rhymes in the second stanza. “Junk Food,” grand prize award in fiction by Sarah Harris Wallman, places the reader in a hospital at night, next to a young woman who has just given birth. There is no plot in the traditional sense, the story consisting mostly of the mundane goings-on of the night and her thoughts, and somehow it manages to convey an intimate, almost suffocating sense of anxiety and boredom without being monotonous.
The standout, though, is first prize award in nonfiction “One Way to Shut Her Up.” Ester Bloom recounts her time at a horrific job at the Very Important Talent Agency (VITA) with great wit and an exceptional control of rhythm. And there is sensitivity, too, under the wry humor: jerks are shown in their kind moments, jaded colleagues recover their empathy. On one hand, I laugh and wonder if Bloom can possibly have made up this job interview:
“. . . So I have to ask you: are you stupid?”
. . . As Pat glared, I realized that “Are you stupid?” was intended to be a straightforward question. Though my emotional state was shaky and my confidence cheesecloth, one thing remained certain: I was smart enough to know when to tell someone powerful what she wanted to hear. Meeting Pat’s eye, I said, “No, I’m smart.” I hoped to God that much was still true.
And on the other hand, who cares? It is expertly handled and completely believable, and I am willing to be taken along for the very enjoyable ride.
Shann Ray’s “The Kitchen in the Afternoon” and Michael Berger’s “The Gates” are two poems that disguise shifts of tension under their calm exteriors. Ray begins quietly (“light sometimes / makes us see each other”) before taking a quick turn (“as if we were designed / well and with good intention”) and retreating to close in the “easy turn of dusk.” The poem does not disclose what the trouble is, but only a sense that it is longstanding, and perhaps without remedy. In contrast, “The Gates” weaves from a quiet garden to a chaotic city and back. The long, regular lines temper the violence and give the poem a feeling of having been recollected later, of distance.
In “Love, Now & Always,” Molly Rogers tries to find the source of her mother’s apparent emotional callousness. There are three parallel lines in the story: her mother’s seeming inability to empathize, her secretive work as an engineer with a defense contractor, and her dementia decades later, all three keeping Rogers at arm’s length. The piece is neither saccharine nor rancorous, a fine feat, though the exposition at the end feels a bit rushed and conclusory.
“Good Morning, Good Night” by Randi Miller treads lightly on the text messages traveling within a troubled marriage. A few deft strokes outline the deep creases in the lives of the three people involved:
Naomi has promised to walk away as soon as he says the word, as long as he doesn’t say the word on her birthday, or Christmas, or any other time that might make her particularly sad. He said the word eight months ago, after he and his wife had sex standing up for the first time in years. But Naomi became particularly sad, on a regular Wednesday, though he hadn’t mentioned the standing-up sex.
Mark Polanzak’s “A Proper Hunger” is great fun, taking the farm-to-table, locavore movements to their logical extremes. First comes the “Animal Farm” restaurant, where patrons select the animal to be killed from a barn next to the restaurant; then they pay for the privilege of hunting and killing it themselves; and finally the entire experience is made “pure” and “civilized” again. While the slightly mocking, slightly journalistic tone reminds us that this is not real life, the almost-familiar language used to describe each restaurant reminds us that they are not so far from real life. Wasn’t it yesterday that I heard about lab-grown meat on the news?
It’s always a pleasure when a journal I’m not familiar with delights and delivers. Dogwood is one such journal. Its editors have an eye for fresh writing, and I look forward to even better things to come from both Dogwood and the writers in this issue.
Volume 16 Number 1
Review by Chip Livingston
This issue of Five Points is an issue of reflection, from its opening tribute to Maxine Kumin, in which associate editor Beth Gylys remembers researching the literary friendship between Kumin and Anne Sexton for her college senior thesis, to the poems of Ellen Bass and Barbara Hamby, who reflect on meals of pork chops and fried chicken, respectively. We also have the reflective photographs of Vesna Pavlović through his project “Fabrics of Socialism” and Kirk West’s photos of blues venues, artists, and objects. The issue also includes interviews with Kumin, West, and Stephen Dunn.
