The first few pages in this volume of The Bitter Oleander feature international poems, each first in the author’s language followed by the translation. I’m not multi-lingual, but I like seeing the poem in its original form. It gives me a feel for what can’t be completely translated. One such challenging poem is Rafael Jesús González’ Mexico, a “homage to the country in erotic hue.” The sexually charged imagery, such as “The banana bloom hangs like a horse’s sex / & your rough breasts give oil to suck,” makes me wish I could read and understand it in its original Spanish, as some of the nuanced sensuality is probably lost with the hard consonant sounds of English.
This issue features an interview with Oregon poet Elizabeth McLagan and includes several of her poems. McLagan shares her thoughts on writing strategies. She talks about how Keats’s idea of negative capability influences her work; she wants to take his notion of “being in uncertainties” even further. Rather than simply “being,” which is almost like “tolerating or enduring,” McLagan says the focus should be on the “uncertainties.” They “generate mental fluidity and openness.” I particularly liked her poem “Biographica Lyrica,” which includes the lines: “A river shamed me with its / gouging intents.” As a fellow Oregonian, I have sat on the banks of the Wilson River and considered the water’s incessant flow.
Besides poetry, this issue features short fiction, including two flash fiction pieces by Anthony Seidman. I’m always impressed when this form is done effectively, and Seidman is able to create compressed dark and seedy atmospheres of self-loathing. “A Murder Of” is the stronger of his selections, with lines like “I stare at my prick as it spurts a warm gush; it’s nothing formidable, and I wonder what it would be like to have an aperture into the heat of me, to bleed or weigh the heaviness inside, while the men careen on their commute to minimum wages.” His descriptions and the narrator’s attitude made me feel queasy and a little disgusted at the physicality of being human and alive.
In his strongly worded essay, “The Real American Education,” Duane Locke calls American schools an “assembly-line” whose main goal is to “produce high salaried slave mentalities to make profits for billionaires.” Compared with the rest of the essay, that statement seems down-right tame. He goes on to chastise education in general as producing weak individuals interested in career-oriented “petty prestige,” and has especially harsh words for English Departments in small private liberal arts colleges, calling them “the most pitiable of our educational disciplines.” I have to take issue with his argument, as I am an English major at a small private liberal arts college. I guess, according to Loft, I can have no lofty career goals in mind.
The Bitter Oleander showcases a wide variety of material, from the dark to the uplifting, and the brevity of the pieces allows the reader to move through those moods with ease. It’s the type of journal you’d like to have on hand for those moments of down time during the day, maybe when you’re on the bus or have a few quiet moments to yourself. You can finish a short story, poem, or interview in a few minutes, get a quick fix of good literary pondering, and go back to the grind of the day renewed.