Literary Magazines
The NewPages
Literary Magazine Reviews

Edited by Denise Hill

Posted March 20, 2006

Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review

Number 25

Fall/Winter 2005


Started in response to the Gulf War and the editors’ dissatisfaction with the self-absorption of much of contemporary poetry, Borderlands calls for work that “shows an awareness of connection—historical, social, political and spiritual.” Many of the poems in this issue do demonstrate this awareness, though never didactically. The emphasis here is on the connection, the personal experience of the larger world, as in Stephanie N. Johnson’s “People Who Say Yes”: “In daylight, I share all my visions with the streets of Krakow. / Wander the summer dust and countryside. Rove cemeteries, / touch names, tomb lettered. Asking, / Are you my people?” Still, I found much in Borderlands that by any measure is strictly personal, all of it lovely. Never pretentious, Borderlands supplies the occasional footnote, translating a foreign word or identifying a religious figure. The reviews eschew academese in favor of clarity and insight. In his review of two new poetry volumes, Bruce Snider offers intelligent and intelligible observations about the prose poem: “By refusing to employ the line and its ability to shape, clarify, emphasize, and generally guide the reader, both poets allow music, image, and narrative to unfold in a way that contributes to the poems’ crucial sense of fluidity, one thing always morphing into the next…[O]ne could argue that the prose poem is often best employed as a disorganizing principle, everything jumbled together in its democratizing block of language.” A journal of exquisite quality, Borderlands is an enormously satisfying reading experience. [Borderlands, P.O. Box 33096, Austin, TX 78764. Single issue $12.] —Deborah Mead


Crab Creek Review

Volume 19 Number 1



Crab Creek Review strikes me as a fun assemblage of the middlebrow to digest: just the right balance of poetry and fiction so that neither genre obscures the other; light in some places, darker in others, but never resorting to noise. Sometimes, you can’t find clear answers. Éireann Lorsung’s “Volans,” a poem ostensibly on flying fish and their winged predators, offers imagist, naturalist inquiries (“What is the fruit / of the ash?”) that elliptically give answer to one another. In Michelle Patton’s “Waiting for My Son at the AA Meeting,” a mother acknowledges her own dearth of answers as she attempts to affirm life and will: “I am told we all stand in the center of our lives / like small gods, wielding our powerful wills / like clubs, but I have my doubts.” On the fiction side, I can forgive Tommy Zurhellen enough for his cheesy 80s references to enjoy his humorous, rock-and-roll-band-at-fat-camp nostalgia, “Love Stinks.” But the most meaningful story may be “Traps” by Stefani Farris. For Rusty, a young New England lobsterman yearning to see the world, the symbolism is obvious, as when he throws a de-limbed crab back into the water: “No way of getting itself out of some place it didn’t want to be.” But as the story examines harbor-town relationships and the influences of family and tradition, it puts Rusty in a paradoxical bind: For all of its traps, the ocean in its own way is liberating. For some people, literature’s like that, too. [Crab Creek Review, P.O. Box 840, Vashon Island, WA 98070. Single issue $6.]
 —Christopher Mote


The First Line

Volume 7 Number 3

Fall 2005


Incipit: “Having little to his name when he died, the reading of Henry Fromm’s will went quickly.” I’m willing to overlook the dangling modifier in this issue’s first line (though many outraged “writers” did not, say the editors) because, after all, it’s the end product that counts: seven short stories and even a poem, all beginning with this opening sentence. They take their time to diverge from each other—one can only do so much with the will and testament device—but in the end, you can’t go wrong with the results. The First Line has done the smart thing, filled the vacuum, really, by transforming this creative exercise/parlor game into a publishable collection; it’s just that the collection feels like an exercise and no more. Most of the pieces try to recreate Henry Fromm as an eccentric in a high-culture environment, with several stories set in Europe. One of the better lines appears in Julie Mayhew’s story of Henry the serial monogamist: “For keeping eight wives in the manner to what they have become accustomed tends to leave a man with little folding stuff to pass round when the judgment day comes.” Another story portrays him as a New Age devotee, another as a time traveler attending his own funeral. The “Favorite First Lines” postscript suggests that this line was inspired by another funeral story, Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt. The First Line, even as an exercise, shows us how writers from different backgrounds can converge, and remain distinct, with a shared starting point. [The First Line, P.O. Box 250382, Plano, TX 75025-0382. Single issue $2.] —Christopher Mote


