The Green Mountains Review, published by Johnson State College in Vermont, is a haven of poetry, fiction, essays and book reviews of substantial quality. A literary magazine with an impressive history, the GMR is known for publishing the likes of Julia Alvarez, Galway Kinnell, Mark Doty, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Robert Bly, and Joy Harjo over its twenty-plus years of showcasing both established and up-and-coming writers.
The most recent issue boasts a hundred pages of poetry written by over thirty poets. Despite the number of differing voices, there’s a cohesive vision uniting the work. What struck me most about the poems were the repeated attention and reference to language and the art of writing. For these poets, the world is a literary being. It breathes words. Every person, event, and image is intimately linked to language, for better or worse.
For example, the poem “Skeleton Coast” by Sandra Meek paints the scene of the “Cape Fur Seal Reserve, Cape Cross, Namibia.” Meek explores the physical place of the seal reserve with exquisitely gripping images that hint at the nature of humanity while subtly imbuing the poem with the necessity, yet inadequacy, of language. Meeks says “There is no parallel between peopling // and sealing. Never was. Language was always indentured / to dominion.” And later, “you and I / rattle these bones, the sorry dice // of these words, between us – all / ballast, all in the end weightless.” It’s as if to say we are all slaves to language. Like many of the other poems, “Skeleton Coast” is interested in the intimate relationship between nature, people, and language, seeming to suggest that language is what it means to be human, but also that being human in this vast universe connects us to nature and animals in a very definite way. Language is inescapable.
Meek’s poem is impressive, but my favorite poems in this collection happen to be a bit different from the others, in style and tone. Most of the poems in GMR are image-driven, densely written, thought-provoking pieces that demand a fair bit of attention and pondering. You’ll need to read them a few times. But the three poems written by G.C. Waldrep, while just as well written, are simply more accessible to readers. His poems are the kinds that drive a spike of jealousy into the hearts of all fellow poets. Mingling modern issues like global warming with timeless issues of love and the nature of the universe, Waldrep breaks the mold. Look at this excerpt from "Search and Rescue”:
It’s cold, and then it’s warm, and then
someone you love is complaining
about global warming, and how all the lovers
they know are subletting their condos.
You could make the kids do it,
of course, but you’re not properly bonded,
which is to say no one has yet told you
the story of how the future works.
Simple direct language. Real life. Gentle humor. Waldrep doesn’t need any bells or whistles to grab our attention. His work is thought-provoking without being snobby. All the poems in GMR are diverse, but never sacrifice quality or integrity. Like “Search and Rescue,” many of the poems attempt to find balance between the modern world, the big questions, and the history of the literary tradition. These are ambitious pieces, yet each is done well.
While poetry makes up a huge hunk of this issue, the fiction and nonfiction are worth noting. The essay on Wallace Stevens by Eamon Grennan made me want to drop everything and run to the bookstore to gobble up copies of Stevens’s exciting boyhood poems and letters. One particular fiction piece by Philip Gerard, called “Night Camp,” was better than the rest. It is a mysterious, dreamy piece about children with illnesses that prevent them from being in the sunlight. The narrator is a camp counselor who spends each night in this eerie camp with hauntingly silent children. It’s a creepy and magical illustration of light and dark, joy and sadness. Other stories range in theme from a boy who sees halos on people who are about to die to a teenager wasting his life away in a GM factory. The final pieces are a couple of poetry book reviews that leave you intrigued and wanting more.
All in all, this cozy magazine is worth picking up. It has plenty of good writing and riveting stories.