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Ploughshares - Spring 2009

  • Issue Number: Volume 35 Number 1
  • Published Date: Spring 2009
  • Publication Cycle: Triannual

I love guest editor Eleanor Wilner’s work, so it is terrific to have a chance to read her picks for the magazine. Some of her choices surprised me; almost all interested and satisfied me for they are unpredictable and wildly engaging in their use of language. Jaswinder Bolina’s poem “Make Believe” merges language that can border on the ordinary with syntax, line breaks, and images that magnify and elevate it: “We will eventually be archaeology, but now in America / I tell my young daughter the new headlights are a bluish-white / instead of the smoky yellow / of my upbringing.” and “It’s that time when I’m alone in America with my young / daughter that she startles / herself realizing the woodpile beneath the black oak is itself / formerly a tree, / and she wants to know whether these trees have feelings.”

Annie Guthrie plays a clever word game that is much more than merely folly in “*between the lines.” Here is an excerpt:

In between “host” and “glint” is
ghost. A “hint” will hiss next to “guess.”
For example also
the virtue of frost is moisture
And in icicles, glaciers
or in a body’s cooling gestures
the centuries pile up.

Kevin Clark’s “This, Then” is an original, sophisticated, and sometimes even disturbing ars poetica-travel narrative all in one with this spectacular account of the poetic process:

And so I remind myself of this, then:
Not twenty hyaline seconds
After three rattling slams
Shook Aeromexico 448, northbound for LAX,
After the hard starboard lean,
After the thousand-foot drop,
and the next,
After the screams of the mothers finger-vised to their children,
I knew I’d found the earthbound pivot of the poem. Three days back

The earthbound pivot of the poem! Stunning! Meena Alexander mines the rich potency of alliterative phrases in “Birthplace (with Buried Stones),” building on the letter “a” with subtle grace until we reach her destination:

In the absence of reliable ghosts I made aria,
Coughing into emptiness, and it came
A west wind from the plains with its arbitrary arsenal:
Torn sails from the Ganga river,
Bits of spurned silk,
Strips of jute to be fashioned into lines,
What words stake – sentence and make believe,
A lyric summoning.

There are too many marvelous poems here to cite from them all (Elaine Terranova’s “Consensual Reflex,” Terese Svoboda’s “Secret Executions of Black GIs in Occupied Japan,” which is easier to understand if you’ve read Svoboda’s memoir about her uncle’s military service, but will make you likely to want to do so if you haven’t, Alpay Ulku’s “Homestead”).

Wilner’s fiction selections (stories by Andria Nacina Cole, C.E. Poverman, Jess Row, Sasha Troyan) are similar in many ways to the poetry selections – strong, original voices, purposeful plots, stories that are unpredictable, but without working too hard to surprise or distract or unsettle.

In her introduction to the issue, Wilner begins, “I love poets who bring us down to our proper size.” I would say that Wilner’s choices enlarge us.

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Review Posted on June 14, 2009

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