In that initial interview between Gylys and Kumin, recorded in 1986 but unpublished until now, Kumin discusses meeting Sexton in 1957 in a poetry seminar taught by John Holmes, who discouraged Kumin from developing a friendship with the “suicidal . . . alcoholic . . . addicted” Sexton. Kumin says Holmes “was very leery of her. I think she reminded him to an unerring degree of his first wife who committed suicide. . . . He couldn’t see (Sexton’s) genius because he was crushed.” How timely that the interview covering both late poets’ obsessions with death is published just months after Kumin’s crossing over.
Gylys asked Kumin nearly thirty years ago about the general focus of death in modern poetry, and Kumin replies: “All poems are essentially elegies. Almost all of them because really the impulse to write comes from a fear of death. . . . I say that we wouldn’t have literature if we weren’t mortal.”
Bass and Hamby’s poems—“Ode to the Pork Chop” and “Fried Chicken Boiled Peanut Blues”—wax nostalgic on well-remembered meals, “the creamy lard rising / to the top like a thick slab of heaven.” Bass writes, “As meat sears and butter bubbles, / I’m carried back to a time when this scent / meant survival—we’d see another day.” Hamby’s speaker is
just praying I have room for a piece of coconut pie,
because when I’m lying on my death bed
I don’t wanna be thinking, I sure wish I’d eaten more coconut pie,
just like I don’t want to say, I sure wish I’d stopped
at every boiled peanut stand on Highway 219 from Tallahassee
to Apalachicola, because there’s nothing tastier
on a hot day. . . .
In poems by David Baker and Benjamin Busch, the authors reflect on houses they live in, one possibly threatened by overhead drones (Baker) and another “buoyant, mostly hollow” and “weighed . . . down with a basement” (Busch).
Valerie Miner, in her story “Far Enough,” writes of three friends from third grade reuniting after “many years,” where the protagonist, Liz, wonders—despite their promise “to remain in each other’s lives. Forever.”—what she even has in common with them now.
Five Point’s “Hot Rocks” section of “Songs and Verse” includes a deconstruction of ‘80s indiepop by Stephen Burt, in which he examines lyrics by Amelia Fletcher (frontwoman of Heavenly and Talulah Gosh) and songs by Allo Darlin:
These lyrics, like almost all rock lyrics, should not be treated as if they were page-based poetry: if you want to hear what I hear when you read the words, please stop, find a computer or a record store or an accommodating DJ—YouTube will do—and listen to (Elizabeth) Morris (of Allo Darlin) sing the song.
Burt’s essay is also “a song about songs, about the nostalgia value in (as John Ashbery put it) ‘The Songs We Know Best.’ . . . The songs that we know best tie us to our past, to the person we were when we first heard them, when we first loved them, and those songs can come with us as we travel, can take us back, console us or distress us, no matter where we live, where our bodies are, who we might have become.”
Also in the “Hot Rocks” section, we have “A Conversation with Kirk West and Mike Mattison,” in which West, the manager of the Allman Brothers Band, recalls tours during the 1970s and shares photos (West was a professional photographer before his tenure with the Allmans) of juke joints, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash.
In contrast, poet and essayist Chad Davidson remembers when and why he put down the camera: “As a result of our constantly being bombarded with images,” Davidson writes, “we inevitably compare our lived experience to the representations we’ve seen. . . . we might even hear someone near us (or even hear ourselves) say, It looks just like the pictures I’ve seen, or It’s even better than the pictures I’ve seen, or, perhaps most distressingly, I think the pictures I’ve seen are better.”
In this Five Points issue of reflection, Davidson’s words might best serve as a concluding summary: “Maybe the weight of all the pictures is what I’m scared of, the predilection some have to live more in the past, surrounded by images of the already, the happened, the happy.” And perhaps I share some of the ideas of Davidson’s thesis; as much as I enjoyed this issue’s walking us down Memory Lane, I hope the next issue of Five Points might point us to the future. I’m pretty familiar with where we (and the artists focused on in the issue) have been. I’m more interested in what we (and they) might do next.
Volume 30 Number 2
Review by Elaine Fowler Palencia
Published at Lynchburg College in Virginia, this review has roots in the South as deep as James Dickey’s. But while its content aims “to maintain an artistic and intellectual connection” to Dickey and his work, the interpretation is generous enough to allow for a good mix of Dickey scholarship, original poetry, essays not about the author but maybe concerning things he would care about, and book reviews. One might say the spirit of Dickey is hovering over the journal, so that, for example, the wilder shores of the avant garde or identity politics do not appear in this issue. We are in recognizable Dickey territory the whole way.
