Literary Magazine Reviews
Posted August 14, 2008
Contemporary Verse 2 - International Poetry Review - Louisiana Literature - Low Rent - Malahat Review - Oranges and Sardines - Poetry - Salmagundi - South Dakota Review - Southern California Review - Southern Humanities Review - The Straddler - Tin House
Volume 30 Number 4
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
“The Jilted Issue: Poems of Love Lost” – I’ll admit I was nervous. In the interview that opens the issue with prolific poet and editor, Ontario native and British Columbia resident Tom Wayman, Wayman surmises that poets are drawn to write about love because poetry is the language of heightened emotion. And love is, certainly, one of life’s “main sources of heightened emotion.” Frankly, my anxiety was heightened from the get-go as I envisioned a volume of overwrought, or worse sentimental, verse. But this is, after all, Contemporary Verse 2, and I need not have worried! These are wonderful poems, surprisingly unpredictable in language, if not emotion, with contributions from widely published poets and poetry editors (Tom Wayman, Rocco di Giacomo, Susan McCaslin, Jenna Butler) as well as writers whose poetry may be less well known, but whose work is no less worthy (Kelli Russell Agodon, Robert Banks Foster). The issue also includes winners of the 2007 Lina Chartrand Poetry Award, Aldona Dzieziejko and Elsabeth de Marialfi.
I appreciated the range of styles, tones, voices, and modes, from the more casually narrative (“I cannot bring myself to leave the kitchen table. / It is laden with food, with a lemon cake” from “Pillion” by Claire Sharpe), to the confessional (“We? How communal am I today, / how far can I see in this dour / lack of light? I’m trying to speak for the whole street” from “Twelfth Grey Day in a Row” by Barry Dempster), to the lyrical (“April is disturbed ground – / persistence of grasses. // Compassion – to sit down beside.” from “Fallow Field” by Robert Banks Foster).
I was especially impressed with a highly original and
tremendously moving prose poem by Asher Ghaffar, “Notes to the
Father (ii),” and reminded that poems of “love lost” need not be
defined solely as romantic love. And I must not close this brief
and woefully inadequate review without mentioning Rose Hunter’s
“Jesse.” Ordinarily, I’d be put off by a poem that includes the
line “You know, this shit is historical,” but followed by “he
says .38 cal historical bullet shards in Jesse’s thigh,” I’m
forced to reconsider this stance. When I closed the cover of the
“Jilted Issue: Poems of Love Lost,” I felt anything but jilted,
though I’ll admit I was, let’s say, a little lost. I didn’t want
the issue to end.
Volume 34 Number 1
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
“To be valued more for the ethnicity I was seen to represent, rather than for what I could contribute as an individual, struck me as more than a little embarrassing, particularly since I felt myself to be hardly representative of any group that I could think of,” writes Mark Smith-Soto in his “Editor’s Note,” an essay exploring the difference between the terms “Hispanic” (more inclusive) and “Latino” (predominance of English with “overflow of Spanish,” among other distinctions.) While Smith-Soto’s essay is in no manner didactic, I read his remarks as cautionary and approached this collection of 16 “Hispanic and Latino” poets as I would any “uncategorized” and eclectic group of writers.
I appreciate International Poetry Review’s facing-pages presentation of original poems with their translations and the opportunity to consider work in languages other than English. (In fact, in a few cases in this special issue, it is not possible to know if the original poem was written in Spanish or in English, as some of the Latino poets have translated their own work.) The translations, happily, are not merely competent, but astute and satisfying. Consider Ben Bollig’s translation of the opening lines of “Momias” (“Mummies”) by Uruguayan poet Eduardo Espina: “En la invincible immensidad / del tiempo y de todo” – “In the invincible immensity / of time and totality,” and David Lee Garrison’s translation of the opening lines of an untitled poem by Verónica Grossi: “Cómo se traduce? // La lenta violencia / de todos los días” – “How do you translate // the languid violence of each day?” Garrison might have chosen “slow” for “lenta” a literal translation, but “languid” has the alliterative quality and liquid rhythm that does the original justice. I especially liked a powerful, politically charged poem by the well known Mexican poet, Iliana Godoy, “Dormidos Despiertos” – “Sleeping Awake,” and “Cada Grito” – “Every Scream” by Marcos Barcellos of Uruguay: “Cada grito era un centímetro más de tierra y un domingo menos” – “Every scream was one more centimeter of soil and one less Sunday,” brilliantly translated by Jonathan Greenhause.
