Halfway through The Tusculum Review, I feel like I have to come up for air: so much of it seems to take place in a small space, i.e., the writers’ and the characters’ heads. The poems jump from one time or image or location to another within the space of two lines, though individual sentences and fragments offer the occasional reward. Some of the essays are entirely cerebral, while others are a more traditional mix of storytelling and meditation. The stories, while mostly well-written, don’t quite hit the mark, and I’m left wondering: is there more?
A notable exception is Katie Cortese’s portrait of her father, “Mr. Fixit.” Her father has lived with periodic bouts of cancer since he was a child, and he also has a knack for fixing things. His vulnerability and humanity show through the episodes that Cortese has chosen, which are understated and free of sentimentality. Her control of the pace, as well as her intuition for the amount of time each scene deserves, are admirable. For example, she describes what her parents went through when they decided to adopt a baby boy: “There were four years of disappointments, $20,000 lost to a lawyer who took their money and ran, fifty-page applications in triplicate, and a photography session of our dinner table laden down with pot roast and candles and the good silverware to prove we were a family that could provide.” She named no emotion other than disappointment, and yet the hope—almost supplication (and in fact the lead into St. Anthony is pitch-perfect)—for the child is etched deep onto the page by those few details. There is a lively supporting cast as well: the mother who is planning the surprise birthday party for her husband, the grandmother, Cortese’s own difficulties, deftly hinted at, of being an adult child who lives far from her parents.
Lori Horvitz’s “The Golden Cord” opens with the news that her dog has disappeared from a friend’s farm and backtracks to the three terrible Internet dates she had had night before. The descriptions of the dates are hilarious, though the dates are so strange that they leave me wondering whether (1) the stories are real or (2) if she has had exceptionally bad luck in love. For such a fun read, the ending is somewhat unfortunate: it wants to draw a parallel between the dog’s disappearance and eventual return and the author’s romantic misadventures. The result is hurried, heavy-handed, and bland, as if it has to tie up the story with a neat bow in the remaining thirty seconds before the commercial break.
Some of the poems suffer from the same flaw. “Physics” by Nate Pillman builds up to a haunting image—a lit cigarette in the mouth of someone swimming—but the last line, “how it seemed like nothing in the world could put out that light,” is such a downer, especially when the poem is about a night “after graduation”: the narrative suddenly becomes a cliché on youth. F. Daniel Rzicznek has already told us how everything is “blessed” in the universe of his “Book VIII from Greenbottle’s Holy Season,” in fact listing all sorts of unexpected things and situations with sometimes-sonorous language, but then he sums it up for us in the end: “Blessed the blessedness—all things blessed,” which falls flat. Not so, however, Broc Rossell’s “Vestigial,” which spends the entire poem reeling in the reader toward its heart and still manages to jolt in the end.
Don’t let the look of Jeremiah Shelor’s “‘Untitled’ (Watercolor on Paper, 9 x 12 in.),” the single paragraph that runs on for seven and a half pages, scare you off, nor how it wanders from the window of the author’s study, to the memory of a zoo in his childhood, to Sunday school sermons and Japanese folklore, seemingly without direction. The monologue has a dreamlike quality to it at times, such as when it leaves the discussion of the kitsune, shapeshifting foxes in Japanese mythology. He wonders whether he had met real kitsune in his presumably American childhood. It ends where it began, with the image of the author drawing an animal whose likeness is elusive: “The ghosts of the erased lines remained where I had tried many times to capture the curve of her tail, faint contours of graphite fanning out in ever widening loops.” And in fact, in the beginning, when the piece began to wander away from the cardinal at the study’s window, I felt as if I were being carried out “in ever widening loops.” I can’t tell whether it’s a coincidence or a subtle masterstroke, and that is my favorite kind of surprise.
Most of The Tusculum Review seems to want to keep a distance between itself and earnestness. More often than not, the emotion and intelligence in these pages comes cloaked in what feel like literary or academic exercises, rather than told through the vehicle of experience.