Like the magazine, the alligator juniper tree is native to Arizona (the journal is a yearly publication of Prescott College), but, as its unusual name implies, the magazine “invites both the regional and the exotic.” What sets this journal apart from other lit mags is that the only avenue for submission—open to all levels, emerging, early-career, and established—is through their national contests. These include a general one for fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and photography, and a separate Suzanne Tito contest for fiction, CNF, and poetry. The prizewinners and finalists selected for this issue are supremely worth reading.
These contributions include Debra Marquart’s poignant “Losing the Meadow,” an essay that wanders between past homes and present landscapes so gently you’re not even sure why you feel sad at the end. “Pop” is Chris Guppy’s tender eulogy for a tough old dad, and Natalie Vestin’s “Under Ground” is a strong essay about the earth beneath Alberta, framed by stories of the people buried in it.
You can see why the prizewinners are the prizewinners. “Grown-Ups,” by Laura Hitt, has aptly won the Suzanne Tito award this year for its understated recounting of a car accident whose twenty-one-year-old driver is stricken with remorse:
I should have been driving slower, at a cautious crawl . . . I should have slowed down way earlier for that turn. I should never have learned to drive in the first place, should have taken a stance against the deceptive contraptions.
“I’d like to talk more about the nature of ice and fate; the fragility of life, the absurd risks we take to get from one place to another,” she says. “But I refrain.” What she learns instead wracks the heart. It’s a lovely essay.
So is the national prizewinning piece in creative nonfiction, “Burial” by Eli Connaughton. This memoir taps at death with both love and humor, a praise-song to the imperfections of family life that help the living remember the dead more fondly.
In Josh Peterson’s perfectly paced “Just Sadness,” the child narrator makes a jaw-dropping sacrifice at the request of an angry father, and, in “Electric Shock Therapy,” Sarah Elizabeth Schantz gives us another child whose love for a parent leads her to endure great pain. The fiction prizewinners are stunners, neither experimental in form nor postmodern in theme, but instead consisting of a beautiful piece of historical fiction (Janet Hilliard-Osborn’s “Mycology”) and a grim, substantial account of border-crossing—“Howls in the Desert Night,” by Molly Kiff, takes us into and out of Mexico, but also into and out of the human psyche longing to bridge difference.
One of Elton Glaser’s national prizewinning poems, “Coupling on the Edge of Entropy,” contains these delightful lines:
Hiding from heaven, where the dark haloes flash on
Like crime lights when you step in the wrong direction,
Where all the angels train with the IRS, I still believe
In the mercy of earth, in pardons retroactive to the womb.
Let bygones be herecomes, and the last supper served up
As lazy plates of meatloaf and tall bottles of Bud.
This is no novice poet. Christopher Buckley’s poems walk us boldly into the world of pacemakers—“Heart Failure” is about, simply, all the ways a heart can be damaged, or why would our hearts need help?—and then, fearlessly, he walks us toward death. In his bio, he says, “The closer to the Exit you get, you have to ask yourself if you feel lucky”—this about a poem entitled “Metaphysical Poem Ending with That Line from Dirty Harry.” Humor, empathy, form: these characterize the poetry in this robust issue.
The cover image, “Margin of Error, #14,” the second-prize winner of the national contest, shows a strait-laced woman in a black dress seated between two patio chairs, one hand on each, her legs long and white, her head cut entirely out of the picture. Margin of error indeed! The photography judge says, “Christine Weller deserves special mention for her fine suite entitled Margin of Error”—I’d have liked to see the rest of the collection.
Not all, but many, of the finalists and prizewinners are students. Not all, but most, of the literature in this magazine is conventional and clean, human and compassionate. This is not an issue full of speculative textuality or one-shot ventures into irony and cool. Not even the photography can be considered experimental; Cloe Cox’s “Black Lungs,” a stark silhouette of a girl (whose hair looks almost nineteen-fifties) blowing out a straight stream of white smoke, is perhaps the least still-life-ish. But all of it—both image and text—is highly readable, well-constructed, and, above all, full of empathy for the human condition, with a distinct and subtle sense of humor about it, in spite of its frailty.