This is one of those issues that’s a pleasure to read cover to cover. The fiction, including the winner of the 2012 David Nathan Meyerson Prize for Fiction, is outstanding; the brilliant essays take us from Greek isles to the chicken farms of Arkansas, from Salinger to Alain-Fournier to Twain; and the poetry is, without exception, beautiful. Don’t miss any of it.
Southwest Review, from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, presented its first issue in 1915 (then the Texas Review) and is, by that reckoning, the third oldest continuously published quarterly in the United States. It counts among its contributors such names as D. H. Lawrence, Quentin Bell, Margaret Drabble, and many others from both sides of the Atlantic, but in this issue accomplished North American writers fill the pages with excellence.
Each of the two bookend essays, Patricia Vigderman’s “To Persephone’s Island” and Paul Crenshaw’s “Thinking of Chickens,” is a delight. Vigderman takes us with her on an exploration of “a Greek world enduring outside Greece.” What works is the fluid, continuous movement between present reflection and engrossing descriptions of artifacts of the past, as when Vigderman quotes the architectural historian Vincent Scully on a “mysterious and isolated” unfinished temple at Segesta, including a photograph, so that we visualize its haunting roofless columns and shudder at a “terrible and unexpected” precipitous drop leaving “a gulf, tremendous in depth and width . . . between the temple and the mountain.” Then she says this:
The week before our visit, however, a chunk of stone had fallen from the architrave onto the base, and it was no longer permissible to come upon the terrible and unexpected by walking through the temple. The solidity and shock of its ancient presence had been distanced by a low wooden fence, and the great gulf was no longer linked to the architectural experience. A walk around the temple now reveals the wide valley below as an apparently fertile bowl of fields and a few farmhouses. . . . the overwhelming experience of the sudden abyss has been mitigated by the nervous gods of safety.
Throughout the essay’s seven sections, we feel the inevitable imposition of the current world onto the millennia of Greek influence in what were once its outposts. Photographs, verbal depictions, and travel anecdotes cohere into a story of original discovery until, at the end, a horrible incident reminds Vigderman, and us, that “all the tricks invented to hold onto the moments as they pass are doomed to fail.”
Crenshaw’s essay is similarly adept at weaving objective “fact” with a personal tone—in this case wry and knowing—so that the smells, procedures, and sights of chicken farming are laced with ironic (but humorous!) distaste for American infatuation with chicken regardless of its stinking provenance:
Pre-1930s . . . chickens were valued for their eggs. . . . They lived a life of leisure, pecking around the yard, finding worms and bugs, laying eggs, et cetera and et cetera and et cetera, until the day came when grandma stepped out back carrying a hatchet and they fled for their lives, which may be the reason so many of them decided to cross the road.
With the advent of hatcheries, chicken houses, and slaughterhouses, the life of the chicken changed dramatically.
Crenshaw concludes with another take on why chickens cross the road, one that’s both funny and dismaying. This is an essay I’ll have my CNF students read and emulate.
Between these two pieces are three engrossing works of short fiction, three delectable literary-critical essays (each in a trustworthy, appealing voice), and nine strong poems.
“Soldier’s Joy,” by Paulette Livers, is the Meyerson Prize winner, a beautifully-structured account of two victims of war, Giang and Harlan, who meet, comfort each other, and give each other up for obvious but compelling reasons. Jacob Newberry’s “The Long Bright World” vividly depicts New Orleans in four devastated days after Katrina from the point of view of one of the newly homeless. My favorite, though, is J.F. Glubka’s striking first-person “Heat Lightning,” also about victims of war, past and present, and the reverberations they feel no matter how distant or close the fighting. All are heartbreaking, all eminently worth reading.
Brian Culhane’s “The Stoic Pine” is a poem to appreciate for its form as well as for its theme: the eponymous white pine learns philosophy from a young reader of M. Aurelius, and in the face of the chainsaw “Would recall that serene equipoise and calm / An emperor once praised as the surest sign / Of the settled soul . . .” The stanzas rhyme abcbac, clean and smart, so that the notion of a stoic tree has dignity and rightness. Other poems resonate as well.