This issue of The Kenyon Review sustains the journal’s well-deserved reputation as an elite, erudite vehicle for criticism, fiction, and poetry. It opens with a long essay by distinguished philosopher and essayist George Steiner. “Fragments (Somewhat Charred)” consists of philosophical observations on, or circling about, aphoristic phrases allegedly appearing on a charred scroll found in Herculaneum. Steiner deconstructs, linguistically and semantically, eight of these—phrases like “When lightning speaks it says darkness,” and “Evil is.” Of “When Arion sings why do I weep?” Steiner says “[it] encapsulates a perennial fascination by the powers and effects of music in Greek sensibility. An uneasy inquiry into the penetration of sung and instrumental music into the human psyche.” Later in the essay, he continues, “We know of no human community that lacks music. . . . Could a musical experience be the only human encounter with time made free of temporality as we know it in biological and psychological processes?” Such questions intrigue us; the effort to explore them deeply constitutes a rare offering.
Other essays include a brilliant, well-developed discussion of Robert Lowell’s political authority and influence with scholar Jeffrey Meyers; a haunting personal essay about the strangeness of living in New York, by poet Rebecca McClanahan (“Ginkgo Song”); and a dark, provocative piece on “Literature and Revolution in Contemporary Cairo (An Oriental Essay in Seven Parts)” by Youssef Rakha, “an Egyptian novelist with a sense of political commitment.” The diversity of these authors’ positions confirms the position of The Kenyon Review as an international journal of cultural commentary.
Roger Desy’s beautiful “Winter Famine” is fourteen lines, but it isn’t a sonnet. Nevertheless it ends with what I think is the loveliest single line in the journal: “across the brilliance of the stillness of the lattice of a crystal on its eye.” To reveal the context would require a reprint of the entire poem, which I wouldn’t do here, but be assured that the sibilance is earned, in image and in sound. Akin to William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark,” this one-sentence meditation on what it must be like for a deer dying of starvation (and yet, like all good poetry, so much more than that), with its varying white spaces and stumbling line breaks, makes us gasp as if we, too, lay dying in a snowdrift, “exhausted by the adrenalin / of the rut and still recovering.”
Bob Hicok’s “Elegy Owed” wakes us to the variety and elevation of lament:
I spoke moon, I wish the bottom of the ocean
were sitting in that chair playing cards
and noticing how famous you are
on my cell phone
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
were a cigarette I’d be cancer, if you
were a leaf, you were a leaf, every leaf, as far
as this tree can say
And Wyatt Prunty’s clever, technically sparkling “Reading the Map,” a literal and figurative navigation of an anniversary—”following a trail / That, in order to be read, is inaccurate to scale”—revives faith in contemporary poetry, with its almost-Renaissance couplets and its Donne-like contortion of image to modern marital vicissitudes.
The pleasure of Debra Allbery’s “Ledger” lies in the element of surprise. Any list, any accounting, can stack up images we might engage with, but here the unexpected details of “a small life” add up to a fine breath of a poem.
Hugh Sheehy’s startling “Meat and Mouth,” a horror story of awful tenderness, and Judy Troy’s “My Buried Life,” a sweet/sad coming-of-age story about a young teenager and the teacher she never had anything as small as a crush on, raise the stakes: not only the nonfiction and poetry, but also the fiction, is of the highest order.
My favorite story, however, is Stephen Taylor’s “Driving in Snow.” Here, structural agility—a lissome jumping from one time to another, arranged just so—is juxtaposed with unanticipated character developments, revealing the inextricable interrelationship of deceit and compassion over time. I would say that in this issue of TKR, fiction rules, but then so does poetry, and so do the essays. Each of these pieces in this issue of The Kenyon Review have the strength to stand alone. Taken all together, they constitute a resoundingly excellent volume.