The Massachusetts Review

Volume 46 Number 4

Winter 2005/2006


Dark, dark, dark is much of the work in this issue, starting with the feature on artist Christin Couture, against whose eerie paintings the rest of the magazine's contents seems to echo. In these portraits, infants are dressed in elaborate Victorian garb, looking very much like the subjects of those post-mortem daguerreotypes popular among the 19th century bourgeoisie, when infant mortality rates were much higher than today. These sinister cherubs peer out of somber canvases (Couture's palette is dominated by blues, greys, browns, and a thousand dreary whites) with eyes that hint at maleficent omniscience and hands that fondle such unlikely props as riding crops, gold watches, and something that looks rather like a little knife. Tucked in next to Couture's creepy darlings is a thought-provoking essay on dolls by the poet Nance Van Winkel, in which she explores the metaphysics of dolls by describing her godchild's rough play with them), recalling her own childhood memories of one in particular, and invoking Rilke (who had such an unhealthy obsession with them). Still more elegant creeps can be found in Robert Wexelblatt's post-apocalyptic love story, "Tinder Box." On the quirkier but still darkish side of things, Elizabeth Searle's story "Sick Play" explores one woman's fixation with exhibitionism, S&M, and powerlessness. More funny than dark, yet with a decent dose of black humor, is an essay by John Allen that chronicles the surprising highs and lows of a pair of enormous polyester underwear inscribed with the warning "DANGER POTHOLES!" and decorated—as this entire issue might be—with a skull and bones. [The Massachusetts Review, South College, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA 01003-7140. Single issue $8.] —Kim Drain


North Dakota Quarterly

Volume 72 Number 4

Fall 2005

North Dakota Quarterly is a sprawling academic journal—it has expanded by 50 pages since I reviewed it last year—but it knows how to put its enormity to good use. Thoughtful essays, reviews, and criticism are givens, but this issue gives opportunity to illuminate the fiction and poetry that tends to get overshadowed. The highlight is three short stories, three, by Robert Day. While two of them are fairly cosmopolitan, the other one, “The One-man Woodcutter Meets His Widowmaker,” decidedly belongs to the rugged West. Day’s territory in Kansas serves as battleground for the perpetual skirmishes between the sexes. The woodcutter’s widow has promises she doesn’t know whether to keep, and her nagging, folksy narrative is a struggle to confront her secrets while respecting her husband’s wishes. “He was always making me promise something,” she says. “Don’t give more than a dollar at church. Promise to fix me bierocks for supper on Saturday. Don’t tell those women in Cottonwood anything about us.” I leave it to the women to judge Day’s use of the female perspective, but his mythical world is all his own. Among the essays in NDQ, Robert Bagg’s critical assessment of undervalued poet Richard Wilbur is the most academic; Kevin Oderman’s “Selling,” a travel essay, is the smartest. The timeless “human face as mask” conceit gets, if you will, a facelift at a cremation ceremony in Bali, where Oderman studies the selling power of the facial expression, whether selling merchandise or an emotion, the very act is given attention in overflowing prose. He writes: “It helps to have looked at the dead to know how living shows. It is in motion, yes, but not only. Like sun-struck water rippling over stones, it’s not wholly transparent.” All of this out of little Grand Forks? Believe. [North Dakota Quarterly, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, ND 58202-7209.  Single issue $8.] —Christopher Mote


