Literary Magazine Reviews
Posted May 26, 2009
Alligator Juniper - Bayou - Beloit Fiction Journal - Creative Nonfiction - Cutbank - Gulf Stream - Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review - Hunger Mountain - Iron Horse Literary Review - JMWW - The Ledge - Manoa - Memoir - New Orleans Review - PALABRA - Slice - The Sycamore Review - Third Coast - Western Humanities Review - Willow Springs - Word Riot
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
It’s a good thing that Alligator Juniper comes out only once a year because if you want to take in all of it – and you should – it would take nearly that long to get through it. That is, if you give the journal the time and attention it deserves. I hardly know where to begin.
The magazine features extraordinary black and white photography by the magazine’s national winner Jim Haberman, as well as Ben Boblett, Larry Jones, BK Skaggs, Catherine Ralls, Austen Lorenz, Jennifer Warren, and student winner Michael Richards, reproduced with exceptionally fine and vibrant precision. While these photographs could not be more distinct (vast, almost surreal landscapes, close-ups of flowers, portraits of unforgettable people in unforgettable poses), they share what photography contest judge Susan Modenhuer describes as “the mystery of a moment in time.”
Also exceptional is this issue’s “Special Feature” titled “Genre Blur,” introduced by editor Rachel Yoder, who asks us to “expand or abandon” our ideas of categorization. Accomplished prose writer Margot Singer kicks off the brief section with her essay “Genre and Voice in Creative Nonfiction” in which she summarizes the magazine’s aim: “to explore the ways in which different types of literature use the techniques of other forms.” Julie Marie Wade’s “Layover” is a poem-like construction merging visual elements (upper case letters, lists, dictionary-style entries, a variety of styles of spacing) with a blend of poetry and prose elements. The piece begins, aptly, “And what would you call this?” Amanda Nazario's “The Collected Works of Sara Ruiz” is fiction within a fiction within a fiction. Blake Butler’s “List of 50 (6 of 50): Memory Incantation” is / does what its title announces. Rachel Toliver’s “The Theory of Air and Speed” brings prose and poetry together to consider the meaning of bodies in love, in time, in the seasons.
Creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry contributions are
equally compelling. These include a moving personal essay,
“River Voices,” by the magazine’s national winner for creative
nonfiction, Catherine Dryden; Zach Vesper’s poem, “Evening”
composed of strikingly original images; and student winner’s short fiction “The Border,” a short, astutely and
lovingly absurd portrait. Contributors’ notes include brief
remarks about what inspired or informed the works. Award-winning
photographer Jim Haberman writes of his photos of the Middle
East: “After you have lived in that part of the world, you never
quite see things the same way again.” The same could be said of
Review by Rachel King
Despite having to evacuate the city during the fall term, Bayou’s editorial staff nevertheless had time to compile an impressive selection of work. Especially notable are the nonfiction pieces and George Pate’s “Indifferent Blue,” winner of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival One-Act Play Competition.
“Indifferent Blue” is set in heaven, a supposedly perfect place. But a character, Stanley, doesn’t like it, because “the very idea of perfection will cease to have any meaning because there’s nothing to judge it against.” Stanley and his friend’s intelligent banter elaborates on this aversion to perfection while Stanley tries to leave heaven for a less monotonous place.
The three nonfiction pieces describe different worlds in America: the Big Apple, American Indians, and rock. Their familiar terrain makes them, in some ways, a comfortable read, but they also leave the reader with challenging questions. Aaron Gilbreath’s “The Mice of Manhattan” tells how, after dabbling in the New York City publishing world, the author escapes back home. Must writers and editors flock to New York if they want to make it, or can they make it outside that wonderful, cutthroat city? Robert Rebein’s “A Most Romantic Spot” recounts a visit to former Cheyenne Indian territory. A detailed record of what the Cheyenne left behind when they fled from Custer gives the reader a picture of the lost civilization. What would America be like if the American Indian civilizations hadn’t been decimated? And in Jim McGarrah’s “Call and Response,” the author reminisces on the night he heard John Schilling play, concluding that the musician had Lorca’s “duende” – being “truly alive in the presence of death, of feeling the overwhelming sensory joys of living conflicted with the knowledge” he had to die. What American artists have this duende today?
Of other writing in this issue: in Kirsten Clodfelter’s story, “A Song Your Father Taught You,” the narrator uses vivid details to subtly compare her ex-boyfriend to her dead father; William H. Wandless’s poem “Lifelike” exposes lies told around a coffin; and Michael Jenkins’s poem “The Fisherman’s Wife” imagines the chaos that might occur if a fisherman’s wife were a poet.
All in all, a collection to be proud of. I look forward to
reading Bayou’s next annual issue.
Beloit Fiction Journal
Review by Rachel King
Beloit’s annual journal of fiction contains engaging stories with clear prose. Every literary magazine usually has at least one story in which I feel the author’s style detracts from the characters or narrative – one of my biggest pet peeves – but I couldn’t find that fault in any of these stories.
In Gary Fincke’s “Private Things,” Corey is an excellent third-person child narrator; the reader sees both his love and ambivalence toward his agnostic, cancer-ridden, anti-social mother and his ritual-ridden, offering-stealing, pharmacist father. Corey goes from observing and repeating his mother and father to having some of his own insights:
Corey had wanted to pray for his father, but he couldn’t think of any words but the ones from church, somebody else’s. A prayer can’t work, he thought, unless you make up the words yourself. [. . .] All Corey could think of when she said the words was how things must have looked when the whole world was in the dark before God said, “Let there be light.” It was what everybody was afraid of, going back to where they’d come from.
