I have seen a lot of photographs of birds – who hasn’t? But, I have never seen one quite as striking as Ashley Sniezek’s “Sanctuary.” Both the photo and the impeccable reproduction are so sharply focused I feel as if the slender bird’s beak might reach out and peck me if I try to turn the page. But I must turn the page, because this photo is followed by an equally marvelous one, “In the Tomb of Ramose, Luxor, Egypt,” by Sue Lezon. Twelve photographers’ work is featured in this issue, including photos from national award winner Don Fike and student award winner K. Angeline Pittinger. These are some of the finest black and white photos I have encountered in a magazine, reproduced with such clarity they appear almost surreal.
Sharp vision, clarity, and finely etched details are the hallmark of the creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry in this annual as well. Here is Allan Peterson, for example, “the way a house breaks into little potted plants on the deck and window sills” (from his poem, “Giving Us Ideas”); and Zach Savich: “Hybrids: a cross / between a boy and dusk.” (from his poem “Snowmelt”); and Natasha Kessler: “Once, she gave me a soup recipe / written on onion skins. Her fingers were bones / smelling of fish oil and hairspray” (from her poem “Penumbra of Strays”); and Tony Hoagland (the only “poetry star” this issue): “Everything must be bottled / in 1950s light” (from his poem “1950s Light”).
Particularly affecting in the prose is Emily Borgmann’s personal essay “Breaking.” “On the morning of September 11, 2001, I woke at noon,” she begins, so simply, yet already having complicated the situation by telling us she’s slept through the terrible moments that changed everything forever for so many of us. In the same way, I have seen so many photos of birds, I have also read countless essays about illness. Yet Borgmann’s essay, like Sniezek’s photo, is unlike any other I have encountered.
Paula Belnap’s “National Award”-winning story “The Road to Chimayo” is an appealing contribution to “road trip narratives” and a fine example of how a writer can create characters whose questionable attitudes and unsettling prejudices make them sympathetic on some level, rather than purely unlikeable. Richard K. Weems, judge of the “Student Award,” writes that the stories he most appreciated were those that “enticed me into its world without ever allowing me to forget my own.” I think he has captured this issue’s strengths perfectly.