Parthenon West Review

Number 3

Fall 2005


I don’t know if this magazine dropped out of the sky or sprung from the mud, but few have shown what Parthenon West Review has to offer: a fully-formed poetry magazine whose vision is frightening to behold. Coming in at under 200 pages, a weekend is too little time to get through this mammoth. If San Francisco is the city where West meets East, PWR takes advantage of the label, building on its Zen-influenced roots in modernism, imagism and the Beats, approaching the avant-garde without leaving contemporary conventions behind. This excerpt from Rusty Morrison is an exemplar:

What waking requires, the firmly
maintained distinction,
begins in silence. Cotton blouse, buttered
toast, favored window. Do not look
out from it. Chance
is the blue eye turning
brown in each etymology.

Translations of poets from Vietnam, Korea and China, outsiders and controversial in their homelands, reinforces the art of poetry as cultural nexus. Other highlights: a traditional sonnet about inner-city domestic violence (“Girls Night Sonnet” by Ishle Yi Park) and an examination of living “the myth / of one who has no need to live by myth” (Thomas Cantonella’s “Loneliness”). As a bonus on the translation front, John Felstiner provides a look at the environmental vision of Pablo Neruda and his love of Macchu Picchu, part hagiography, full insight. If translators are traitors, they commit theft of Promethean order: we mere mortals are ever grateful. [Parthenon West Review, 15 Littlefield Terrace, San Francisco, CA 94107. Single issue $12.] —Christopher Mote


Southwest Review

Volume 90 Number 4

Fall 2005


Joshua Harmon’s lead-off essay is titled “Live Free (Or Die Trying).” Yes, it’s a skewed reference to New Hampshire, and to the political divide in the U.S. and the secessionist fantasies entertained by blue-staters. Yet Harmon, a self-described “Mass-hole” and shrewd observer of place (see AGNI No. 60), discovers that voting patterns are not so easily explained when he visits a region he knows well, Coos County, NH—an otherwise conservative area in the rural mountains that John Kerry won in 2004. It’s as much about analysis as trying to remember Coos (CO-ahs) personally, and the one thing that tugs at Harmon is the widespread real estate development that has made the county almost unrecognizable. He concludes: “That we feel truly free only through ownership and exclusion seems an accurate summary of the 2004 election.” If the essay is initially political, ultimately it becomes something else, rich in detail and still cautionary. Which seems apt enough to be the Southwest Review’s working formula. It applies also to Hugh Sheehy’s short story, “Harold Plays the Pauper,” which pokes gentle fun at 1950s university romantics, as well as Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld’s tale of a man’s struggles against the will and memory of his parents. As for avant-garde composer Luigi Nono, I’m not averse to experimental music, but Wayne Koestenbaum’s interlude hams it up too much for me (though that may be the whole point). To borrow a line from Bill Christophersen on the bluegrass fiddle, “Half the challenge is knowing when not to play.” Ninety years on, the Southwest Review continues to showcase cornucopias of explorative writing. [Southwest Review, Southern Methodist University, P.O. Box 750374, Dallas TX 75275-0374. Single issue $6.] —Christopher Mote


The Spoon River Poetry Review

Volume 30 Number 2

Summer/Fall 2005


When I write a review, I try to organize it around the distinct pillars in the book that define the reading experience for me. With The Spoon River Poetry Review, that doesn’t work so well. There are as many writing styles as there are poets in this volume. Pillars here are like museum artifacts: free-standing, but still awesome to look at. Three of the best: first, a spotlight on Illinois poet Gale Renee Walden, who explains how her love of music influenced her poetry: “I read poems by what meter I thought they were in: 3/4 or 4/4 and I found myself liking poetry that switched meter. I like noticing when language moves into a different key.” Next, the SRPR contest winners, longer poems that stand on the shoulders of giants, which include a feminist reconstruction of Tolstoy’s “The Porcelain Doll.” The last is a review, “Six Volumes of Contemporary Greek Poetry,” which could serve well the international lit types with the time and resources to find the volumes examined. And even with these mentions, I’m still short-changing the talents whose names I recognize (Daneen Wardrop, Melody S. Gee) and the names everyone knows (Bertolt Brecht in translation), all of whom play their own special part. One standout, a translation of Rene Guy Cadou, succeeds in adding flavor to the manuscript by twisting an already twisted metaphor into a simile:

A manuscript that is but a distressing page
Where man and his anguish lie flat on their backs
Like the far corner of an attic lit by apples
Where a six year old child sits with his mutilated toy.

