Literary Magazine Reviews

Posted December 15, 2006

Alligator Juniper literary magazine coverAlligator Juniper

Issue 11

2006

Annual

This publication of Prescott College for the Liberal Arts and the Environment combines fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and black-and-white photographs from the college’s students as well as national prize winners, all chosen by guest judges. The fiction runs the gamut from the naturalistic treatment of a poor woman giving birth in a tobacco field (Vickie Weaver’s “Distance”) to the magical realism of a murderous mountain lion (Andrew Beahrs’s “Full”). I couldn’t dispel the impression that Weaver tried too hard in “Distance,” particularly regarding the king snake, which is jarringly anthropomorphic and gratuitous. Conversely, Deborah Setzer’s “We Know What to Listen To,” about a female “cowboy,” captivated me from the first line. The poem “Dugan’s Shift” by Jendi Reiter stands out (who wouldn’t be compelled to verse by the quirky fact that poet Alan Dugan was working in a plastic vagina model factory when he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1962?), as does Kim Kapin’s photo “Achille,” which is worth repeat viewings simply for the range of emotions it arouses. Finally, in his well-considered essay “Centered in Edge Effects: Poetry, Nature, Culture, and the Neighborhood,” David Williams succinctly encapsulates what seems the shortfall of much contemporary verse: “Each poem requires discovery. It’s pointless to obscure conventional notions with rhetorical flourishes and call it creative work. It seems equally pointless to collect startling images and arrange them for effect. . .” [Alligator Juniper, Prescott College, 220 Grove Avenue, Prescott, AZ 86301. Single issue $7.50. www.prescott.edu/highlights/alligator_junper]
Reviewed by Jeanne M. Lesinski

Gargoyle coverGargoyle

Number 51

2006

Annual

Pick up this 358-page monster with its fantastic cartoon cover of a UFO sucking up a variety of creatures, readers, and detritus, and you might think you know what you'll find inside. Punctuation-optional poetic forms? Check. Short-shorts that defy traditional sense-making? Sure. A comic reminiscence involving a famous poet and drugs? Yup. Lyn Lifshin? 'Fraid so. For my money, though, fiction is where Gargoyle excels. This 30th anniversary issue contains a plethora of outsider voices and bizarre tales, the most exciting of which is Nick Houser's wonderfully written long story, "First Kiss From Beyond the Grave." Here, an unhappy adolescent is transferred to a high school in purgatory due to a clerical error. Purgatory High is populated by all manner of the undead, and it takes a while for Zack, our surprisingly thoughtful hero, to decide whether life and love are worth returning to. Other highlights include Thaisa Frank's "Thread," a love story set in a circus; Angela Threatt's "Bela Lugosi's Dead," a coming-of-age piece about a bright young black girl who enjoys goth music; and Toby Barlow's "The DMV," in which an entire office of DMV workers fall in love with a woman and plague her with disturbing, not-so-official correspondence. It occurs to me that I may be selling Gargoyle's poetry short; after all, a poem by Sunil Freeman, "Returning, Decades Later, to Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Castille Soap," contains a great line: "The air is sweet with unironic patchouli, a joy / we'll never again have." [Gargoyle, 3819 North 13th Street, Arlington, VA 22201. Issue: $15.95. www.gargoylemagazine.com]
— Reviewed by Jennifer Gomoll

Grain literary magazine coverGrain Magazine

Volume 34 Number 1

Summer 2006

Quarterly

This issue of Grain is designed to look like a mixtape, perhaps the most tragic casualty of the iTunes era. Like a good mixtape, Grain manages to be diverse while having a solid artistic vision. Two of the fiction greatest hits are H. R. Williams’s “The Visitor” and Malcolm Dixon’s “The Shed Gang.” Katelniknikoff’s narrator takes us through the harrowing landscape of the world through his eyes. “The Visitor” is set on a Southern cotton farm during Gandhi’s cotton boycott. An English textile mill owner comes to inspect American cotton for possible import. Williams explores the visit with both patience and humor. Dixon’s prose, meanwhile, flies off the page with foul-mouthed glory—one of the many dialogue-heavy stories in this issue. The poetry outshines the fiction in this particular mix. Kerry Ryan’s “the sleeping life of birds” is surprisingly heartbreaking for a poem about geese, “even those left behind—broken wing / or torn heart—suspend their need for sleep in quiet solidarity // grounded, they sit awake all night / wary of coyotes, of every noise / in the brittle grass, of hungry, / unstoppable frost.” Janette Barr’s wonderful “Nocturnal” begins with the fetching, “Here come the moonbathers in their shiny bikinis with the ruffled bums.” Joan Crate’s “Chickadees” contains the memorable line, “Cold weather wishes, they can’t be touched / only watched from a distance.” Inscribed on the tape jacket within the issue, editor Kent Bruyneel writes, “I made this for you all only. It took me most of today and all of tonight.” Normally, one would make a tape in exchange, but all I can say is, Thanks, Grain. [Grain Magazine, PO Box 67, Saskatoon, SK, Canada S7K 3K1. Single issue $9.95. www.grainmagazine.ca] — Reviewed by Jim Scott

