Literary Magazine Reviews
Posted December 15, 2008
A Journal of Bizarro Texts
Review by Micah Zevin
The Dream People is one of those online anomalies that is simply laugh-out-loud funny and it knows it. Not that this is a bad thing. The apex of this journal’s mission is to perplex, astound and cause general hilarity at the antics that take place in its various fantastical fictional narratives, novel excerpts, creative nonfiction, nonfiction, micro-criticism, reviews, flash interviews and even artwork. In this satirical and ghostly world, what is real is dressed up in metaphorical and allegorical costumes sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious, for the readers to deconstruct and find whatever meaning that they are searching for.
In “Beet-Red Lingams Are Legion” by Andrew Wayne Adams, human-like cockroaches wear Sigmund Freud masks and attend therapy sessions conducted by his father, a psychiatrist.
"Look,” my cockroach-father says, “I know it’s hard, your father being your psychoanalyst. But you must be straight with me if you wish to overcome this trouble with your genitals.” He pauses to light a cigar. The cigar is five feet long, two feet in diameter. “Now,” he says, blowing smoke through the mouth-hole of his Freud mask. “Tell me about your father.”
When the father/psychiatrist blows the smoke in his son's face and asks him about himself, the author seems to be depicting the precarious relationships that fathers often have with their sons, especially in conjunction with their adolescent and/or sexual development.
In the novel excerpt, “Scratch,” from Sheeps & Wolves by Jeremy C. Shipp, a couple humorously, and in this passage seriously, faces the notion of the candle going out on their sexual attraction to one another, not due to lack of interest or love, but as a result of the erosions of the body and its physical abilities and attractiveness over time. “But instead, she steps closer. She can’t help herself. Not because of gravity or magnetism or even attraction. It’s because every night after she falls asleep, I sit beside her, and read to her from my notebook with the kitten on the cover.” Even though the male main character tells the female in this story the truth, she still stays because of the closeness they have shared over such a long period in their lives. But, do not be fooled into passivity at the apparent innocuousness of this passage, for it only can whet your appetites for the strange or inexplicable happenings to come.
The nonfiction piece, “Now the Moral of This Story: Don't Swim in the Company's Pool with Your Manuscript,” excerpted from Horror Isn't a 4-Letter Word: Essays on Writing & Appreciating the Genre, utilizes humor as a device to educate the reader that horror writers, just like all other writers, come from a diverse background and life that does not necessarily center around their writing of horror pieces:
Besides the realization that horror writers aren't actually crosseyed psychopathic nethercreatures with horns, the thing that amazes non-writers the most is that the majority of us hold down day jobs. Yes, alas, the days when we authors (and now I'm referring to all of us, not just horror writers) relaxed in plush firelit dens with our quills to dash off a few lines of dialogue before adjourning to the boudoir for intimate conversation, brandy, and pipes lit with $100 bills, are long gone.
Here, the author, like in many other pieces in this journal, uses stereotypes of the genre he is discussing to bring it credibility and import.
So despite the subtext insisting on the bizarre nature of
this journal’s contents, the dreams, fantasies, and delusions
that its characters or subjects tackle are inherently earthbound
and immediately accessible to the reader. Here, satire is used
adeptly to express and comment on complex human situations,
emotions, and is a means to explain away stigmas or stereotypes
in the literary world that have to be overcome for progress to
be made. Read further and you will see people dreaming, and the
haze you will temporarily inhabit when bouncing from one unique
piece to the next one will leave you in a permanent state of
Volume 3 Number 2
Review by Rachel King
Ecotone: eco from Greek oikos (a house or dwelling) + tone from tonos (tension). All Ecotone’s writing is true to this theme, in one way or another. This issue opens with a creative nonfiction piece by the editor, David Gessner, in which he recounts his own experience in an ecotone, a transitional place between two communities, as well as a place of danger. Jessica Bane Robert’s memoir, “Dark on the Inside,” about living in the Maine woods with alcoholic parents, is full of both natural beauty and sadness. And Michael Pollan’s lighter “Dream Pond” demonstrates how hubris leads to humiliation, then eventually knowledge and appreciation. This essay follows an engaging interview with Pollan, the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and, most recently, In Defense of Food.
