You will love the most recent Bellingham Review on a microscopic level; you will love it on a macroscopic level. You will find considerable literary achievement down to the expert punctuation. The writers in this journal have a mastery of plot and a quiet rebellion of framing stories in segments. When reading this journal—as long as you aren’t in a subway—you will discern almost aurally a powerful philosophical clarity.
Becky Hagenston’s “The Afterlife,” which is the last story in the issue, evidences a great gift of language in addition to a unique talent for plot and pacing. The story concerns a woman traveling to Russia in the wake of an accident that has rendered her husband a living “ghost,” a man in a near vegetative state with no memory of his wife or their shared life. The details of the St. Petersburg tour contrast starkly with her emotional voyage; one reads of a lost passport in clean metaphor to the loss of a different passage back. And while the story is tightly crafted, it is poignantly experiential: “She could imagine all of this so clearly that it was as if it had already happened, a memory in reverse.”
It is not a nameless depression that makes the protagonist ask, “How do you get through the day when night never comes?” It is not a modern emptiness that cauterizes her memory; it is a loss more like a bubbling burn: “He was the ghost of her husband . . . wavering between worlds.” I am shocked by the ending—the mastery of her style that allows her to weave between time and place and the topography of emotion. “Sometimes when she’s talking to Jeffrey, she’ll be thinking about the tourists skating on their paper slippers over ballroom floors, as if they’re at a party that no one among the living can remember.”
What happens when a parent loses faith in Dostoevsky? The answer may rest in the ability to organize information that is delivered in manners consistent with the reader’s lifestyle. Bellingham Review is a resurrection of the classical elements of literature one loves—organization, exercises in measured, effective phrases and sentences, a commitment to telling a story that works on large landscapes even if the dramatic action takes place on a simple platform. The magazine succeeds in keeping classical elements in sturdy use but also speaks to a reader that accepts information in the format of the day.
You can see this averment characterized on the microcosm of their award winners. The prize-winning poem, Jennifer Militello’s “A Dictionary of Mechanics, Memory, and Skin in the Voice of Marian Parker,” draws on history and a strong subjective grounding in nonfiction. Jay Torrence’s nonfiction piece “Buckshot” reads like a poem; the story’s segmentation is successful and the fluidity of ideas link effortlessly and skillfully. Judge Ira Sukrungruang also attributes the “lyrical impulse” as one of the reasons why “Buckshot” secured First Place.
Lauri Anderson won the First Place fiction award for “Hand, Mouth, Ring,” and her style borrowed heavily from a memoir organization and essay. For years, American teenagers have been taught to write nonfiction like fiction. After the re-popularization of literary journalism in the 1960s, Wolfe and Talese and Capote captured the academy’s imagination and the expectations of a nation. What’s fun with Anderson’s piece is that she reverses the tactic—“Hand, Mouth, Ring” steals trope after trope of an essay, but then slyly pulls back and casts the story as fiction. The pacing, plot and characters—coupled with the brutal economy of measured language of essayists like Susan Orlean—is an example of crossing genres and styles that make the modern reader okay with skipping over metaphysics just for a few minutes to try out something daring.
Paul Byall’s “Do You Remember Me” continues the tradition of holding up disparate parts of a narrative in a cohesive enterprise, and he does so in the second person. Daisy Hernández unpacks Santeria with a demure magic. “The more we live with a thing, the more ordinary it becomes,” she writes while narrating an important discovery about faith and family: “padrino, and collares—is part of an oral language in my world, and yet here in this book, the words are written down, stationed among commas, squeezed between periods, as if they were important, as if they were real.”
The problem with reviewing Bellingham Review is that it is uniformly excellent: all of it, without any discernible exception. David Meischen’s short fiction “Crossing Over” took the top of my head off. Manda Frederick’s “What a Poem Can Be,” an interview with Robert Wrigley was engaging and inspiring. Sarah Marty-Schlipf’s “Feet” made me hungry for rain. Patrick Hunt’s “Sooyoung at the Shore” was better than anything in The New Yorker in the past three years. Rebecca McClanahan resurrected Manhattan on a two-dimensional plane in her short nonfiction “Sublet.”
Here I am, out of words, full of other people’s dreams expertly executed, and I haven’t even broken the membrane of the poetry. I think you’ll agree that we need to see more of these talented writers.