With its announced theme “Issues of Death” and its ghoulish cover of skulls, it’s impossible to imagine that inside this issue of Seattle Review, one of the most satisfying features is a graphic story, “Number One,” written by Janice Shapiro and drawn by Jessica Wolk-Stanley, a wonderfully illustrated tale of “the social pyramid of North Hollywood circa 1965.” And, yes, it’s about death.
Death is not only the issue’s theme, but its future! Well, not death as demise, but as an end and then a new beginning. The issue opens with an announcement that the journal will cease to publish anything but single long poems or a self-contained excerpt from a book-length poem or a unified sequence of poems and novellas (40-90 pages). In an era of short attention spans, bite-sized news headlines, tiny little tweets, and text written in acronyms and abbreviations, this seems a risky – and fabulous – decision. And I look forward to these long poems and long stories.
In the meantime, this final issue of work of all lengths features many writers whose accomplishments keep them very much alive on the literary scene: Scott Russell Sanders, Albert Goldbarth, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Paul Lisicky, Carl Dennis, Hilary Masters, David Gutterson, Rebecca Foust, Elixabeth Searle, Dinty W. Moore, and Robin Hemley, among others. And while you might think it could be deadly to read piece after piece about this subject, widely established and lesser-known writers alike contribute pieces here that are stimulating and worthwhile.
One of the more unusual pieces in the issue is Russell David Harper’s “America’s Fat(al) Flaw: Notes on an Epidemic,” an essay about our country’s obesity problem narrated against and with and through boxed quotes, charts, and structured around numbered “myths.” It’s provocative, interesting, credible, and smartly paced. The structure could kill the whole thing if poorly rendered, but instead it’s wisely constructed and sustained my interest.
Other standouts include the ever-lively prose of Dinty W. Moore, and Michael Upchurch’s narrative about “ridiculosity,” a phrase he uses to capture the things in this life that seem utterly crazy to us and that we know are impossible to explain and that – when we try to explain them – make others think we’re crazy. Do you see what Upchurch means: ridiculosity!
Just when we begin to think that reading piece after piece about illness or death or impending death might really get deadening, we’re saved by the section of writing titled “Signs of Life.” Here we find the journal’s other truly inventive piece, Elizabeth Cooperman’s “CIN-FILE: An Archive of Cinematic Longing,” winner of one of the Review’s awards (chosen by David Shields), an essay-drama-film script-rolled into one hybrid composition: “I had in my custody a multitude of images, islands like red ellipses, begging rearrangement.” And in this section we also find David Guterson’s reminder that when we are house-bound (“It’s disorienting”) and finding ways to cope with the winter that is our “new life of dying,” we can perceive ourselves or be perceived as a “free and rising spark.” Lots of rising sparks in this issue.