It could be said that all surrealists are alike, but all nihilists are unhappy in their own ways. Fortunately for readers of this journal, it is sometimes hard to separate the two philosophies, which leads to astonishing feats of dreams and poignant detail, a crash course in the world by an impressive new wave of international literati.
Reading Versal, the English-language literary magazine based in the Netherlands, one might find oneself radically changed along these two axes of expression, the surreal and the nihilistic. You see it in the poetry (with a map of footnotes) and fiction (persistent innocence reflected in the slick side of a hermit crab). You also see it in the way you conceptualize an idea – through the body—segmented, and entirely referential. For example, Shena McAuliffe provides a different look at the femur, the fibula, the rack of bones and brawn. With discipline and tremendous versatility, she uses a diagram of the body to anchor the structure of an entire story. One is almost so overcome by the idea to fail to recognize the messages beneath it. One is transfixed, as if trying to understand what Bergman did in the sixties, this time in partial prose, with all the actors replaced by butterflies.
Christopher Rosales’s “The Mule,” in prose, bookends the journal with Traci O Connor’s “BFH,” also prose. One might find Rosales’s story about drug trafficking to have little in common with a story about picking up a traveler on a desert road. But they have shimmering similarities—the ability to work with a realistic frame in a new kind of surrealism, the successful pacing of stories that reference genre just enough to drive the narrative forward, the humming electricity of their language.
With all due respect to the genre-hopping bards, here are some snapshots, delivered as such because the journal sometimes shows a shard of light in fragments:
In poetry, “Autobiography of a Marguerite,” by Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle will break you like your first book of poems by John Ashbery and should not be read in bed or prior to sleep. “On the Day Neil Armstrong Died,” by Joey De Jesus will warm you with such ecstatically perfect words as “alp,” but should not be read with the expectations of having poetry for lunch. “Bad Luck,” by Rochelle Hurt, crosses genres and evokes the best of all of them—the freewheeling passion of metaphor, the terror of memoir, that physical pain in your sternum that comes from believing you know what she means, because you connect with her words. Consequently, one should not read this poem in exile.
In prose, Leah Bailly’s “Pussy Willow Seeds,” showcases the nihilism of the journal with the most clarity. The voice is riveting, the confession horrifying, in the sense that sex without love can be described with the vapor of wind. “Almost human, pathetically not.” Probably not to be read with Camus, or on the way to the geneticist.
John Vanderslice’s “The Dealer’s Brother,” rescues us from the post-modern haze of The Paris Wife and Z. We readers receive such a small chip of Van Gogh that we have to cope with what we are given (an artist’s model and a louse) which is probably the first time I saw such a device utilized with such restraint. Probably a great read at a frame shop.
Gregory J. Wolos’s “Knothole” appears more straightforward than the other efforts in the journal, but I find its clarity deceptive. Warm, funny, and moving but with a sharp twist at the end; I recommend you read it second in the lineup if you are less comfortable with experimentation.
By way of background, the journal describes itself with a language and a literary vocabulary that is as advanced as that of those writers who take considerable risks in creating a movement within its pages. “Versal and the writers behind it are also at the forefront of a growing translocal, European literary scene, which includes exciting communities in Amsterdam, Paris, and Berlin,” journal editors state on the website. Regardless of where their poets hail from, the voice of the journal is distinct; the politics of space and sound and art united in a movement. I haven’t seen such cohesion and inventiveness in recent literature yet—and though it does require outlandish thinking at times, it is not the middle finger to the art world that intellectual revolution usually suggests.