Special to this issue is the section “Black Poets in the Natural World.” Of these poems, I especially enjoyed Remica Bingham’s “The Ritual of Season” and Ross Gay’s “Poem to My Child, If You Ever Shall Be.” The former’s images are creative and concrete: “daily the heavens held back their glory / and we swept angels / into hard earth – / donning the silt of adobe wings / mocking the sun / damning her,” and the latter includes poignant questions from a parent to a child: “what would you think / of this world which turns itself steadily / into an oblivion that hurts, and hurts bad?” Ecotone has plenty of poems outside this section as well, one of the many noteworthy being Dan Stark’s “A Small Study of Faith Before Arising from My Bath to Teach World Literature.”
Although I think Ecotone’s strongest pieces are its
creative nonfiction essays and its poems, the journal also
includes fiction and visual art. Anyone who feels the tension –
either figuratively or literally – of living in between places
or spaces will find at least one piece from Ecotone from which
you can receive sympathy and refreshment.
Review by Micah Zevin
Eratio states that it “publishes poetry in the postmodern idioms with an emphasis on the intransitive,” which I take to mean that the poetry submissions it accepts are not conventional and are experimental with a focus or sentence structure that disconnects from the norm of verb/direct object relationship of sentence construction. A journal that insists upon a literary affectation of this kind could lend itself to stilted prose that sounds as if it removes certain language constraints just to be different. However, in this situation, it shows both the reader and the writer of poetry what possibilities it offers in tone and voice and overall flow of the poems.
In “Alphabet” by David Appelbaum, this journal’s technique is employed to witty effect, happily questioning the notion of words, ideas and the feelings they evoke: “O why do ideas / soar so grandly / with that spoon-billed / long-necked silhouette / flapping molecular north? / Why does passion / lift so thin?” In this poem, words are not something to be cherished but lamented for so often falling short of their intentions. In “a s” by James Stotts, language is something to be toyed with and dismantled as well as philosophized about in terms of how it sounds when spoken and what we hear when listening: “in being and time (p. 163) / h. maintains // just as linguistic utterance / is based on speech // so is acoustic perception / on hearing // what is it that he heard? // a whining cart / a motorcycle // the north wind / the labor of a woodpecker // a fire’s spit / a column on the march.”
In “Destiny is just a choice you keep making again and again and again…” by Melanie Brazzell, mathematics is utilized to discuss a kind of allegorical and metaphorical tragedy. “This multiplication table upon which / we lay and do our business, I say / I do not wish to be in love, / only to ache over the agar of this infection. // Anthropometry, the measuring of human skulls. / With glasses on, I peer over my printouts: / the mathematical risk of suicide, / invariably leaky latches on our play pens. / The danger of finding oneself facedown in the pool.” Again and again in this work, the issue of mortality is measured and calculated only to discover that it is perpetually looming.
Eratio deals with issues of language, voice,
sound and human mortality with equal amounts grace, passion and
linguistic experimentation, so we realize what the poem is
attempting to accomplish. Besides the obvious gymnastics of the
tongue and an emoting of the mind, it continues as we do, to
express the plight of our existences, separated by imbalances of
anguish and passion of our successes and our failures.
Review by Micah Zevin
Free Verse is an experimental poetry forum for poets that do not follow the normal tenets of form and structure, reveling instead in modern and post-modern tendencies to deconstruct the sentence or line and turn it on its head so that the meaning seems like a coded message scattered in the form of extreme line breaks or unconventional prose-like formations. Rhyme and meter are not ignored here entirely, they are just pushed aside for new and tantalizing artistic configurations that stray from structural traditions, if not always-topical ones.
In the poem “Augur of Wright” by Brent House, it is as if we are transported to medieval times amidst a fog of sorrow at remembrances of the past. “Such great loss & relative little evidence / dents in the hardwood / an overseer dead / dead in a let him save himself March / what so rose in December / only fragrant memory.” It is as if we are in a dream and our memories are bursting forth in a cloud of smoke. In “Whale Lament” by Endi Bogue Hartigan, there is a sense of joy and wonder at being a whale and living in the sea: “The happy whale says / let us stay happy. / We are rich with / will and oil.” Underneath this happiness, however, seems to be deep melancholy at what can be lost when purged of their riches, possibly by humankind.
