Do dimensions matter? Most literary journals are considerably taller than they are wide, often in the 6 by 9-inch range. The New Orleans Review is a compact 5-3/4 by 6-3/4 inches. For this reader, the size has a focusing effect that magnifies the significance of the words, for better or worse. Also as a result of size there are only seven offerings therein, perhaps a budgetary decision, but in any case one that channels attention towards the text. Two short stories, conventional in structure but not in their degree of excellence, contend with five pieces that variously blur the lines between poetry, prose poems, fiction, and essay.
Charles Haverty’s story, “The Cherry Wood Heart,” begins as a warm remembrance of Quetsch, the first employer of an “undistinguished graduate of an undistinguished law school” who no longer practices law. But other tales soon shoulder their way to the front: of the narrator’s relationship with his beloved Liss, of the narrator’s hitherto absentee father, of Quetsch and his own son, and of Liss’s sorry brother Perry. When Quetsch hires the narrator, he says, “This is my show and I won’t put up with any monkey business. Understand?” The statement seems boilerplate bluff at the time, but later, after some monkey business, we look back on it as a ticking time bomb for the narrator’s career.
G.C. Waldrep’s offering “Part IV: Infolds and Unspires” comes from a long poem, Testament, to be published by BOA Editions in 2015. Here he teases out all sorts of meanings and connections to the word “tender,” mostly tying it to the human body and a search for the divine. There are some interesting admissions. The line, “We can perform the autopsy in language & not feel / anything. Right?” floats out of his poem to challenge a certain kind of pretentious writing that doesn’t amount to much besides wordplay. And again, “I still think story is the more generous gift / though it fails &, in failing, drives /whole economies towards consolation.” Or to take that idea farther, towards consolidation, of power. Which is what myths and religious stories do. But still, who has invented anything better than story to do what story does? We can feel Waldrep circling and searching for both story and an elusive something better.
One of the riskiest announcements a fictional character can make is, “I’m intelligent,” because then the writer has to make us believe it without straining. The narrator of Meredith Martinez’s story, “The Long View,” tells us early and often that she’s smarter than her environment, her druggie “slut” mother, and anyone else she might encounter. Happily, not only is she really wicked smart, but also her friend Brian is a match for her. Whether that will be enough to save her from the bad lessons she has inadvertently learned in a dead-end upbringing is heartbreakingly unclear.
Corey Zeller’s “Wind Map” is printed one paragraph to a page, demanding the readers’ attention and slowing us down to appreciate detail. We are following explorers on land and sea, but who are they? He makes it fun to think about this. They could be the essence of travel, conquest, colonization, exploration, the human need “to strive, to seek, to find,” discovery, identity, and other associated ideas: “The explorers signify, spread. They find stones and name them. They look for stones that have fled other stones. In a cold place, a single explorer pretends to be an onslaught of snow.” Wherever an explorer goes, his arrival changes the place he lands on. Explorers do what we do: “The explorers are all part of each other’s living, all things living, at the time of their life.”
The English Ward,” co-written by Stephen Gropp-Hess and Emily O. Wittman, follows two academics named Stephen and Emily who decide to take a series of walks in order to write about taking those walks (or not taking them) while referencing the simile of English departments being like hospital wards, in a solipsistic mise-en-abîme that one devoutly hopes is a parody of a certain kind of “soft” academic discourse. The other two pieces are from language poetry, “Adam Cannot be Adam,” by Kelli Anne Knopfle, and “Good Historical Reasons,” by Jean Marie Nunes.
At least in this issue, the poetry selections are markedly more experimental than the fiction, as if two different sets of aesthetic values are at work. Writers of both genres should take this into account when deciding whether or not to send work.