This issue of New England Review has me very conflicted. There is work within that is both inspiring and inspired; however, it was a lot of work to get there as a reader. The versatility of the issue is astounding, considering the many diverse topics and themes covered in the publication. Usually, when I pick up a literary magazine, I expect the fiction and poetry to be the stars, yet in this issue of New England Review, the nonfiction and translations take center stage.
The nonfiction is extremely diverse and, for that reason, each piece is set off under its own headline in the table of contents. Rotheko and the Baroque period, Robert Frost and the end lines of poetry, and insight into a Census Enumerator were all interesting topics in the nonfiction section; however, Kathryn Kramer was the reward for working through the rest of the magazine. Kramer’s memories and experiences blossom out of her recollections at John Hopkins University in her piece “Still Life with Caged Lion.” Places, people, and experiences are concise, accurate, and engaging through her brilliant description: “I’d circled around Ulysses, resenting a book that rendered the rest of literature unpalatable. I went at it in stages, as if in a risky mountaineering expedition, feeling as I did when as a child I surreptitiously sipped my parents' whisky.”
Kramer questions both herself and the reader. She tackles the topic of racism with honesty and tact. Also, she highlights her experience working at Little, Brown and struggles with all of the passion behind the astounding volume of unsolicited manuscripts. She wonders: “They couldn’t all really be writers, could they?” And we appreciate her honesty and continuous need to question.
Immediately after Kramer’s gorgeous writing, readers are transitioned into the work of Leconte de Lisle, translated by John Kinsella. Again, commendable writing that truly resonated. This work, “Five Poems,” breaks down into exactly that: five poems. Each is able to stand alone, strong, yet they work together to create an unparalleled sensory experience. The first poem is titled “L’albatros (The Albatross)” and immediately catches the reader, with charming lyrics and lines:
It flings itself, scratching the colorless
Water that it pursues and ruptures into clouds
Of steam; it bites, tears, slices, and shreds clouds
Into convulsive morsels which suddenly bleed a flicker
Of lightening; it seizes, envelops, and tumbles through the air
A confused whirling of shrill cries and feathers
That it shakes and drags to the crests of waves
After reading these poems, it is hard to imagine a better translation. Each poem is filled with imagery so striking, that the reader is completely enveloped in the experience.
Meanwhile, Russian writer Semyon Akimovich An-sky’s work is carefully translated by Michael R. Katz. This piece, entitled “Among the Pioneers,” is ruled by exclamations. At first, it was a little confusing simply because I’m not used to exclamation marks and question marks after 75% of the sentences in a piece of writing. Honestly, it was slightly comical to get wrapped up in the speech of these characters:
“Aha!” Gerverman interrupted him triumphantly. “Did you hear about that? ‘Aesthetics’! ‘Pleasure’! That’s why you’re a philistine! ‘Pleasure’! Perhaps a roast or a pastry also affords you pleasure! Well, may you choke on them! Go read your Dostoevsky! I don’t seek pleasure in books, nor aesthetics, but substance, real meaning! What use is Crime and Punishment to me? None whatsoever!”
This magazine does not seem to be meant for the casual reader, but has a more academic feel to the language style. It is rare for the translations and nonfiction to so completely outshine the rest of the creative work in a literary magazine; however, in this issue, I was completely dazzled by these entities.