With this double-issue blowout, River Styx celebrates its thirty-ninth year (“because who wants to turn 40?”) as one of the country’s most “thoughtful yet accessible” literary ambassadors. Boasting a long list of notable and returning contributors and brimming with poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and art of great depth that’s also deeply entertaining, this issue is River Styx turned up to eleven. Nowhere is this more evident than in the issue’s poetry. Featuring new poems from Dorianne Laux, Kim Addonizio, Jeffrey Bean, Stephen Dunn, Albert Goldbarth, Ted Kooser, Lawrence Raab, Robert Wrigley, and A.E. Stallings, among others, River Styx’s latest issue is Xanadu for those who enjoy provocative free verse and formal poetry of a largely narrative bent. Though the issue’s poetry may be its greatest strength, fiction from Andrea Marcusa and an essay from Billy Middleton both make memorable and moving cases for those other genres.
Few contemporary poets seem as tailor-made for River Styx’s blend of the accessible and substantial as Dorianne Laux. If there’s a poetic equivalent to perfect pitch, Laux may indeed have it. In her poem “Needle and Thread,” about an atypical brand of free-love-era promiscuity, Laux needs only a few opening lines to show how the spur of loneliness causes her speaker’s awkward yet earnest groping for connection through creative endeavor:
It was the sixties, and embroidery was back in,
and if you had jeans torn at the knee, an old
denim jacket, a plain white shirt or a cloth
handbag, I might ask you what you liked
then spend hours alone in my room
with your favorite colors . . .
Like the best of Laux’s poems, choice details and ambiguities, suggestive line breaks, and imagery pregnant with metaphor keep the poem gathering momentum right up until its shudder-inducing final line.
Longing for connection finds even more insular expression in Jeffrey Bean’s persona poem “The Voyeur’s Blues.” Employing the blues form’s use of repetition with a difference, the poem captures the languorous movement of the voyeur’s eye as it follows the slightest alterations in the daily routine of the woman next door. The double entendre, humor, braggadocio, and religious metaphor native to the blue’s form also provides an apt outlet for the voyeur’s outsized interior life: “You’ve got a prickly blackberry bush—it’s blooming in your yard. / I’ll eat those prickly berries one night in the quiet of your yard. / When my mouth turns blue, I’ll talk to you like I’m praying to the Lord.” Bookended by stanzas that show the voyeur at his most self-aware and tender, the poem captures the intensely compelling delusions of voyeuristic experience.
In Lawrence Raab’s poem “Stuff,” the simple act of lying down for an afternoon nap incites a meditation on the connection between waking life, the body, and the dream world:
You lie down and everything falls out of your pockets,
coins first, then the little green halogen flashlight
and the blue pillbox, later your bulky ring of keys.
Where does that leave you? Unencumbered
and asleep, but it’s a poor sleep with two pockets
of stuff to roll over on. . . .
As the physical presence of these mundane yet talismanic objects insinuate themselves into the sleeper’s dream, Raab shows the irresistible appeal of deciphering how our waking concerns find cryptic translation in dreams. Raab’s choice to efface all but a few simple, colorful images from the poem, as well as his use of the second-person to guide the reader by the power of suggestion, help him capture the fogginess of dream recall.
Exploring the vagaries and traumas of family life as well as the difficulty of adapting to new surroundings are two primary themes running through much of the issue’s fiction. Andrea Marcusa grapples with both of these themes in her first-person short story “Map of Djerba,” about a fourteen year-old New York City boy named Jake who’s sent to live with his grandfather on an island off the coast of Tunisia after his parents are killed in a car accident. In her ambitious story, Marcusa considers with restrained elegance the dual traumas of losing one’s family and being immersed in a new culture, allowing Jake’s rather mature acceptance of these changes to feel more impactful:
August is even hotter than July. Even though we’re roasting, Grandpa wears the same long-sleeved shirts and heavy trousers; he cooks the same hot couscous, drinks steaming tea with pine nuts. We’re not saying much these days. I stay in my room watching DVDs on my laptop.
Billy Middleton, in his disquieting essay “The Fear of Secondhand Guilt,” recalls how his initial timidity in severing his relationship with his friend Blayne—in the wake of Blayne’s arrest for the possession of child pornography—made him a reluctant lifeline and a firsthand witness to Blayne’s ostracism and eventual suicide. In exploring these complex repercussions, Middleton describes his own misgivings about their limited interactions with great candor and clarity, allowing the inherent moral dilemmas to speak for themselves:
Death has made him safer to write about. I wish I could reach some sort of startling epiphany, but the only conclusions I can reach are the ones I already knew. I love him like a brother, and these past few years would have been easier if I didn’t.
Also making memorable appearances at River Styx’s thirty-ninth anniversary party are Hong Chun Zhang with her portfolio of surrealistic graphite drawing’s entitled “Hairy Objects” and the three winning entries from River Styx’s 2014 micro-fiction contest. According to the cover, it also looks like Dante is bringing his famous Jell-O mold, if that helps tip the scales for you.