Literary Magazine Reviews
Posted April 28, 2009
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
The best part of Court Green, published annually by Columbia College of Chicago, is always the “Dossier,” featuring a special topic or theme. And this year’s, “Letters,” is my favorite so far. Whatever the reason – because letter-writing is, in its essence, about the printed word; or because so many of us have some things we can imagine saying to so many people; or because people who love to write and are, by profession, proficient at it, are also, naturally, great letter-writers – these “letter poems” make for extremely inventive and entertaining reading.
Imagined and imaginary letter recipients include everyone/thing from forms of punctuation (a missive to the question mark) to sports teams (an “uncomfortable” note to the Minnesota Wild hockey team), to other poets, to famous historical figures (Napoleon Bonaparte, Abraham Lincoln, Queen Elizabeth I, all in one poem), to friends, to the letter “V,” to lovers (new lovers, lost lovers, would-be lovers, unrequited lovers, imaginary lovers), to government officials (“Dear Mr. Director of the Census Bureau”). Perhaps the most amusing and surprising is the exchange of letters between poet Albert Goldbarth and the editors of Court Green! The most moving are Kimiko Hahn’s “The Factory Salesman’s Wife: A Letter about a polluted lake in China,” and “King of Hearts,” a letter to his father by Richard Jones. The most structurally unique is Jennifer H. Fortin’s excerpt from “Mined Muzzle Velocity,” a series of postcard-like structures in charts/boxes. The editors cleverly close the non-dossier section of the issue with a poem by Rachel Loden and begin the dossier section with another by her, “Dear Question Mark,” the quintessential letter recipient, it seems to me.
The first half of the issue features many poems and prose
poems similarly clever, amusing, or edgy, including poems by Jan
Bottiglieri, Shana Cleveland, David Dodd Lee, and Chip
Livingstone, among others. Joy Katz and Kimiko Hahn contribute
poems with decidedly more solemn tones (“a simple arrangement of
lines / vanishing into perspective” – “When I Look at
Architectural Models,” by Katz; nontheless “rife with ambiguity”
– “The Poetic Memoirs of Lady Daibu,” by Hahn).
The Florida Review
Volume 33 Number 2
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
In her entertaining and highly original Editors’ Note, Jocelyn Bartkevicius says at The Florida Review they’ve been “arguing over what counts as truth.” If names in the Table of Contents don’t make you eager to read the journal (Maureen P. Stanton, Baron Wormser, Tony Hoagland, Denise Duhamel, Michel Burkard, an interview with Terese Svoboda), the editor’s creative consideration of what constitutes fact checking, whether or not authors get to define the genres of their work, and the meaning of “truth” in these post James Frey Debacle times (as the Review’s staff refers to them) surely will.
Bartkevicius also contributes an interview with poet and fiction writer Terese Svoboda whose must read (and I mean this, it’s not-to-be-missed) book, Black Glasses Like Clark Kent: A GI’s Secret from Postwar Japan, won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. Bartkevicious is as good an interviewer as she is an editor, her questions are intelligent and provocative. She’s trying to find out what Svoboda knows, what she has to say, what she can learn from her. She’s not a fan gushing (like this reviewer!) or a novice writer wondering how she can replicate Svoboda’s success. And Svoboda is as good an interview subject as she is a writer.
Much of the truth-fact-fiction argument at the magazine revolved, apparently, around the magazine’s “graphic narrative” feature by Kelly Clancy, whose seven-page “comic strip” (my definition, not the editor’s) “Off the Bone” is, precisely, about “historical truth.” Clancy does a tremendous job of demonstrating the graphic narrative’s potential for condensing a lot of complex material into a very economical framework, with shifting tones and attitudes. Clancy makes this look easy, a sure sign that it isn’t.
The magazine’s nonfiction is particularly strong this issue, with essays by Steven Harvey on end-of-life issues for two and four-legged animals; Tracy Seely’s “Monument Rocks,” a “life geography” (my definition, not hers or the editor’s) in beautifully proportioned fragments; Maureen P. Stanton’s entertaining experience of the PBS favorite “Antiques Road Show”; and Baron Wormser’s rumination on the poetry of William Matthews.