Don Johnson’s long poem, “North Georgia, Last Call,” starts us off traveling in a truck through Dickey’s ancestral landscape with the man himself riding shotgun. The poem proceeds through a carnival of the local talk beloved by Dickey (“Hell, you got to steal to break even.”) to a diner full of word play (“If there’s hog to be had, be the butt. / If you’re the pig, take the poke”) a welter of aphorisms, puns, a velvet Elvis, a quirky meditation on America, and a sassy waitress named Sheila. It’s a ride Dickey would have enjoyed. Next comes an ongoing feature of the magazine, part X of “From the Manuscript Vault: Aphorisms for Use in the novel Alnilam,” listed without commentary. The aphorisms follow naturally upon Johnson’s poem, sketching the nature of a charismatic man’s man.
The shorter poems include three by Duffie Taylor that play with the idea of life as language and vice versa (“Life is content to be a story; only when maneuvered / beyond the frame does the moment become / painful . . .”) and three by Kelly Cherry, including “Sonnet for a B-17” that speaks to Dickey’s military experience. Frank Light’s personal essay, “Tora Bora Redux,” also concerns military life, specifically his time in Afghanistan trying to bring American goodwill to a dangerous area that once sheltered Osama bin Laden. It is part of a memoir. There is room for student work like Benjamin Norman’s “Chrysopoeia: Metaphysical reflections on Transformation in James Dickey’s ‘The Owl King’,” and a poem from Ireland, “Animal Psalms” by James Patterson, that reminds us of Dickey’s illuminating grasp of concrete reality.
The gem is Ed Madden’s reminiscence, “James Dickey: In Touch with Darkness.” It begins, “This essay is not an act of revenge” and tells a story from 1997 at the end of Dickey’s life. Madden was a new assistant professor at South Carolina when Dickey succumbed to his final illness and was unable to teach his Verbal Composition class. Madden was tapped to replace him. He barely knew the author and was understandably nervous about filling such large poetic shoes. But this was not the worst of Madden’s problems. From his hospital bed, Dickey phoned Madden to threaten, “If you come on to any of my students, I’m going to come to your office and personally break your fucking neck.” Furthermore, Madden would receive the same treatment if he taught the work of “homosexual poets” or had “an ax to grind in the class.” Dickey died two days later. To speculate about the origins of this crazed threat from a womanizer who was fascinated by violence and by homosexuality, Madden goes back to Dickey’s writing and to Henry Hart’s biography of Dickey.
Three of the books reviewed appear to have an emotional connection to the South of Deliverance. Ricky Rodriguez notes the violence in Charles Dodd White’s Sinners of Sanction County (stories set in a violent Appalachia), in Jon Sealy’s novel The Whisky Baron (violent 1930s South Carolina), and Alabaman Emma Bolden’s poetry collection Maleficae (violence against women accused of witchcraft). In contrast, Cary Holladay’s gentler story collection, The Deer in the Mirror, is set in her own personal Virginia, which reviewer Robert Baker describes as “so compelling that it almost becomes a character itself.” Holladay is compared to Chekhov for her “capacious imagination that accepts the passions of her characters without judgment.”
This publication is of interest to Dickey scholars, Dickey fans, and people who know little about the man and his work, for it achieves the most important goal of journals specializing in a single author: it sends the reader back to the work.
Volume 55 Number 2
Review by Travis Laurence Naught
This all-poetry issue of The Midwest Quarterly was a treat that did not disappoint. I grew up in a rural community, population south of 4000, and we were the county seat: these poems spoke straight to my childhood. As with all good poems, I’m sure there are pieces here that will speak to city folk as well, but the trip down memory lane was outstanding for me. The only gripe I have about the entire issue is that there was no table of contents for easy reference, so it took some effort to relocate my favorites for closer inspection. Publishers opted to put the contributor bios at the front of the issue instead of a TOC. Don’t worry, I’m a country boy, I accepted the work!
Rachel G. White did an outstanding job of highlighting some of the work that goes into being raised in the country in “Cutting Hogs.” Farmers get to play veterinarian with their animals every year. With my family it was cutting horns and testicles off calves; in the poem she remembers working hogs. My favorite lines were, “Their teeth sound like breaking ice / when dad clips them off, keeps them from / growing out tusks to gouge us or one another.” My personal connection due to my farming background made this my favorite poem in the issue.
