Clockhouse Review’s best quality is that you don’t know what to expect. You’ll read a traditionally formed story about family dynamics, and then you’ll read a fake academic paper about medieval witches. Weird, but refreshing. Although CR boasts the usual suspects (poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction), it also features some unusual suspects such as graphic narrative and drama. Although it’s awesome to see these forms in literary magazines (more, please), I don’t think I’m the best judge of their quality. Truthfully, I find graphic narratives bizarre; although I can say that the one in this issue (“Stomach Hole” by Mike Mosher) is truly fascinating in its bizarreness.
Like I said, in the fiction, you might find a traditional story. You might find a paragraph or two of flash fiction. Or, if you’re lucky, you’ll find you’ve been thrown into a choose-your-own-adventure. Although variety is the spice of life, my favorite piece is pretty normal in form, though possibly odd in plot. “Feast of the Fishes,” by Robert McGuill is an exceptional story that mingles a father/son camping trip with the very real danger of starvation. The father takes his son on this trip with the condition that they catch all their food. No provisions are brought along. Seriously loopy, I know, but it’s a point of pride for the father. Rather, I think it’s a way of exerting some kind of control in an otherwise out-of-control situation: divorce, the Big D. This piece is beautifully written and intensely gripping. Toward the end, the boy goes off alone and comes across two fishermen who feed him until he’s practically bursting. When the boy returns, the father presents him with a can of sardines, which the father procured by trading his valued watch, a symbol of the marriage. The boy, not wanting to tell the father about the food he had consumed, eats the sardines despite his growing nausea. The ending is genius, I think, in that it doesn’t provide closure, only a sense of the characters changing, the boy losing his innocence and the father, perhaps (I’m not sure) gaining some back.
CR’s nonfiction is a real gem. I always think this is hard to accomplish; I’ve seen a lot of bad nonfiction in my years. For a few moments (pages), you’ll find yourself facing life from various perspectives—a mid-aged woman considering a very necessary hysterectomy and the prospect of never having children, an educated woman pondering her economically and educationally disadvantaged childhood, or just a man observing a yellow boat and finding companionship and contentedness in this simple joy.
I enjoyed all the nonfiction, but I liked “Magna Mater” by Elizabeth Dalton best. Maybe because I am a woman, a mother, a sister. Or maybe because I, too, struggle with the occasional hypocrisy of religion and what it means to be female in this strange world. These are complicated and often personal issues, but Dalton talks about them with wisdom, a subtle humor, and an immense amount of love and patience. When she talks about her Catholic upbringing and playing communion with her sister, I think of my own sister and how she wadded up pieces of bread to place on my tongue. I am no longer Catholic, but the urge to worship Mary, as Dalton discusses, is also something I can relate to. Mary is the archetypal mother, a woman who has been glorified but was just a woman who loved her son and desired above anything else to protect him. Any mother knows the truth in this.
Dalton also speaks of her daughter, a college-aged woman who balks about the unfairness of being a woman. Dalton says “There is this, I tell her as I touch my belly: You can carry a baby.” Again, no mother would trade this for gender equality, although it’d be nice to have both. And later, when her ill sister delivers a premature baby, she says, “my sister has done the work of god on this frozen evening, I thought—demanding order from chaos, separating land from water. She has given birth to a squirming new world, I thought, and she has named him Jesse.” This is a terrifyingly powerful ending to an essay that breathes life. Depending on your religious affiliation, you may think this is blasphemy. For me, it’s sheer beauty.
And then there’s poetry. Although I’ve said that there is no theme to the issue, there is a subtle emerging theme as you read, that of faith and/or lack thereof, as you can see from the “Magna Mater” above. “Penance” by Leslie Paolucci begins with “I pay a price for my lack of faith” and continues about the things that can go wrong (a baby’s sunburn and the anxiety of waiting for a late loved one during a storm) and not having faith to turn to. She wonders if faith is worth it, if she should accept the gender inequality prevalent in organized faith in return for something to turn to. These are difficult questions, and there are no easy answers. Instead, she ends with, “I will hide beneath the bed // as the storm rants outside my window, thinking / when this is over I should sweep up all this salt.”
“Benediction” by Jenn Blair is a fabulous way to end the magazine. It begins “It matters that you moved upon the earth / rose in the dark alone and washed your face / and had the thoughts you had / which sometimes gave you grief / and sometimes life.” It’s poignant in its simplicity. You matter, it says. The good, the bad, the boring—every day you lived is special. The last stanza is very moving:
And it matters how you stood that day
watching the tree in flames
as autumn’s cold sun
briefly transfigured the earth
your face—at the same moment—
radiant as what you gazed upon
more beautiful of course
than you ever had the faith to believe
The poem captures that rare and splendid moment when you are overcome by joy in a mundane moment. Everything stops, and no matter your beliefs, for that brief moment, you have faith in whatever there is out there. Whatever makes this world spin, it spins for you. Not a bad thought, and a very gratifying note to leave you with.
Well, one more note. Although the contributor’s bios are said to appear on the website, so far there is just a list of names. I’d say these guys and gals are the up-and-comers to watch out for in the years to come.