Hanging Loose literary magazine coverHanging Loose

Issue 89

2006

Biannual

If your taste in contemporary poetry has a decidedly Ginsberg slant, and you haven't yet heard of Hanging Loose, you're going to want to get your hands on a copy. Its poems tend to value everyday moments, plain speech, and the occasional bit of experimentation. I loved Edward Field's "Holding Up the Universe," which shocks, amuses, and enlightens the reader with the ball-grabbing test of trust performed by a zen master on his acolyte. "Geography," by Matthew Olzmann, takes its inspiration from an insipid Britney Spears quote about wanting to "travel across seas, like to Canada and stuff": "There are these big-ass slabs of rock floating / across Earth and we don't know who invented them . . . " The most exciting thing about Hanging Loose is its ongoing commitment to publishing talented writers of high-school age; this issue brings us some good ones, including Talia Lavin and her "How to Be a Shaina Maidel: Studies in an Ideal Modern Orthodox Girlhood." The narrator is a born rebel who bounces from one Orthodox school to the next, has to sit through lectures on modesty, has a failed love relationship, but ends up moved at a Conservative service, lifting the Torah above her head, feeling "equal parts transgressive and complete." As an added bonus, the very first (typewritten and mimeographed!) issue of Hanging Loose is reprinted here in its entirety, and man, it is exactly what you'd think a first issue published in 1966 would be like. All its poems came in an envelope so you could hang up the ones you liked and ignore the rest, hence the name Hanging Loose. Hmm, maybe someone should bring back that idea . . . [Hanging Loose Press, 231 Wyckoff Street, Brooklyn, NY 11217. Single issue $9. www.hangingloosepress.com] — Reviewed by Jennifer Gomoll

Knock literary magazine coverKnock

Number 6

Fall 2006

Biannual

Knock numbers among the few journals that devote attention to dramatic works. Prefacing an excerpt from Kim Euell’s award-winning play, The Diva Daughters DuPree, about three African-American sisters who share with each other insights into their very different lives, is Julia Mayes’s interview with the playwright. In it, Euell briefly discusses how she develops her characters and plots, then likens her plays to an appetizer followed by “the main event . . . [that is] the discussion that happens afterwards.” In this volume, the poems, which tend toward the experimental, include multiple works by Nellie Bridge, Alison Mandaville, Clay Matthews, Naomi S. Stenberg, and Alex Vermitsky. I found amusing the juxtaposition of elements in Javier Pinons’s collages of cowboys riding rodeo on such beasts as a chandelier and a toppling stack of fine-furniture chairs. Also deserving a look is “Green Belt,” a winner of Knock’s annual Ecolit and Green Art contest. These quilted, batik fabric belts depicting African women planting trees pay tribute to Nobel Peace-prize-winning activist Wangari Maathai, who founded the Greenbelt Movement that has been responsible for planting over 30 million trees in Kenya. [Knock, Antioch University Seattle, 2326 6th Ave., Seattle, WA 98131. Single issue $7. www.knockjournal.org] — Reviewed by Jeanne M. Lesinski