[The Spoon River Poetry Review, 4240 English Department, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois 61790-4240. Single issue $10.] —Christopher Mote


The Threepenny Review

Number 104

Winter 2006


The contributors list for The Threepenny Review reads like a Who’s Who of the literary world, with contributions in this issue alone by A.L. Kennedy, W.S. DiPiero, Jill McDonough and Anne Carson. The poetry and fiction featured in this issue impress with beauty and simplicity—you won’t need to Google a thing. Bernardo Atxaga’s “Four Times Snow,” a short fiction piece describing four snow storms, each twenty years apart, stuns the reader with its quiet power: “The first time, it arrived suddenly and the flakes began to fall slowly like butterflies, white butterflies mainly, and the old woman who used to take care of us looked out of the kitchen window and, with a laugh that rose up from the very depths of her belief the way a flame rises up from the ashes, she exclaimed, How can people say there’s no God; then, like someone keeping time, she lowered her hand to her apron and gave the signal for a silence to begin, a silence that gradually covered everything.” But many journals offer compelling literature. What sets The Threepenny Review apart from other little magazines is its cultural essays. A frequent feature of this journal is the symposium, a series of essays on a single topic. The essayists in this issue focus on plot, many writing to defend plot from its current disfavor, although Geoff Dyer chimes in to denigrate plot some more. Other essays tackle unexpected topics—music and pain, Dylan’s worst song, the placebo effect—with insight and lucidity. Treat yourself to a subscription to The Threepenny Review. It’s a bit like the New Yorker, only without the self-importance and the umlauts. [The Threepenny Review, P.O. Box 9131, Berkeley, CA 94709. Single issue $7.] —Deborah Mead


Virginia Quarterly Review

Volume 82 Number 1

Winter 2006


The current issue of VQR features a hefty portfolio on AIDS in Africa. Strong work in this section includes "Nightgirls," an essay by Jann Turner about a group of prostitutes who live and work at a truck stop in Mozambique along what's known locally as "the corridor of death," on account of the astronomically high incidence of AIDS. Turner questions these women (some of them mere girls) about things like condom-use and "job satisfaction," at the same time as she examines her own role as a journalist in this tragic setting—is she a parasite? a voyeur? In the portfolio there are also photo portraits of AIDS victims taken by Gideon Mendel. His subjects come from South Africa and Mozambique, and each one poses in front of the same simple background: a monochromatic wall against which a black duct-tape "frame" has been hastily stretched. These people's expressions are as straightforward as the stories they tell in small but potent "blurbs" under each portrait. As a result of this intense honesty, the photographs give insight not so much into the horror of AIDS as into the beauty of human dignity. There's good work outside of the portfolio section as well, in particular Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina's dizzyingly dense short story "Ships in High Transit," about what you might call a post-modern meta-culture clash in a Kenyan tourist town. Lighter fare includes a sweet coming-of-age story by John McNally, and another slightly edgier coming-of-age story by Steve Almond. But perhaps my favorite work in the entire issue is a set of three brief poems by Amaud Jamaul Johnson—potent yet elegant, these manage to pack history, race, murder, and love into a few graceful lines without the least bit of strain. [Virginia Quarterly Review, One West Range, P.O. Box 400223, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4223. Single issue $11. ] —Kim Drain

Reviewers - Contributors Notes

NewPages Literary Magazine Stand Archives

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Cumulative Index of Lit Mags Reviewed