In “Crowns” by Hugh Steinberg, crowns are employed as a metaphor for the secrets that we as human beings carry with us and for the leaders or people we follow who are wearing them in all their shimmering light: “And the smart ones, / the ones who / know what they’re doing, / they just / look that way, you / trust them, / join them / making soup out of / flowers, their tongues / on your tongue / so that bees / follow you.” This poem is a world of magic and wonder where whatever or whomever you come into contact with will lead you like a pied piper to your chosen destination. Anne Fitzgerald’s “Tuscany,” a more prose-like poem, is written with commas in on continuous tapestry of words, one phrase or word flowing into the other like a hill in a landscape painting:
No kids ride yellow burnt sienna horses, piazzas holds weather at bay stillness fills cumulus clouds with the ease of rain falling up lands in elsewhere arches where wisteria threads Corinthian pillars, masks stone faces, trace its grain as the pupil dilates, diminishes to a pin-prick in Florence without a pope like the shadow aspect of faded frescos
After reading this poem, you feel as if transported to a kind of mythological “Tuscany,” where things are constantly in motion.
The “free verse” is not just haphazard or arbitrary in its
structure and the meanings it attempts to impart. Each word or
phrase is placed prudently on the line, although it is you as
the reader who will determine how it is read aloud and
interpreted. The writing and placement of words are experimental
but purposeful and rationally constructed so that even when it
seems that you are in the dark, you will rapidly be brought into
the light and you will be exposed to the endless fantasy,
mystery and surprises that are found inside each, again and again.
Review by Micah Zevin
Front Porch is a online journal of informative and plentiful works of fiction, poetry, reviews, nonfiction, interviews, and audio visual that are gratifying and engaging to the intellect.
In the story “Mandible” by Donna D. Vitucci, two children must face a man named Mandible who is successfully vying for the mother’s attentions, taking the place of their real father and supplanting the male child in the role of protector:
In kinder, pre-Mandible times, Mama had called me her Guardian Angel. She would scratch my head while we watched TV on the couch together. We’d sit, me in Mama’s lap and leaning back into her soft breasts and gone-soft stomach, and Jennie leaning into me, her big brother, the three of us stacked like cups in a cabinet. Mama had done steady, ill-informed choosing since the day she was born. Her worst choice brought Mandible through our door.
In this narrative, the children often take on the narration or the voice of the narrator, bringing the adolescents’ feelings to the forefront of this story’s debate.
In the poem “Grief and Its Source” by Adam Clay, the issue of grief is stripped to its stark and bare essentials: "Do I think the well has gone dry, / the bucket to be bottomless, the well’s bottom rising up and up / with the clouds in the sky slowly filling with briny rain, / meant to poison the well?” The author further explores the origins of our melancholy and how it often reemerges no matter how much we try to separate ourselves from it or block it out. In the piece, “Solo for the Flute,” by Christina Cook, it is as if you can hear the instrument’s vibrations careening in your ear:“I ask you and you say: / somewhere in a Fargo field / a rusted gate slams shut. In sepia // dusk you say: somewhere / sadness smokes a clove cigarette / and leaves a nickel for the waitress.” The disparate images melded together are written as if in a mini-symphony.
In the nonfiction work “Correspondences” by Valerie Nieman, we are admitted to a world where we describe the world, in this instance, the Parisian world, as if it is a landscape rich in metaphorical strokes on an infinite canvas:
The cars on a parallel highway are going very slowly – the Train à Grande Vitesse has hit its stride at 186 mph. The ride is smooth and quiet, impossible to tell how fast we move except by such referents as trees blurring close to the tracks or another TGV passing in a rocket whoosh.
Towers rise above towns and farther away, the folds of the land offer only towers. Silos? Grain elevators? Water towers? I draw them in my journal. One is a hatted round on stilts, like an old-fashioned wooden water tower. Others are truncated cones, wide ends up.
In this essay, we are transported to a universe where the background comes to the foreground and enriches our existences with its colors and shapes and objects that we encounter from day to day.
So enjoy a long nap, sit outside drinking your morning coffee
or a glass of wine at night after a long shift and open up your
laptop. There to greet you will be a journal so inviting in its
sad and revelatory narratives that you will see the world, human
emotions and the reality of their relationships at their darkest
recesses and you will be comforted at the creaks and squeaks
that it makes each time you peruse its electronic pages and sigh
at the immensity of it all.
