The cover of this slim volume (nine poems, three short stories, one great interview) depicts an ethereal white horse splashing in, or wading through, or rising up from, blue waves of grass against a stark black background. The spine is the blue of the grass; the title is the white of the horse. The whole effect is classy and dreamlike at the same time, a little like the contents of the journal—an image you want to remember, and yet it doesn’t feel quite like home.
And isn’t that exactly what we want from a small collection of literary pieces? Case in point: taken as a whole, the poems are eclectic, no two alike in form, though again, taken as a whole, they illuminate a certain kind of strangeness inherent in being alive. Take, for example, Keith Ekiss’s prose poem “Birthmark”:
The mark that means the mother wished for wine, spilled across his cheek like the boot of Italy. The spot that says she tasted beets. Smashed apple. Stork nip, angel spit. . . . Did she crave strawberries, startle, and touch her face? . . . Demon sign, sign of fortune: on the right cheek, a happy marriage, on the left, ruin . . .
These definitions enlarge our perceptions, merging folklore, superstition, and sound patterns so that we’ll never see birthmark—literal or figurative—the same. Peter Shireson’s “Parley” summons that moment we’ve all had early in a relationship when sentences fold themselves “into a conversation shaped / like an uncomfortable origami duck.” Thank you, Shireson, for that incisive image! Ricardo Pao-Llosa’s “Empty Tomb Man” evokes an ambiguous number of ‘realities’ based on an empty tomb and a “lidless eye” pulling heaven down, while Rowan Sharp’s “The New Silence,” presents another coffin—this one an abandoned refrigerator or a gliding canoe—and Clark Chatlain’s “(the coming end)” chatters punctuationlessly about saying goodbye (“how do you know”), relinquishing everything you ever wanted (“when things slip away you will ask / you will do you answer do you”).
Lisa Zimmerman’s two poems give us a dying mare, relinquished to inevitability when a vet is an hour away (“I Had Been Thinking of Too Many Dark Things”) and this gem: “Regret tried to hang its little black satchel / on the bare shoulder of my new life / but I shook it off—.” Taken as a whole, the poetry in this issue doesn’t leave you uneasy, exactly, but neither does it leave you settled and sure. It’s a white horse in a field of blue grain, yes, something you’d like to catch before it slips away but you know life won’t be the same if you do.
Then there are the three stories. “Another Version of My Life, in Which I am Played by Meryl Streep,” by Sally Houtman, and the even more felicitously titled “Gatecrasher of Hyboria,” by Ron Austin, present first-person narrators who don’t like the place they’re in and seek to escape in not-quite-acceptable—or anyway not-quite-effective—ways. Though they’re very different, each is sympathetic, a little puzzling, a lot interesting. And “Hurricane Machine,” by Kim Bradley, will pierce the heart of anyone who knows or has been the caregiver of an autistic person, whether or not that caregiver was or is as isolated and lonely as Francis Pellicer, as committed, as desperate.
Every issue of Natural Bridge presents a three-part interview between an author, an editor, and a reader who are given the same ten questions. Amanda Coplin, author of The Orchardist, says that she values authority in writing; her editor Terry Karten believes readers value character, conflicts, and story; but reader Kris Kachirisky of Portland, Oregon, says, in answer to the same question about what is most to be valued in fiction, that “the best authors know their place—and it’s not in the story . . . a disproportionate focus on plot can destroy a story as well. [Take for example] a hollow travesty like Gone Girl—a story which puts the two main characters in a punch-drunk contest of ‘which one do you hate more?’” She goes on in this vein, her biting opinions making us rethink the relationship between our own inner author, editor, and reader, and wanting to be more authentic, better, smarter.
Natural Bridge is a journal out of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. This issue has been ably edited by prize-winning poet Shane Seely. Applause to all, including that sublime white horse!