One of the poems I keep coming back to in this issue of J Journal is Judith Skillman’s “Estrangement.” I like the care and precision with which this fierce poem about old age is constructed. I like its John Donne-like metaphors and the way it broadens out from the senses to far-flung and historical references; from “Long nights / sleepless, punctuated by sleet,” to “the city seven hours south of Paris // called L’Age . . .” to the “second century martyr Perpetua, / coming now into the arena / to be mauled by lion, hyena, and laughter.” And I like its seemingly tangential relation to this journal’s stated purpose—in the words of the editors, “to gather creative writing under the justice banner.” Read in any other journal, it might not trigger associations to questions of justice. But its inclusion here enriches it with an existential dimension—what is “just,” after all, about growing old?
In addition, its inclusion here—along with that of several other mind-stretching poems and prose works in this issue—demonstrates what apparently came as something of a welcome surprise to the journal’s editors at the Department of English at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “We were ready for the usual suspects—police writing about the beat, lawyers about trials, inmates about the street and cell,” they write. “But what became apparent right away was how broad the banner truly is.”
It must have been exciting to see work come in over the transom from writers who saw a connection in their own work to the theme of justice—and to consider that work and finally to say, “Oh, yes, I see it, too.” Noting that much of the writing relates to violence in a brutal age and place, the editors conclude: “The writer grabs a pen and arranges events, turns abstractions into images, draws from chaos something to hold, something with meaning. In that way, perhaps writing itself is the first act of justice.”
Journals with themes run the risk of falling into a too-narrow niche. J Journal seems to have squarely confronted that risk—and won.
Also memorable, but at the opposite end of Skillman’s gravity and high technique, is Emmy Pérez’s “Left after crossing.” In lines mostly of one or two words, Pérez deftly sketches a Southwest border landscape framed by the discovery of a pair of “River wet / panties / rolled off / the body / in the shade/ of an ebano”:
I always hope
them for a dry
pair from a sealed
There is plenty of good prose in this issue, too, including Steven Matthew Brown’s “Dirty Old Gentleman, an open letter.” In restrained but heartfelt language, the narrator recounts a relationship with another man and explores “the murky boundary you dance and breach between legal and illegal, consensual and non-consensual behavior.” When he finds that his lover has videotaped an underage boy masturbating, he knows the limit has been reached, and a line must be drawn.
Other poets I particularly liked in this issue were Ace Boggess, Erik La Prade, Laurie Lamon, J. E. Robinson, and Sheryl L. Nelms. Notable prose comes from Evan Morgan Williams, Vance Voyles, and Alison Ruth.
Two suggestions for improvement in this otherwise reader-friendly journal: One is to distinguish in the table of contents among the three types of prose the journal accepts: fiction, first-person narrative, and memoir. It’s not always clear what’s being offered, and readers, who have different expectations for each, would be helped by knowing. A second suggestion is to include captions with photographs. Several interesting black and white photos are presented in this issue, but without captions, readers may “know what they see but not what they’re looking at.”