Review by Henry F. Tonn
It has been said that Americans don’t read enough foreign literature, and I am inclined to agree with this statement, given that most people in the United States can identify Ernest Hemingway and Huckleberry Finn readily enough, but not Leo Tolstoy or Madame Bovary. What a shame. Gowanus, a resolutely international online literary journal, attempts to broaden one’s horizons. They state they are “interested in what concerns human beings in Delhi, Bridgetown and Soweto as well as in Chicago, Dublin and Tokyo.” Judging from their archives, they have effectively been doing so since 1997.
Their latest offering brings forth work from India, Thailand, Croatia, USA, and Palestine. I particularly liked “Good Boys in the Morning,” a short story by John McMahon, about hypocrisy, police corruption, and the despoiling of an innocent young Thai girl. I was also struck by the preface to the German edition of The Rise and Fall of Palestine, by Norman Finkelstein, reproduced online by Gowanus, which calls into question the treatment of the Palestinians by the nation of Israel. Finkelstein is attempting to present an alternative point of view to this very complicated conflict. On the other hand – and no journal can always hit one hundred percent – I cannot help but wonder why “Artois,” by Viktor Car, made it through the editorial process. This piece appears to be a self-indulgent rambling which leads nowhere and ultimately elucidates nothing. I finished it feeling disappointed and cheated.
Gowanus is quite proud to point out that at least one of
their stories has been selected in the StorySouth Million
Writers Award for four of the past five years, certainly a
notable achievement. Special mention should be made of the
excellent article, “The Color of Evil” by Gowanus editor Thomas
J. Hubschman, in the summer 2008 issue, about the Rwandan
genocide of 1994. Eight hundred thousand Africans lost their
lives in this horrendous tragedy and it is being quickly
forgotten. It shouldn’t. Plaudits to Mr. Hubschman.
Review by Henry F. Tonn
With the explosion of online literary journals over the past several years, I have found myself becoming particularly attached to those which are pleasing to the eye, well organized, and contain interesting and well-written prose and poetry. On all of these counts, the Kennesaw Review, which has been in business since 2000, acquits itself well.
The October 19, 2008, issue contains seven short stories, seven poems, one essay, and five book reviews. “Criminal Lovers” by Michael Cadnum was my favorite piece of fiction, an engaging tale about a young archaeologist on a dig in Spain who inadvertently gets involved in the illegal smuggling of ancient treasures. Also notable is “Fiends” by Martin Slag, divided into three parts, with a cemetery being the common setting. This one contains a lot of morbid humor, and some tongue-in-cheek wisdom that is impressive for a twenty-eight year old writer.
One of the poems, Elizabeth Barbato’s “Permissive Will,” received the 2008 Don Russ Poetry Prize, although I developed a particular fondness for Temple Cone’s “The Moon Metamorphosizes, The Sun Goes Up And Down,” a touching tribute to a child’s lost innocence, and to Joanne Lowery’s humorous and light-hearted “Cadillac,” about an old man and his old car. The one essay in this quarter’s presentation is by David Bottom, Georgia’s poet laureate, who examines the process of creativity, and who asserts his belief that the best writers and poets are those who are constantly searching for meaning in life. Finally, of the five book reviews, I must say Deanna Northrup’s short review of Diane Setterfield’s gothic mystery, The Thirteenth Tale, was done in such a compelling manner, and with such enthusiasm, that it required violent effort on my part to dissuade me from going right out and purchasing the book.
My only complaint about this online journal is that the
editing seems a bit loose at times, with punctuation errors
appearing here and there throughout the works. Otherwise, it is
a good journal with some interesting and engaging reads.
Definitely one to check out.
Review by Tony Bonds
Since its beginnings 1998, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern (or simply McSweeney’s) has maintained its reputation as one of the most innovative literary journals in publishing today.
McSweeney’s is known for its quirky packaging, and this month’s issue is available as a collection of eight small books no bigger than index cards. Interestingly, when arranged correctly, the back-cover art on the first four books reveals a painting; the final four books reveal another.
Each fully-illustrated book features a short fable, about the length of a short bed-time story. Although these little gems exude many of the disarmingly simple charms found in Aesop’s tales of talking beasts, each small book is infused with vividness and sophisticated insight as the authors explore the state of the fable in 21st century fiction.