Molly McNett’s “Lazy Jane” is a more playful, surrealistic story in which a housewife, Mary Jean, is sucked back into her hippie past as she cleans her house, then brought back to reality as her small son calls her name: “And this was imperious childhood, the time when the parent exists for you and because of you and through you; there is no other imaginable life.” Taryn Bowe’s complicated story “Glass” uses copious, everyday details to create the world of Nick and Marla, and their child Hannah. On the surface, the family tries to help find a missing girl from school; underneath this surface, Nick, a recovering alcoholic, works to make his family trust him again, simultaneously trying to trust himself: “Trying not to scare Hannah or hurt her nearly breaks him every day, and it’s not something he can keep up. Every minute life feels like a shrinking box, and he feels larger and knocking things over, and the tightening feeling in his chest gets more insistent, insisting that he go.”
I’ve only mentioned a few pieces, but this volume is a good read all the way through, and you may
label others as your favorite stories when you pick up a copy.
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Lee Gutkind is right. His ledes (opening lines) are better. This issue’s theme is “First Lede, Real Lede” and in his introduction, Gutkind lets us know that the magazine’s editors have rewritten three of the eight essays’ ledes in search of the “real” (and more effective) beginnings. What’s more, he invites us to compare the originals and the new-and-improved ledes for ourselves, as the originals have been posted on the journal’s Web site. (All three are supposedly available, though only two had live links when I visited.) Creative Nonfiction’s revised ledes are so much better; in fact, I was all the more eager to know which of the other opening lines had also been revised. Alas, I’m left to wonder.
What I do not wonder about, however, is the sheer originality and creativity of these ledes. These essays do start with some of the best starts imaginable. Howard Mansfield’s “A Mapmaker’s Error,” the first piece in the issue, begins by considering beginnings: “First, three beginnings.” I don’t know what’s more appealing or enticing, that single, perfect line for Mansfield’s own small miracle of an essay, or the fact of beginning a collection highlighting beginnings with this beginning. Mansfield’s short, exquisitely composed essay is one of those rare family stories told with deft and distance, truly a work of art, from beginning to end.
Paul Bogard’s lede for his essay, “The Path and Pull of the Moon,” captures my interest in another way, by subverting my expectations about syntax: “The phases of the moon are seven – not counting ‘the new moon,’ which, for the most part, we don’t see – and all are gifts of sunlight.” It’s extraordinary what a simple inversion of order can create. Just consider “The moon has seven phases,” or “There are seven phases.” Nothing like Bogard’s poetry. And he uses the syntax deliberately to make us wait, because it’s not the seven phases he’s interested in so much after all, but the sunlight. The rest of the essay goes on to surprise and please as much as that first line.
One of the most exciting aspects of Ashley Butler’s essay, “Anechoic,” is the fact that her marvelous lede is not actually the most interesting part of the essay: “Houdini leans to rise from the sofa on which he has been reclining, and, in rising, receives a succession of punches to the lower abdomen.” The piece turns out, not as the first few pages would have us believe, to be about Houdini at all, but to be about her mother. No trick, just a magical touch when it comes to structuring the essay.
If all of this musing about beginnings must end somewhere, I
can’t conclude this review, woefully inadequate because every
essay deserves mention, without sharing the terrific opening of
one of the essays revised by the journal’s editors: “Craziness
runs in my family like a current under waters that swell and
recede with the seasons,” from “Crazy Talk,” by Laurie Rachkus
Uttich. (I would have considered another title so that the
“crazy” in the first line is more powerful still.) The essay is
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
What captures my attention and then holds my interest is Cutbank’s predilection for strong, inviting first lines. Ingrid Satelmajer’s story “How to Be a Disciple” starts off the issue: “Sure, there’s the obvious – Jesus H. Christ, as Binky says, his thumb between a wrench and a hard place.” Rebekah Beall’s personal essay, “Sight,” which begins with “My God, you’re heartsick.” Cara Benson’s prose poems (though I am not sure they couldn’t also be labeled sudden fiction), which begin: “The kettle was boiling above and the baskets were underfilled” and “Everybody walked in the room I mean everybody in the same room then walking around that room to sniff the walls as a type of appraisal of that room.” And Daniel Doehr’s “The Ticket Office Girl,” which opens with, “I saw the ticket office girl again.”
This issue’s poems are equally deft when it comes to first lines. “The moon out, the water running,” writes Trey Moody in “One Question.” Michael Peterson’s “A Lesser Domesday Book,” begins with this couplet: “When the scribe bored the answer became a seam, / an account not of a field but the riddle of a farmer gone forward”. These works deliver on the promise of their opening lines.
Special standouts for me include several poems by Peruvian poet Carlos Villacorta, translated by Daniel Alarcón, also with enticing first lines. “Ciudad Satélite” (“Satellite City”), for example: “Mi abuelo recorría las arenas en su micro marchito / Y un silbido lo acompañaba” (“My grandfather crisscrossed the sands in his wilted bus / Accompanied by a whistle”.) “Wilted bus” is an especially interesting, even exciting translation of “micro marchito.” Because Alarcón cannot reproduce the alliterative qualities of the original, he creates an image of equal power and originality with an unusual, but wholly authentic expression of the adjective “marchito” (spent, withered, wasted, old and faded). Villacorta’s poems are constructed of sturdy images rendered in strong language with sharp and deliberate rhythms. This is powerful work that deserves an “audience in translation.”
I love Beall’s essay, the only nonfiction in the issue, a short, tense, honest little piece about fear of the dark. Beall’s prose is compelling, her self-revelation heart wrenching, yet controlled, and her timing is impeccable.
The beautiful reproductions of photographs from the “Through
the Window Series” by Aimee Lewis are gorgeous and evocative
images of trees, sky, water, rain, snow, a street scene, an odd,
blurry contrast to the issue’s precisely etched poems and
Gulf Stream Magazine
Review by Henry F. Tonn
This publication has existed since 1989 and is produced by the creative writing department at Florida International University. In this latest edition, they explain that financial considerations have forced them to switch from a print format to an online format, but they are pursing funds to allow them to return to print eventually. Meanwhile, the latest edition provides the reader with fiction, poetry, non-fiction, two interviews, and some art and photography – certainly a little something for everyone.
