Parnassus is a brick. At 500+ pages, it holds forth as a mammoth among literary journals (Fulcrum and Vlak being two others having recently published issues that come immediately to mind). The other night at Glen Park Station after a poetry reading, a friend, who himself happens to edit a literary annual, remarked that he finds such a size far too unwieldy and awkward to get around in as a reader. Yet nonetheless, there’s a rather charming and fascinating draw towards large volumes. They possess a seductive quality that’s difficult to resist as they always bring on the feeling that the next round of reading is going to yield another surprise. In this regard, the new issue of Parnassus does not disappoint.
This last month I’ve had a good time dipping in and out of Parnassus rather at random. As authors are only cited at the end of entries, and since nearly all the contributions run to several pages, it’s a welcome opportunity to start reading a piece without knowing whose writing it is. The various works share a certain flow, or rather several, which run throughout the volume as a whole. One item leads into or out of the next. Primary subjects under discussion include figures such as James Merrill and Guy Davenport, two widely divergent poetic minds. Opera and music along with the art of translation are given prominent criticism. And Mark Halliday’s imagined (?) conversation about American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry between a group of grad students and a professor over beers quickly serves as a mini-treatise on the art of book reviewing itself.
Though limited in quantity, the reproductions of artworks included serve as fitting compliments to accompanying texts. As Deborah Pease offers a poem portrait in words of Jane Freilicher’s painting Pierrot and Peonies: “It has the air of being a dream, […] All is simple and calm / like slowly revealed truth, […] She dreams of the painting, / Dream inside the dream.” Nell Blaine’s portrait Jane Freleicher on 21st Street appears on the page following Freilicher’s painting. In this manner, text leads into conversation with image, which in turn enters into dialogue with another image. Such correspondence continues with Robert Morse’s painting The Surly Temple, which gives an inside glimpse of the central characters from James Merrill’s close social milieu, which is covered in the included excerpt of Langdom Hammer’s forthcoming biography. This enriching mesh of visual contextualizing of printed text is only one highlight among many.
Easily one of the most pleasing poems of the year appears here. The Greek poet Nasos Vayenas, translated by Richard Berengarten and Paschalis Nikolaou, appears with “Jorge Luis Borges in University Street” and it’s a stunning sight:
Your voice sends sap through my bones.
Deep down, you’re a Greek.
It’s not for nothing that Vayenas would adopt Borges as a countryman. Greek poets have a heritage that haunts Borges:
You’re pursued by Homer—in a black cab.
Out on the town all night.
He stubs out one cigarette after another.
It’s almost worth having this issue just to read this one poem over and over again. And if it gets you to reminiscing about Cocteau’s film Orphée, everything works out great since Stuart Klawans’s essay “Narcissus Sees Through Himself: On Jean Cocteau and the Invention of the Film Poet” is snugly resting in here some several dozen pages back before the poem, amply supplying reasons to revisit and sit with Cocteau’s work.
This sort of cross-hatching weave of conversation between various contributions is what I find enchanting in the brick format of the literary annual. As has been hopefully demonstrated, it gives the reader opportunity to have multiple reading experiences with the volume as a whole—sometimes with the same text, mixing and matching it with different companion-texts.
As much as ever, the editors of Parnassus continue to pull contributions from as wide a spectrum of literary endeavor as possible. This is perhaps the one literary journal that comes closest to having something for nearly everybody. The only missing element would be some youthful, less established voices. All the contributors to this issue appear to have at least one or two books out from fairly established presses or else have work published in other journals of significant presence. I’m left wondering about all those others out there avidly publishing with smaller presses and journals and/or the over-abundant online zines of today. This is no plea for more of an “under forty” crowd of hipsters, just mere acknowledgement of what is not to be found here.