While poetry and short story collections provide more in-depth exposure to the vision of a single writer, they don’t offer the same opportunity to unexpectedly stumble onto your next obsession like a good journal can. Able Muse, with its eclectic blend of fiction, essays, book reviews, art portfolios, artist interviews, as well as its focus on metrical poetry, provides readers with a bevy of opportunities to do just that. In fact, Able Muse even manages to offer a bit of an extended look at the work and processes of a featured writer and artist in each edition. This issue features poet Jehanne Dubrow and photographer Peter Svensson.
What initially attracted me to Able Muse was the chance to read the work of contemporary poets writing in metrical forms. Unexpectedly, I ended up enjoying the essays and fiction more than the poetry. I particularly enjoyed Philip Morre’s enlightening and good-humored essay “Reading Edward Thomas’s ‘It Rains’ and Other Rain Poems.” Although anyone who has read a biography of Robert Frost is probably familiar with the name, Morre sets out to show why Frost’s friend Edward Thomas was more than just “some kind of pilot fish swimming alongside” one of the greats. Far from being a simple fan letter, Morre’s essay investigates Thomas’s status as a war poet, the autobiographical nature of his poetry, as well as the brevity of his poetic career, a brevity Morre describes as making “Rimbaud look like a careerist.” Using three of Thomas’s rain poems to chart the steep trajectory of his development and display the magnitude of his poetic gifts, Morre’s essay eloquently underscores the tragedy of a brilliant career cut far too short.
Engaging pieces of fiction include Charles Wilkinson’s “Is There Anybody There?” and Cheryl Diane Kidder’s “How the West Was Won.” Wilkinson’s story of an elderly woman forced to reconsider her own legacy when a biographer inquires about a relationship she’d had with a moderately well-known poet offers a unique meditation on the need to leave behind a record of one’s experiences. Kidder’s “How the West Was Won” is notable for the innovative chronological device she uses to order the vignettes of her story. Arranged around a traumatic sexual experience but also reflecting on formative experiences from the narrator’s childhood, each vignette in Kidder’s story is tagged with its own vague time signature: after, much earlier, a little earlier, just before, etc. This technique manages to make the story both visceral and enigmatic, forcing the reader to judge what the ultimate effect of this brutal experience will be for the narrator’s psyche.
While technically accomplished, I felt that much of the poetry in the issue lacked the freshness of language needed to enliven and add complexity to the voice of the poems’ speakers. As it stands, many of the poems remain in a single mode throughout, either serious or light. Rather than pushing the writer to break habitual patterns of syntax and diction, the strictures of form often seemed to produce slightly modified versions of the familiar without the benefit of the familiar’s authenticity. This is just to say I felt there was a lack of surprise and genuine emotion in the poetry. One of the notable exceptions to this was featured writer Jehanne Dubrow’s “Ghazal for the Lost Operas,” which was an arresting marriage of form and content.
If the upside of eclecticism is that it assures the reader will find something of interest to them, the downside is that a clean layout for the issue becomes even more important as a unifying factor. While the production values of Able Muse are top notch, the layout and typography of the issue is a bit chaotic. For example, much of the issue consists of the finalists and winners of Able Muse’s poetry and fiction contests, which is a laudable thing. However, the winning pieces are all labeled throughout the issue with their prize ranking, which detracted from the initial impact of the works and seemed a bit redundant, especially since this information was already covered in the table of contents and on a separate page of congratulations. The typography of the issue is consistent; it’s just not easy on the eyes.
Despite these minor reservations, there’s some really compelling work in the new issue of Able Muse. Whether it’s an essay compelling you to buy the book of an under-appreciated poet, or the innovative structure of a short story causing you to rethink the role of structure in your own work, Able Muse’s latest trove will definitely give you something to treasure.