Kate Robinson takes a look at who I cannot help but think of as a homeless individual in the poem “In the Red Barn.” It is the first poem in the issue and serves as a slap-in-the-face to remind readers that poetry is not always nice. It’s a tight poem with truly visceral descriptions. I especially enjoy the lines, “there is no heat or blankets in the barn / no light, no water no sound / there is only two lungs in a man with cold feet.” Readers definitely need to check out this poem to find out more about this scenario. It will stick with me for a while!
Near the front of this issue is a whole flock of bird poems by various authors. Included are pieces by Deborah Kroman, Audrey Henderson, Jonathan Greenhause, and others. There are imaged birds, flight metaphors, multiple species, and even talking birds. Noel Sloboda captures a wonderful conversation between man and his winged counterpart in “Another Remonstrance”:
Why so early with the singing?
Isn’t regurgitated food traumatic for babies?
He counters with queries of his own.
Who would surround a nest with walls?
“Prairie Madness,” by Lucia Galloway, is a sestina that absolutely transported me as a reader into the country. Not to give too much of the poem away, I have decided to share her six repeated words and then let you look up the poem to witness the wonderful way in which puts them together: aisles, stalks, bored, script, mad, and defense.
Poet Joseph Lennon strings together haikus to create a dialogue between citizens of a small town and with the reader. “Flatland Haiku Summer” makes for a three-page powerhouse of work. My favorite of the included haiku read, “Catfish for dinner— / you’re lucky it’s not burnt— / Charlene’s drinking beer.” So much about those syllables makes my mouth water.
The byline for The Midwest Quarterly states, “A Journal of Contemporary Thought.” At the end of working through the issue, I find myself very grateful that these country thoughts still exist in a contemporary world and that someone took the time to print them. Definitely worth a look!
Volume 45 Number 2
Review by Denise Hill
Last month I reviewed Frogpond and noted it as one of THE journals for haiku enthusiasts. Modern Haiku is another of THE journals haikuists should be reading. This journal has been in continuous print since 1969, with a masthead of esteemed haiku experts, each a haiku household name: Kay Titus Mormino, Robert Spiess, Lee Gurga, Charles Trumbull, and the current editor, Paul Miller.
Modern Haiku publishes all forms, combining haiku and senryu as well as essays, both scholarly and personal, a “poetry gallery” featuring full color haiga forms, and haibun. I suggest reading through the haiku & senryu over several days to slowly savor the power of each—with nearly 100 works on these pages alone, readers need to pace themselves.
The essays are my favorite part: learning from experts, considering perspectives relevant to current conversations and arguments about Japanese poetic forms. I was skeptical (pun intended) of this issue’s topic: “UFOs in Haiku” by Jim Kacian, adapted from an article first presented in 2013 at Haiku North America in California. The fact that it begins: “The aliens have landed and they’re infiltrating haiku” did not instill confidence that this was going to be a rigorous concept discussion. But when reading the definition: Unique Formal Objects, and goal of the article “to help you recognize these elusive entities, possibly with an eye toward helping you create your own,” I was all in. Kacian explores those forms of presentation which break our (Western) traditional expectation of haiku as a three line form, tracing the first known sightings of such UFOs, and showing how form changes became normalized (such as the one-line form, now seen as nothing unique). Kacian examines why writers might choose these unique presentations and how form affects meaning. He addresses how in some cases, these forms create arguments as to whether or not they are still haiku (Kacian repeatedly argues on the “yes” side of that issue).
Having read the essay, I could not look at the remainder of the works in the journal the same way. Far from being a distraction, my reading was slowed even more as I considered each presentation, how author decisions on unit, form and order impacted meaning, how it could have been different. It’s almost as if I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read with such clarity before—I had been missing so much!
John Stevenson’s essay, “Poetry as a Sense Organ,” is barely two pages of personal reflection but tremendously enlightening as he recounts his hiatus from writing to his re-immersion. He considers his own “poem making as a sixth sense organ”:
My understanding of life involves the acuity and also the limitations of my senses. I touch, taste, listen to, and inhale what is around me in order to understand it and thrive in it as best I can. And, in a sense, I also experience my surroundings by ‘poeming’ selected portions of them.”
