Readers with an interest in the visual arts and graphic design as well as in literature will appreciate this publication. Rip Rap Literary Journal—designed and produced by students in the MFA program at California State University at Long Beach—allots generous space to bold typography and 4-color endpapers as well as individual artworks appearing throughout the volume. Physically, the journal feels and looks substantial, justifying its identity as an annual. If you are familiar with Rip Rap, you will know how to read it—at a non-linear and leisurely pace, letting yourself be surprised by what the turn of a page reveals.
This issue features short stories and poems; although (except for the interviews), work is not identified by genre in the table of contents, and the works are not grouped by genre. If you want to know whether “Violent Skies” is a poem or a story, and who the author is, you must turn to page 51 to find out. When you reach page 51, you find out that in fact “Violent Skies” is (or appears to be—no descriptions of media are provided) a 4-color woodcut, with the phrase “these are violent skies” appearing above portraits of two males, one younger/contemporary and one older/historical. Artist Ben DuVall has created a provocative image which will reward the reader who takes a leisurely approach to experiencing this journal.
Several poets feature themes of divorce or sexual disappointment, or provide an oblique look at sex, as in Bill Wolak’s “Lovemaking,” which describes certain habits of the Trobriand Islanders. Jeff Hallenbeck finds a happier resolution in “Sentence Diagram,” where he likens the arc of physical love to various topics familiar to English majors: syntax, reading, and, ultimately, deconstruction. Of his lover, he writes, “There was no wasted movement. / She was an Imagist in bed.” In “Elegy,” Mary Kinard treats that other great subject of life and literature. Her tone is angry, powerfully evoking the stage of grief that immediately succeeds deep loss: “They said you were gone. But they were wrong. / You woke for FTD.” Images of garden flowers, spring bouquets, plastic flowers, and silk flowers culminate in that of “red orchids” that jam the elevator: “Why didn’t we have the damned funeral right there?”
The debut publication of Zachery Mann, “The Perfect Zigzag,” appears to be a memoir rather than a short story, although the work is non-chronological and highly crafted. Encounters with death in discrete episodes from childhood and adolescence, beautifully and powerfully evoked, crash against the image of a little boy caring desperately: “. . . I’d make a fist and knock on my head twice, above my right ear, when I came across something I wanted to remember. This please remember!” Mann’s artistry extends from fluent narrative to powerful images (a toy dinosaur, a lightning flash) to satisfying form—he concludes with another reference to the fist knock. This work bookmarks the author’s name in the reader’s watch list—much more of worth can be expected from him.
Mathieu Cailler’s “Neighbors” brings to life a powerful, successful restaurateur and a fragile twenty-something who meet when she arrives to vacation-sit for her grandmother. Through interior monologue, believable dialogue, and sharp evocation of its Los Angeles setting, the story limns a transformation of the man from mature playboy to tender father figure. The protagonist reflects that “as his hair grayed and thinned, he began to understand there was never an age when life was easy—just an age where it became easier to pretend.” But then the writer masterfully captures the ability of love to emerge unexpectedly, in forms we no longer dare to hope for.
The visual art forms a major, independent, element of this journal. In addition to “Violent Skies,” Ben DuVall contributes four more works, in various media, scattered throughout the volume. Most of the visual artists are represented by more than one image. Notable is Dwight Pavlovic, who shatters concepts with his strong color and confident design. His works, including “Pronouncing Pennsylvania” and “The Instrumentality of Hands,” provide a strong spine of imagery throughout the volume. Pavlovic says that he is a self-taught multimedia artist based in West Virginia, originally trained in Religious Studies and History. No biosketch is provided for Alice Chiang, whose engaging “Taipei Apartment,” with its litter of painterly tools, evokes a flattened Matisse.
An interview with James Brown, author of the memoir The Los Angeles Diaries, is conducted by Mony S. Vong, who explores with Brown the creative process, details of his battle for sobriety, and his opinions about great literature. Among the questions and answers printed on the page emerges what appears to this reader a real connection between the more experienced and the younger writer—the interview feels like an intimate conversation, making for compelling reading.
Rip Rap is as laid back as it is exuberant. The confidence with which the student editors have produced this issue comes through not only in the layout but in the presentation of material. Pick up a copy of Rip Rap and you will be challenged as a reader. Challenged, and then tickled, and then fed.