This issue also includes the Editor’s Award winners: fiction by Julie Lekstrom Himes; nonfiction by Farnoosh Moshiri; and two poems by Maya Jewell Zeller. Alexis Levitin contributes translations from the Portuguese of poems by Rosa Alice Branco; and Mark Wisniewski, Kevin Allardice, Robin Kish, and Dawna Kemper contribute four stories, all with understated emotional truths.
Finally, if Denise Duhamel doesn’t make you glad for the
inevitable blurring of lines between truth, fact, and fiction,
nobody will; and as always, she’ll leave you breathless.
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Mark Halliday, judge for the journal’s annual poetry contest, describes the winning poems as “ready to…confront contradictions,” “avoid dumb enthusiasm,” and provide “neatly managed endings,” which serves equally well to describe Fugue’s editorial approach, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve always liked the magazine. I appreciate Halliday's winning choices, poems by Lisa Bellamy, David J. Corbett, and Carol Louise Munn, three distinctly different examples of what it takes to make a poem, but all “strikingly alive,” as Halliday says, and all more emotionally charged and more satisfying than they appear on a first reading. These poems tell stories more moving and more complex than their language, at first, seems to imply. Bellamy, in particular, is both clever and tender, a combination of tones that can be difficult to pull off.
The fiction winners, stories by Roger Sheffer, Margaret Zamos-Monteith, and Sage Marsters, are laudable choices, too, which judge Ann Pancake describes as stories unlike any she has read, ambitious, and unflinching. “For Lack of Wood” by Zamos-Monteith is most intriguing for its unusual fragmented structure and what Pancake calls “desperate understatement.” All three stories have in common the compulsion to tell a tale that is both by measures wild and ordinary, in prose that manages to be exceptional without drawing attention to itself.
These award-winning selections are well accompanied by a number of marvelous and unusual contributions. Jenni Blackmore’s experimental piece, “My Titfer,” was inspired by stories told to her by her Welsh uncle of the life of out-of-work miners in Argentina in the 1920’s working on industrial ships. It’s hard not to think about the stories our distant relatives will tell of the labor in which we are engaging now during this new era when whole towns of laborers are out of work, and the piece seems especially important, in part for that reason. Paul Watsky and Alex To contribute a decidedly modern translation of a poem by Yuan Dynasty poet Guan Hanqin. (“You say I am old / No so fast! / Nobody throws a hipper party.”) Karen Babine’s personal essay, “Water and What it Holds,” is a lovely consideration of the life of her family in the context of the life of the geography which formed it – and her.
The issue concludes with an interview with essayist Jo Ann
Beard, who explains how a writer may know when an essay is done:
“The best endings create resonance. As in: reverberation,
intensification or amplification. Everything in an essay (and a
story) must be made to mean something.” I’d say this review is
done if I’ve managed to convince you that Fugue is worth
seeking out, savoring, and even re-reading.
Green Mountains Review
Volume 21 Number 2
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
The theme of this all-fiction issue is shame and glory, “which seemed a marvelously arbitrary way to come across good stories,” writes Leslie Daniels in her introduction to the issue. “As writers, shame set us wildly in motion. And glory is . . . transformation, the alchemy involved in making art,” she concludes.
Seth Borgen, Molly Giles, Kermit Frazier, Ramona Ausubel, Mark Halliday, Rachel May, Mark Childress, Jo Scott-Coe, Alexi Zimmer, Sands Hall, Catherine Browder, and Amy Quan Barry are the writers whose versions of shame include stories about the realization and witness of racist thoughts and behaviors, family drama, accidental death, infatuation, grief, greed, confronting the appearance of “foreign-ness,” and, of course, sexuality, sexiness, sex-less-ness, lust, desire, and sex.
These are round, fully-formed, goal-oriented stories by which I mean they are plot driven, paced to lead to endings that serve as conclusions, not open-ended echoes of endings, and they are not tentative or unsure of their purpose. Their tone is natural and casual with language that does not draw attention to itself. What is most striking in these stories is these writers’ ability to capture a particular moment in time with large psychological, social, or cultural implications through a telescopic lens that focuses in on and magnifies the particulars without over indulging or exploiting their unique details.