The Ledge literary magazine coverThe Ledge

Number 29

Fall 2006

Biannual

"Fun" is probably not the most appropriate word available to describe The Ledge, but I'm going to use it anyway because I found this issue highly entertaining and enjoyable to read. The fiction writers and poets published here are skilled but not show-offy; thoughtful, but not pretentious. The best example of this, I think, is P.V. LeForge's "Shoveling Manure," which compares this surprisingly satisfying farm chore to the act of writing poetry: "Simple--keep what you want, fork the rest. / In effect, you have edited the stall." Other poetry highlights include Patrick Hicks's "Hide Your Love Away," dedicated to the EMI sound engineer (and alcoholic) who brought the Beatles to George Martin's attention ("A knob-fiddler you began / and a knob-fiddler of cider bottlecaps you remained"), and Allison Joseph's "Shakespeare," which mixes her love for the Bard's works with her father's dismissal of her own poetry: "It's ok," he said, "but it's no Shakespeare." (Ouch!) The fiction here is varied and excellent, but I'll just mention my favorite, Livia Kent's "The Rejectionist," which presents us with the reality of relationships behind romantic notions via a man who has trouble with his girlfriend (who has an absurdly coddled pet pig) and his boss, the improbably named romance literary agent Marilyn Manson. See? Fun. [The Ledge Poetry & Fiction Magazine, 40 Maple Avenue, Bellport, NY 11713. Single issue $10. www.theledgemagazine.com]
— Reviewed by Jennifer Gomoll

The Literary Review literary magazine coverThe Literary Review

Volume 49 Number 4

Summer 2006

Quarterly

The Literary Review is a gorgeous little magazine out of Fairleigh Dickinson University. A brilliant cover, by Neil Whitacre, graces this issue, which features several winners of The Literary Review’s annual Angoff Awards, given by the editors to the best pieces they publish in a year. Two poems by Fiona Sampson are Angoff winners, “The Looking Glass” and “Clay, Again.” I could not describe their appeal better than the editor, Rene Steinke in her notes, “Fiona Sampson’s two long poems fly through stunning, cinematic images, with phrases both arresting and seductive.” One of the sections that brought out such as response for me is: “smelling pine-- / sharp as a wound. Sweet too. / Hyssop, amaranth: the dark sharp odours / pool spit under your tongue.” It’s not that Sampson writes phrases like “the current of hope that webs a house”—it’s that she makes them organic. The fiction Angoff winner is Aimee Pokwatka’s “The Museum of Lost and Found,” which is, not surprisingly, about a museum lost and found. But what emerges in this patient story is the relationship between the lost and found manager and a woman who is slowly going blind. She says, “I lost my dog when I was eleven. I lost my bike when I was in high school. I lost my brother, Eric, when I was in college. And now I’m losing my vision. That’s my story.” Pokwatka is not interested in sleight of hand or flash, just an honest gem of a story. The award winners are not all there is to love in this issue, as The Literary Review is home to some of the best fiction around (I especially loved James Hannaham’s “Sneezing Lessons”). [The Literary Review, 285 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940. Single issue $7. www.theliteraryreview.org] — Reviewed by Jim Scott

Opium literary magazine coverOpium

Issue 3

Fall/Winter 2006

Biannual

Is there anything tougher to do than make a funny magazine (funny in the comedic sense, not the ‘does this milk taste funny?’ sense) that is also literate? Bad humor is worse than bad milk (at least one can be made into yogurt or cheese or whatever), and when it fails, it fails miserably. Opium, fortunately, succeeds. An estimated reading time guides the reader through the stories, interviews, cartoons, and poems that make up this slim volume. If one has an unoccupied three minutes and sixteen seconds, I would highly recommend filling it reading Steve Gullion’s “Survivalist,” the story of a man’s resolutions at turning sixty. Most of the stories are told in a breezy, conversational style, and at its best, it allows for the kind of imaginative leaps Gullion makes, “That neighbor kid, he filched quarters and lipstick from Dewey’s mother, right off her dresser, and snatched up Dewey’s pet-store turtle and flung it in the creek, screaming Freedom! Freedom!” If one finds they don’t have quite enough time to watch a sitcom, spend a worthwhile twenty-four minutes and twelve seconds with Ben Greenman’s “The Re-education of M. Grooms,” which is one of my favorite stories of the year. And don’t worry—“The Re-education of M. Grooms” is partially about television. I could look at Darby Hudson’s cartoons all day, and without a suggested staring time, I just may. Between all the laughs there is genuine insight, and this is what truly makes Opium fun to read. [Opium, 40 E. 3rd Street #8, New York City, NY 10003. Single issue $10. www.opiummagazine.com] — Reviewed by Jim Scott