All four of the short stories are engaging in their own right. Most unusual, perhaps, is “Broken Conversations” by Michael Gavaghen because the stories presented are actually humorous. Yes, humor! Zounds! In case you haven’t noticed, there is a paucity of humor in the literary world. Gavaghen provides us with three relatively light-hearted vignettes with a gentle sardonic approach. Another fun read is “Before the Break” by Shelagh Shapiro, about a woman who plows her car into the back of a school bus because she is distracted by an affair she discovered her boyfriend is having. She feels this is a perfectly reasonable excuse to dissuade the cop from issuing her a ticket.
The best poetry here is found in the book review by David Svenson of Michael Trammel’s Our Keen Blue House from which the reviewer quotes liberally. An excellent selection is the following one from the poem “Pit,” concerning nature reclaiming the family property:
But the land remembered, grabbing earth
we’d scorched with our all
night fire, breathing wild purple flowers,
a low cold blaze of dawn sky
rooted and growing in the ground.
Lastly, Corey Ginsberg does an excellent interview with
Alison Smith, author of the bestselling memoir Name all the
Animals. The author has some good advice for the creation of
both fiction and non-fiction that fledgling writers would find
extremely helpful in the development of their craft. All in all,
this magazine’s first online production is a good start, and one
hopes that they will not abandon this venture even if they find
the funds to resume their print editions.
The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
The Hampden Sydney Poetry Review offers up an eclectic mix of familiar names (David Wagoner, Moira Egan, Lyn Lifshin, Philip Dacey, Cathryn Hanka), and lesser-known poets, though most have published widely – 43 in all in this issue. Two poets’ bios stand out for their unusual claim to fame. Meredith Picard “has published more poetry than any other American geologist.” (Her poem does consider the natural world but is not geology-themed.) And Fred Yannantuono “who was fired from Hallmark for writing meaningful greeting-card verse, and who once ran 20 straight pool balls, insists that Paul Newman claimed to have known him for a very long time.” His poem, “Frog World,” is about ridding oneself of the “money, the gardener, the rankness, the murk” required to provide frogs who have inhabited one’s yard with the means to thrive.
The journal’s editorial vision is generous, with poems ranging from casual (images of pop culture, easy-going, conversational voices) to arch and heightened (unusual diction, creative syntax), to narrative (story poems). “Didn’t you love it when the Gods came to our parties, Gina?” (from Myron Ernest’s “On a Painting in the Whitney Museum of Art”) alongside “Lightning over the water, / over the docks where inboards / are moored in their slips, / sailboats battened down for / the inevitable storm” (from “Summer of Love” by Alan Catlin).
Lewis Turco’s poem, “Writer’s Block,” reminds us just how challenging it can be to do the painstaking work of making poems:
Trying to write is like trying to dive
through ice. All you can do
is slide on the slick surface of the paper
until you hit something…a snow bank,
a stump, a patch of open water.
The poet goes on to lament the mystery novels his wife buys
at the supermarket, supplanting the potato chips on the shelves.
“Bring back the potato chips, I say!” Indeed. But only if we can
crunch between verses.
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Hunger Mountain is a sophisticated, grown-up journal that commands attention, respect, and serious consideration. Fiction contributions are fully formed, adeptly crafted examples of storytelling, full-blown narratives with characters whose trajectories we want to follow. Poems are an inspired blend of small philosophies couched in indelible images. A portfolio of paintings, an artist’s statement, and descriptions of the paintings mimic a visit to the finest art gallery.
Nora Khan’s story, “The Quarry,” winner of the magazine’s Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Award, is a poignant, beautifully composed coming-of-age narrative of a young man’s encounter with the adult realities of the hardships of work, illness, and aging. Its strength is restraint as the story manages to tug at our heartstrings ever-so-quietly. Khan is a recent Harvard College and Iowa workshop grad, a youthful, promising writer. I am glad to see fresh, un-jaded writing from a younger writer.
We are treated here, as well, to poems from Rita Dove’s new collection out this spring from W.W. Norton, Sonata Mulattica. Dove is the master of economy, the best at saying more by saying less, able to tell a big story in a small space. She knows how to make sound work in the service of drama and drama work in the service of lyricism:
As if music were a country,
he’d filled the biggest assembly rooms
on the busiest square of the capital city;
he’d played the best parties,
saw Beau Brummel blast protocol
with a single non-nod of his chin.
That had been during his concert season,
when everyone was buzzing;
he had owned the Pall Mall,
didn’t that count for something?
Another exceptionally fine contribution is the translation of “The Debt,” a story by Serbian writer Danilo Kis, translated by Dr John K. Cox. (Cox also contributes several translations of German poems by Stefan Heym.) “The Debt” is a compact and moving story of aging. Clear-eyed and clever. The translation reads flawlessly, the reader doesn’t pine for the original.
There are many fine, mature poems, including work by Dellana Diovisalvo and Keith Flynn; a terrific prose poem from Patricia Smith, “Autobiography, the First Draft”; and a novel excerpt by Mary Grimm, “Moonville,” that definitely has me eager for the rest of the book.
George Terry McDonald’s paintings are fabulous and fascinating. Intricate. Bold. Complicated. Drawing on so many references and familiar images and histories, with novel twists and surprising perspectives. (“Sick Day Games – Montezuma’s Torture Set,” “The Cleansing of the Temple,” “Urban Fox Hunt,” among them.) They are accompanied by long and illuminating descriptions, fascinating unto themselves, and an astute and self-aware Artist’s Statement: “Lines between political and personal realities are blurred or intertwined . . . high and low culture enjoy equal billing with truth and fiction, news and entertainment, history . . . and poetry.”