For any writer who has taken hiatus (or is currently), you’ll find a kindred spirit in this work.
This issue of Modern Haiku also includes a special section on Punjabi Haiku—translations by Amarjit Sathi Tiwana and Arvinder Kaur. Punjabi haiku has really taken off in the past ten years, with Tiwana sharing haiku and building popularity for it via his WordPress page and now Facebook group (with over 4000 members). The collection presented in this issue comes from the blog and Facebook group. Though many of these could be read as “any culture” haiku, it’s a much deeper read to know cultural place and be able to sense the poems geographically. Like Stevenson says, the images of these works reach us in a sixth sense of knowing—image lines like “from her shawl” (Kulpreet Badial), “a deserted library—” (Davinder Singh Poonia), “the temple lights dance” (Ranjit Singh Sra), “fallen mud house—” (Ravinder Ravi), “a sandalwood fragrance” (Jagjit Sandhu), and “scent of mangoes—” (Anoop Babra). Our ability to receive these images in a more specific cultural context strengthens their meaning, deepens the reader’s experience with them, and allows for shared experience.
The Robert Spiess Memorial Haiku Award Competition for 2014 winners are included in this issue along with commentary on each from Roberta Beary, judge, and Billie Wilson, contest coordinator. In all, an outstanding issue of Modern Haiku, which is exactly what you’ll get each time you pick up this journal.
Volume 204 Number 4
Review by Brian McKenna
Because the Poetry Foundation’s website is such a fixture of my online reading, buying an issue of Poetry always make me feel like I’m donating to public radio. Lifting an issue from the bookstore shelf and leafing through it, I can almost hear the faintly accusatory voice of a pledge drive broadcaster playing the guilt card, asking, “How often do you find yourself enjoying the vast resource that is the Poetry Foundation website, or sending the articles and poems you find there to friends? Isn’t that worth $3.75 a month to you? Don’t you want to ensure that future generations will be able to find out which new books William Logan has insightfully disliked? Where else can you get such an affordable yet consequential snapshot of contemporary poetry and poetics?”
I whole-heartedly recommend paying the pittance for Poetry’s expanded summer edition to find out what William Logan thinks of the work of August Kleinzahler and William Stafford, what Dorothea Lasky has to say about the use of color in poetry, and to read new poems by Dean Young, D.A. Powell, Traci Brimhall, and Timothy Donnelly, among others.
Though he’s often as brusque in his praise as he is in his criticism, William Logan’s reviews nearly always illuminate those qualities that make a poet’s writing worth reading before detailing the heaps of faulty craft he finds those qualities buried under. As shown in his review of August Kleinzahler’s latest book The Hotel Oneira, Logan relishes the role of critic-as-sparring-partner, able to compare the poet’s work to Melville even while voicing a litany of qualms:
The reader has to put up with a lot of sketchy thought, hipper-than-thou gestures, and gushing romanticism (Hotel Oneira? Give me a break) to get to the deeply rendered meditations of place, full of Melvillean glamour and sadness. It’s no use asking Kleinzahler to leave out the gruesome sentiment, it’s so mired in his manner, his conception of what it is to be a poet (he’s always ordering a handkerchief with sniffles to go).
In contrast, Logan begins his review of Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems, the new selected edition of work from the late poet William Stafford, with an uncomfortably clinical yet accurate appraisal of Stafford’s diminished status in American letters before offering specific praise for Stafford’s war poems and his unpretentious style, which eschewed the tendencies of postwar poets like Nemerov and Eberhart who “chose a literary language dripping with artifice or a vernacular dull as boiled cod.” Though these reviews drip with Logan’s special blend of snark, erudition, and honest engagement, they would be less consequential if they didn’t also show a deep respect for those improbable moments when a poet manages to put it all together.
