Christopher Bakken's skillfully paced essay “Octopus Ear” begins serenely with a dive off the coast of Greece, where he takes students on tours. Before long, though, he's climbing down Mount Olympus in terrible pain from an ear infection, confronting his grief over his wife's mental illness, finding unexpected kindness from a young waitress, and simultaneously laughing and weeping in a gust of what the Greek's call harmolypi—“joyful sadness.” Part observant travel writing, part gripping personal narrative, the essay gets this ninety-six-year-old magazine off to another good start.
Equally engaging are two essays about art, literature and the lives of people who make them. In “Botticelli Boy,” Rick Barot interprets Whitman's “This Compost” and Botticelli's Portrait of a Young Man, unpacking techniques that undergird their excellence and linking both works to their makers' sexuality in conflict with the times.
Carter Wilson’s essay, “Serving Two Mistresses: María Escandón's Life With Rosario Castellanos and Trudi Blom,” unearths the fraught relationship between a trailblazing Mexican woman writer and the impoverished girl who at the age of eight became her cargadora—a combination "bearer," playmate and “mere object” on whom she could vent her frustrations. There is irony in the fact that Castellanos wrote about the oppressed, indigenous people of Chiapas with unique insight.
This issue also includes a short story by Castle Freeman, Jr., “The Secret Sits in the Middle,” that will haunt your consciousness long after you've read it. Rolaine Hochstein, Jaina Sanga and Grant Faulkner contribute fine short stories as well.
The poems tend to be dense with concrete detail. This is the case whether the setting is rural, as in Maggie Schwed's “Considerations, Walking the Fence Line,” or in the gritty city, as in David Moolten's “The Gleaners.” Daniel Corrie takes us cosmic in “Now,” and the esteemed David Wagoner shows he hasn't lost a bit of his capacity to surprise and delight.
Also in this issue are essays by Carolyn Osborn and Helen Barolini, and poems by Peg Boyers, Doug Sanders, Dave Smith, Lisa M. Steinman, and Joshua Weiner, as well as a slight, early poem, published here for the first time, by Tennessee Williams. Edited by Willard Spiegelman and Jennifer Cranfill, Southwest Review is published by Southern Methodist University.