Seth Borgen’s story of an adolescent boy’s experience of the relationship between race, sex, and his own interest in the female body as a set of disconnected parts (“Bathing Suit Parts”) and Amy Quan Barry’s story of a tourist’s view of Vietnam (“Perfume Pagoda”) treat entirely different subjects in distinct ways, but what they have in common is the masterful creation of a pivotal moment of awareness that contains a universe of large and weighty concerns with visual images and emotional responses that render these concerns intimate and immediate.
In her introduction, Daniels refers to the “magnificent and
wacky human brain,” and while I did not find any of these
stories particularly wacky, I cannot refrain from singling out
some enticing and original openings, including Sands Hall’s
“Silver Dagger,” which begins with the lyrics of a lullaby;
Alexi Zenter’s disturbing and intriguing first line: “We were
forever fishing tourists’ bodies out of the Malagano trees;” and
my favorite, the first line of “Welcome to Your Life and
Congratulations” by Ramona Ausubel, “I do not find Houdini
New Writing on Justice
Volume 1 Number 2
Review by Anne Wolfe
J Journal takes a journey to the dark side of humankind – the criminal side, the enforcement side, to those who have been brutalized, taken advantage of…it uses literature to pose “questions of justice, directly and tangentially.” Each poem, each short story brings a situation laden with irony, and leaves it unresolved, leaving the reader to search within, find the discordant inner chord that has been struck and bring it back into tune.
It has about two dozen truly good, varied poems, hitting aspects of justice from any and every possible angle. Hard-hitting poems, like Donna Reis’s “Rage” chill the reader:
is a woman
knowing every ridge
of a man’s body
only to have her affection
for two decades of soft sag
splayed on a couch
Searching poems, like Chris Early’s “Change,” pose striking questions: “To the news anchor who sensationalizes me for Nielson’s, / To the politician who incarcerates me for votes, / To the citizen who vilifies me but never asks why.”
The real stars are the short stories, such as “Gulf Island Ferry Road” by Michael Wayne Hicks, which begins “Little Joe hit Buster from behind with a three-foot section of galvanized steel.” Hicks expertly leads the reader’s sympathies down a winding path and stops short of telling the reader what to think and feel. “Little Stones” by Mary Ellen Sanger, which takes place in a prison, has two women bargaining. However, the real currency is not money, but hope and trust.
These characters are real living persons like you and me,
only they exist in the realm of the printed pages and come to
life when you begin reading. Opening this stylish-looking rag is
not just a distinct pleasure, it is a nourishing experience.
Volume 29 Number 1
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
The annual Fineline Competition issue is always one of my favorites. The contest is open to entries of prose poetry, sudden fiction or non-fiction, or other “literary work that defies classification” (500 words or less). There’s a kind of freedom in the “sudden” form that seems to bring out the best in writers of all types. This year's first-place winner is MFA student Ryan Teitman who creates a little museum of oddities, “The Cabinet of Things Swallowed,” that ends in a surprise or, more accurately, in the promise of a surprise. It’s the sense of promise that I appreciate most in these short works. Take, for example, the start of J.L. Conrad’s “Meanwhile,” one of the Editor’s Choice winners: “My dreams inscribe for me a world in which.” Or Editor’s Choice winner Alan Michael Parker’s opening line in “Our New System of Government”: “We believe we were misinformed.” The editors received nearly 2,000 submissions for the contest. I’m clearly not the only one who appreciates the form.
The magazine’s regular non-fiction entries are excellent examples of short forms as well. Sue Allison plays with numbers in her brief “Taking a Reading.” Jim Dameron (“In Praise of Bad Reception”) considers the meaning of words and phrases of importance in his family, especially as his father ages and is “forgetting the words he used to stumble over.” Ryan L. Futrell begins his sudden non-fiction piece with a promise much like the ones quoted above: “Sure, there are things in this life that cannot be explained.”
This issue also features another section of award winners from the 2007-2008 Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ Intro Journals Awards, honoring nonfiction and poetry by students enrolled in AWP-member programs. Jenny Linscott’s (University of Mississippi) essay, “Monsters of South Dakota,” is a tender family farm story. Aaron Rudolph’s (Texas Tech University) poem, “Unrecorded,” is precisely what it says – a record of the unrecorded (“This about that day / we lived between our best and our worst”), which makes it, in many ways, an archetypal poem, a poem that explains all poems.