Dorothea Lasky’s essay “What is Color in Poetry, or Is it the Wild Wind in the Space of the Word” may have been the part of the issue I was most looking forward to reading. While the essay does provide a wealth of sources for further exploration of the use of color in poetry and contains engaging readings of poems by H.D., Rimbaud, Plath, Sappho, Celan, Stevens, etc., Lasky’s own ideas about the use of color in the crafting of poetry felt anemic. The wheels really seemed to come off near the essay’s end when she attempts to “give gentle suggestions for where future poetry can go in using color in new ways.” In doing so, she quotes a 1930s article from The Scientific Monthly about the use of color in the poetry of Amy Lowell and Chaucer, discusses how a poet from the 1970s saw auras and essences while on a twenty-one day fast, describes the synesthesia of individuals on the autism spectrum, and lists the many compound hues made possible by new, multichromatic nail polishes and car paints. Those suggestions contained in this section which were specific enough to have some actual bearing on the crafting of poetry either felt like ideas that have already been put into use or simple reminders that language evolves in conjunction with the research and evolution of other disciplines. Minor reservations aside, Lasky’s enthusiastic and in-depth discussion of an intriguing subject which usually receives only cursory treatment does make for an engrossing read.
Poetry and color are combined in this expanded summer edition in a more literal sense by New Yorker Elaine Equi in her “Local Colors” portfolio, which pairs vibrant photographs from daily life in the city with poetic captions. Whether photographing a street vendor’s makeshift shrine, nostalgic bits of signage, or the last two blueberries staring up from the breakfast bowl, Equi’s sense for composition and color is impeccable. This is particularly true of Equi’s Diebenkorn-esque composition of the photograph for “Sixth Ave. Green with Blue Corner,” which is accompanied by the evocative lines: “How much greener / is paint than grass, / especially in winter.” Also included in the issue is Tony Fitzpatrick’s “The Day Lou Reed Set Me Free,” which pays tribute to the liberating power of the late patron-saint of NYC cool in a series of collage as well as a short reflection.
Though I gravitated toward the issue’s prose and artwork, new poems from D.A. Powell and Dean Young stood out among Poetry’s poetry. My single favorite from the issue was Young’s “Romanticism 101,” in which Young underscores grand apprehensions with more ordinary and humorous ones, his speaker’s realization that only continuous experience puts one in touch with the feeling of transcendence is more than a little terrifying:
Then I realized even when you catch the mechanism,
the trick still works.
Then I came to in Texas
and realized rockabilly would never go away.
Then I realized I’d been drugged.
We were all chasing nothing
which left no choice but to intensify the chase.
Offering on-point criticism, a provocative essay, crisp art reproduction, and poetry of considerable stylistic range, Poetry’s colorful new issue is sure to make anyone’s summer a little brighter.
Numbers 91 & 92
Review by Brian McKenna
With this double-issue blowout, River Styx celebrates its thirty-ninth year (“because who wants to turn 40?”) as one of the country’s most “thoughtful yet accessible” literary ambassadors. Boasting a long list of notable and returning contributors and brimming with poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and art of great depth that’s also deeply entertaining, this issue is River Styx turned up to eleven. Nowhere is this more evident than in the issue’s poetry. Featuring new poems from Dorianne Laux, Kim Addonizio, Jeffrey Bean, Stephen Dunn, Albert Goldbarth, Ted Kooser, Lawrence Raab, Robert Wrigley, and A.E. Stallings, among others, River Styx’s latest issue is Xanadu for those who enjoy provocative free verse and formal poetry of a largely narrative bent. Though the issue’s poetry may be its greatest strength, fiction from Andrea Marcusa and an essay from Billy Middleton both make memorable and moving cases for those other genres.
Few contemporary poets seem as tailor-made for River Styx’s blend of the accessible and substantial as Dorianne Laux. If there’s a poetic equivalent to perfect pitch, Laux may indeed have it. In her poem “Needle and Thread,” about an atypical brand of free-love-era promiscuity, Laux needs only a few opening lines to show how the spur of loneliness causes her speaker’s awkward yet earnest groping for connection through creative endeavor:
It was the sixties, and embroidery was back in,
and if you had jeans torn at the knee, an old
denim jacket, a plain white shirt or a cloth
handbag, I might ask you what you liked
then spend hours alone in my room
with your favorite colors . . .
Like the best of Laux’s poems, choice details and ambiguities, suggestive line breaks, and imagery pregnant with metaphor keep the poem gathering momentum right up until its shudder-inducing final line.