Poetry literary magazine coverPoetry

Volume 189 Number 3

December 2006

Monthly

Poetry is one of the few literary journals I can regularly find at my local chain bookstore. This edition features poems by Joel Brouwer, Claudia Emerson, David Baker, Roddy Lumsden, Dana Levin, Geoffrey Hill, Charles O. Hartman, Alicia Ostriker, W.S. Di Piero, and Mary Ruefle. More so than the poems, I found the prose selections and contour-line etchings of literary figures by David Schorr thought provoking. With “In Praise of Rareness,” editor Christian Wiman hits home with his “more is not necessarily better” approach to publishing poetry. He notes that “non-specialists read poetry—rarely, sparingly, but intensely, with a handful of high moments that they cling to. The emphasis is on the memorable individual poem, and poetry in bulk is rarely memorable.” In an age when literary journals litter the landscape, it is increasingly difficult to find poems that truly speak. [Poetry, 1030 North Clark Street, Suite 420, Chicago, IL 60610-5412. Single issue $3.75. www.poetrymagazine.org]
Reviewed by Jeanne M. Lesinski

Prairie Schooner literary magazine coverPrairie Schooner

Volume 80 Number 3

Fall 2006

Quarterly

There's a simple reason Prairie Schooner has been around for nearly eighty years: quality. In this fine issue, we have a variety of voices in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Romola D.'s "Temporary Lives," is a quietly sad, fictionalized narrative of a woman who is married in India in 1921, allowed little opportunity for self-expression, and feels as if she always waiting for her life to really begin. Joshua Ferris's "Ghost Town Choir" navigates a boy's reaction to his mother's breakup with her boyfriend; the kid returns the man's country records several at a time, trying to grasp why adults often stop loving each other. The story is notable for its subtle humor and dignified handling of its poor white protagonists. Similarly, Bette Lynch Husted's essay, "Personal Hygiene," recalls the author's upbringing with no indoor bathroom. In one memorable scene, a P.E. teacher gathers up the girls and scolds them all because one has body odor; the girls seethe with indignation at this outsider's comments, yet turn the anger inward: "I scrubbed until my skin felt raw . . . but I didn't feel clean." Prairie Schooner often prints several poems by one author, to give a feel for the writer's interests, themes, and skill. One of the best in this issue is Margaret Chula, who writes about internment camps from the perspective of Japanese-Americans who were sent there, including a former newspaperman turned carpenter who learns "how a hammer can straighten out / the bent backs of nails and make them useful again." [Prairie Schooner, 201 Andrews Hall, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE 68588-0334. Single issue $9. www.prairieschooner.unl.edu ]
— Reviewed by Jennifer Gomoll

Red Cedar Review literary magazine coverRed Cedar Review

Issue 41

2006

Annual

This slim issue of Red Cedar Review is a standard mix of fiction, poetry, essay, and photography. One of the best pieces offered here is "Not Walls but Shelves," an essay by Colleen Farrow which recalls the author's love for books and bookstores; and her relationship with a man who has different, yet complementary, reading interests. I also enjoyed Jared Gerling's "4 Years to Live. 6 Minutes to Die," an insightful glance into the tough but overlooked world of collegiate rowing. With its intense descriptions of the extreme physical and mental focus the sport requires, the story is at once inspiring and disturbing. As poetry goes, Rob Hardy's "Midlife Crisis While Watching a Nature Program" is a funny and sympathetic look at both a mysterious sea creature and the human condition: "your human heart goes out to the octopus [ . . . ] little sea-nerd on rubbery legs, pretending to be tough. / You admire something so soft and determined / so adaptable." Unfortunately, the rest of this issue left me wanting more, and better. We've got a mere 92 pages here, and many of them are taken up by sub-par haiku; photos that don't merit lofty artist's statements (but get them anyway); blank pages; and stories that tend to be merely amusing and forgettable. Considering the hundreds of litmags out there in competition for subscribers, I would like to see Red Cedar Review bump up its game— or lower its price. [Red Cedar Review, 17C Morrill Hall, Department of English, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824-1036. Single issue $12. www.msupress.msu.edu/journals/rcr/]
— Reviewed by Jennifer Gomoll

