The latest issue of this well-known journal is like a house that turns out to be much bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside. Here are its rooms: poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and book reviews; a translation chapbook; three entries from the 2013 Fineline Competition; and two winners from the 2013 AWP Intro Journals Awards.
The poetry and fiction partake of a trend that has come to fruition in post-apocalyptic YA novels and movies. I would call the gentler MAR mode post-apple-pie-America or maybe post-middle class life. In “In the Century of Fumes,” Rochelle Hurt writes, “the city was full of tin can men / who cracked their morning / eggs on their foreheads.” The metaphor of urban alienation delivers us at the end to the “pythons inside / those tin can throats.”
That sense of unease and foreboding is only intensified by Matthew Moser Miller’s “Letter to the Monkey Wandering Muskingum County in Need of Medical Attention.” The animals are loose and danger is everywhere in a new world order. Certainly, there is no help for the monkey: “The doctors will not drive rut- / laced dirt roads. We do not even / heal our own.”
One can run for it, of course. Ryan Habermeyer’s short story, “In Search of Fortune Not Yet Lost,” borrows from fairy tale and fable to tell of a family who disastrously moves to a dead-end dirt road in the middle of a cold nowhere. The first sentence lets us know what we’re in for: “They had heard the rumors not to live beyond the prairie.” In Rose Whitmore’s story, “Avenue of the Giants,” a father, his children, and a stripper on the lam take refuge in a redwood forest. Nature may restore them, but it isn’t going to be easy. Perhaps the origin of all this edginess is to be found in a traditional story like Kawai Strong Washburn’s “Tantalus,” in which today’s vehicle-mad young men can’t help but kill themselves in testosterone-fueled searches for identity; or in the wickedly funny social commentary of Jennifer Murvin’s “What It Was Like to Love Her.” Here a tight group of backbiting women friends lose one of their own to cancer. Their willed shallowness is poignant, universial, and fear-based. For in the end, "it will be as if we never existed, and we will not be missed."
The chapbook, “Breaking Open Nuts with Teeth of Rain,” contains eight poems by Cuban writer and activist Ernesto Díaz-Rodríguez from his book A Contra Viento (Trafford, 2011), plus translations and an introduction by Ricardo Pau-Llosa. This important work is informed by the twenty-two years Díaz-Rodríguez spent in Cuban prisons, seven in solitary confinement, before his release in 1991. Work arising from such suffering makes everything we comfortably say about the uses of art much more concrete. The surrealism of these poems is not mere word play, or mind play, but an affirmation of poetry as the expression of the inexpressible, in words that cannot be paraphrased. It is also a way to avoid being understood by those who would kill both message and messenger. The most moving poem, “Así Lo Quise Yo” (“I Wanted It That Way”) describes the speaker’s impossibly tiny son:
I wanted it that way
so he could climb up the rainbow
on a silk thread
and run through the ant tunnels
to the very center of the Earth.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
so no one could ensnare
his path with iron bars.
Perhaps the most wildly original and funny piece is Matthew Gavin Frank’s nonfiction tour-de-force, “A Blow to the Head for St. Louis Barbecue,” in which images circle back to connect with each other in the most surprising juxtapositions, adding up to a quirky view of an American obsession. “Here’s what we know: The pigs’ ribs don’t remind us of the xylophone. Here, there’s no music when, with the sledgehammer, we strike them.” Later, Uncle slaughters a pig and “excises from the pig all the parts that don’t remind us of xylophones.” Through all kinds of refractions, we and the pig are one.
“What We’re Reading” shoehorns in twenty-two signed reviews, mostly of books published by small and university presses. It provides a useful introduction to new writers and writers who should be better known. The type is smaller in this section, so not as comfortable for reading, but allows for many writers and reviewers to be showcased.