Longing for connection finds even more insular expression in Jeffrey Bean’s persona poem “The Voyeur’s Blues.” Employing the blues form’s use of repetition with a difference, the poem captures the languorous movement of the voyeur’s eye as it follows the slightest alterations in the daily routine of the woman next door. The double entendre, humor, braggadocio, and religious metaphor native to the blue’s form also provides an apt outlet for the voyeur’s outsized interior life: “You’ve got a prickly blackberry bush—it’s blooming in your yard. / I’ll eat those prickly berries one night in the quiet of your yard. / When my mouth turns blue, I’ll talk to you like I’m praying to the Lord.” Bookended by stanzas that show the voyeur at his most self-aware and tender, the poem captures the intensely compelling delusions of voyeuristic experience.
In Lawrence Raab’s poem “Stuff,” the simple act of lying down for an afternoon nap incites a meditation on the connection between waking life, the body, and the dream world:
You lie down and everything falls out of your pockets,
coins first, then the little green halogen flashlight
and the blue pillbox, later your bulky ring of keys.
Where does that leave you? Unencumbered
and asleep, but it’s a poor sleep with two pockets
of stuff to roll over on. . . .
As the physical presence of these mundane yet talismanic objects insinuate themselves into the sleeper’s dream, Raab shows the irresistible appeal of deciphering how our waking concerns find cryptic translation in dreams. Raab’s choice to efface all but a few simple, colorful images from the poem, as well as his use of the second-person to guide the reader by the power of suggestion, help him capture the fogginess of dream recall.
Exploring the vagaries and traumas of family life as well as the difficulty of adapting to new surroundings are two primary themes running through much of the issue’s fiction. Andrea Marcusa grapples with both of these themes in her first-person short story “Map of Djerba,” about a fourteen year-old New York City boy named Jake who’s sent to live with his grandfather on an island off the coast of Tunisia after his parents are killed in a car accident. In her ambitious story, Marcusa considers with restrained elegance the dual traumas of losing one’s family and being immersed in a new culture, allowing Jake’s rather mature acceptance of these changes to feel more impactful:
August is even hotter than July. Even though we’re roasting, Grandpa wears the same long-sleeved shirts and heavy trousers; he cooks the same hot couscous, drinks steaming tea with pine nuts. We’re not saying much these days. I stay in my room watching DVDs on my laptop.
Billy Middleton, in his disquieting essay “The Fear of Secondhand Guilt,” recalls how his initial timidity in severing his relationship with his friend Blayne—in the wake of Blayne’s arrest for the possession of child pornography—made him a reluctant lifeline and a firsthand witness to Blayne’s ostracism and eventual suicide. In exploring these complex repercussions, Middleton describes his own misgivings about their limited interactions with great candor and clarity, allowing the inherent moral dilemmas to speak for themselves:
Death has made him safer to write about. I wish I could reach some sort of startling epiphany, but the only conclusions I can reach are the ones I already knew. I love him like a brother, and these past few years would have been easier if I didn’t.
Also making memorable appearances at River Styx’s thirty-ninth anniversary party are Hong Chun Zhang with her portfolio of surrealistic graphite drawing’s entitled “Hairy Objects” and the three winning entries from River Styx’s 2014 micro-fiction contest. According to the cover, it also looks like Dante is bringing his famous Jell-O mold, if that helps tip the scales for you.
Review by Kirsten McIlvenna
After a brief interview with Denise Frohman and a note from Women of the World Poetry Slam Host City Chair, Wicked Banshee Press (a brand new online journal) plunges right into the poetry, and it doesn’t fool around with any feet-wetting. The very first poem sends a strong emotional sting with Tara Betts’s “Throwing Away a Wedding Dress.” Describing it as “dented and dew-dotted, dried / fondant, crumbling and collapsed / in loose folds,” a metaphor for the entire marriage.
And as this poem’s strength comes from the emotional tug and twist, each poem here seems to have its own unique pull tactic. The next poem we encounter is Reena Berroa’s “Foreigner,” one of the most powerful poems in the collection. It starts, “When falling in love with men with decorous eyes and loyal chests, / remember you are foreigner,” and follows the couple through a course of dinner where she is constantly reminded that she is different, but the power comes with the narrator’s powerful perseverance to not let it get her down:
When your boyfriend is not brave enough to whisper your name without
guilt carved across his cheeks,
when everyone is trying to make a wife out of you before you make a
woman of yourself.
