After everyone decided that Google changed the way Americans think, certain technocrats decided that we read differently too—gone were the days of “linear” reading: enter the temporary narrative, with Chaucer in the bathroom, Proust in the kitchen, Ginsberg in the den, collectively a kind of horizontal homage to Lowell or anyone who could compete with the subtitles of the foreign films playing in the bedroom. It could be that these alphabetic adventurers simply wanted a literary magazine, with twenty-five different voices in one compact book of leaves. Soundings East, for example, captures that American premise well. It showcases the end of moral innocence (Doug Margeson’s “The Education of Arthur Woehmer”), the liberation of internees at Santo Tomas University in the Philippines in 1942 (Anne-Marie Cadwallader’s “Waiting”), and a love story complex enough to cross time and space and species (Janet Yoder’s “Getting to Misha”). But what I found especially nonlinear about the enterprise was the way that the writing began.
Michael Passaflume’s poem “Runaway” begins biblically, “Back when the world was young / and people died for a reason . . . I used to be one of the fastest . . . rounding the bases of a backyard / baseball diamond like a fuse doused / in gasoline.” You recognize something in the simplicity, maybe recalling Stuart Dybek or the winds of your youth.
Doug Bolling’s “Travels in It” also begins mythically, opening: “The year we touched the sun.” I could continue with his fine first verse, but who wants to when you can stop there and dream about what comes next? One might recall Icarus and in that neural pathway all of our childhood apexes when we too felt “brilliance streaming / through the west / window,” as Bolling has it.
I enjoyed Phyllis Mass’s “Please Do Not Respond,” that also starts with a vat of gasoline: “A portrait of my father with Frida / and Trotsky on the back wall.” Rollicking, we suspend our disbelief through the next three stanzas and burst at the last line which captures the sentiment exactly. I won’t tell you what it is, but it is an efficient stroke of ink.
Amy Schulz channels other gods in her poem “The Phantom Weight of Fire.” She begins, “Voltaire thought he could weigh fire. / He set the trees burning in the forest at Cirey / as servants stood by with buckets of water.” Facts, of course, are dead, but she invokes the forefathers with grace and redeems the bold premise with a narrative she comes to own.
Timothy McLafferty begins like the newgrass song you lost somewhere on the road to West Virginia, starting his poem “House” with this elegant introduction: “You won’t know if I don’t tell you and / if I don’t tell you / you won’t know, but it was December”. It is convincingly beautiful—a haunting set-up that left me riveted to the end.
The smart beginning, Donna Baier Stein suggests in her poem “The Yellow Brick Road,” is perhaps its inverse:
has an end I hadn’t
noticed before now.
I’ve worn out so many pairs
of shoes, some red, some stained
with juice in the shape of an unknown continent.
Soundings East is a creative effort that can be read horizontally, like those reading habits of the technology bubble cited above; it can achieve this feat because it is a unique showcase of writing with exceptional beginnings. Across the collection, the individual efforts are intrinsically realized. By that I mean to suggest that they carry through the promise of their beginnings to their measured ends, lovely in each feature, each composite whole.