There is also, as always, a section of original poems in
English, which includes an entertaining and clever excerpt from
the “Houdini Chronicles,” by Hope Maxwell-Snyder; and a highly
original and extremely moving poem that unravels backwards by an
“emerging” poet we should definitely keep our eye on, César
Castro, a native of El Salvador who recently completed an MFA at
North Carolina State.
Volume 25 Number 1
Review by: Camilla S. Medders
The special fiction issue of Louisiana Literature is full of ghosts. Each of the ten stories focuses on loss and loneliness. Together, they present a compelling picture of all the ways we get abandoned: by lovers, family members, pets, and even by our own sense of right and wrong.
In the first story, “Eden’s Expressway” by Alan Ackmann, a man is haunted by the memory of an ex-girlfriend, whom he suspects has died in a vampire cult’s mass suicide. The darkness of their relationship contrasts with his current marriage, and he struggles to come to terms with both. Marjorie Kemper’s touching story, “The Nature Channel,” also deals with relationships, but this time, the couple is elderly. Nancy, the main character, has lived through a stroke and experienced the death of her best friend, and this closeness to life’s end affects the way she views events.
Other stories look at the more gruesome side of death, and the strain it puts on human morality. Jackie W. Jackson’s piece, “The Perfect Day,” reads like a parable. Daisy, the main character, is faced with a tragedy, makes the wrong choice, and gets punished by the writer. “A Courier Among Green Trees,” a McCarthyesque adventure story by Alex Taylor, features plenty of blood, guts and references to the Bible as the main character succumbs to depravity.
This issue of Louisiana Literature provides a wide
range of reactions to death, from intense emotion to quiet
reflection. Though none of the stories blew me away, they were
all interesting and competently written, and the collection fits
Review by Dan Moreau
Low Rent is a little magazine with a lot of heart. It put out its first issue in January and plans on publishing six times a year. Issues 1 and 2 are already out with Issue 3 in the works.
Each issue contains two stories and features the work of two poets, coming in at roughly fifty pages. It’s a handsome and professional looking journal – and a welcome change from some of the larger, ungainly, book length journals. Indeed, its sleek and minimalist format makes it ideal for reading on the bus or subway.
As for the content, the editors at Low Rent have outdone themselves. Tracy Jo Barnwell’s “Now Showing at the Bijou Rose” is one of the best stories I’ve read this year. It’s about a trio of siblings who run their parents’ dilapidated movie theater. The theater, which shows mostly art house films, is on the financial brink and faces stiff competition from the nearby multiplex. Things go from bad to worse when an unexpected trunk arrives in the mail one day. I’d be ruining the story if I went on, but suffice to say it involves bootlegging and human trafficking.
In a similarly humorous vein, Trevor J. Houser’s “The Big Yellow House” portrays a family of siblings who put on a military-style operation to retake their grandparents’ house, which has been sold to new owners.
With titles like, “Is Not This Salad Everything You ever Wanted From A Salad?” and “This Is A Song About A Superhero Named Tony: It’s Called ‘Tony’s Theme’,” the poetry is both funny and serious.
This is an impressive debut for a journal I hope to see more
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Hard as it would be to do, if I were pressed to name my top two or three favorite literary journals, I’d have to include The Malahat Review, which never fails to satisfy. The work is always sophisticated and mature, each issue carefully orchestrated. Summer 2008 is particularly appealing. At 30 pages, the centerpiece of the issue is the winner of the magazine’s 2008 Novella Prize, “Dead Man’s Wedding,” by Andrew Tibbetts, a sensitive (in the most generous sense of the term) and often humorous 1970’s coming-of-age story recounted in eleven numbered segments. The novella is a clever commentary on family life, popular culture, and the tensions between American and Canadian conduct and values. Tibbetts creates a believable and authentic boy’s voice that manages, at once, to merge a youthful perspective with a more adult sensibility (“But then the water flutters in its own way, out of sync with the music of the world.”), giving the story a tender authority that is extremely successful.