Ruminate literary magazine coverRuminate

Fall 2006

Issue 1

Quarterly

With the slogan “chewing on life,” the premier issue of Ruminate intends to present readers with works of fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and visual art that “resonate with the complexity and truth of the Christian faith.” Of the some dozen poems in this issue, I found Andy Patterson’s “Guessing at Ends” to be especially evocative and immediate: “You brew a hundred beginnings / every dawn, bringing the mornings / with your hair haphazardly tied, because / even on the worst of hair days, / each end is counted.” And I was hooked after reading the first line of “Weight of Words: Autobiography of a Reading Life” by Laura Peterson: “If parents and educators really knew the potential consequences of so vehemently encouraging kids to read, they’d think twice about doing it.” So, too, in his elegant essay, “Jesus Took the Bus to Chicago,” Albert Hale meditates on the alliance he maintains between his Christian faith and his attraction to the blues music that has, through the decades, been perceived by some as “ungodly.” As for the graphics, I have to admit that the rhinoceros adorning the cover conjured visions of Eugene Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros, in which the beast symbolizes much the opposite of the thoughtfulness it’s supposed to convey here. In addition, although this 8 x 10 inch, saddle-bound journal on high-gloss paper is attractive overall, the designer could improve its legibility by printing all text in full tones. [Ruminate, 140 N. Roosevelt Ave., Fort Collins, CO 80521. Single issue $8.00. www.ruminatemagazine.com]
Reviewed by Jeanne M. Lesinski

Virginia Quarterly Review literary magazine coverThe Virginia Quarterly Review

Volume 82 Number 4

Fall 2006

Quarterly

VQR is one of the best publications going right now, literary or otherwise. Why? Well, for starters, this issue’s table of contents reads like the literary equivalent the 1927 Yankees batting order: Tony Kushner, Art Spiegelman, Lawrence Weschler, Michael Chabon, E.L. Doctorow, and Dan Chaon. Oh, and batting cleanup? An unpublished poem by Robert Frost. Kushner, Spiegelman, Wechsler, and Chabon all contribute to The Holocaust: Remembrance and Forgetting and each piece is stunning. I hope Spiegelman’s memoir “Portrait of the Artist As A Young %@&*!” will spawn a full-length version, but what’s here is brilliant, by turns honest (he admits the attention given Maus made him lose touch with his son), fascinating in a trivial way (he helped create Garbage Pail Kids), fascinating in an informational way (he considered doing Ku Klux Kats to explore race in the U.S.), thrilling (he shows Maus to his father’s card playing buddies and they treat it like history, not cartoons), and heartbreaking (most everything else). Chabon’s “The King In Black” is an excerpt from his forthcoming novel, and while the flashbacks are in Chabon’s usual style, the present narrative is told in a terse, noir-ish voice. It took me a few pages to get used to, but in the end I was swept under by the rush of the storytelling. VQR has never been afraid of longer pieces—they’ll use as much space as the topic needs to be discussed, and if anything warrants the space set aside, it’s the Frost poem (printed in Frost’s own handwriting and in typeface) and the two explorations of the text by Robert Stilling and Glyn Maxwell, which are too fascinating to be boiled down into even a few paragraphs. VQR is not only absorbing and entertaining, it is important in a way too few publications strive for, and only a handful are. [The Virginia Quarterly Review, One West Range, Box 400223, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4223. Single issue $11. www.vqronline.org] — Reviewed by Jim Scott

Words and Pictures literary magazine coverWords and Pictures Magazine

Issue Number 4

2006

Quarterly

I love the concept of Words and Pictures; it's not just a litmag with an art spread stuck in the middle, but a magazine that integrates art and photography with prose and poems. The first half of this 40-page, large-font issue is mainly devoted to exploring Brazil via a photojournalism piece by travel writer Namit Arora; a look at the "Brazilian Jewel Art" of designer Catherine Clark, and a stock photo spread of the colorful animals, crops, and scenery of Brazil. Elsewhere, we have the abstract oil paintings of Heather Gordon; a thoughtful, informative piece on the raw drug components to be found in our coral reefs (complete with beautiful pictures by Jim Swearingen); evocative b&w portraits and commentary by John Oliver Hodges; and some reprinted letters of nineteenth century southerner Margaret Erwin. A few poems here and there round out the issue; I particularly liked Christianne Balk's "Surface Tension," which contemplates the strangeness of ordinary materials being made into workable watercraft ("But held in flame, softened, and shaped into a bowl / they float, they float.") Obviously, there are a lot of different things going on here; Words and Pictures has the feel of a new magazine that hasn't quite found its focus . . . yet. That's something time usually takes care of, and I look forward to seeing how this unique, innovative magazine evolves. [Words and Pictures Magazine, 9805 NE 116th St., Box A-139, Kirkland, WA 98034. Issue $3.95. www.wordsandpicturesmag.com]
— Reviewed by Jennifer Gomoll

 

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