Physically built like a monograph from the City Lights Pocket Poet series, Saw Palm weighs approximately 5 oz., literally, with a figurative weight of so much peninsula, so much history that the Atlantic can deliver against the Florida shoreline. The book is preciously constructed, and the contents arresting, dedicated with precision to the literature and art of the state, its denizens and diaspora. Unlike other journals, where metaphor can wheel the reader away from the centrality of theme or place, this issue is a very strong representation of what perceptions and realities a writer might assign to place. It is a great work of editorial cohesion in that the work inside all relates to Florida—even in some unexpected ways.
The journal is engaging, rich and diverse in theme and voice, but it stands out from other outstanding literary journals by its razor-sharp focus on Florida, and, by incorporation, on the South. Sarah Marshall’s short story “Patrimony” is a brave new take on the Southern Gothic, with startling portrayal of sex, crime and poverty of all kinds—spiritual, economic, familial. And though the reader is slowly immersed in the catastrophe, each layer of hell is wholly believable.
Jason Kapcala and Renée Nicholson’s short story “Waltz of the Pink Flamingos” evokes such a realistic situation in the South that I swear we just lived through it last Christmas. The humor, the light competitiveness among the siblings, the second-chance love attempts among older adults—would be apt in many American storybooks, but I felt the provision of a named sexuality to press a daring political assertion into the frilly realism. I think that in Sarasota, where the story is set, may be distinguished from the Deep South; the story suggests a finely fractured acceptance of sexual orientation that is less common in the Deep South. It is not a political story overtly; like the best social criticism, it is first a story about the human condition, all things that separate us a secondary matter of detail.
The poetry of Saw Palm is blooming insofar that the poems are true to beauty and cadence. I enjoyed the rebirth, the rain, the qualified songs of love in a curated sampling of verse. Mary Block’s poem “Outside Orlando” had been written following the acquittal of George Zimmerman, and it ends: “. . . Fathers water their lawns / at dusk. Mothers mop their living room floors and wait / for their sons to get home.” Notice the tension in use of ‘mopping’ a ‘living’ room floor. Notice the waiting, the dusk. The poem is short, of eighteen lines. Acutely.
As much as Block invokes Jean Toomer with the scrim the thickness of linnet’s wings, Eric Sheridan Wyatt’s short story “It’s Never Quite What It Seems” seems to wake the caustic sainthood of Flannery O’Connor. Overbearing matriarch—check. Middle aged protagonist on the edge of major transformation—check. The accoutrements of the region—check. The story is interesting on those matrices alone. We know that Chelsea, aforementioned matriarch, will have her comeuppance. It’s a promise we inherited from O’Connor. We amble through the plot, wondering which of the references will raise up all irony and leave us nervously laughing. Is it the alligators? Will Grandma Bean suffer meaningful chest pains? What about Jackson—what is his role in the after-dinner party? Wyatt suffers no cheap shots. The redemption comes simply, with one word telling the reader all we need to know.
The poetry in the journal is lightly connected: the reader will experience the Florida landscape and environment almost cohesively, almost as if the poets, placed on any opposing coast, had spoken about designations of red or methods of storm. We are unified by our memories of place. The fiction, too, seems to be significantly connected to Florida as a physical place and emotional terrain. The literature is not always overtly limited to Florida, but the writers employ strategic nouns, signs, and emblems to underscore the power of location and its people.