An issue of Conjunctions would be a double or triple issue for almost any other literary magazine. Even the word "magazine" doesn’t seem quite accurate. An issue of Conjunctions is a book. That said, this one actually is a double issue. The first half is titled “A Writers’ Aviary: Reflections on Birds” and the latter half is a “Special Portfolio: John Ashbery Tribute.”
Honestly, writing about birds neither excites nor interests me in the least. This is probably due to my unsophisticated palate, but I generally catch myself nodding off during a poetic meditation on the habits or appearance of a thrush or a warbler. As much as I enjoy and admire Conjunctions, I immediately felt a nap coming on when I saw “A Writers’ Aviary” in that calligraphic script on the cover. And then, enticed by the names who had authored the work inside (yes, it works; despite our aversion to marketing manipulation, it always works), I pulled the cover back and began reading.
What I found was the usual (again, misleading terms here) brilliant, controlled, masterful mix of prose and poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Peter Orner gets the issue off the ground with “Birding with Lanioturdus,” a short, sharp story where the narrator and his wise, cynical teacher, out bird watching, learn about the power of naming. The narrator describes and tries to remember the name of a bird he alone saw. “Come on – what do you call it?” To which Obadiah, or Lanioturdus, as the narrator secretly calls him, replies, “Listen – is there anything more useful as a means of control than names? . . . Don’t you see the danger in your calling it? In your giving names?”
One of my favorite stories was “Ave Maria” by Micaela Morrissette, a surreal and deeply moving story about a strange “bird” which villagers have seen in a tree near the church and found out that “the apparition in the tree was not an angel after all, but a freak escaped from the carnival. Half bird, half human.” The bird is captured and examined by a local doctor, who, in his report, calls the creature homo ferus, finding both human and bestial qualities, and particularly “avian qualities.” The creature is taken to the convent where it is cared for and educated to behave like a human girl, but to the end is referred to as “the bird."
Also of particular note was Melanie Rae Thon’s story entitled “A Song Unbroken,” and a new story by William H. Gass entitled “Garden,” about a man who lives with his mother and spends his time in the attic, unbothered and detached from the world while he cuts and files newspaper articles into his collection of atrocious human behavior he calls the “inhumanity museum.”
The John Ashbery Tribute collects brilliant essays/reviews of the corpus of Ashbery’s work by the likes of Peter Straub, Charles Bernstein, Brian Evenson, Ron Silliman, Brenda Hillman, Rae Armantrout, Ben Lerner, Geoffrey O’Brien, Susan Wheeler, and more. Also included are several of Ashbery’s early poems and a facsimile of the scarce holograph version of “Three Madrigals.” The material in the tribute is endlessly fascinating. Beyond delightfully surprised, I was blown away once again by another stellar issue of Conjunctions.