This issue of West Branch contains a single piece each of fiction and nonfiction, and the work of eighteen poets. To begin, this excerpt of Kelle Groom’s nonfiction manuscript City of Shoes is particularly frantic and gripping. Groom – a mother who gave her son up for adoption – yearns for her now-dead and buried boy with a childlike fear of loss and faith in re-finding. She asks her own father, “‘Can we go to Brockton today, to Tommy’s cemetery?’ I wouldn’t say grave.” Her father resists, worried (Groom thinks) that in asking the adoptive parents for directions, “We’ll remind them I gave them Tommy, and Tommy died.”
Groom learns from a magazine article of “high childhood leukemia deaths in Brockton,” and a connection to the dumping of toxic chemicals from the tannery factories in this City of Shoes. She visits the shoe museum but fails to press her personal tour guide for information about the dumping and leaves, helpless. She can be neither her boy’s mother nor his truth-seeker. Here is our nonlinear world, the impossibility of predicting results or righting tragedy. I’m left contemplating whether we hold ourselves accountable only to maintain the hope that we do, in fact, have some control.
A small portion of the included poetry is obscure, while much is as accessible and as unyielding as the “three feet of frozen Appalachian clay” in John Bargowski’s “Shelf Ice”; the clay leaves no place to bury “the best watchdog / you ever owned,” nowhere for the dead animal “but into a cardboard box / in the garage pushed behind the Snapper / until a week of warm rain.”
The issue hits a high point with the work of Jennifer Boyden, and the editors graciously give us four of her poems. Boyden’s poetry is sensual as “how before we were cells yet / a slip of heat wedged the night open” (“A Pileup, and Time, Besides”), concrete as “The rocks: brown and furred,” and living as “the veins in the ears” of a rabbit, “that give back the heat of deserts” (“What the Stones Allow”). I found in the description she gives of the rocks in “What the Stones Allow” a summation of her four included works: “They are not gentle. They do not / mean to be.”