This issue of Bellevue Literary Review starts with eyewitness descriptions on the effects of last October’s Hurricane Sandy on New York’s Bellevue Hospital. The piece, titled “The Night of the Hurricane,” archives recollections from resident physicians of NYU’s Department of Medicine and is a tribute to the brave staff members who had evacuated Bellevue Hospital, hauling patients and equipment down stairs and through halls one by one to safety in the midst of enormous devastation rendering the building silent for the first time in more than 275 years. In her foreword, Editor-in-Chief Danielle Ofri writes, “Dollars, hours, gallons, and acreage can seem almost flimsy when trying to understand the effects on a human level—the patient who was carried down seventeen flights of stairs, the administrator who never left the hospital for a week, the employee whose home was destroyed . . .” We are relieved to hear that though “there still remain many displaced elements,” there is hope that “the hospital community will be fully restored soon.”
I’m impressed even more with this issue knowing that it was produced under such constraints. Although the prizewinners of the annual contests and the new writers presented here do not address the destruction Sandy brought on, their work validates the best in human nature as it confronts displacement, disorientation, disease, and the imminence of death. Despite disaster, good judgment and fine language prevail.
The 2013 Goldenberg Prize for Fiction, judged by Jane Smiley, was awarded to Kathryn Trueblood for “The No-Tell Hotel,” a piece so convincing it sounds like creative nonfiction, and yet it is structured so cleanly that if it were cnf, we would commend its fidelity to conventions of the best literary fiction. The narrator is a single mom whose son brings home the dregs of high school, kids whose parents “have kicked them out, or are stretched too thin to help out, or can only offer beer, bong hits, and Top Ramen.” Her practical compassion not only allows her to respect these homeless kids, but impels her to cook for them, listen to them, and protect them. There’s no softening the blows here—the most important scene takes place in the home of one of the kids who has abandoned his mother with MS. Recognizing that the mother needs help, the narrator assists her, talks to her, and holds her as they wait for the ambulance. The neglectful boy isn’t bad, they say to each other, “just young is all.” Their strength is in their support for each other and for the boy.
This kind of compassion infuses all the writing in this journal. Jacqueline Kolosov’s essay “Dust, Light, Life,” winner of the Burns Archive Prize for Nonfiction, recalls Virginia Woolf’s “Death of the Moth” both in its braided form and in its allusions to that and other literary works. Megan Kimble’s “Click,” another work of creative nonfiction, feels like poetry, juxtaposing the shoulder pain of the moment with the accident that caused that pain, as well as projecting into the future.
Kelly Vande Plasse’s gentle, straightforward poem “October Snow” chronicles a ninety-year-old man’s last days from the point of view of his posterity come to his bedside to see him home. Three-line stanzas bring us to his bed, hint at his defiance, and demonstrate their care until, at last, the lines shorten and stop at “This great stillness— / his last gift to us.” Similarly, Stephen Gibson’s “Portraits” offers verbal snapshots taken between 1890 and 1910 of corpses snapped “in time.” The repetition of the phrase “this time” is the most haunting aspect of this poem. Tom Pierce’s short story “I Am at Peace in This Eternal Moment” makes fun of “alternative” modalities such as Reiki and affirmations, but the aged, remorseful narrator’s memories of his wife’s grief when their only child died before birth come forward as the one real thing in his life, a pain that binds him to earth and allows him to connect with whatever’s left.
In this gracious issue, a score of poems and a dozen works of prose acknowledge the harshness of our material lives as they celebrate the power of the human spirit to meet that harshness with mercy and good intentions. Beautiful language only affirms the strength of our humanity.