The Ocean State Review’s debut issue features the work of writers who presented at the University of Rhode Island and/or its Ocean State Summer Writing Conference, and includes art, poetry, fiction, nonfiction and craft essays.
In terms of looks, The Ocean State Review gets high marks. The cover photo for this inaugural issue is vibrant and engaging, and the journal includes a satisfying amount of content while remaining relatively compact.
Unfortunately, the writing is not as fresh as the design. While the journal features some well-published writers from across the country, much of the prose and some of the poetry is a bit on the stale side: safe, carefully-developed (if not a bit dense) and just a touch short of entertaining.
But that’s not to say there aren’t bright spots. Robin Lippincott steals the show in fiction with the shortest piece in the journal: “Singer,” a fantastic story about a man who moves to a town by the sea in his twilight years to live the life he had always wanted:
He had come here at age seventy to follow a dream, or rather to fulfill one. Approaching retirement, he had, over a series of agonizing weeks, made a list, stopping when he noticed that it was comprised only of things he would rather not do; it was then he realized that what he wanted to do was live out the rest of his days as a singer. Never mind that he couldn’t and had never been able to carry a tune; it was all he wanted in this world.
The story begins slowly and carefully, as if mirroring the hushed tones in which legends are spoken of, and builds gradually into absurdity, a pleasant oddity that readers want to have faith in. By the end, that oddity builds into something more serious, more believable—a sort of artistic manifesto and a powerful statement of human ambition and entitlement:
He felt that he had earned the right to sing because of all he’d seen and lived and heard, all the experiences—the deaths and losses, the sadness and triumphs—but more than anything simply for having survived daily life for all those years. When he finally stopped singing, he knew it would be only because he was out of breath. Nothing else mattered to him: this was the living end.
The poetry of The Ocean State Review varies from the stylistic formalities of triplets and sutras to poems that experiment more with form and space, like Derek Pollard’s “The Wave and Flutter” and Melissa Hotchkiss’s “After years,” which is printed horizontally to fit on the page.
Likewise, the voices of these poems are diverse; each is a sampling of a shout issued across the pages from a writer working in his or her own distinct sense of style. The result is a cacophony of eclectic voices, a grab bag of poetry that exists on the pages of a journal still in the process of discovering its own identity.
There is Mary Giaimo’s “Fragments of the Affair,” for example, which, true to its title, is indeed very fragmented in thought and style. The poem starts off with the line, “The king is inquiring into ancient history / When did he learn to whisper?” and much like her king, the speaker also seems to be finding her voice. There is a dignified tone to the poem, a distinct reverence of history and a sense of re-discovering the past that, through the words of a disconcerted modern speaker, results in lines like, “Terrible Eros / Who is the sumptuous blackmailer?” and “Ardor’s a felon bridegroom.”
Where The Ocean State Review shines the most, though, are not in the poems that demonstrate technical aptitude, or the highly allusive and interlingual poems with multiple layers that resolve themselves too cleanly, but rather in the ones that embrace the undecided. They are the conversational poems, the character-based poems that elicit a clean sense of voice resonating as echoes long after you finish reading.
By that criteria, Denise Duhamel’s “An Old Novel by My New Husband” is brilliant. It is fresh, casual and confessional. I was hooked from the beginning, let in on the emotional background of the speaker in just a few short lines:
[An Old Novel By My New Husband]
is a love story about a hipster Romeo
and a down-and-out Juliet
and of course I am afraid to read it
because I prefer to believe
my new husband never loved anyone
I can’t stop though
because it is so good.
Duhamel is direct, but not simple; imaginative, but not distracted; grounded, but not blunt. There is a subtle humor and an emotional sincerity throughout the poem as the speaker gauges her place in this new relationship, in her role transposed against that of her husband’s “old” Juliet:
I think, wow, this is amazing and then I think
wow, this Romeo is my new husband
or at least some small part of him
and I wish I were this Juliet
although not really
she has her troubles and hurt
which remind me
of my own troubles when I was her age
and I want to tell her
look I’ve made it all the way here
Kevin McLellan, too, exhibits an emotional and confessional honesty in “Listening to the Be Good Tanyas on Grassy Hill Radio,” a poem in which the speaker inwardly explores the exchanges of gifts that are synonymous with courtship. McLellan is casual, humorous and inquisitive, using questions and fragments to mirror the wandering (if not sporadic) movements of a mind left with too much time to itself.
The best of the nonfiction and craft are Betty J. Cotter’s “The Accounting,” a woman’s gradual discovery of her father, a former sawmill man, through old account books, and Robin Hemley’s “Exceptions,” an adaption of the writer’s keynote talk given at the 2009 Ocean State Summer Writing Conference. Hemley offers sound advice for writers while recognizing that the same tips he and others offer to writers are often riddled with contradictions.
While less than stunning, The Ocean State Review shows potential in its debut. I can’t help but wonder if expanding beyond Rhode Island’s summer conference and soliciting submissions would help the journal hone in on its own identity as it continues beyond this inaugural issue.