Another exceptional prose contribution is a short, piece of creative nonfiction by E.E. Mason, “No Man’s Land,” seven individually titled sections about Berlin, where the author lived for seven years. Mason’s prose is both tightly constructed and airy, a difficult balance to achieve, and it works. (“It takes time to learn the textures of a city.”) She has a steady hand and a firm grip on personal detail, revealing just enough to let us see her vulnerabilities and her openness to life away from home in England, but avoiding emotional excess (“I left everything I had in Leeds: my day job, my circle of friends, my life as a musician. I gave my car to my brother, my guitar to a bassist I knew. After an unexplainable breakdown I had finished medication, and my life seemed full”). On finishing the essay, I didn’t necessarily want to go to Berlin, but I certainly wanted to read more of Mason’s writing.
The Malahat Review always offers strong, memorable
poetry, and this issue includes fine work by Sarah Barber,
Jessica Hiemstra-Van der Horst, and Jim Johnstone, among others.
I appreciate, too, the thoughtful and intelligently written book
reviews, which introduce me to work I might not otherwise hear
Volume 1 Issue 1
Review by Camilla S. Medders
“Does the world really need another publication?” asks Didi Menedez, publisher of Oranges and Sardines. “Not really,” she answers herself, and goes on to explain, rather mysteriously, that small presses are instead “forming the path to what we really need.” While I have no idea what that means, I personally am glad that Oranges and Sardines exists, because it is clearly not just another publication.
The unique quality of this magazine is apparent from the Table of Contents, which include no titles. Instead, this page is made up of thumbnails from paintings and quirky photographs of poets. Immediately, you know that this is not your average literary magazine, where black and white letters dominate the layout. In Oranges and Sardines, words and pictures mix happily: poetry is surrounded by full color photography and paintings are accompanied by interviews with the artists. The result is a little overwhelming, providing the same kind of dazzling sensory overload found on the internet, but it’s a great addition to the world of literary magazines.
The poems in this magazine come in all forms – some conventional, some experimental. Among my favorites were J.P. Dancing Bear’s, all of which begin with lines borrowed from other poems. I also like the way Steffi Drewes combines complicated imagery with sly humor in lines like “Sweet Jesus, he’s gone / and saddled up the neighbor’s dog.” As for the art, I enjoyed it all, the large, full color presentation, which allows the reader to fully appreciate details like the soft curves of Jennifer Wildermuth’s nude portraits and Neil Hollingworth’s breathtaking use of light and reflection.
Oranges and Sardines, while it focuses on poetry and
visual art, also contains several thoughtful reviews of poetry
collections, a touching short story by Kirk Curnutt, a wonderful
interview with Mark Doty, and two columns featuring essays about
the world of writing. The combination of all these elements
results in a well-rounded magazine with a lot to offer, maybe
even “what we really need.”
Volume 192 Number 4
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
It’s always intimidating to review a journal of the stature, prominence, and historic importance of Poetry. Consider this issue’s Table of Contents, and you’ll see what I mean: a portfolio of poems by Jack Spicer (who, during his lifetime, never appeared in the journal) introduced by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian; poems by Kathryn Starbuck, Albert Goldbarth, Bob Hicok, Heather McHugh, Dean Young, D. Nurske, among other great and notable talents; a radio play in translation by the late and utterly remarkable Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, introduced by playwright Adam Seelig; and the “Comment” section, “Poets We’ve Known,” featuring nine near geniuses, including Fanny Howe and Eleanor Wilner. This issue, “Summer Break” (there is something of a break-from-the-standard-poetry-routine about this issue), also includes seven delightful poetry cartoons by Bruce McCall, and, finally, a series of Letters to the Editor that makes me very sorry, indeed, to have missed the Marilyn Chin translations of Ho Xuan Huong’s poetry that sparked such charged responses.
