This issue of Dogwood serves up a generous helping of surprising and original reading. The talent is evident; even when a poem or story can use more polish, I am interested and compelled to read on. A variety of styles is represented, some more experimental than others, but I never feel lost, either literally or emotionally, or feel that the writers draw too much attention to themselves at the expense of the writing.
This issue includes the winners of the Dogwood prizes. The physical minutiae and wide spaces in Rebecca Olson’s winning poem “How it starts” give only hints of its context, but its details paint a complete picture and a slightly wistful mood, especially during the delightful and subtle rhymes in the second stanza. “Junk Food,” grand prize award in fiction by Sarah Harris Wallman, places the reader in a hospital at night, next to a young woman who has just given birth. There is no plot in the traditional sense, the story consisting mostly of the mundane goings-on of the night and her thoughts, and somehow it manages to convey an intimate, almost suffocating sense of anxiety and boredom without being monotonous.
The standout, though, is first prize award in nonfiction “One Way to Shut Her Up.” Ester Bloom recounts her time at a horrific job at the Very Important Talent Agency (VITA) with great wit and an exceptional control of rhythm. And there is sensitivity, too, under the wry humor: jerks are shown in their kind moments, jaded colleagues recover their empathy. On one hand, I laugh and wonder if Bloom can possibly have made up this job interview:
“. . . So I have to ask you: are you stupid?”
. . . As Pat glared, I realized that “Are you stupid?” was intended to be a straightforward question. Though my emotional state was shaky and my confidence cheesecloth, one thing remained certain: I was smart enough to know when to tell someone powerful what she wanted to hear. Meeting Pat’s eye, I said, “No, I’m smart.” I hoped to God that much was still true.
And on the other hand, who cares? It is expertly handled and completely believable, and I am willing to be taken along for the very enjoyable ride.
Shann Ray’s “The Kitchen in the Afternoon” and Michael Berger’s “The Gates” are two poems that disguise shifts of tension under their calm exteriors. Ray begins quietly (“light sometimes / makes us see each other”) before taking a quick turn (“as if we were designed / well and with good intention”) and retreating to close in the “easy turn of dusk.” The poem does not disclose what the trouble is, but only a sense that it is longstanding, and perhaps without remedy. In contrast, “The Gates” weaves from a quiet garden to a chaotic city and back. The long, regular lines temper the violence and give the poem a feeling of having been recollected later, of distance.
In “Love, Now & Always,” Molly Rogers tries to find the source of her mother’s apparent emotional callousness. There are three parallel lines in the story: her mother’s seeming inability to empathize, her secretive work as an engineer with a defense contractor, and her dementia decades later, all three keeping Rogers at arm’s length. The piece is neither saccharine nor rancorous, a fine feat, though the exposition at the end feels a bit rushed and conclusory.
“Good Morning, Good Night” by Randi Miller treads lightly on the text messages traveling within a troubled marriage. A few deft strokes outline the deep creases in the lives of the three people involved:
Naomi has promised to walk away as soon as he says the word, as long as he doesn’t say the word on her birthday, or Christmas, or any other time that might make her particularly sad. He said the word eight months ago, after he and his wife had sex standing up for the first time in years. But Naomi became particularly sad, on a regular Wednesday, though he hadn’t mentioned the standing-up sex.
Mark Polanzak’s “A Proper Hunger” is great fun, taking the farm-to-table, locavore movements to their logical extremes. First comes the “Animal Farm” restaurant, where patrons select the animal to be killed from a barn next to the restaurant; then they pay for the privilege of hunting and killing it themselves; and finally the entire experience is made “pure” and “civilized” again. While the slightly mocking, slightly journalistic tone reminds us that this is not real life, the almost-familiar language used to describe each restaurant reminds us that they are not so far from real life. Wasn’t it yesterday that I heard about lab-grown meat on the news?
It’s always a pleasure when a journal I’m not familiar with delights and delivers. Dogwood is one such journal. Its editors have an eye for fresh writing, and I look forward to even better things to come from both Dogwood and the writers in this issue.