Plain, and rooted in the plains: that’s what remained with me after I finished reading Paddlefish, the annual literary journal from Mount Marty College in Yankton, South Dakota. A photograph of a boundless golden field and blue skies spreads over the front and back covers; the book reviews visit the Nebraska landscape and snippets in South Dakotan history; the stories and poems touch on post-military and Native American life. Paddlefish is plain, too, in its subjects, sentiments, and language. The reader is often told exactly what the writer is thinking, a mode that may appeal to some but which, to others, may leave too little to the imagination.
The authorial voice casts a long shadow in many of the poems. The speaker in Scott Bormann’s “Love Not War” declares his veteran status early on and becomes indignant when he sees an antiwar bumper sticker on a Prius. The anger and the disdain burst through the page: “Maintain your merry march to madness, / imagining your importance and intellect, / never stopping to see the world around you.” I was shocked at the assumptions heaped onto the driver based on nothing more than the choice of a hybrid car and a sticker that reads “Support the Troops . . . Not the War.” The poem offers no other evidence for the driver’s purported self-importance or ignorance of the world around him or her. Sentiment propels the poem, and the facts or images that would have supported the sentiment are nowhere to be found in it.
By contrast, Charles Bownden’s “Jericho” focuses our attention on his landscape and allows the heaviness of race, poverty, and violence to thunder underground like the invisible heart. It’s hard to box it in structurally: the speaker jumps from the Old Testament to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, from Pancho Villa to the drones that fly over the U.S.-Mexican border today, never in any discernible order and towards no apparent conclusion. Is it a sermon? Is it a song? As a reader I go willingly with him, because the place and time markers are just clear enough for me to not lose my way, and because the language is gorgeous enough for me to not care where I’m headed: “I fly with ten billion migratory birds hailing from a 1000 [sic] species and half of us will die each journey and none of us will build that wall. We have no papers, ever.” Exulting, melancholic, and defiant all at once, and at the same time hinting at the real-world issue of immigration without pounding it to the ground like a pedantic pundit. Black-and-white illustrations by Alice Leora Briggs intersperse throughout: birds, a man who looks like he’s known the roughness of life, beggars, and what appears to be a cherub-adorned mirror.
In the same vein, David Lee never lets you be sure of where his poems are taking you, but you go along anyway because the rewards are not in the destination, but in the ride. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Bill Evans and yes, Hamlet are the soundtrack for his “Driving Solo: Clovis Rants a Monologue in Five Acts with Intermission,”; and quite appropriately, Lee’s language is slanted at an angle like jazz, catching you off guard at the first listen but in fact striking in its brilliance. Riverbank brush is “bent frostquivering willowwhite,” and “tightfisted” is a style of driving. The desolation is in the rhythm:
I’m on my way
out of Ely with love and squalor
walking along minding my own business with my hot
cuppacoffee on the one way path to my pickup, me
I’m getting myself ready to start the last half of this trip
over with once and for sonofabitching all
I can’t say there are stories in this issue of Paddlefish: they’re more like scenes. Johanna Schiech describes a slow afternoon in a bookstore in “Picture Books & Porn Mags,” which includes the narrator’s judgments about the buyer of several pornographic magazines and an exchange with a customer that even the narrator recognizes as nonsensical (“Seriously, what do you say to something [the customer’s remark] like that?”). Neil Harrison’s “And Be Somebody” buries potential when it lets go of the conflict about to explode between Patty, college junior and a supervising lab assistant, and Ray, a brassy older student who does not appreciate her seriousness and trails off into an existential moment.
For the most part, Paddlefish is a collage of promising, but uneven, efforts. There’s nothing fancy here, and when handled well the quality of plainness is almost always a virtue. These pieces aspire to it.