A story I found exceptionally satisfying by Robert Dall,
“Cool White,” opens enticingly with the line, “In the beginning
all I wanted was a normal life.” When I finished this issue, all
I wanted was another issue of Hunger Mountain.
Iron Horse Literary Review
Volume 11 Number 1
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Contributors’ notes in Iron Horse Literary Review include writers’ remarks about the genesis of their piece or comments to contextualize the work. “2009 Discovered Voices Award for Nonfiction” winner Lara Burton says she wanted to write an essay in the “classical style.” If by this she means well-researched, linking personal opinion or experiences to larger concerns and investigations, leaving the reader with information she most likely did not possess prior to reading the piece, and a traditional or conventional narrative shape, she has certainly accomplished her goal. More importantly, she has written an exemplary essay, beautifully composed, interesting, original, and enjoyable to read. In other words, a classic. “On deserts, loneliness, and handshakes” is about all three of these seemingly unrelated entities and their very seemly relationship. The prose is natural, but deliberate; the essay’s pace is perfectly orchestrated; and Burton arrives at a smart, satisfying conclusion.
Of his poem, “How Long Minutes Last,” Al Maginnes writes: “One of the things about language that fascinates me is the varied uses that a single word can be put to – in this case, the word minute.” Time and the words associated with it have long fascinated and frustrated writers and it may, indeed, be one of the hardest aspects of our existence to capture, describe, or explicate with any success. Maginnes is, happily, quite successful, linking images from disparate geographies and experiences into a cohesive and effective whole. He addresses the poem to a prison worker’s husband (which his notes tell us is his situation) and connects her minutes in the prison to a prisoner’s time, but also to images of a neighbor’s son shipped overseas to fight, and of “most wanted men” in other parts of the world:
Since the prison closed, each inmate,
and his burden of time transferred,
your minutes have grown too long
to manage, though an hour or half a day
might vanish in the bottom of a coffee cup.
No inmate you watched over saw his face
on a watch, his menace diminished
by the minute and hour hand pivoting
on the point of his nose. Most never got
even the minute given the neighbor’s son,
name and rank burned underneath
the picture of a face that would not age
beyond this minute of hot attention.
It deserves longer, but if you only have a few minutes, you
may want to spend them with this slender, rewarding issue of
Iron Horse Literary Review.
Review by Henry F. Tonn
My biggest complaint with university literary journals is that they too often stress style over content. A boring, tedious story is still a boring, tedious story no matter how much it may be slathered in mellifluous, Updikian prose. I ask, how often can one be spellbound by another sensitive account of visiting an Alzheimer-afflicted grandmother in the nursing home? It was with considerable glee, therefore, that I enfolded myself within the online pages of this literary journal’s latest issue and read some real stories.
Example one: “Pickle Man” by Nathan Leslie. The title is worth a look, the story is even better. Example two: “Ballad of the Boxcutters” by Rick Levin. Male chauvinist whiner commiserates with devious friend endowed with warped sense of humor. Example three: “Court Marshal” by John R. Guthrie, a grim portrait of terrorism, torture, and imprisonment during a time when similar revelations in the real world are emanating from Washington.
Poetry. More good stuff! “Letter to Iphigenia” by Doug Ramspeck begins with “The moon is brooding again in the late night sky,” and then interweaves ancient Achaea, Sparta, and Agamemnon the king with dark, evocative images. Also impressive is “The Monk’s Body” by George Moore, a poem presented like a drum beat, concerning the death of a monk and the solemn presentation of his body to the birds and animals to be devoured “as if he were a sacred meal prepared by the monks / the righteous ones / for their other selves / the ones they will come someday to be / or the ones they were before.”
Also in this issue are six book and chapbook reviews, some
minimalist art of telephones, and a discussion by novelists
Tania James and Sandra Novack of their five favorite beautiful
things. Last, but by no means least, is a quick biography of the
new United States Poet Laureate. The interesting thing is that
this person is an outsider, not in the academic, accepted
mainstream, and as a student at UCLA was actually turned away
from the Poetry Club because her poetry was too different.
Therefore, congratulations to Kay Ryan for becoming our new Poet
Laureate, Gary Lehmann for writing a very informative article,
and JMWW for publishing it. You all get “A's.”
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
This is the twentieth anniversary issue and I can’t think of a better birthday present than a poem as heartbreakingly skillful as Jennifer K. Sweeney’s “Something Like Love,” winner of last year’s Poetry Awards. It’s deceptively simple and deceptively good, sounding, at first, like it might be one more casual conversation masquerading as verse, (“In our kitchen” the poem begins), which it most definitely is not (“Dinner time-traveled us to the unfinished, the unclaimed. / We ate the past. // Though we never spoke of it, my sisters and I, / we were all under the regime of the rotting.”) “Something Like Love” merges the twin absences of food and love and expresses the pain of an undernourished (nurtured) childhood with a kind of restraint and grace that is rare and impressive – and utterly memorable.
Sweeney’s poem is typical of the magazine’s editorial bent, work that is both “accessible” (easily comprehended or, at the least, not deliberately opaque) and artful. An unusual contribution is Florence Cassen Mayer’s poem, “RICHARDHOWARD,” a “concrete poem” composed of configurations of the letters that make up the name Richard Howard (the poet and editor, I assume) in upper case letters. “War,” “coward,” and “cad” are among the results. “Cad?” is the last line. Has Howard done something terrible or disgraceful that I somehow missed? Did he reject Cassen Mayer’s work? (Full disclosure: he’s rejected mine.) I must single out, as well, fine poems by Jennifer Greshem and Richard J. Fein.
