Brenda Miller, author of five Pushcart-Prize-winning works and co-author of a best-selling creative nonfiction text, is the editor-in-chief of Bellingham Review. The names of Rita Dove, Tess Gallagher, Tobias Wolff, and other better-than-well-known poets and writers light up the editorial board. And with such a masthead, and a mission statement that includes a cry of “hunger for […] writing that nudges the limits of form, or executes traditional forms exquisitely,” how could we not expect excellence from this fine journal out of Western Washington University? This hefty issue contains nearly 250 pages of striking fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and photography. And from the contest winners that open the issue to the interviews that conclude it, not a single entry misfires.
A few examples from the creative nonfiction selections: “A Catalog of Dead Birds,” by Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Venegas, argues in a lovely braided essay that birds don’t always get away. The poignant point is that mortality is not a state to take lightly. In her brief and painful “Histories,” Kristen Radtke aches to come to terms with her brother’s mental illness and her family’s clumsy attempts to deal with it fairly. “Elsewhen,” by Diane LeBlanc, passionately mourns a beloved pet, and “Phantoms (A Correspondence)” is a haunting letter from Colin Rafferty to a high school buddy whose death in Iraq he did not know of till three years after the fact. Each of these, and each of the other CNF selections as well, is strong, moving, human.
My favorite short story is Jacob M. Appel’s “Bait and Switch,” winner of the Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction (judged by Jess Walter), which balances pace and complexity perfectly as fourteen-year-old Laurie Jean is seduced on all sides (well, at least three) and comes out only a little worse for wear. We like her from the very first line.
Jill Logan’s “Your Official Guide to the Happiest Place on Earth” presents a chilling dialogue between betrayal and fury on the one hand, and all that would smooth it over on the other.
“Heavy Winter” by Jenn Scott contains this estimable line in a dialogue between two betrayed and angry women watching The Price Is Right: “‘Be glad you don’t know [which of two products costs more]. There will be an inevitable point in your life when you become aware that for the rest of your life you’ll know the price difference between shoe polish and scrubbing sponges and wish you didn’t.’”
The poetry in this issue is plentiful and masterful. The work of sixteen poets is represented in thirty-one poems and two fascinating interviews. Some—“My Maternal Grammar” by Barbara Rockman and “Parts” by Bruce Snider, for example—deserve to be reproduced in full, because their effect unfolds in an image drawn out throughout the entirety of the poem; but for the sake of space I will urge you to get the issue for their gifts, and to be satisfied here with these other, partial examples of the kind of apt, intense lines which bowl us over or take us under:
to come as close
as a needle to cloth
before pulling up through you.
(“Seatac” by Laura Read)
Infants see mere inches
and so sleep
until the world gets farther away.
(“A Brief Overview of Vision” by Patty Seyburn)
It’s so lonely, not knowing
one’s words, their destinations like moving trains
far out on the dark prairie
the long moan
of them announcing the Doppler distortions between
thought and sound, the clatter
of syllables rushing toward something blind and struggling,
tied to the rails.
(“It’s Difficult to Mean One’s Words” by Christopher Howell)
This last is accompanied by a meaty interview with poet, teacher, and editor Howell, who says that poetry “mastered me […] [Writing] poems helped me to survive difficulty without despairing, even, occasionally, to live with some semblance of grace.” This interview, and one with the poet Shane McCrae, provide the pleasure of connection and insight into the workings of fine poets’ minds, as the best interviews do. The “correspondence” between Amy Wright and Alex Stein with which this issue of BR concludes is one of the most poetic, charming, and uplifting pieces in the entire book.
The mission statement of Bellingham Review says that the editors seek “[literature] of palpable quality: poems, stories, and essays so beguiling they invite us to touch their essence.” Certainly this issue fulfills that mission. Buy, subscribe, be enriched!