According to the mission statement, “First Inkling is a visionary print and online medium dedicated to seeking out the most talented student authors in the English language, and publishing their work alongside criticism from the most important writers of our age.” With its second issue, the magazine has attempted to keep this mission foremost in mind. The collection of student writing in five genres between its artful covers is representative of writing programs and universities from ten of the United States and the UK. Published by Rockland Community College of the State University of New York, it lays claim to being “the best college and university writing in English.” These momentous goals aside, the 2013 issue of the magazine contains some gems to be mined by thoughtful readers.
The issue opens with a quotation from Shakespeare, Macbeth’s resolve to act on impulse, without restraint, reflection, or contemplation. In Act IV, Scene 1, Macbeth says, “The very firstlings of my heart shall be / the firstlings of my hand.” This he says just before revealing his plan to kill MacDuff’s family and all who live within MacDuff’s castle. As an opening quotation to set a theme for the second issue of First Inkling, the lines set the tone of vengeance and violence that readers will find conveyed in many of the magazine’s works of fiction, poetry, and narrative nonfiction.
“A Fake Candle, Glowing”—G.A. Rozen’s story of a group of boys’ plan on Halloween to stink bomb a house, in which a father had imprisoned and held his family hostage before being taken out by a sniper—fulfills the promise of the quotation, but readers might find that it is more a story of boredom among 12-year olds in suburbia. The most satisfying writing in the story is the narrator’s description as the group of four find their way to the house that was the setting of a hostage crisis which “. . .was only the latest in a string of fucked-up happenings to hit my particularly rich, particularly white, suburb . . .” Spencer, the narrator, describes the stink bombs in his friend’s hand and says, “Each looked like one of those rocket-shaped suckers, a three color spectrum of red to yellow to green.” Despite the occasionally elegant prose, the story is reminiscent of Stephen King’s short story “The Body” that became the film Stand By Me. The “first inkling” for the reader that G.A. Rozen’s story is referential to King is mention of a local boy who had shot himself. In both King’s and Rozen’s pieces, the boys are curious adolescents without much to do but throw stink bombs at houses and think about dead people; Rozen’s narrator has insights that are cautionary warnings about a generation growing up in contemporary suburban America.
Violence is a perfectly fitting theme of Jennifer Maritza McCauley’s “The Last Saints of Yonce.” It is used as a plot device to tell a story of family and regret and forgiveness. The Louisiana setting is made real by the writer’s adept use of dialect in the dialogue of the characters who then become more real and true as the story progresses. Readers become invested in the story from the moment that “Mr. Greggs’ spirits, already quite low, deepened into a dejection so fantastic, he wished he could trap it in a mason jar.” McCauley gives her characters the ability to express metaphor and feeling in their conversations even as she uses metaphor in her descriptive prose. McCauley’s prose evokes emotion, even empathy, for Sugar Red when she says, “And bein’ a black woman you need skills, bein’ so vulnerable in a world with so many leeches.” More emotional is the narrative crescendo the story reaches that is virtually akin to Greek myth when Sugar Red brings her grandmother Booey down in a whirl of vision and imagined danger.
Much like an intermission, “Robot Girl” by Maya Kern, a graphic short, appears midway through the magazine, pausing the reader for a story that offers a visual distraction from plain text. The theme of the piece is unrequited love; the main character is a robot girl who is looking for love and unable to find it among robots or humans. The story is quaint, somewhat predictable, and yet still satisfying. It takes the form of a fairytale or folktale with its repetition and traditional conflict and theme and is a sojourn away from the rest of the journal.
This issue of First Inkling also contains prize winners of their Sammy Awards for 2013, awarded for the best poem, short story, or narrative nonfiction piece. The three award winning submissions are worthy recipients and are notable for their craft. The winning poem, “Single Successful Guy” by Zackary Medlin is a finely crafted three-part poem in which the speaker shares his views on the uses of the necktie, claiming, “I like wearing neckties. / I think it’s the way they function / like an arrow to my crotch.” The candid lines do not stop there and end in a macabre, and yes, violent image of “. . . a man / dangling from a coat hook.”
The winner of the narrative nonfiction category, Kit Peterson, shares her childhood wish of being murdered like Polly Klaas, her body “under the floorboards, blood has stopped, and something feeds on the soft tissue first, then the tendons,” where “there is no sound. No little reaffirmations of a life once lived.”
The fiction winner, Peter Alexander Bresnan’s “We Could Always Settle for Saturn,” is a gripping love story with prose that soars into space in a tragic allegory. The main character Aster and his companion, David, are portrayed as fearful yet determined in their love for one another. The immediacy of the situation is evident in Bresnan’s use of the present tense: “. . . Aster thinks that 300 million miles isn’t even near sufficient. At 300 million light years, maybe, he would be able to conquer that heaviness conceived and sustained in him by the proximity of one small town on one small blue planet.” These tragedies are happening now.
The poems, short stories, nonfictional narratives, interviews (with former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky and authors Audrey Niffenegger and Jane Smiley), cartoons, and the graphic short that grace the pages of First Inkling’s second issue satisfy the thematic potential of Macbeth’s words. And yet Malcolm’s words from the play are also fitting after reading this issue: “Though all things foul would wear the brows of grace, / Yet grace must still look so.” Through tragedy and violence in art, some grace can still be found. Readers will recognize it.