Grain, “the journal of eclectic writing,” comes to us from Canada and was a 2011 finalist in Canada’s Western Magazine Awards in the category Magazine of the Year Saskatchewan. Grain is proudly, if not aggressively, Canadian (though it publishes two American poets in this issue). After thirty-eight years of publication, Grain continues to throw a spotlight on Canadian writing in this 101-page issue.
This issue features the artwork of Chris Kuzma, who says that he seeks to balance “the playful and the sinister” in his work. The black-and-white images of Kuzma’s works reproduced here include a cat (the original is watercolor, ink and gouache), entitled Artemis. The cat, wearing high buttoned boots and a shapeless dress with lace collar and cuffs, with human hands is knitting a stag portrayed as standing on a rag rug that may or may not have been pieced by the cat. She stares balefully at the stag, one-fifth her size. Kuzma says that “it is always important for my work to maintain somewhat of a narrative element.” In respect of the cat with the stag, check.
The cover features work by Kuzma in 4-color; and he designed typography for the term “Honeysuckle,” which appears on the back cover and is the theme of this issue. The editors describe the color honeysuckle as Pantone’s 2011 Color of the Year, a “dynamic reddish-pink,” and the “Honeysuckle” issue as “unpredictable,” delivering both “the familiar-with-peculiar-kinks and the arcane-infiltrating-the-everyday.” This is a pretty good summary of the issue’s artwork, poetry, and fiction.
There is an absurdist flavor to the editorial taste in Grain. A substratum of rage is evident in many of the works in this issue, in apparent response to painful experiences in the toils of fraud and bad faith. Many of the poets give the impression of needing to dismantle suffering so that it can be endured.
The poetry selection includes much that is ephemeral: personal icons unseated, if powerfully imagistic, and entire poems that give the impression of a collection of entries in a writer’s journal. Claudia Coutu Radmore, though, paints a cohesive, broad, and appealingly fractal picture in her poem “Internet Café on Mars”: “like plants, rocks have been evolving throughout our planet’s history.” The poem concludes with a salute to Oscar Wilde, whose phrase “god in creating man somewhat overestimated his ability” rings true for the poet. “[L]ike wilde,” she observes, “we are not young enough to know everything.”
Marilyn Bowering, in “Connection,” does connect the dots in a poem about not being a drug dealer. Her final stanza:
I was never a drug dealer
But when the counter-weight slipped on the drill-rig
I sat in a car with my boyfriend
And stared at some pills
It’s okay, he said—and I hated him
I know exactly how it must feel
When somebody dies
And you loved them.
The fiction writers limn a dark universe penetrated by shafts of light emanating from the sternness of their comedy. “Get Hysterical” by Maggie Andersen rockets through a piece of flash fiction, bringing a benevolent humor to the account of the rapid progress toward death of an accomplished elderly man, a physician ravaged by cancer.
Michelle Barker, in her story “The Unbearable Archives: A Guided Tour,” touches a nerve for this reader:
II. The Archives of Good Intentions
On one table are the pies you meant to bake for ailing neighbours. The phone calls you never made have been anticipated and recorded onto cassettes, then stored according to how badly you felt afterwards.
Sara Heinonen, in “The Chairs in Bjorn’s Living Room,” skillfully creates escalating tension in the reader on behalf of her protagonist, Janis, only to have her (and the reader’s) fears evaporate after a sudden reversal of mood by Bjorn, Janis’s host in a crazy-weird story about artists.
Irina Kovalyova, now teaching biochemistry [why not creative writing??] at Simon Fraser University, weaves a delightfully wicked yet gentle humor through fully realized versions of life’s absurd and unpredictable turns in her story “Mamochka.” Visiting her daughter in Vancouver, the protagonist (like Kovalyova, a native of Minsk) experiences a Whole Foods market:
She’d never eaten either papaya or artichokes in her 55 years on Earth, but it wasn’t important. What was important was that she’d endured. She’d endured low wages, cold winters, potholes in the streets, uniforms, flags, parades, and years of waiting in lines. She endured with humour because humour seemed to Maria Ivanovna to be the glue that held the edges of life together. In any case, she could not see what was wrong with eating potatoes.
Grain suits those who like a grainy texture—the play of the absurd against the gorgeous; juxtaposing random thoughts just because one can; unapologetically releasing the right brain in print; and eradicating “should” from the editorial vocabulary. This un-pruned garden of creativity rejoices in a wildness that is largely earned.