When he sits at the dinner table only willing to claim you fad,
to be blown out,
be your own happy ending
Simple and straightforward, Cassandra de Alba’s “some anxiety metaphors” is easily relatable, tackling a feeling many of us have far too often: “twine from each pore of the showerhead / mud from the faucet / in the backyard a single hole growing larger.”
Lea Deschenes’s pull, for me at least, was the dark tone, and excellent word choice:
They consider your one face obscene,
mouth a plague, so why speak? When you try,
they slip out of the woodwork, surround you
in sleep. Stuff your throat with blank sheets,
origami giraffes, feathered swans. You choke
on their bleached-letter soup and fail
to cut purpose a vent through the weights
on your chest:
And different yet, Sacha Jacobson employs the tactic of word choice in a way that it takes all the clichés and typical meanings of words and kind of explodes it onto the page, making it bigger and better and more meaningful rather than dull and overused. In “TRAFFICK” she uses both “traffic” and “traffick” to get her point across. In “GET BIG FAST or HOW TO BECOME A BURNOUT” she uses imagery of fire and smoke, and with each stanza, the fire (the poem, the feeling) grows with intensity until it, as each one must do, fizzles out.
They will call you great,
Infamous, angry, relentless
They will remember you
They will always remember you
But not for your flame or talent for illumination
Not for the time you beat out the stars
And lit up the night with all you had in you
They will remember your callous, your evil
Your black mark, your scorch
They will remember the moment you finally
As with all the examples I’ve provided, all the contributors (and editors) are female (including those who identify as women or live their life as women). The editors are looking for writing that “is unapologetic in its honesty and integrity, poetry that aims to identify with the reader and leave them soul shocked,” and I have to say they accomplished their goal even in the very first issue. I look forward to seeing how far this publication can push.
Review by Kirsten McIlvenna
Your Impossible Voice, a newer quarterly e-publication, has taken strides to give a great literary experience through the professional and engaging look of their website to the well-formatted work of their publication. As far as the work goes? Well, let's explore.
Karen An-hwei Lee’s “Letter from Orange County: Twelve Fragments” falls under the category of nonfiction in this issue, and is a beautifully written homage to a past place, or rather to a current place that is no longer what it was, but I could argue that it could also fall under the category of poetry with lines like these:
For the last orange tree, a masquerade of a dozen myths—
On the corner of Iglesia Oasis de Gloria, out of a coastal mesa where the
freeway ends at a beach city, in a soft albedo of hidden southern California
suns, the tiniest of those suns, the unskinned pulp before we said tangelo or clementine or even oroblanco for grapefruit, hybrid of a sweet orange and a pomelo—the low movement of light in the morning—a waking dream of invisible oranges razed long ago on a boulevard of ginger-washed light. Please do not say orchard yet.
Each sentence of her piece is a treat for the mouth and something for the brain to consider about changing landscape. If you read anything in this issue, let this be it.
And while An-hwei Lee's piece could easily be poetry, John Beckman's piece is so carefully constructed that I could believe it to be nonfiction rather than fiction, if I didn't know better. About a young girl's struggle with her beliefs and her mother's cancer, "La Femme Visible" feels honest:
“Justine, I have to tell you something. These days my body glows less and less. These days my body isn’t holy [saint].”
Here is in fact what my mother had said:
“These days my body isn’t healthy [sain].”
Saint and sain are homonyms; the terminal consonants are silent in both. To make matters worse, she went on to say:
“Your whole body glows with life! It is healthy (sain), it is holy (saint), it’s an instrument of God, it’s a healthy [holy?] instrument of God!”
I asked her bluntly if she had sinned.
My question surprised her. “Everyone has sinned.”
Why was my body holy when hers was not?
Reading David Bajo’s “Equisa” is stepping into a new world where reading is no longer about words but is about drinking a special tea and experiencing the story by looking at placards (how was a little unclear to me), paying someone is as easy as typing a couple things into a phone, and trying to obtain paper books is a crime that can result in being stripped of your clothes and hair (don’t try hiding a piece of paper!) and strangled. I was instantly interested in Equisa immediately and what the book she tries to find is, and its significance. I was left slightly unsatisfied at the end, however, as it felt like a chapter stolen from the middle of a book (perhaps it is? There is no indication.), and I wanted to know what more happened.
Though overall, the poetry was less impressive than the prose to me
(where I spent most of my time), I was still glad I read it. Your Impossible Voice holds promise for issues still to come.