Ninth Letter, entering its tenth year with this issue, is published by the University of Illinois, with faculty directing a large corps of students in presenting work from established and emerging writers. The magazine has a reputation for being ambitious, brash, lively and visually challenging, and this issue lives up to the reputation. You may not find everything to your liking, but Ninth Letter will reward the time you spend finding out.
Standouts in my view—to choose just one from each writing genre—are Brian Trapp’s short story “Michael and Sal,” Thomas H. McNeely’s memoir “The Burning Bed,” and Anne Barngrover’s poem “Bluetick Hound.”
In Trapp’s amply proportioned story, Michael and Sal are preemie twins, Sal with severe brain damage from a bleed. The story’s length—7,000-plus words—gives Trapp room to capture the daily, unremitting pressure that such a situation puts on a family. As the boys reach the age when children learn to talk, Michael begins to “interpret” Sal’s sounds for his parents. Does he really understand what Sal is trying to say? That’s not implausible, after all. Or is he putting words in Sal’s mouth to manipulate the parents? Or himself? For their part, the parents are utterly believable people, fighting their way out of their difficulties—and occasional shocking failures—with awkward, blind grace as their boys struggle to grow up.
McNeely’s memoir deals with his father, a Houston doctor who is “radioactive, incandescent, a walking hard-on.” While McNeely is living in Boston in a one-room studio, working on becoming a writer, his father shows up out of the blue. At a sushi restaurant, he tells his son that “Dora was coming.”
Who’s Dora, I said.
Dr. Mishima’s wife, he said.
Where’s she going to stay?
At your place, he said. With me.”
McNeely’s father is a tightly wound, closed-off man who recognizes no boundaries with others. One thing leads to another, and McNeely’s therapist tells him he has to throw his father out. McNeely does so, carefully following the therapist’s script. But the descent into alcoholic chaos that follows is swift and frightening.
In Barngrover’s poem, the speaker is at a party for a much-abused dog named Darlene:
She was starved
to a hot wire. Her leg broke
a campaign. She was taken
& returned & taken & returned.
The speaker finds an uneasy kinship with Darlene when a memory surfaces of a humiliating gynecological examination:
in stirrups & paper gown, tested
for a girl in heat when he just
couldn’t keep control.
The language is explosive, lean and fiercely bonded to the experience.
In each issue of Ninth Letter, students and colleagues associated with the magazine write short essays about “the wonders, oddities and complexities of the Heartland.” The feature is a nice opportunity for student writers to see their work in print in association with the kind of professionals they assuredly will soon become. I particularly like assistant editor Natalie Mesnard’s appreciation of the Loda Cemetery prairie restoration, a tiny island of native plants in an ocean of corn and soy. “These liminal places, so much a part of the Midwest landscape,” she writes, “allow us to draw closer to death while simultaneously challenging it: I may not go on, we say, but I can tell you, something will.”
There is much other fine work in this issue, and if you like over-the-top, break-all-the-rules typography and design, with a mélange of fonts designed more to be looked at than read, you’ll love that aspect of Ninth Letter. If you don’t, don’t let that keep you from the good writing. Just tell yourself, Gee, they all seem to be having such fun with this.