The Spicer poems are pleasingly irreverent (“Imagine Lucifer / without angelness” from “A Poem for Dada at the Place April 1, 1958) and sometimes caustic in a 1950’s kind of way (“It is not easy to remember that other people died / beside Dylan Thomas and Charlie Parker”). The new poetry ranges from smart and clever (“Variable, changeable, yes, there are days when / people like us are like that. Maybe under // some other sky something like glory smiles on us” from “Song That Can Only Be Sung Once” by Tom Sleigh; and “My books are full of mistakes / but not the ones Tony’s always pointing out” from “Selected Recent and New Errors” by Dean Young) to playful (“They’re worse than weak links / in chains, which we can blame / on blacksmith’s fire, and chinks / in armor made by rain” from Jason Guriel’s “Soft Spots”), to dark and sly “(It’s the last day, but I’m keeping the news to myself.” from “Silent Prophet” by Carl Dennis.)
Amichai’s play is an amusing little parody of the way in
which poets often take themselves too seriously. Nonetheless, I
must confess I was most impressed by the engaging prose in the
“Comment Section.” Here is Robert Pinsky on Czeslaw Milosz:
“That expansive kettledrum of hilarity, with blue eyes firing
laser probes to check for accompaniment from his companions,
allowed Czeslaw to express a simultaneous enjoyment and shame
that he was himself” from “No Tiara, No Crown.”
Review by Sheheryar B. Sheikh
Titled “War, Evil and America Now” isn’t going to get Salmagundi’s current issue any major attention. Any politically inclined journal can focus on that issue. But dedicating over a hundred pages to the discussion between formidable thinkers and speakers is a fantastic move forward. It’s not possible to summarize their various mindsets or cast an illumination on their thoughts in a review of the whole issue, however, and I’ll abstain from mentioning anything other than the fact that it hearkens to Salmagundi’s conference on the clash of civilizations, but increases its scope in all dimensions. That’s the latter half of the issue.
It begins, as usual, with columns by the regular contributors, on topics ranging from Kara Walker to modern cityscapes. Segueing from such into poetry is easier than into fiction, and so begins the verse parade. “Frequency” by Daniel Tobin contains the wonderful rhyme “I-pods / bringing the news; which is more how the muse / came before the hum of cathode tubes.”
Only one fiction piece, Mary Gordon’s “Au Pair,” which is
also an austere enough piece to go with the general theme. Right
afterwards comes an essay “For ‘Anyone Interested in Learning
What Makes Us Human,’” an examination of the narrator’s
experience of Body Worlds exhibit. With a predisposition for the
spiritual, the author Mary Cappello almost taints the text with
her prejudices in lines like: “We can’t call humans carcasses
because even after death a man must be understood as
more-than-his-body, an essence, a soul.” But then she rescues
her work at the end by including the living spectators “as
though they were the exhibit” too. Great fall, great rescue, in
perfect harmony with the hard, cold surface of this issue, and
its various depths.
Volume 45 Number 4
Reviewed by Kenneth Nichols
In his essay, “Old America,” editor Brian Bedard sets the tone for this issue of the South Dakota Review. He paints this region of the country as a difficult but rewarding place in which success requires a tough body and tough spirit. The work in this issue illuminates a place where people acknowledge their past while working toward a better future and remaining in touch with the land. The theme is reinforced by Suzanne Stryk’s cover art that features a feather alongside a DNA double helix.
William Jolliff presents two poems in this issue: “Harlow Berry, Planting Corn” and “God Crazy.” These poems accomplish the difficult task of communicating a worldview using precious few words. If only we could understand “how all good things / must grow together, work and love, love and work, / one old man and thirteen hundred acres.”
In his story “Double Feature,” James Terry heaps together a multitude of compelling elements. These include the lonely long-haul trucker, the cute young waitress who dreams of something better, nostalgia for lost youth and the electric confusion of summertime lust. Much more important than the plot of the story is the way that Terry invites the reader inside the characters’ heads.