The winner of The Ledge Fiction Awards, “Monument of
Bird,” by Xujun Eberlein shares with the poetry winner a
deceptively simple delivery. Also a story of childhood, this is
a tender tale of loss and cultures and generational perspectives
at odds. Other stories in this issue are similarly appealing, in
particular, Julie Wittes Schlack’s “Perspective.” This issue’s
stories are round, fully realized, and satisfying. Here’s
wishing The Ledge another successful twenty years!
Voices from Okinawa
Volume 21 Number 1
Review by Anne Wolfe
Voices from Okinawa comes in a study jacket with an ornate, colorful illustration depicting a procession of gaily clad musicians that covers the entire bottom half of the cover. The upper half is in a bold crimson featuring a small insert with a man in a splendid robe riding a horse; the title is printed all across the cover in large green letters. The overall appearance is very Japanese. Running through the literature is the theme concerning the connection between Okinawa and Japan. Japan took over the sovereign country of Okinawa that actually had a connection to China in the nineteenth century, making its people second-class citizens in their own homeland. The struggle runs through every piece in this journal.
Three plays by the award-winning author Jon Shirota are feature inside: Lucky Come Hawai'i, Leilani's Hibiscus, and Voices from Okinawa. Lucky Come Hawai'i is adapted for stage from the novel of the same name by the author. It deals with a small group of Okinawans in Hawai'i going through upheaval at the event of the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor. Some of their responses to the disaster are comical, some poignant, some stretch the imagination, but all the characters are well-drawn and easy to love. A few of these same characters are in the play Leilani's Hibiscus, which deals with changes World War II brings to Japan and Hawai'i, and the lives of the Okinawan people there forever. Voices from Okinawa focuses on a teacher, one-fourth Okinawan, teaching English in Hawai'i, with his own method, getting the locals to tell their own stories, and he unleashes more than he bargained for.
Other material in the journal includes powerful memoirs: that of Philip Ige, a soldier who was Okinawan-American and guarded Okinawan-Japanese prisoners of war during WWII, and those of Mitsugu Sakihara, an Okinawan-Japanese who was held prisoner in the USA during and after WWII. Another memoir relates to an Okinawan who learned over his lifetime to become proud of his heritage – a major achievement, rising from the dust of second-class citizenship.
These memoirs and plays are sincere, emotional, touching, and a poetic tribute to the culture that made their authors who they were. They are not simply Okinawan, they are human. Anyone who has ever felt inferior can relate to the material in these pages. That they have been written is a triumph. Here is part of a poem, translated from the Japanese, included inside the cover of this journal that conveys a sense of the powerful beauty of their stories:
Dye the tips of your fingernails
With the petals of the
Dye the teachings of your parents onto your heart
If you tried, you could
Count the stars in the sky
But you cannot count
What your parents teach you.
Volume 1 Number 3
Fall + Winter 2008
Review by Mary Baken
The Fall + Winter 2008 issue of Memoir fluctuates from brilliant, precise, and unbelievably apt to sentimental, predictable, and disappointing. Reading this issue from cover to cover feels like a wild rollercoaster ride; while the peaks are so incredibly steep they are totally worth the purchase price of this issue on their own, the valleys are a dull and thrill-less place whose only attribute is the promise of an upcoming incline.
Beginning at the ending, I cannot heap enough praise on Kelly Clancy’s award winning Best Graphic Memoir “Silence.” Depicting, I believe, her experience working with the Peace Corps in Turkmenistan, Clancy’s memoir confronts the meaninglessness of religiosity for an illiterate and impoverished people living under a totalitarian regime. Her presentation of this topic is fresh and powerful and her frame by frame drawings, black and white, slightly reminiscent of Marjani Satrapi, but then, again, uniquely not, are expressive, animated, beautifully rendered, and brilliantly orchestrated in their movement from frame to frame. I was truly stunned by Clancy’s work and more than pleased that Memoir has recognized and rewarded her vision.
In contrast, I was disappointed by Grand Prize Winner Rafael Torch’s creative non-fiction piece “The Naming of Frank Torch.” Maybe it’s just me, but I found Torch’s piece lacked that special something that would transform it from the generic Italian immigrant story to the specific Italian immigrant story. This seemed to me to be Torch’s primary task; a task I feel hasn’t yet been fully accomplished.
But back to the peaks. I loved Kathy Chetkovich’s prose piece “How I See It,” both for the fact that she has let me see it the way she sees it, but also for its clever play on the nature of writing memoir itself. Throughout Chetkovich’s piece she repeatedly questions memory, how she remembers, how he remembers, and how we manipulate desire into memory and then begin to forget which is which. I also loved Robert Weinberger’s “The Year of Living Nervously,” about his adolescent self and the year his not-yet-two-year-old brother was diagnosed with leukemia. Sentence by sentence, Weinberger’s tone and details are right on and the movement from beginning to end is complete and totally satisfying. And Will George’s very short memoir “A Glass of Water,” about a botched adolescent suicide attempt is so beautifully quiet, so precisely stated, that although it teeters more on the prose side it has the air of a perfect prose poem.
Among the poets, Lianne Spidel’s “Lea at Ninety-Five,” was a
true treasure, with lines like “Her only child came as a
surprise / she made the best of,” and later, after the death of
Lea’s sister, “Her father lived afterward / in a black Scottish
mood, / refused to keep Christmas again.” And Rochelle Jewel
Shapiro’s “Barbara Just Home from the Ashram,” was also
wonderful and poignantly sad.
New Orleans Review
Volume 34 Number 2
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
You may not know her name . . . yet, but Nicky Beer, author of this issue’s poetry feature, has won a fellowship from the NEA, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a Bread Loaf scholarship, and the Discovery/Nation Award, so, clearly, somebody’s paying attention. But that’s not why you’ll want to get to know her. You’ll want to take notice because her poem “Mako” begins “Motion took on a form / and stayed.” Because to her “all night long” means “twenty to forty minutes.” Because her poem “Hummingbird, 1:30 AM” asks us to “Consider what a thought would do / if it could abandon the body entirely.” And because she turns sharks and octopi into creatures of poetic intrigue and interest in language that is tense and indulgent, without being showy.
