Published at the University of Michigan, The Michigan Quarterly Review is an attractive journal. At roughly 150 pages, it is fairly slim, with a vibrant glossy cover. More importantly, what’s inside is also interesting: an attractive mix of the creative and academic essays alongside fiction and poetry.
The work in The Michigan Quarterly Review covers no small distance. The nonfiction in this issue ranges from researched essays on the current political and economic state of Greece and its role in European affairs to the ever-present poetic influence of Ranier Maria Rilke. The fiction ranges from realist stories of thwarted young ice skating careers to alternate realities where humans are built with two hearts instead of one. One thing is consistent throughout the journal, though, and it becomes clear very early: The Michigan Quarterly Review features incredibly intelligent writing, work that is as smart as it is polished.
I enjoy realist fiction every bit as much as work that pushes outside that realm, but when there is one odd piece in a journal of mostly realist work, I will almost always be drawn to the strange. My favorite story in this issue is George Choundas’s “Troth,” the only story that doesn’t take place in the world that we know. Choundas begins his story, in fact, by imploring his reader to imagine a world “exactly like ours, with three differences.” The first is that “when two people crossed paths, the taller gave the right of way”; the second is that the people have two hearts; and the third is the use of the word “troth,” which means “both,” but for three things instead of two.
The set-up seems simple, but it is the way Choundas expounds on these differences and their myriad effects that gives the piece intelligence and depth. The speaker describes the efficiency on the path-crossing system, the exceptions to the rule, the benefits that this sense of order brings for society. The speaker also speaks to the mysteries surrounding the roles of the “low heart” and the “high heart” as well as the way the word “troth” complicates everyday meaning and opens up avenues for greater expression and understanding. Choundas masterfully weaves all of this together with a more structured plot arc, the story of a declining relationship between and a man and a woman living in this world.
Other fiction standouts include Tony Tulathimutte’s “Soft Landing,” which looks into the lives of teenage female figure skaters with secrets to hide, and Jill Logan’s “Hello, Hello, How Low,” a story about how a teenage girl deals with the loss of her best friend to cancer, a disease that her best friend’s parents, for religious reasons, won’t allow doctors to treat.
On the poetry side, Rachel Richardson’s “Whale Study (1)” delivers exactly what the title suggests, except somehow the piece ends up soft, delicate, and welcoming instead of cold and scientific. The poem marvels at the way whales “go down hunters, blind.” It’s a poem that leaves me not only with a lingering image of whales diving, but with a feeling, too: one of reverence and curiosity.
The nonfiction in this issue is smart, but none smarter than Natalie Bakopoulos’s “Europe, Notice Your Poet,” a well-research and well-framed essay that begins by asking the question, “What makes you Greek?” and then launches into a discussion of Greek perception, politics, identity, and memory that is incredibly illuminating, especially for those who haven’t kept up with the country’s recent developments.
Michigan Quarterly Review is a fairly compact journal, but the material inside will occupy much more of your time than size would indicate. There is certainly humor in the journal, but rarely is there play for the sake of play. It’s an intelligent read, one that’s worth sitting down and cracking open.