An understated sophistication distinguishes The Common. At only its seventh issue, it has the tone of one who is confident of its place in the world. Many times, I paused in my reading to savor the ingenuity of a conceit or turn of phrase, but I never felt as if anyone represented in this issue was trying too hard to impress. They don’t have to: firmly in control of their craft, they steer the reader to exactly where they want her to go.
One cannot help but be carried along in the surprising and delightful rhythms of the “speechifying” of the non-native English speaker, or perhaps a native speaker of a variety of South Asian English—certainly as much a standard as any in this age where English is the world’s dominant lingua franca—in Manohar Shetty’s poem “Toast.” Of course, Shetty didn’t merely take dictation. The idiosyncrasies of the language are shaped into rich but never over-cute music:
I am regretting not serving
To our overseas guests the hot drinks.
But I am pure teetotal, that is,
Consuming only the tea.
And there is limbu sherbet,
Pista milk and Fanta in plenty.
The same can be said about Caroline Knox’s “They Had Had It in Mind,” whose lines end exclusively with rhymes and slant rhymes of the name of the protagonist, the whippet named Linnet. The variety of the rhymes alone makes it great fun to read.
But there is plenty in The Common that is melancholic and serious. Both poems from Richie Hofmann have the salty smell of the sea, as well as lines that prick like needles wedged in the cotton of concrete, everyday objects. The poems are short, almost terse, but their strength and tension lie in what has been left unsaid.
The authorial voice looms large both in “Con,” by Stephen O’Connor, and “The Last Word,” by Ariel Dorfman. In other words, it’s all very meta. In Greek myths, gods decide human fortunes; in “Con,” there are votes by committee. But unlike in the Greek myths, nothing seems to motivate the committee in how it decides Philip’s and Esme’s fates other than the question of what would be the most entertaining option. At the same time, Philip and Esme have free will, and the committee’s powers seem to go only as far as to place them at the right place at the right time. The story’s ending leaves things open: for the kind, almost innocent Philip, the committee votes to “teach [him] a lesson on the limits of his own virtue,” but says no more. On one hand, I am aghast at being cut off from what seems to be a much more interesting drama than what I have learned so far of Philip’s and Esme’s relationship (Stephen O’Connor, you better write a sequel!). On the other hand, the choice to leave the potential as potential is as daring as it is fantastic. While there is no satisfaction from a resolution, I still hope and fear for Philip long after I finish the story.
In contrast, the author in “The Last Word” never stops letting you know that it’s all about him; he is in charge, and his characters are his puppets. His voice is a bit of an annoying drone, going on and on with his vindictive thoughts about a book critic while his characters stand around until he is done.
There is much more simply good storytelling in The Common than similar foundering acrobatics, however. Francesca Marciano’s “Chanel,” about an episode in a young filmmaker’s career, is a variation on the familiar coming-of-age story, but the characters and masterful control of pace—the scene at the Chanel store is magnificent—turn the familiar into a pleasure. In “Bud,” an elegy for a musician she had known since she was a child, Nalini Jones holds a fine line between his story and her story, and between tenderness and sentimentality. The constants, though, are honesty and beauty. This is Jones, then a high school senior, at a visit to the college where she’d been accepted: “I knew what I was supposed to want; I knew there was a kind of shame in being seventeen and not choosing free beer and dance music.” Surely many of us who grew up bookish have felt exactly that way.
There is Bruce Bond’s poem “The City,” brimming with the ineffable; there are David Livewell’s two poems, teetering on the edge of shattering. And because of these and others, The Common gave me pleasurable hours, like the company of a wise but unpretentious friend, and is not common at all.