“A conversation,” says Editor-in-Chief Jessica Jacobs of The Sycamore Review, “involves two people who know each other sitting down in a familiar room. But as anyone who’s ever picked up a book and had it speak to her knows, conversations can also occur in which not even a single word is said aloud, in which two minds engage each other outside the immediacy of same time, same place.” Jacobs’s words provide an appropriate introduction that mirrors the fantastical cover art by Kathleen Lolley. The latest issue of this journal from the Purdue University English Department wants to have a conversation with you, dear reader, and to share its poetry, fiction, essays, interviews, art, and book reviews.
Michael Martin Shea, in his prose poem “J. Robert Oppenheimer’s Open Letter to Japan,” asks what would happen if one of the great scientists behind the Manhattan Project felt remorse Shea fills his work with guilt and a longing for forgiveness that hits the reader like a nuclear blast: “Dear Hiroshima, I can’t sleep. I kill everything I touch.” There are even moments of light humor and an allusion to a particular Dr. Seuss story: “Hiroshima, I wish you were here. Feed me warm oatmeal, play soft music on my refrigerator, tell all the birds in town not to shit on my car. Any good deed a man does returns to leave nasty messages on his answering machine, you can’t kill two birds with one nuclear reaction, cats always land butter side down, & so on.” Dropping the atomic bomb on Japan may have ended the Second World War, but it was also a choice that will haunt our national consciousness for generations to come.
Ian Stansel’s “The Tall Lake Grasses” shows how strange attractions can emerge from tragic events. The central plot revolves around the disappearance of a teenage boy in a small, middle-American town. We see the story develop through the point of view of his neighbor Beth, a girl slightly older than him, who begins a secret masochistic relationship with social outcast and classmate Silver. Stansel does a good job making the reading uncomfortable. The scene where Beth gets whipped in Silver’s basement made me flinch:
A few seconds passed, but she remained in place, determined to be patient. Then she felt the whip cut across her skin. Her eyes and mouth burst open, but she saw nothing, nor did she make a sound. She could not hear a thing, no movement, no breathing. She might have disappeared, she thought. She or the world or both. Become gone. The pain pushed out from the source in hot waves, like the wake off a vessel. She pressed her forehead into the carpet and concentrated all her mental energy on the sensation. After a few moments the undulating sting subsided and she was left with a simple channel of heat.
“The Tall Lake Grasses” is an odd story that lacks a moral compass. The missing boy falls into background noise as Beth and Silver come together in violence while being surrounded by the threat of violence. The psychology of these characters is fascinating, and I commend Stansel for daring to dive into that darker side of the human mind.
Rob Nixon tells us a childhood memory in a short piece of non-fiction called “Baboon.” He shows us what it is like to live in South Africa and to have neighbors who owned “a flock of racist geese.” Tension slowly builds as Nixon and his friend ride by a seemingly abandoned shack surrounded by a chain linked fence where a ferocious Doberman and a baboon live. Nixon eventually gets bitten by this dog and discovers that a wound can be a badge of honor: “A wound, I discovered, was a fabulous thing. It made me feel older than I was. A wound was a fine place to keep a story that you could pull out and tell like a man.” This certainly rings true with all good storytelling. Conflict is always essential, and old wounds are always a good starting place to tell stories.
My favorite portion of this issue was an interview with author Dorothy Allison called “If you Can’t Find Work, Make Trouble.” Allison’s wit is razor sharp as she talks about her career as a writer and touches on practically every branch of the writing profession. “Writers,” Allison says, “have to be ruthless, writers have to shape a story, writers have to have somewhere they’re going that will end—that they have a goal in mind. Otherwise it’s like, ‘Is she never going to shut up?’” She drops other pearls of wisdom such as “Fiction trumps reality every time—if it’s any good at all” and “Story happens because the world is unbelievable.” Allison makes it clear that one does not go into writing to make money. Writing “is a way to scandalize people and to flirt with pretty girls and have a good time.” Probably the best advice I ever heard about the craft of writing.
Even though I finished reading this issue, it doesn’t mean that the conversation is over. In fact, it rarely ever is because there’s always a story out there waiting to be told. As long as Sycamore Review is talking, I’ll be listening.