Other poems in the journal address lament for natural beauty
we’ve lost and the sacrifices we accept in the name of progress.
Robert Murdock’s “Apology for Seeing Something Beautiful”
acknowledges this cliché but plays with it to satisfying effect.
In “Milkweed,” Lowell Jaeger evokes nostalgia for the paved-over
places of our childhood.
Volume 1 Number 1
Review by Dan Moreau
Published by the Master of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California, this is inaugural issue of the Southern California Review (formerly the Southern California Anthology).
Unlike other journals, SCR distinguishes itself by publishing plays. It also features fiction, poetry and a long interview with the novelist and short story writer Nathan Englander, named by the New Yorker as one of the best American writers under forty. In it he explains his almost religious approach to writing:
I like ritualistic behavior, I like the continuum of how the process works. Almost like the monkish ideas where it’s not about me – you don’t want to write today, you still write, it’s not about you, it’s about your obligation to the story.
Among the fiction I particularly liked Freeman’s “Chandler Takes a Walk,” about an aging Raymond Chandler living out his years in La Jolla and meeting a friend for lunch at a bar. Michael Buckley’s “God is a Chalk Artist,” which is mostly dialogue, read like a screenplay.
Also featured is the writing program's One-Act Play Festival Winner of 2007: “Gone…” by Kristina Sisco Romero, who has probably the most interesting contributor’s line I’ve ever read in a literary journal. A daytime Emmy nominated actress for her role on the soap As the World Turns, she also appears in the Sci-Fi Channel’s Sands of Oblivion and NBC’s Passions.
In keeping with the California vibe of this journal,
Christopher Buckley’s essay “Holy Days of Obligation” equates
surfing to a quasi-religious experience. And rounding out the
poetry are the First, Second and Third Prize Winners of the
Nineteenth Annual Ann Stanford Poetry Prize: Elisabeth
Murawski’s “Abu Graib Suggests,” CB Follett’s “Laying Down a
Trail of Wind,” and “Leonard Kress’s “The Assassination of John
Volume 42 Number 2
Review by Dan Moreau
Published out of Auburn University, Southern Humanities Review has a distinctly academic flavor. Ann Struthers’s series of poems in formal verse pays tribute to the Romantic poet Coleridge. Among the poetry I also liked Bruce Cohen’s “Hotel Chain” which explores the creepiness of hotel rooms. He writes: “Bibles are blank / & escort services are circled in the yellow pages.” In T. Alan Broughton’s “Legacy,” a father comes to grip with his own father’s habit of arguing with him: “We still argue, my father and I, / although he’s dead. He leans on the table, / meshing his hands, gently chiding, never raising his voice.”
In Mathew Smith’s story “Islanders,” a transplanted Hawaiian working as a meteorologist at a Minnesota TV station starts dating a man in her office who may or may not have an Asian fetish. Smith has a knack for describing Minnesota winters and the inner workings of meteorology:
Radar, aircraft, geostationary satellites – the satellites images were her favorite. The reds and greens of heat, the planet’s loose moisture like a living thing unfurling. She would hold these images in her head and look into the sky. It was a secret about the world that only she understood.
In Patricia Foster’s “The Visit, 1946,” a female protagonist
reevaluates her relationship with her fiancé after meeting the
latter’s mother. The best treat this issue of SHR has to
offer, though, is a travel essay on Venezuela by Brian A.
Nelson. In it he chronicles his time spent in the oil town of
Maracaibo, which is as lawless and violent as the Old West. Car
accidents and kidnapping are everyday occurrences. He reports
that the state of the country has less to do with outside
influences than the sheer nature of Venezuelans: “There was no
Pinochet here, no Batista, no Trujillo. The history of Venezuela
is the history of Venezuelans cheating, defrauding, and robbing
other Venezuelans and then trying to blame someone else for
Review by Micah Zevin
The Straddler is a journal that hungers to challenge the mind of its readers by publishing a diverse and heady collection of literature whether it is poetry, fiction, essay, movie review or criticism. In one of their introductory pieces, “An Editor Has Her Say,” by Elizabeth Murphy, they break down their philosophy to its core elements: “Put even more simply, our hope is to provide a venue for work that understands the importance of its context. That is, without tossing the rinds and skating away.” So, do not cower in an intellectual stupor because you are scared of the truth. Here, the truth is something to be embraced, stimulated and coaxed into being because it is potent and intoxicating.
