After a brief, thirty-two-year interlude between this volume and its last, december is back with its latest anthology-format release. And while many Decembers have passed since the last december, Gianna Jacobson, who takes over editorial and publishing duties from the late Curt Johnson, has made certain that the poetry, prose, and art portfolios in the latest issue possess those timeless qualities which the original editors laid out for the magazine more than a half century ago when they described themselves as “humanists . . . far more concerned with people than we are with dogmatic critical or aesthetic attitudes.” With its unpretentiously elegant layout and the urgency of its content, december’s revival issue feels like a confident extension of this long-standing tradition.
Originally founded in 1958 at the University of Iowa’s famed Writers’ Workshop, december quickly developed a reputation for its keen editorial eye, publishing early work by such luminaries as Raymond Carver, Donald Barthelme, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Levine, and many others. While the revival issue serves as an acknowledgement of the magazine’s storied past, with more than half of its contributors being past contributors, december’s tradition for discovering new talent lives on.
One such discovery is Abby Ryder-Huth, who makes a strong impression in her publishing debut with her short story “Half of Pleasure.” Her first-person narrative introduces readers to Marcus, a young man with an unspecified developmental disorder, for whom the simple task of getting a flu shot at the pharmacy is an epic struggle with the siren song of distraction. Ryder-Huth shows a great ability to convey her narrator’s fevered and complex mental life with just a few, plainspoken, properly-sequenced sentences:
My hand felt like it had just surfaced from a pond. I didn’t know when it had become this way, because when I was sitting and thinking about the Great Train Robbery I felt very composed, hopeful even that I was imagining the robbers correctly. When I touched the doctor’s hand it was like smooth wood lying in the sun.
As much as I enjoyed the pent-up energy and understatement of Ryder-Huth’s story, there are times as a reader when you just want a villain to hiss at. The black hat at the heart of Marge Piercy’s appalling short story “The Shrine” certainly fits the bill. Centered on a successful poet’s relationship, or lack thereof, with her dying mother, “The Shrine” is a story about delayed gratification of a rather sinister bent. Written in crystal-clear prose, Piercy’s story is a slow-burner that gracefully offers up its telling details: “She would not rise to the bait. She was a clever trout, a rainbow trout, facing into the current, keeping safe by a big rock.”
Playing it safe isn’t an option in Albert Goldbarth’s monumentally disturbing poem “His Creatures,” in which the narrator examines the legacy that pain, suffering, and death leave with those forced to bear witness. The poem is unapologetically dark, capturing the feeling of violation and uncleanliness that surrounds actual suffering and death. In the poem, the experience of seeing a loved one deteriorate from cancer is contrasted with a Tuvan method for killing sheep and also with the dreadful enjoyment a very Dahmer-like figure takes in his cruelty toward animals:
as those twitches seem to fill the table with extra,
desperate life, and down the table legs onto the floor,
and from there to the bare walls, like gourmet electricity
that made this room the most ecstatically
quivering cell on the planet. . . .
Special credit must also be given to art editor, Buzz Spector, who was tasked with selecting artwork to compliment the far-reaching scope of the issue. While the art reproductions found in literary journals often show only a tenuous connection to the magazine surrounding them, the artist portfolios included in december show a definite concern for language and storytelling in a visual medium. I particularly enjoyed Frank Magnotta’s intricate, graphite drawings which blend his incredible wit and vision with hints of de Chirico and Philip Guston.
This revival issue was a pleasure to read, offering more than two hundred pages of dynamic and vital work. Now that december is fully revived, I’m anxious to see what the next issue will hold when it hits shelves in May. How will december move forward after this reverential nod to its illustrious past? I’m not sure, but I’m certain there will be a lot of readers waiting to find out.