Beer is not the only writer with stellar credentials in New Orleans Review. I was delighted to see prose by Lynne Sharon Schwartz, a favorite of mine since her early novels. This issue features a short personal essay that must certainly be adapted or excerpted from her forthcoming memoir. “Traveling with Uncle Bert” is like most of her work, inviting and readable, making me wish I could meet the woman behind the words.
Whether you know their names or not, you’ll appreciate the sheer mastery of the writers who appear in this issue. Their work is mature and serious, thoughtful and sincere, without being sentimental. The second poetry feature is from Marci Nelligan, excerpts from “Infinite Variations,” an alluring text that bears, even demands, repeated readings – the best sort of poetry: “The skin is diffused by proportional / numbers.” I loved poems by Martha Zweig, Elizabeth Rush, and delicate, elegant translations of sixteenth century Korean poet Nansorhon Ho, translated by Ian Haight and Taeyoung Ho, as well.
Perhaps the edgiest piece is Polly Buckingham’s short story, “Compliance,” which manages to be as lyrical as it is casual and sarcastic, an excellent fable of the troubled American workplace. Chris Waddington’s story “Why Don’t You Talk About Him?” also merges the quotidian with the poetic in a family narrative that is both entertaining and heartbreaking, without a single syllable of sloppy sentimentality.
The magazine’s contributors may have jaw-dropping
credentials, but there’s no snob appeal here. The issue includes
fine reviews of a number of books, including (happily) several
from lesser-known indie presses. Quality’s clearly what matters.
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
I’m not easily distracted by bright, shiny objects, but it’s hard not to skip right to Harry Gamboa Jr.’s fotonovela (photo story). The fotonovela is a two-dimensional take on the popular, highly successful, and always melodramatic Latin American telenovela (soap opera). Aztlángst – which, I think, is Gamboa Jr.’s invention and probably means Azatlán-style anxiety (Azatlán is the Chicano term for the US states that were once a part of México) – is a narrative that unfolds in black and white photos of various dimensions with text-box dialogue. The story is introduced with the cast of “actors” and a photo of a man face down on the sidewalk who turns out not to be dead, as one might suppose, but has collapsed in response to financial disaster (the angst in Aztlángst). “The entire system is based on panic,” Serpiento says when he’s told, “Whatever you do, don’t panic.” What is there to panic about? Bank swindling, living beyond our means, gangs, vigilantes, corporate socialism, dirty bombs, no credit, possessions repossessed, and rich war profiteers, all in four pages. The photos are hysterical; the text is an entertaining combination of irony and melodrama. I can’t wait to read the next installment (this is No. 1).
There are a number of other bright, shiny attractions in this issue, most notably the titles of many of the poems: “After Reading a Book about Diego Rivera until I Fall Asleep, I Eat Lunch with Him and Frida behind My New House” (David Domínguez); “Automatic Autobiographic Automation” and “Buy Juan Get Juana Free” (Paul Martínez Pompa); and “Conversations w/a woman who speaks in metaphor” (Carlos Martinez). There’s also Urayoán Noel’s “ME, O POEM! (A CAMEO POEM), close to 60 short lines in upper case letters, a combination of tech speak, Spanish, English, invented phrases, and exclamation points and question marks.
There is a kind of shimmering energy in nearly every piece in
the issue. Taut rhythms (“He maps the stone with the quill of a
quetzal: 39.705°-105.08°” from
John-Michael Rivera’s prose poem, “This is not mano…a
conversation with René Magritte”). Language that lures and
seduces (“María to Mars-ico / with her mouth // factory sealed”
from the Martínez Pompa poem mentioned above). Tender, lyrical
impulses (“Here, an open drape / parted by fingers of wind.”
from “House without Doors,” by Carolina Morales). Smart, tense
timing (“Carmella Santiago begged her husband not to pull the
trigger. But when he did, she fell in love with him all over
again” – the opening lines of “The Lamentable Inauguration of
the Honorary Santiago Freeway, short fiction from Aaron Michael
Morales). No point in trying to top that line! Morales gets the
Review by Mary Baken
Slice Magazine is definitely slick. To begin with, it has a nice shape, slightly more square than rectangular, bigger than the typical paperback book – its very size lending itself more to the coffee table display than the random misplacement on an overstuffed bookshelf. Page by page, the design by Amy Sly and Amanda Ice is hip and pleasing to the eye; this issue is embellished throughout with a color I want to name “pumpkin,” the only additional color enhancing the requisite black and white. Titles are rewarded with their very own pages, the type large, unique, inviting, accompanied by a thematically appropriate illustration or photograph. Even the white spaces between sections of prose are uniquely addressed; while one story is divided by three pumpkin colored X’s, the next is divided by a series of pumpkin colored asterisks, the next by a pair of slightly staggered lines. The cover illustration by Jessica Gomez is immediately followed by an equally appealing cover photograph by Patrick Schlichtenmyer, as if the burden of narrowing in on a single cover layout was simply too much to bear. Teetering somewhere between an art/lit magazine or a lit/art magazine, the overall design and presentation of Slice is definitely exemplary.
