Not Volume 1, Number 1! The inaugural issue of The Common, published at Amherst College in Massachusetts, is numbered “Issue No. 00.” (Why is that so pleasing?) This is a “mock issue,” a prototype, says editor, Jennifer Acker in her Editor’s Statement. Hence, the non-numbers. This mock issue is not “an official publication,” insists Acker. It’s more like a trial run. (And all of the contents may not make it into the first “official” issue, she says.) This new triannual intends to be a “public gathering place for the display and exchange of ideas…that embody…a sense of place.”
The editorial board is impressive, including, among others, Dan Chiasson, Claire Messud, Honor Moore, Ilan Stavans, Richard Wilbur, and James Wood. The TOC is no less so: translations of work by Marina Tsvetaeva and of work by Yehudit Ben-Zvi Heller (translated by the late Agha Shahid Ali), poetry by Honor Moore, Mary Jo Salter, and Don Share; an essay by Ted Conover; fiction from Sabina Murray, and Jim Shepard. Place as represented by the visual arts makes an appearance in a series of illustrations that seem, in the most uncanny of ways, more like photographs, from an 1874 book by James Nasmyth, archived at Amherst College.
Conover’s essay is from his recently published The Routes of Man: How Roads are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today. Conover has an easy-going style that maintains a sense of seriousness and exhibits a keen intelligence at work while exhibiting an almost casual fluidity. A balance of personal story and larger concerns (are roads good for humans and bad for other creatures?) makes for fine reading and sets a high standard for the place of the nonfiction essay in future issues of the journal.
Fiction is of similar superior quality, rich stories told in highly polished, but utterly readable styles, weighty tales, but not weighted down. Neither, happily, begins with a scene of sex gone wrong, beer bottles being tossed from the back of a pick-up truck, a hospital waiting room, or a comparison between the protagonist and a character from a television sitcom. Another very optimistic sign of things to come for this journal!
It’s a little harder to get a sense of what types of poetry the journal will favor, but I’d say an eclectic, generous vision is likely at work. There is certainly no spring-flowers-in the-rain nature imagery in this mock issue when it comes to the role of “place” in verse. Here is the conclusion of Ben-Zvi Heller’s “Jerusalem Light,” translated by Agha Shahid Ali:
In this hour
she lights her towers
or perhaps after blessing the fire
she has raised her hands
to cover her face with light
And placing herself in another realm of poetry’s possibilities is Mary Jo Salter in this excerpt from “The Gods”:
I always seem to have tickets
in the third or fourth balcony
(a perch for irony:
a circle of hell the Brits
tend to call ‘The Gods’),
and peer down from a tier
of that empyrean
at some tuxedoed insect
scrabbling on a piano.
The Common is attractive, beautifully designed and produced, slender, elegant, simple. The work is polished, refined, and serious. There’s definitely a place in my life for this uncommonly good little journal. I look forward to the first “official” issue.