Sou’wester is a journal produced by the Department of English at Southern Illinois University nearing its 50th year of publication. New poetry editor, highly acclaimed poet Adrian Matejka, expects to choose poems “appreciated for their varied timbres, dictions, structures, and strategies” and to continue the journal’s tradition of cultivating “a dialogue between the diverse aesthetics in contemporary poetry.” I think it is safe to say that he’s off to a good start with this issue. The work of a dozen and a half poets is accompanied by nine short stories and one essay. They reflect Matejka’s desire to present a variety of modes, styles, and approaches, as well as varying levels of publishing experience.
“The Year of the Body,” by Jake Wolff, is the author’s first published story, and if it’s a sign of what’s to come, Wolff is a name to seek out in future publications. He has done a masterful job with a story of some complexity (a gay couple encounters a kidnapping victim years after her disappearance when they were children) in terms of pace, timing, and detail.
On the other end of the spectrum in terms of experience, is the widely published poet Terrance Hayes (whose poem is followed by an interview), whose “For Brothers of the Dragon” is a kind of "pecha kucha,” a Japanese form that is a kind of narrated event. It’s a provocative idea and a form ripe with possibilities. Hayes has already mastered it, I think. And I appreciated the interplay of strong and unusual imagery and small philosophies (“In fiction / everything happens with ease, and the easefulness kills me.”)
I was impressed, as well, with excerpts from Sherwin Bitsui’s “Flood Song,” a combination of long verses, followed by long prose lines in italics:
I cover my eyes with electrical wires,
see yellow dawn eclipse Stop signs,
turn green and screech into phosphorescence.
What, what, what – is how the song chimed in wilderness.
Equally original and compelling is “Revival of Rosemailing” by Carol Guess, a prose poem or poetry short-short in six segments, whose first line is one of the best in the volume and virtually commands us to read: “Everyone lost someone in the avalanche that year,” and whose last line is no less evocative: “We knit shadows from snow, leading wolves to false poetry.”
I found Sean Singer’s poem about Scott Joplin fascinating (“Son of a slave, / your birthday is no more exact than a petal.”), with its inclusion of a graphic of the Guardian of the Cross in the third section. And I loved Julia Clare Tillinghast-Alkalin’s poem, “Rivers,” with its lyrical idea: “Name all the rivers in your life without telling a story.”
Erinn Batykefer’s personal essay, “Double Life,” is told in a series of short to moderate-length sections, a difficult story of sisters, recounted with great sentiment, but without sentimentality.
Stories by Brandon Wicks, Shawn Vestal, and Nicholas Mainieri, among others, feature credible, natural voices, and characters we come to care about quickly, thanks to competent narration and smart timing. A short excerpt from Liza Wieland’s story “Apparition” sums up the journal’s overall appeal in many ways, the satisfying merging of preoccupation with language and compelling story:
I use too many adverbs; it has always been the case, my mentors and critics have said so. I think my love of this part of speech stems from my childhood, the daughter of inventors and scientists, a man and a woman in the act of taking the world apart to see how it worked – or didn’t. I inherited a bit of this impulse from them, a desire to know precisely how a thing moves, and so the adverb is my favorite tool, my ally. But I will try to improve here, now, as I tell this story.