But what about the contents? The theme of the Spring/Summer
issue is “Going Home,” and the first entry addressing this theme
is “Losing It,” by Alex Littlefield, a creative non-fiction
winner which details the consequences of being overrun with a
sudden infestation of bedbugs. Funny, quirky, and threaded
throughout with spectacular sentences, “Losing It” is a
wonderful read. Likewise I was smitten with the heartbreaking
honesty in Anthony Carelli’s poem “Sermon,” and Tom Haushalter’s
poem “The Savior’s Face in a Tie-Dye Shirt.” In fiction, I was
totally astonished by Andrew Roe’s “My Status,” a beautifully
rendered divorce story that managed to evoke a crushing sense of
sympathy for all sides of the triangle, and Alexi Zentner’s
“Take Me First, Take Me Second, Kill Me Now, Kill Me Forever,” a
strange and disturbing fictional account of a school shooting.
In addition to these absolute highlights, the bulk of this issue
was admirable, engaging, and well written. I particularly
enjoyed the series of writer interviews with Paul Auster, Haven
Kimmel, Lisa See, Ed White, and Aleksandor Hemon. Likewise, if
you’re a Dave Mathhews Band groupie, Nikki Van Noy’s tribute to
her traveling family was interesting and well written.
The Sycamore Review
Volume 21 Issue 1
Review by Rachel King
My favorite section of this issue was the interviews: Theresa D. Smith interviews the poet Adam Zagajewski, and Mehdi Okasi interviews the novelist Lan Samantha Chang. Zagajewski discusses how he writes poetry, why he writes poetry and themes in his work. “The empirical world is less luminous than our favorite books of poetry,” he concludes. Chang talks about her craft process and how reading other contemporary novelists has challenged her to write differently than she originally intended. These mini Paris Review-like interviews are both informative and inspiring.
Second to the interviews, I liked the poems, especially Jen McClanaghan’s “Easy for a God.” Her moth imagery brings to mind Virginia Woolf and Annie Dillard’s wonderful moth-based essays:
After the moth
seized up you heard
a near church tolling
the hour. And it was right, and it was
for you because tonight
your ears tuned to
the invertebrate. The ordinary.
Jonathon Rice’s “Letters from Donaldson, S.C.” portrays the images and longings of those in war and the loved ones of those in war without dabbling in sentimentality. And Rasma Haidri uses the movie The Passion as a starting point to describe an argument and reconciliation with her partner.
Besides the traditional writing fare, The Sycamore Review
also highlights visual artists; this issue contains over a
dozen sketches by Kyle Reed. Though some readers might relate, I
could have done without the adolescent musings in Kathleen
Rooney’s essay “Self-Portrait at 27.” However, I have no other
negative comments about this issue, and the interviews alone are
worth the price.
Review by Mary Baken
A quick glance at the Contributors Notes of the Spring 2009 issue of Third Coast reads like a promotional pamphlet for the country’s top MFA programs. Coast to coast, nearly every school is represented, the teachers of writing, the recent graduates, those still pursuing the elusive MFA or PhD. Yet, despite the ongoing rant that too many MFA graduates will inevitably result in the generic poem or prose, this issue serves as a glorious contradiction. Occupying nearly 200 pages of text, a total of 28 poets writing 36 poems, 15 prose writers writing 6 short stories, 2 creative non-fiction pieces, 1 play, and several reviews for a recommended books section, I applaud the editors of Third Coast for their wonderful diversity of taste, for their willingness to publish both the well established and the newly emerging, for their particular caliber of excellence. This issue provides a little something for everyone in pursuit of a satisfying read.
The two highlights of this issue are the two 2008 award winners for creative non-fiction and poetry. Scott Wrobel’s creative non-fiction piece “How Not to Write a Personal Essay for Freshman Composition,” is an unforgettable portrayal of teaching writing in our current more inclusive, more diversified academic community. As contest judge Patricia Hampl states, Wrobel’s writing presents “a pretty devastating picture of contemporary American culture.” Wrobel’s piece is a must read for anyone currently brave enough to forge through the teaching trenches. Likewise, Tyler Caroline Mills’ poem “Performance,” selected by contest judge James Tate, is stunning in its combination of playfulness and poignancy, in its lighthearted examination of the very subtle distinction between real life and the poetic sensibility.
For me, the fiction highlights were Brett Finlayson’s “City Love,” a likewise “devastating picture of contemporary culture,” but with a slight, hopeful note at the end, “Fashionista,” by Justin Jainchill, my all-time favorite, and “Stalin, Friend of the Sparrow,” by Michael Hinken. While Hinken’s story is notable for its absolute polish, for its completely believable ability to portray a time and place completely different from our own, Jainchill’s story sparkles for its unforgettable voice, for its quirky perspective, for its surprising and original reversals and turns.
In poetry, I liked Cheryl Clark Vermeulen’s “Complete With
Blue Flowers” and Mary Biddinger’s “Saint Monica Composes a
Five-Paragraph Essay on Girard’s Theory of Triangular Desire.”
And, finally, Michael Patrick Thornton’s drama, “The Princess and
the Bear,” is a powerful, intense, wacky, and inevitably
heartbreaking portrayal of Mike, who is coping with his sudden
paralysis, and whose cast of characters includes Mike’s spinal
cord, Steven Hawking, Christopher Reeve, God, Jesus, and George
Western Humanities Review
Volume 63 Number 1
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
“This issue of WHR brings together several papers from ‘Critical Renovations,’ a symposium held at the University of Utah in November 2007. The symposium invited scholars of English working in a wide range of periods, genres, and media to reflect on, revisit, and perhaps recycle our scholarly past.” Hold onto your hat. Here comes some serious lit crit, cultural studies, scholarly stuff. I mean I. A. Richards, and Eve Sedgewick, and Saussure, and Leo Spitzer, and Ortega y Gasset, and Fredric Jameson, and Paul de Man. I mean “critical gestures,” and an “oblique gloss” on methodological problems, and “developmentalist narratives.” But, don’t despair! There’s something valuable in every one of these dense, academic essays.