In the essay “Enough of Your Yankee Bloodshed” by Don Monaco, the poet Emily Dickinson is used to frame a discussion about the Civil War. The thesis of this piece is that Dickinson was aware of the Civil War and understood that Christianity served as a focal point for its justifications as well as its denunciations:
Against this background (whatever else we don’t know about Dickinson, we do know she was aware of the Civil War and of Christian theology), Victory comes late – operates iconoclastically on two distinct, but sometimes difficult to distinguish, levels: the political and the religious. On the religious plane, Dickinson subverts, distorts, and overturns the Christian theology with which both sides of the nation identified, replacing the New Testament’s God with something different and horrible.
Monaco goes on to suggest the political implications of this particular poem by Dickinson, saying that it could be interpreted as an anticipation or response to Lincoln’s famous speech at Gettysburg.
In the poem, “Words from a debate,” it is as if the concept of man versus nature and all that it stereotypically entails. “I choose my work and its odd, sweet rewards: some berries, \ full and ready, and others grieving from branches. Each day \ I sin against the birds, and nightly I hide my head in the straw.” This poem seems to ask whether man is responsible for what it is has done to the natural world all while seemingly hiding their head in the sand so to speak. Greg Bennett’s “Going Places” treats the subject of people who get involved in car accidents as a result of drinking with much irreverence and condemnation:
OK. What is clear is that a very expensive automobile that is very near me is in trouble. It is at the end of being on fire and mostly is in an upside-down position, Cadillac Ranch-style. On the bright side, the good news is that this vehicle will not be causing any more drunk-driving damage. Not today at least.
It is forthright writing like the kind that is demonstrated
in this short story that make this journal an adventurous and a
courageous one. It’s tapestry is transparent, focused and bold,
and without being pompous, it is erudite and a venue of
intellectual security for those that have been starving for
writing that is dangerous and has a position to share which is
often political and unapologetic.
Volume 9 Number 4
Review by Camilla S. Medders
This issue of Tin House contains writing that is as vivid and entertaining as its bright pink cover. In the editor’s note, Rob Spillman explains what his magazine looks for in a story or poem: “To see things anew, to be reminded of what it is to be alive.” Sounds like a large ambition, but the selection of stories, poems, essays, and book reviews in this magazine provide just that.
The fiction section is diverse. Alan Gurganus’s story, “Fetch,” is tantalizingly slow and poetic, drawing out a single moment of its characters’ lives. On the other hand, Helen Schulman’s “Parent’s Night” races through its subject matter with the help of a chatty first person narrator. Ehud Havazelet, who dedicates his story, “Bill and Arlene,” to Raymond Carver, lives up to this weighty allusion by providing a solid specimen of the kind of realism Carver made famous, while Paul Feldman, author of “Specialists,” turns to science fiction to provide a world for his main character. All these stories are good, but my favorite was Adam Johnson’s “Hurricanes Anonymous,” which features a charming ne’er-do-well father trying to take care of his toddler son in the aftermath of Katrina and Rita.
My favorite poems were by Oliver de la Paz and Bridget Talone. De la Paz is a master of simile, providing gems like, “the sea / stows us as a song in the belly of a maestro” and “The salmon were lustrous like diamonds / in the gutter and I had to cradle each one.” Talone’s poems deal with the death of her father, and they are frank and touching. In “Expecting Honey” she writes, “When you died, you took the bugs and the music / and the ghosts. Nobody told me / you could do that.”
This issue also contains an interview with Frank Bidart,
several fascinating essays covering writing, food and dogs, and
five excellent book reviews. Whether you, like Rob Spillman,
want “to see things anew,” or you’re just looking for some good
writing, you’ll find what you want in this issue of Tin House.