Translator Ned Condini introduces us to the work of prolific Italian poet Carlo Betocchi (1899-1986) in Translation Chapbook Number Forty-Six, “Stumbling into Divinity.” Condini provides a helpful introduction to Betocchi’s work and the originals appear alongside the translations, which are fluid and engaging (“lenti como l’autunno sui campi, / o limo del paradise che c’impanii!” – “Steps slow as autumn in the fields; o lime / of paradise that coaxes us”).
Mid-American Review contains many fine poems, as well,
including new work by Rita Dove, Alison Stine, and Rane Arroyo;
and four strong, approachable stories, including an unusual
contribution by Sumanth Prabhaker, “Girl with Two Hearts,” which
is especially appealing for its understated tone.
Naugatuck River Review
Starting a new publication, especially "in times like these" (TM), is a cause for congratulation, so here's celebrating the debut of Naugatuck River Review, "a journal of narrative poetry that sings." (Shouldn't all poetry?) The "narrative" label may bring to mind first person nature encounters and bittersweet childhood memories, and NRR contains its share. The real pleasures, though, are the memorable characters, the people whose lives show up in small glimpses between the lines. We meet a sawmill worker whose retirement ceremony belies his rough-and-tumble life, a bar patron who learns to resist being treated as an object and authors her own adventure, and a cross dresser who tries too hard to impress.
The poems do not tell the whole story; rather, what is unsaid
in these poems gives the reader a role in completing the
narrative. For subtle gut-punches, try Karen G. Johnston's
"Honey Creeps." In direct language, this poem uses the image of
honey climbing a jar ("how it insinuates itself between / glass
rim and tin lid, each morning irksome glue") to examine the
seductiveness of sweetness, which becomes a commentary on a
society that lets people get away with injustice. Once read, the
double meaning of the title becomes clear. For a whole other
take on a jar, there's a tale of moths by Christel Warren that
anecdotally gestures to Wallace Stevens. Finally, in Derek
Sheffield's "Oystermen," a passive observer carefully follows
the title workers at midnight: "With slowing eyes, I watch them
roam / and dazzle like prehistoric fireflies." In turn, he
becomes aware of his own longing to partake in their honest
labor, to "break each gritty fruit / from its cluster and become
something other / than their midden ghosting the shore." Here's
best wishes for Issue #2.
Review by Chris Mote
More props are in order for the inaugural issue of this Portland prose journal. The Ne'er-Do-Well carries itself like a zine, an enfant terrible sneering at the establishment as all rejected writers in tiny presses are wont to do. Founder Sheila Ashdown explains that her intention was to encourage writers struggling with doubt. To keep writing, she says, "requires a high threshold for psychic pain and awkward conversation."
The five stories published here introduce us, among others, to Simon, a circus act known as Lobster Boy for his malformed hands; Miles, a banker who suddenly finds himself in the thick of a hardcore S&M lifestyle; and Jacob, a suicidal klutz who gets set up with a prostitute by his brother – stories about outcasts, lonely souls who flirt with the mainstream but find their lives flowing down the outer creeks. The Ne'er-Do-Well demonstrates just how much good, developed fiction is being written today. Granted, these stories don't have the neatest narration; they lack the polish and precision that gives such elan to work embraced by said establishment. But who needs all sparkle all the time? Below the surface of the "freak show narrative," one does find hard-earned lessons on life.
"Time Carves Off the Limbs," by Keith Rosson, combines the heavily used devices of the fortune teller and the Holocaust to give a history to an otherwise mysterious Gypsy woman. "Would change be bad for you?" she asks a customer:
"I don't know," Kalen says quietly, looking at Elisabeta's hand laced over hers. "Even if the known sucks, at least it's known, right?"
Elisabeta says, "And there lies the difficulty for all of us," trying hard not to smile. To be so young again is something she wouldn't wish on an enemy, much less herself.
