The cover (“Posted”) of this issue is a starkly beautiful oil painting of late fall/early winter, a house and grounds in the backcountry west of the Blue Ridge mountains, painted by Barry Vance. In the middle of the journal is a portfolio of his utterly marvelous work, “Dwelling in the Backcountry,” seven paintings accompanied by excerpts of the work of writers, past and current, of the region (Billy Edd Wheeler, John O’Brien, Matilda Houstoun, Charles Wright, Wendell Berry, Louise McNeill, Ann Pancake). The work is from a recent exhibition of 24 paintings of the Potomac Highlands, and together with the literary selections, “express sentiments nurtured by the life of the backcountry,” writes Vance. These paintings are uncanny in their blending of elements that are both lush, yet finely etched, so that the paintings are focused, yet somehow dense; colorful, yet often stark; dreamy, yet realistic; precise, yet textured. They evoke a particular and unique atmosphere with a kind of palpable certainty of sensation. And they are simply exquisite. I couldn’t stop turning to them again and again.
Many of these same qualities are found in much of the writing in this issue, a strong sense of place created through evocative images and a precision that manages to be both finely detailed, yet rich. Here, for example, are excerpts from Natasha Saje’s poem “Palimpsest”:
Her last time in Rome, it was warm and damp
and crowded. My favorite city, a palimpsest,
that’s what she likes to say. The first time she’s
twenty and studies all the churches – interiors
uncrowded. Her favorite city, a palimpsest.
Some exteriors: Santa Maria della Pace.
More than twenty churches – inside or out
in seven days. She stays at the Pensione Terminus
two miles outside Pietro da Cortona’s portico,
run by a courtly proprietor and his German wife,
for seven days. She stays at the Pension Terminus
the rooms enormous, high ceilinged, the silver shining.
And here are excerpts from “Blindness” by Sherod Santos:
On the opening pages of a novel she bought
at an English bookstore near the Seine (the famous, fading
hand-stamped imprint: Kilometer Zero, Shakespeare Books),
the author enters a Belgrade bar and asks if the song
he’d heard outside was played on a record or a radio.
Thomas Reiler’s poem “Anderman, Kansas” is similarly grounded; as are poems by Kathryn Stripling Byer (“Blackberry Road”) and Aaron Baker (“The Lost Village”), winner of the magazine’s Glasgow Prize for Emerging Writers (poets who have published no more than one book of poetry).
The same can be said of the issue’s only nonfiction offering, an essay by Robert Benson, “Sound Memories,” a fine memoir about the author’s connection to various experiences of life on waterways (beaches, rivers, sounds). And also of stories by Greg Johnson (“Town Center,” which begins: “Out of place.”) and Vincent Czyz (“The Moon Has Fallen into the Well,” which begins: “I am standing at the foot of Galata Tower very near the place where, a few years ago, on a November night that was exceptionally cold, a body lay on the paving stones.”).
Setting itself apart in many ways, as her work tends to do, is Alice Friman’s “Design,” appealing for many other reasons, above all her characteristically wry voice:
As of last inspection, all my ghosts
are present and accounted for
and, it appears, happy
as if the terrible airlessness
agreed with them…
Oh, House of Shining Windows that is the sky,
of course they are happy. The stuff
that was Mama, soldier of scour and rag,
made Queen in the royal army of clean-up.
While the pit bull that was my father,
runs, vindicated at last, snarling,
nipping at the heels of thunder, pulling down rain.
I must not conclude this review without mentioning the best known poet in the issue, “Four Poems to Begin the New Year,” by Mary Oliver, whose work is nearly always grounded in the natural world or in place, in this case more metaphorically so than is typical of her work. Here are some lines from the last of the four poems, “The Poet Dreams of the Mountain”:
I want to climb some old gray mountain, slowly, taking
the rest of my life to do it…
All that urgency! Not what the earth is about!
I want to take slow steps, and think appropriate thoughts.
In ten thousand years, maybe, a piece of the mountain will fall.
Until then, Shenandoah will keep us grounded.