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The Massachusetts Review - Spring 2012

  • Issue Number: Volume 53 Number 1
  • Published Date: Spring 2012
  • Publication Cycle: Quarterly

There’s something faintly whimsical about this issue of The Massachusetts Review. Maybe it’s in the tone of “Bad Meditator,” a poem by Doug Anderson whose list of distractions isn’t a complaint but rather a love letter to all the occupants of Monkey Mind:

In fact I’ve grown fond of the things between the things
I used to think important . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
My mind comes back to center where it’s empty
for a blink and then I’m back to the boogie fugue
and where the strands touch, sparks.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I’m back to center where I’m fine
for three breaths and then the dog starts to whimper.
She wants love. And I want it in spite of having it.

Or maybe the whimsy is in the fictional voice of “Bone’s Blues,” where Colin Fleming’s slightly bewildered but positively worshipful musician narrator tells the story of his mad-genius bandmate who knows that “eventually, if we’re lucky, we get one. From inside of us. A way we didn’t know was there . . . I hit that note, and it’s like, Hello, beautiful. We gonna have a time tonight, baby.”

You might never call an essay about (re)claiming the Holocaust whimsical, but the very title of Steven Schwartz’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Not Being There” unweights a singularly heavy subject, and the premise it spins around is that Schwartz is “the very epitome of the Jew who drags his faith behind him like a sack of bones, a Holocaust obsessive, a man who will not let go of a past that did not even happen to him or any of his immediate family.” His experiences traveling the concentration camps with his family are not exactly hilarious, but the responses of some of the people they meet—to whom the Holocaust did happen—are more than a bit ironic. And sometimes irony borders on funny.

It’s not exactly light-hearted, this issue, but it doesn’t take itself so seriously that you wander the empty chambers of your abandoned heart morbidly contemplating the vast uncommunicative stars. No, instead you acknowledge the satellite “sailing through Cassiopeia” (Dan Gerber’s poem of that name)—you’re not alone, our human efforts connect you to us, you belong on the planet. I think that’s the real situation: not frivolity, not caprice, but vulnerability and warmth pervade this issue of MR. The personal, the human, the universal, overrides the strictly objective, critical, or academic.

Three more examples, all of them essays—Jefferson Hunter’s “Roadside Albania,” Carol Moldaw’s “Craft as Conduit,” and Jacob Paul’s “Jacob and His Friends Work Out the Difference Between Post and Modern”—don’t use academic diction, though that last one sounds like it might; the point of view in each is benevolent, individual, approachable, even sociable. Each provokes thought via benignly reasonable narrative.

Early in his account of travel through Albania, Hunter points out that “Faced with an exotic landscape, we have to learn how to see it, and it is natural to begin with analogies to what we know.” Then he proceeds to compare Albania to California and to contrast its “un-California-like details, the minarets of mosques or the Greek or Roman ruins high up on their rocky settings. Even the poppies, initially a reminder of the Sierra foothills, grow to seem more local in significance, more Albanian.” His subtitles—“Bles America,” “Lavazh Special,” “Trash,” “Winnie-the-Pooh and the Evil Eye,” and “Memorials,” all focus on customs and sights he is wont to call “amusing,” and to render personable: “From your table under the awnings it is possible to look up over lunch and see the faithful worshipping. . . . A tiny elderly woman . . . enters the tomb and busies herself there, looking a little like a cleaning lady, though one made blissful by her rite.”

Moldaw’s essay is a gentle statement that poetry “reveals what otherwise could not be seen at all” and is a story about Tom Ashcroft, whose circular motto, “Examine, discover, report, explore,” has become Moldaw’s own.

Finally, Paul’s excellent narrative about navigating the academic thickets of critical theory should be required reading for all English majors, as much for its non-jargon language and its structure (narrative as argument) as for its striking, accurate assessment that “postmodern texts divorce themselves (or the reader divorces them) from all ethical responsibility. That, I think, is a big deal for all of us.” This issue of MR successfully closes this and other big deals with sympathetic purpose.
[www.massreview.org]

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Review Posted on June 14, 2012
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