The magazine also includes a nonfiction piece, in which
Ricardo Perin makes sharp observations on U.S. culture by going
all Indiana Jones at a gun show. "I didn't think it was too
weird of a fashion statement," he writes, "mainly because the
San Antonio gun show was scheduled at a Shriners temple – a
pairing so offbeat that my appearance with a bullwhip was impish
in comparison." Sure thing, Ricardo. Some stories are just too
good to make up.
Notre Dame Review
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
This issue’s theme is “bridges and views,” introduced by a stunning and unusual cover photo that merges beautifully the concept of bridge and view – the relationship of structure to perspective. The image does not have the appearance of stock photography, though I was unable to find a reference to the photographer. These are, of course, rich, provocative, and perhaps even favorite topics for artists from all disciplines and genres.
I appreciate, above all, the mature and serious sensibility of the work in this issue. I had been reading a lot of fun, entertaining, wise-ass work (some of which was quite enjoyable and quite smartly crafted) just prior to delving into the Notre Dame Review, and the sheer no-nonsense-ness of the writing was an enormous relief. The editors’ expansive editorial approach allows for a range of modes and styles, narrative, lyric, inventive/experimental (though not wildly so), which is also refreshing. (I did not have the feeling I was reading one poem with two-dozen variations for the whole of the journal.) I liked especially poems by Gaylord Brewer, Brian Swann, Deborah Pease, Leslie Ullman, and a series of fascinating poems from “Shuffle” by John Shoptaw about the largest earthquake in North American history in Madrid, Missouri, poems with lines so long the editors have wisely chosen to print the poems horizontally.
Poetry overshadows the fiction in this issue in terms both of
size and impact, though the stories presented here (by Sandy
Candy, R.D. Skillings, Ed Falco, Jarrett Haley, and Helena
Fitzgerald) are solid and readable with appealing, unforced
voices. This issue also includes interviews with Irish poet
Ciaran Carson, American writer Mary Karr, Indian novelist and
poet Anita Nair, and American novelist and memoirist A.M.
Holmes. I was happy to read Carson’s response to a question
about translation which leads him to discuss experimentation,
remarks which seem true of the work in this issue: “I never knew
where I was going until I got there. Which should be the way
with all writing. If you know what you are going to say, there’s
no fun in it. Why write what you know?” That’s a view for which
Quarter After Eight
Review by Mary Baken
Quarter After Eight publishes prose-poems, short-short fictions, essays in-brief, etc., all of which must be contained within 500 words or less. The highlighted criterion encourages an “innovative address to the prose form…dedicated to blurring the traditional lines of prose and verse.” This issue features 28 short pieces including the 2008 Robert J. DeMott Short Prose Contest winners, with First Place going to Cynthia Reeves for “Naming the Dead.” As stated in a preface by contest judge Sean Thomas Dougherty, Reeves manages “In barely a page…[to] offer us [an] elegy for the loss of a friend, the gaining of sexual knowledge, and the subsequent hurt that follows years later through the ghost of memory.” “Naming the Dead” is so beautifully rendered it’s difficult to decide if its lines should be quoted in prose or verse, such as in the following:
Girls of ten, we touched on your bed, felt the opening and closing of desire like a door passed through only once. The song – warm fingers in ancient places – was new to us, yet we began to know our capacity for endings.
While the voice and imagery in “Naming the Dead” fully blurs the lines between prose and verse, Second Place winner Elizabeth Bloom Albert’s piece “Pick” leans more toward the traditional voice of prose. Written in approximately 250 words, “Pick” startles with its sudden fictional turn, with its incredibly compact poignancy.
But the contest winners are not the only highlights in this issue of Quarter After Eight.
In fact, reading this issue I found myself marking piece
after piece: “Eight Endings to the Same Story” by Mark Brazaitis;
“On the Fabric of the Human Body" by Alison
Christy;“Whale Songs” by Erika Eckart; “More or Less” by
Elizabeth Ellen; “The Way I Fell” by Joseph Gastiger; “simple
faith” by Sean Hill; “Past and Future Dwellings” by Stefani Nellen; and “How Thunder Stepped into the Sky” by Ann Walters.
That’s one third of the prose pieces contained in this volume
that completely knocked me off my feet. Re-reading this issue, I
found myself ready to throw in the proverbial writing towel,
ready to admit my inability to ever write quite so beautifully.