Ninth Letter is a stunning production. Its editors incorporate a full range of visual elements, including photographs, graphics, drawings, and color with (and within) the texts they’ve selected. The results are often singular works of art.
Ron Carlson’s “My America,” the monologue of a speaker overwhelmed by a society of whitened teeth, terror alerts, plasma televisions, and poker tournaments, comes on a fold-out insert in oversized, uppercase, gold typeface. Although it’s identified as nonfiction in the table of contents, in this format the piece becomes something else: a howl against excess, and a prayer for rest. In Tom Whalen’s “The Children Beneath My Window,” the geometric forms that line the margins become increasingly fractured and colorless as the story progresses, to match the narrator’s rupturing consciousness.
Two of the remaining prose selections merit particular note. Steve Tomasula’s “Dark Ages 2” looks to the medieval period as not such a distant mirror of the present. Tomasula writes of tortures, plagues, and floods, of a president who speaks in tongues, and of friends who hoarded gold and ammunition as Y2K approached, in a story framed by unsettling black-and-white photographs. Dave King’s stirring essay on the significance of stasis and catastrophe in narrative moves from the imaginary (a writing exercise about the meeting between a horse and a bear) to the real (Vietnam and 9/11) with sensitivity and insight.
There’s also a rich selection of poetry. Francine J. Harris laments her stricken mother, whose cancer “grew the bones / like young melons coming up under the soil.” Twilight Greenaway dedicates “Extrajudicial” to Bisher Al-Rawi, a British citizen and prisoner of the “War on Terror,” who was eventually released without charge from Guantánamo. Greenaway imagines that the most difficult condition of normal life, after “four silent years” in an “always-lit room,” is not the company of others, but darkness: “The inky blue dusks and dawns, the gathering / wedges that deepen in doorways. / Even the midday shade in the house / when a cloud passes over, / the man who carries on beneath.”
In reading Ninth Letter, I learned a great deal about the conditions of our lives. I don’t think I could expect more from a literary journal.