In journalism, the number of inches designated to a story or part of an article would be considered as political as the words themselves. In this way, excluding coverage was the best offense, and the arrangement of objects, ideas or celebrity becomes a politics of space. I enjoyed this issue of Louisiana Literature: a Review of Literature and the Humanities, affiliated with Southeastern Louisiana University, because of some of these kinds of editorial decisions that relate to a particular politics of space. The issue’s judicious arrangement of poems and stories become miles of ink dedicated to the issues central to our lives, not just the parents and the lovers and the dumpster divers, but to those miles of shoreline splashed with oil, against a decimated New Orleans skyline.
The stories in this issue are reminiscent at times of Sherwood Anderson (Scott Kaukonen, lightly) or through a scrim faintly (Michael P. McManus channeling Nikos Kazantzakis). And yet the poems are conversational, a kind of testament to chiseled simplicity. It is a fine volume to carry with you for those moments you are dreaming of Frank O’Hara or Billy Collins. Take, for example, Amanda Walton’s short fiction piece “Found Things.” Walton takes a love story set in poverty and garbage and gilds it with humor and a compelling sincerity that is all her own. Surely we could class it with any great love vignette, but hers resonates as universal and original all at once. It is an achievement: the setting of the something that in other hands—even the best of hands—could spiral into cliché. But Walton’s detail and brilliant management of details escapes this predicament.
I found Margaret McMullan’s short story “Elevation” to be an insightful meditation on character—in the story we have characters like the rapacious daughter Diane and her generous father good enough to make you want to weep, but we have other characters as well: Katrina, the BP oil company, and a dolphin drowned in gasoline, convulsing on a beach. McMullan presented an important message without suffering didactics. Her tone was rich—weaving between emotions such that the story was unusually well balanced. I felt anger and laughter from page to page.
Paul Christensen’s poem “Ode to my Mother” reaps a reverse Oedipal story, one of wanting to rescue the speaker’s mother from all of the torments of her life—“a cheap ring you made into a diamond,” where the speaker fashions an escape for his mother from the cries of a captured life. The older I grow the less I want to read poetry that “tells,” feeling that colloquial confession belongs in a family scrapbook. But the tradition is a fortress. I’m reading some of Rahel Bluwstein’s work, and the legend about her is that she would send friends poems by mail rather than having an aggressive publication ethic, and if you think about your friends reading your work in a message, you’d want what Bluwstein, and the Louisiana Literature editors deliver—which is, of course, all of the things that draws one to poetry in the first place—a storyline, an emotional storyline, a message of consolation and joy.
The journal features more poetry than prose, with a section for reviews. Referencing the lead paragraph of this essay, one enjoys the prevalence of verse and reviews of verse; if it were not for strong Southern literature and a robust appetite for poetry in the independent magazines, so much would be lost—not just the wreckage of Katrina or the politics of a region requiring poetry as an essential mnemonic witness—but something else. Perhaps it was Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel acceptance speech that set the stage for “Louisiana Literature,” an idea that honor and heroism is not merely the stuff of life, but the stuff of Southern grit and verve.
In Faulkner’s words:
[A man or woman] is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
You notice this legacy—honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice—in Louisiana Literature.