With this issue, ABZ becomes a biennial journal rather than an annual. It’s a shame it will come out less often, because the poems here arise out of deep feeling, place, and lived experience. They are about things that matter. No wonder the volume is dedicated to the memory of Lucille Clifton “who always knew how to make poetry even when it hurt.”
ABZ is published in Huntington, West Virginia, and there is a nice mix of poets known to the region, such as Richard Hague, Mark DeFoe, and William Jolliff, and poets “from off,” as they might say in Huntington. Sometimes literary journals try to be all things to all people, but that is not true of this issue of ABZ. While it welcomes a variety of subjects, styles, and origins, it particularly honors both its region and a tradition of storytelling. In doing so, it acquires a profile that is welcoming and accessible to any reader.
Rick Campbell’s “A Small Poem for James Wright” takes us almost to Wright’s hometown of Martins Ferry on the Ohio/West Virginia border. Almost, because the young hitchhiker who wants to pay homage runs out of money and turns back. “I knew where to find you. / Time was still on my side,” he tells Wright years later, no doubt still holding to the unfulfilled promise of that aborted trip, now fulfilled by telling the story in poetry.
The narrative impulse is strong in many poems. Jolliff’s “A Boy and His Dog” tells how a farm boy leaves a hayfork turned up, and his beloved collie is pierced in the stomach while chasing a rat, but not killed. Recollecting all this in tranquility:
He sickens with the memory, the negligence
first, but then, how he couldn’t get a good shot.
And what his father thought and could not say.
And how glad he was to see that house burn down.
“River of Mantises” by Geraldine Connolly takes us to a Pennsylvania grade school and a “sugar-spun egg case” inside a jar. When the baby mantises boil out, making for the window, the children twin with them in their blind, exuberant energy and heedlessness of the future: “We followed their hunger / into the wild, devouring world.”
Steve Scafidi’s lilting “Whiskey for Sorrow and a Song of Disgrace” mourns and mythifies the loss of a farm to urban sprawl by imagining the deceased owner buried on the soon-to-be-despoiled land, standing up, “like a dead king in his green glass case. / The knots of his ears like relics of a saint.”
There is whimsy and lightness as well. Lola Haskins’s “Making Water” celebrates an act “So simple it is almost never shown on film.” And isn’t it fun? “It’s the small acts, the many times a day,” counsels Haskins. “I ask you heart, why did we disremember joy?”
Melissa Tuckey, whose Tenuous Chapel won the 2012 ABZ First Book Poetry Prize, contributes four poems. Her “History of Small Spaces” reminds the reader in a fresh way of William Carlos Williams’s dictum, “No ideas but in things.” The tight focus on objects as doorways to memory and feeling immediately slows us down to the speed of contemplation (“The silence of plums / calligraphy of potato vines”) and then, at the end of the poem, sets us free from contemplation altogether: “After awhile you quit asking / where fruit flies come from.”
ABZ is a small but powerful collection of highly accomplished work. The alphabetical arrangement of authors relieves the reader of having to guess about editorial reasons for juxtaposing work or leading with this or that piece, so that each poem stands on its own, a fresh beginning for the reader.