Scott Black’s essay, “The Novel According to Ortega,” begins with an epigraph from the legendary Spanish critic, “to think is to ask for trouble.” That quote alone is worth the price of admission. And Black offers his own gem of a definition: “Rather than alluding to the real, the novel offers a realist illusion that provokes a recognition of the real, an experience of the way reality exceeds the concepts, the forms, perhaps the myths that try to capture it (and yet are the only ways we have to capture it).” There are more than enough epiphanies of this kind to make tackling these essays worthwhile.
The symposium essays are followed by creative pieces from
seven writers, several of which are difficult to classify,
including Larry Fondation’s “Thug Life,” short prose fragments
and an illustration; “Kevin Crosstick and the Females. Warm
Actions. My Wishes Granted” by Diane Williams, short prose
fragments with bold highlighted titles; and “The Wedding-Mask
Door Pull,” a short-short also by Diane Williams. Tessa Kale
contributes poems about Auden and Rilke. Stephen-Paul Martin
contributes a haunting piece of New York fiction with unusual
appeal and urgency. My advice: don’t worry about what it all
means; just take it all in…to think is to ask for trouble.
Review by Mary Baken
Where have I been for the past thirty years? The older I get the more frequently I find myself stunned by the breadth and depth of my absolute cluelessness. Not knowing about Willow Springs is definitely my latest admonishment. If issue 63 is any indication, Willow Springs’s thirty year publishing history is hard earned and well deserved; from cover to cover, the work in this issue is above and beyond.
The cover itself features the eerie artwork of Mel McCuddin. A pink humanoid figure stares dead eye direct at the viewer, his long spindly arms held high above his head. The viewer’s eye follows these arms to the top third of the page, and suddenly realizes the black background above must be an opened garage door, or maybe the rear end of a truck, the light streaming in from behind, placing us, the viewers, inside. What are we doing in here? Who is this person who has discovered us? Is he trustworthy? Is he here to release us? Or has he discovered our hiding place? Completely subtle in its terrifying ambivalence, Mel McCuddin’s cover art is an excellent introduction to this issue.
Inside a series of poems: Chard deNiord, Kim Addonizio, Dag T. Straumsvag, Paisley Rekdal, Ray Amorosi; beautiful poems, pastoral, shocking, prose-like, and reverent. Nearly every page in this issue is enthusiastically dog-earred; throughout, poignant lines are ticked off with pencil. Listen to the beautiful alliteration in Timothy Kelly’s “Broken Spoke”:
I’ve explored joint lines, listened
for crepitus, coaxed the offending limbs
to bear a bit more weight. And
the patients, allowing touch, gradually
drop their guards, begin to breathe, to speak,
to delve, without prompt, into intimate,
burdensome things: painful bankruptcies,
incarcerated cousins, a telescope trained
on nudist nextdoor neighbors, an ex
having sex in Vegas with an East Indian
patent lawyer and a tank of nitrous oxide,
recent, compromising falls in the bathroom
that have necessitated the call
Hear the heartbreaking voice in Rachel Mehl’s “For Julia, Who Loves Horses”:
The truth is Julia, I never wanted children either.
So why do I find myself spending Saturdays
playing Life with you on the floor of the house
of a man I do not love, you who always choose
to be a blue peg, in a red car, with a college education,
while your father nurses his hangover on the couch.
And visualize the horrific images in Darlene Pagan’s “The Names”: “Who could ever again drink water / in such a place and not see a black bloom of hair/ at the bottom of her cup or the doughy face / of a marble eyed girl?” Issue 63 also includes two engaging interviews with poets Lynn Emanuel and funeral director/poet Thomas Lynch.
The fiction is above and beyond exemplary with
Robert Lopez’s beautiful, odd, and disturbing meditation on
“Uniforms,” Matthew Cashion’s ironic, funny, and sad “Last Words
of the Holy Ghost,” and, in my opinion, the absolute ultimate
highlight of this issue, Joseph Salvatore’s hilarious take on E
Cup breasts, derivative academia, and our ongoing self
consciousness with our bodies and our selves. While every piece
of writing in this issue is outstanding, Salvatore’s riff is the
pinnacle for me, an unanticipated bonus in a land of more than
Reviewed by Henry F. Tonn
This issue has so many good stories, it is a shame that only a few can be singled out. Most interesting perhaps is “An Honest Man” by Doug Rudoff, which begins, “The first thing you should know is that everything that I write here is a lie.” The author then takes us on the journey of a young boy’s life in Mexico, some of which is supposedly true, but we’re never sure what. Another engaging story is “Blink” by Chuck Campbell, about an eighty-one year old widower, his stubbornness, his relationship with his son, and the man’s eroding ability to separate fact from fantasy.
Some of the flash fiction in this edition contains intriguing story lines that are brought to conclusion a bit too soon, causing one to wonder if further development would have improved them. J. R. Angelella in “You Wake Up And The Virgin Mary Statue On Your Dresser Is Crying Blood” gives six rather humorous versions of a story using this title as the opening line. The instructions for writing a story with this title are weighty: “You should mention whores and booze and drugs and cigarettes in your story, but I don’t want to influence you.” “The Sentence” by Elaine Chiew concerns a young woman living in one of those proverbial apartments with paper thin walls where you can hear everything your neighbors do: “The trickle of her pee, the flush of their water pipes, the settle of their bed.” Furthermore, the couple next door is hypersexual: “It enrages me that they’ve turned their bedroom into a boudoir reeking of wet squirrel.” Ah, the good old days of poverty and intimacy with our low-class, multi-orgasmic neighbors. The memories . . .
Also in this edition are interviews with writers and poets,
three pieces of creative non-fiction, five book reviews, two
“experimental” pieces, and selections from a novel. With so much
material presented each month, this ezine suffers from
inconsistency in its quality. Nonetheless, there is a vast
variety of material to choose from, and none of it is dull or