The Spring/Summer Issue of Black Warrior Review, featuring Graham Foust, Aaron Kunin, Bhanu Kapil, Sarah Gridley, Joshua Cohen, Megan Volpert, and many other fine writers, is difficult not to pick up and thumb through. The ritualistic cover art gets the issue going: two guys, two girls, all with skeleton heads, watching a horse as it is either pulled into the sky or brought down from it. More in this series by Joseph McVetty can be found later in the issue, in the Nudity Feature.
Being a straightforward reader who likes to read issues from front to back, I found it hard not to skip ahead to the feature. It was a childish impulse, seeking the promised “dirty” parts. But I’m glad I didn’t skip ahead. I would’ve missed all the fine work in the first half of the issue. In particular, the very first piece, “The Seismologist’s Tale,” a poem by Jessica Bozek:
The center of the town sunk first.
tilt was perceptible only to the animals, who
knew the soldier as an earthquake maker.
But his tremor moved in a different way,
had a different shape. It coned.
The poem expresses how a “soldier’s stories” move through a town, how the stories affect the very infrastructure of it.
Also in this issue are the winning poem, short story, and non-fiction pieces from BWR’s annual contests. Philip Tate’s winning fiction, “Dam,” is told in the historical context of a Kansas dam, beginning with the lives it takes:
This is where the men drown. Where the boys and girls drown. Every year, as if following some natural rhythm, it is a fisherman who slips, a swimmer overconfident, a child unwatched. Their faces, when they are hauled into the little boat and laid on their back in the bottom, are beaten and scraped, swollen and white, and always strangely unsurprised.
From here, the story evolves into a specific incident by the dam. Boyd watches four girls, three he knows and one he doesn’t, swim in and across the river. Boyd tries to impress them with his scooter, but they are not interested, and Boyd resorts to fantasizing about them falling over the dam:
They would be helpless and drowning, screaming for help, screaming for Boyd. And he would save them. Somehow he would get to them, take their hands one at a time, and lift them out of the water. They would be cold and bruised and they would hug him. Sitting on the bank, he could feel the warm wetness of their suits against his chest. He could feel the redhead, especially, the thin bones of her pressed against him.
As a whole, the story is dark and concise and proves itself as a winner.
The winner in nonfiction “Litany of my Mother” by Molly Schultz, is a well-crafted essay about a mother extreme in her devotion, a member of the Catholic institution Opus Dei:
I feel sure my mother never wore a cilice. There was a time during my life when I was convinced that her life sufficed enough as a tool of mortification. Her guilt sufficed, as it did for many Catholics, an abstruse guilt that she could perhaps sense throbbing inside her as she lay in bed at night, rubbing her hands across the swelling of her abdomen.
A great essay for Catholics and ex-Catholics, like myself, Schultz shows how far the religion can take a person.
If you only read one piece from this entire issue, you must read Roxane Gay’s “Strange Gods” in the Nudity Feature. The story is told directionally to a lover. The story forms a confession—common to many of the pieces in the feature—beginning with these two lines: “There are things you do not know about me. These things are not inconsequential.” In paragraph-long sections, the narrative progresses, uncovering moments in the narrator’s past:
Men propositioned me a lot at the porn store. I let them. I did. Most customers were sad, poorly-shaven, sagging but harmless. Others were not. A man once slid five crisp twenty-dollar bills and his business card across the counter in the small space hidden between the security cameras. Five minutes later, I followed him into a jack shack and sat next to him on the little bench.
This piece embodies the confession. It’s strikingly forthright and the individual sections are blunt, but the way the narrative snakes back and forth in time, relaying different incidents before returning to previous ones, softens the harshness of it all, makes the pain beautiful.