Though varied in scope and subject matter, these fables share a common thread: a balance of playfulness and melancholy. “Virgil Walker” by Arthur Bradford is the story of an orphaned octopus who, with his turtle friend, enjoys a reckless night on the town and must later deal with the disturbing consequences. “The Box” by Sarah Manguso is a darker, almost Kafkaesque tale of a man who stores a box in his attic and keeps its contents a secret, exciting the imagination and greed of those around him. “Two Free Men” by Sheila Heti is an allegorical tale in which a depressed man and a suicidal man literally collide.
In the introduction (which is on the inside of the box the
books come in), Jess Benjamin, the designer, says, “The fable
represents an alternative to the blind groping we confront on a
daily basis.” There are no prescriptive morals at the end of the
books; the stories don’t tell us what they are about, or what we
are to get out of them. Still, the meaning of each fable is not
only pertinent to our times, but resonant and clear. The result
Review by Rachel King
Ruminate’s layout is beautiful: almost trade magazine size but sturdier, writing centered on white or grey or black pages, Evan Mann’s creation sketches littered between poems and an essay and a short story. The journal’s writing is equally beautiful, pieces which demonstrate faith inside literature as well as faith in literature, a faith that literature can explain and inspire.
Julie L. Moore’s poem “Confession” won the Janet B. McCabe poetry prize. Her poem gives writers hope that there is always a new way to say an old story, for she writes about Jesus’s healing of the bleeding woman from the woman’s perspective: “She knew the rules: Keep your hands / to yourself. Whatever you touch you foul. / But she reached for him anyway. / Fastened her un- / Clean fingers, tipped / With outrageous nerve, / Onto the lip of his cloak.”
Many pieces use rumination on nature as a catalyst for poetry: Lauren Dobay’s “The Birds are Falling” begins, “We secretly hope the birds will never learn of God”; William R. Stoddart’s “River Cabin” treats a house as a human attune to nature: “She watches the timeline of the river passing by, / and milestone splash before her mirrored eyes / as we pull through sodden leaves”; and in Shanna Powlus Wheeler’s “The Widow’s Lament in Autumn,” elder bugs are a metaphor for grief.
One of the final pieces, Jo Scott Coe’s “Calling,” records
childhood moments which influenced her decision to be an artist
and a teacher: “As becomes habit, you drag fingertips across
bookspines filling grey shelves along one living room wall,
touch and wonder where these texts come from, how they are
written and manufactured and make it to the grainy shelves.” Lovers of literature or music will relate to at least a couple of
Coe’s memories, as lovers of literature will find pieces in
Ruminate which will resonate with them.
Review by Rachel King
Many Americans read little from emerging foreign writers. The St. Petersburg Review, an excellent anecdote to this situation, offers translations of Russian writers into English, or English writers into Russian. The latter pieces are of particular interest me, since Russian is almost never found in American literary magazines. Any student of Russian should pick up a copy and check out the Russian translations of Maxine Kumin’s poems scattered throughout the journal – poems which haven’t yet appeared in Russia.
Arkadii Dragomoshcenko, a Russian author, writes “Memory Gardens” about his encounter with Robert Creeley at a Leningrad reading twenty years ago. Weaved within a description of their meeting is an analysis of Creeley’s work and reading, as well as descriptions of Soviet streets and cafes. Alexander Genis’s nonfictional piece “Grandmother” and Josip Novakovich’s short story “Resin” also paint portraits of an older Russian lifestyle.
Contemporary Russia is also definitely depicted here, specifically in Andrey Gritsman’s poem “St. Petersburg,” Yuli Gugolev’s poem “One soldier hadn’t seen his family,” and Maria Kamenetskaya’s “Ice,” a short story in which a girlfriend’s dare brings about the boyfriend’s epiphany: “When the ice began to tremble under his feet, Lev saw the future with clarity. A month, a year, five years. He saw the reasons for the ice, wet feet, the gawkers, watching Lev’s passage from the bridge.”
Many of these poems are politically charged. For example, Fanny Howe’s “Where Nihil Took Us” focuses on a question which arises from 20th century events (“What good is God to them crying out for help?”), Mary F. Morris’s “Love in the Time of Insurgency” describes lovers’ situations in Bagdad, and Gebeba Baderoon’s “The Port Cities” or Terese Svoboda’s “Africa, Next” gives the reader glimpses into Africa. These poems force the reader to remember the past and challenge how she will live in the present.
This sophomore issue contains some African poetry and prose
as well as Russian and American. I applaud the St. Petersburg
Review for its focus on well-written international writing,
and I encourage readers and writers to discover the international
literary community within its pages.