West Branch, the semiannual publication from Bucknell University’s Stadler Center for Poetry, features twenty of today’s hottest writers in its Fall/Winter 2011 issue. The literary journal “takes pride in its openness to a wide range of literary styles and in its pairing of new and established voices,” and this issue is no exception. Featured within are nineteen poems, four short stories, one nonfiction piece, and one translated work, all showcasing the publication’s literary range. Also included are eleven book reviews and recommendations from the editors, a regular feature of West Branch.
The issue begins with “Safe as Houses,” an imaginative short story by Marie-Helene Bertino. The narrative follows an elderly man who goes by the alias “Pluto” as he and his newly-acquired teenage accomplice, Mars, ransack a home. They are a pair of unconventional burglars, attempting to only steal items of true personal worth. “We leave the crumpled fifty, the coins in the dish. We steal the dish, a ceramic art-class concoction that brags: Daddy.” “Safe as Houses” is fun and fresh, and Bertino keeps readers interested in her quirky protagonist by seamlessly weaving the man’s troubled past into the narrative, enticing readers to continue on into West Branch and discover what other inspired writing lies within.
As readers continue, they are sure to pause at the powerful collection of poetry from Mark Jay Brewin, Jr., an MFA graduate from Southern Illinois University–Carbondale. Three poems from Brewin are featured: “Marriage,” “The Same Idea,” and “Drinking Stories.” The third, “Drinking Stories,” is a striking prose-poem wherein the speaker muses on the growing dementia of his grandfather while they drink beers. At the same time, the grandfather muses on times past and soon to be forgotten. “Just as a bullet shot into the air, the clear memory peaks and begins its quick drop, your keen gaze fades, and the story stalls . . . I would pour you anything as long as I could follow you across the withering tract of your crisp lore.” The poem’s form accurately portrays the progression of a casual conversation with one’s grandparent while keeping the language commanding and lyric, making this poem particularly noteworthy.
Also worth noting is the short story by Sam J. Miller entitled “The Plot to Assassinate Oprah.” The story weaves together the different identities of a young man named Isaac. Isaac is a caring son, supporting his mother as she attempts to create a sympathetic documentary of Ethelene Garrett, a woman who attempted to kill Oprah Winfrey. He also struggles with his parents’ recent divorce and his father’s unexplained absence in his life. Isaac leads a double life, though, as a homosexual teen with masochistic desires, chatting with older gay men on the internet in hopes of finding a way to fulfill his violent sexual urges, despite the multiple warnings from his friend Darryl. The raw exploration of Isaac’s dark yearnings balances surprisingly well with his mother’s exploration of the failed assassination on Oprah, showcasing Miller’s uncanny ability to tackle subjects that could easily be portrayed distastefully under the penmanship of a less experienced author.
West Branch solely accepts unsolicited submissions, and this issue truly showcases the highly varied yet equally engaging talents of today’s writers in a way that keeps readers enthralled throughout.