I admired Esther Schor’s recent biography of Emma Lazarus very much, so I was happy to find a new essay of hers in Michigan Quarterly Review (“The G20 and the E17”), and that’s where I entered this volume. The essay’s about a conference in a town three hours east of Istanbul, Turkey on Esperanto, the “international language” first created by the Polish Jewish occultist L. L. Zamenhof in the late 1880’s. I appreciate Schor’s lucid, fluid prose and the way in which she deftly moves the essay toward a consideration of other issues larger in scope and implication than the fate of Esperanto.
Strong nonfiction is one of MQR’s strengths, and I appreciate the great variety in subject matter and styles. Schor’s essay is followed by Robert Long Foreman’s “The Most Lifelike Thing in the Room,” a personal story of working as a figure model for drawing classes, and preceded by Paul Allen Anderson’s “Agee After Cavell, Cavell After Agee,” a scholarly article on the writer and filmmaker, that is accessible (no jargon) and readable.
The natural, fluid prose that accounts for much of these essays’ appeal is echoed in fiction, as in Laura Kasischke’s “Joyride,” which begins
“Hey,” my dad said, tossing his keys onto the couch beside me, “why not take old family convertible for a joyride, pal?” He wasn’t joking, but it wasn’t what he really wanted to say. What he really wanted to say was that it bothered him to see me sitting on the couch with a copy of National Geographic on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
And again in Sharona Muir’s story, “The Couch Conch”: “A night of passion is a hard thing to remember (no pun intended). The moments blur into a warm blush on your brain, from which it’s hard to extract the details later, if you want to brood over them and confirm just how he did what.”
Poetry, too, tends to reflect a kind of ease of narration, effortless and casual, as in “Tuck Pointing. Three Months” by John W. Evans:
I dig out the black sweater I brought from home
that is no longer our home the way
you are no longer my wife
and withdraw again into your brother’s city
that resembles no place we ever live together
And here is an excerpt from a prose poem by Phyllis Koestenbaum, “Eyesight”:
I have sunglasses, computer glasses, I don’t use, piano glasses I would use if I played the piano, red glasses I can’t read supertitles with, chartreuse glasses I wear when I wear chartreuse and don’t care if I see, black glasses in which I don’t look like myself, dark brown tortoiseshells that were remade because when I wore them I felt nervous, blue outside and green inside glasses and new glasses the color of cheap wine.
I read last, where it falls in the journal, a scholarly essay by Ranen Omer-Sherman, “Longing to Belong: Levantine Arabs and Jews in the Israeli Cultural Imagination,” bracing myself for a dense, impenetrable read (“that cultural imagination” and three pages of footnotes), but this essay, too, while it requires patience, is also quite accessible. And it is a good introduction to the work of writers we might not otherwise have an opportunity to learn about. Smart reviews of new books of literary criticism from university presses round out the issue.