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Dogwood – 2016

This issue of Dogwood features winners and finalists of their annual prizes for poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Opening the publication is nonfiction winner “Sweet Dreams are Made of This” by Anna Leahy, which sets the tone for this issue. Neither the contest nor the issue were themed, but nostalgia would be the single emergent concept from Leahy’s essay that by pure coincidence runs through the rest of the publication. I can honestly say, of all reviewers, this focus fell on the wrong person. The last thing in the world I want to spend my mind space on is waxing stupidly over the past. Fortunately, Leahy’s essay does more than set a tone, it sets a whole new attitude about nostalgia.

This issue of Dogwood features winners and finalists of their annual prizes for poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Opening the publication is nonfiction winner “Sweet Dreams are Made of This” by Anna Leahy, which sets the tone for this issue. Neither the contest nor the issue were themed, but nostalgia would be the single emergent concept from Leahy’s essay that by pure coincidence runs through the rest of the publication. I can honestly say, of all reviewers, this focus fell on the wrong person. The last thing in the world I want to spend my mind space on is waxing stupidly over the past. Fortunately, Leahy’s essay does more than set a tone, it sets a whole new attitude about nostalgia.

In “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This,” Leahy takes herself back to fall of 1983 (her first year in college), rereading The Death of Ivan Ilyich to explore her present through her past while simultaneously deconstructing the word nostalgia, identifying its more traumatic wartime roots.

A few notes of coincidence: I also started college in 1983, I read (and later taught to college freshmen) The Death of Ivan Ilych, and I also had a younger sister who was the Michael Jackson fan—as Leahy relates the music of the time as well. I worried, though, that with a work so steeped in one particular time frame, with so much “waxing nostalgic” about the experiences of those early college years—would this alienate differently aged readers? I could certainly relate to some, though not all, of her references; what would other older/younger readers have to latch onto? A lot, as it turns out, because Leahy never over-personalizes when making her cultural era references.

The point, as she explores, is more to examine the references we have in our lives, how we got them, how they solidified over the hundreds of others that came and went on a daily basis, and how is it we miss some that we think should have been more important markers in our lives. Like The Death of Ivan Ilych, as Leahy relates—she really doesn’t remember much of it—this ‘great important work’ that was THE reading for her freshman FYI course. How could she not remember it, when at the same time, her own father was dying of cancer? As she writes, “In 1983, my father was dying but not as actively dying as he had been the two years earlier or would be two years later. I was in over my head figuring out how to grow up as much as I could before he died.”

Leahy examines the definition of nostalgia, how we now use the term, attaching varying degrees of emotion to it, from the positive, feel-good remembrances, to (like me) wanting not to dwell in the past for more than a moment and even harboring some disdain for the idea of ‘reminiscing.’ Leahy writes:

Nostalgia becomes the way to have my present life, to live in the now, and to remember and respect my past, my history, too. I’m not going back to the past by rereading The Death of Ivan Ilyich. In fact, that action of nostalgia separates the past and present all the more, reminding me that was then and this is now.

Leahy’s perspective provides a meaningful way to come to terms with nostalgia, as a past that helps us better live in the present.

There almost isn’t a single work that doesn’t include a look back to the past. Stephanie Dickinson’s nonfiction finalist “Townies” begins: “On the third day of my mother’s dying, my brother Joel drives me through Cedar Rapids, and our childhood.” Dickinson goes back to her memories of her mother; her mother’s tumultuous marriage to Al, the pig farmer; and the growing up she now looks back on and sees differently through the eyes of an adult as she sits at her dying mother’s bedside. Like Leahy had explored, the looking back to the past isn’t to try to go back and be in it; it’s a way to help us better understand and live in the present. Dickinson’s reminiscence helps to place her in the moment of her mother’s dying, and in the moment of her death: “These are the first few minutes of my new life, without a mother. How long she’d hung on to watch over us in her way, as if she knew her life shielded our lives, and now, me and my brothers are next.”

The fiction and nonfiction (winners and finalists) in this issue vary greatly. In addition to these two nonfiction pieces, “The Car” by Scott Russell Duncan is a highly-stylized short work that looks back on a childhood memory of being picked up from school by a parent, a singular moment that reveals too much of the difference in class status between the author and his peers. “I (Sorta) Do” is the other nonfiction by JL Schneider, whose honesty about his attitude toward marriage and relationships had me mouthing “dumbass” as I turned the pages, but at the same time admiring his spirit of conviction and ability to take selfish risks, wresting himself free of burdensome conventions to enjoy completely different life experiences.

The fiction selection features prize winner “Pirouette” by C.A. Cole, a work that also raises mixed emotions when reading. It is about a divorced grandparent who planned to take his granddaughters to breakfast, but finds he is forced to ‘share’ his time with Grandma, who has suddenly come back into the picture. On the phone, the daughter tries to set up the shared time:

Nina came back on the line. “Why don’t you and Mom take them to breakfast together?”

“Why would I want to do that?” He ran his fingers through his tangled hair, old man dreads. The last thing he wanted was to be in the same car, sharing the grandchildren with that bitch.

“Because Ben’s at work, I have to take the boys to baseball, and I was counting on you.”

“Tell her to leave.”

“Dad. I’ll tell her to be nice.”

“Like that’ll work.”

“Besides, if you want to see the girls, you’re going to have to put up with her.”

Which, he couldn’t articulate, was his real fear, that she’d steal his grandkids.

The exchange between the divorced couple is tense with several moments that clearly show the kind of damage kids can experience when in the company of adults whose relationship is caustic. The passive-aggressive dialogue is subtle, but the emotional effect on the reader is sharp.

The story “Magic Fingers” by Teresa Burns Gunther is another with a tense adult relationship and its impact on the child caught between. The perspective of a young girl whose father walked out years ago and now suddenly returns is heart-wrenching, equally for the child as for the man who, in the father’s absence, and after a long, patient period of casual friendship, had just been ready to ‘make his intentions known’ to the girl’s mother. Another ‘dumbass’ escaped my lips at the mom character’s choice to go back to the deadbeat dad, but, like the child and the ditched way-better-option man, what choice do we have in determining other people’s lives and the impact they have?

The poetry selection includes some general submissions along with the winner and finalists, and for me, the standout pieces include Emily Pulfer-Terino’s “Pawnshop,” in which the speaker of the poem stands viewing objects in a pawnshop window through the overlay of her own reflection: “my right eye broken into by mourning / dove-shaped clip-ons made of Mexican silver. / My left cheek shot with red paste studs.” And Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer’s “We Do It Until We Don’t,” though it begins:

Sometimes it seems as if everyone
in the world is lonely, all of us
shuffling around, slumped by the weight
of our singular lonelinesses. As if
we all drank the same sad tea.

Read through to the end, this is an incredibly attitude-adjusting, uplifting poem, one I will keep where I can re-read it often.

Much of the poetry touches upon nostalgia, like Justin Hunt’s “On nights like this”: “Gone, too, are the men I used to be, / shed like snakeskins: the father, paycheck / worker and pleaser, the saver, builder // and dreamer [. . . ]” And Beverly Potter’s “Barrels” which opens, “Remember when her tiny heart was a cochlea / listening to your heart,” and moves into a playful but poignant, “Time got away from me, and since I didn’t call it back / it thought it could do whatever it liked.”

Clearly unintentional, Leahy’s essay added a thoughtful perspective to this issue of Dogwood, and while the contents were mostly contest winners/finalists, it’s clear the publication regularly attracts a wide range of styles and subject matter in each genre, making it an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.
[www.dogwoodliterary.com]

 

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