Harold Fromm’s essay “Michael Phelps, Domenico Scarlatti, and Scott Ross,” encapsulates the issue’s most dominant and captivating aspects, the strangely rewarding juxtaposition of the popular and the esoteric; entertainment and sport with the arts; the ordinary and the arch; gold medals (Phelps) and gold standards (Scott Ross).
Not all of these juxtapositions are thematic or content-based, many reside in the pieces’ wildly distinct tones, from a scholarly essay on Yeats, Eliot, and Pound by Denis Donoghue and learned reviews of opera, dance, art, and theater by Erick Neher, Marcia B. Siegel, Karen Wilkin, and Richard Hornby, to Kermit Moyer’s short story, “Learner’s Permit”:
“Always use your turn signal and check your rearview mirror before you pull into traffic,” my father says.
Which I think is basically what I’ve just done – only I didn’t bother with my blinker since I’m not really making a turn, and I checked the rearview mirror at the same time I pulled away from the curb instead of before, so I immediately have to step on the brakes to let a “Big D” Diaper Service truck pass by.
Poetry in this issue reflects less persistently divergent tones and diction, although there are some strikingly different approaches. Here is the opening of Judith Baumel’s “Passeggiate and Cena in Erice”:
Empty streets of cobbles hard on our feet.
In the passeggiata a glimpse: emergence
and retreat before fog covers again
the bare skin of the town.
And the opening of “Why Baseball Doesn’t Matter,” a few pages farther later, by Lou Lipsitz:
It’s not because the game’s so slow,
that the pitcher has to step down off the mound,
pick up the resin bag, adjust his hat, adjust
his pants, spit, pound his glove,
step back onto the rubber,
nod approval and only then rear back,
unleash the ball at ninety miles an hour
over and over, more than
a hundred times a game.
Perhaps these many sharply contrasting styles, tones, and subject matter come together, in some odd way, in Susan Balée’s review “Women Writers of a Certain Age,” in which she considers the work of Margaret Atwood, A.S. Byatt, Alice Munro’s, and Eva Hoffman, all writers whose work straddles various worlds and whose audiences include literary critics and fans of popular fiction. I have read the works Balée critiques here and am largely in agreement with her assessment of these writers’ most recent books as less impressive than their earlier work, with the exception of Munro’s. I find it wholly in keeping with the issue’s contrasts and juxtapositions that the title of a review of these women’s work characterizes these writers as “women of a certain age,” while a review of the poet Seamus Heaney, which follows immediately, is titled “Famous Seamus.”