The latest issue of Bluestem, based out of Eastern Illinois University, offers a hefty selection of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and art working in a broad spectrum of styles and aesthetics. The journal isn’t filled exclusively with big-name solicitations, but the range of work it includes is refreshing and strong.
My favorite piece in this issue is Kevin Wilson’s story, “King Remembered in Time.” Wilson uses a very small space—two pages—very efficiently, crafting a vaguely fairy tale or folktale-like story about a king who is, for all intents and purposes, immortal. He dies, but always returns to the living in three days, and thus is unable to relinquish the throne. The religious implications are undeniable, and yet the story is too complex to be reduced to a metaphor or a parable. The king’s immortality is tested by his own son, who, seeking the throne he feels should rightfully be his, successfully assassinates the king once before watching his resurrection and giving up for good. Eventually the king realizes he will go on ruling forever, and that’s when his narration becomes most interesting:
After one hundred and seventy-five years, six more queens (no more children since they offered fresh problems of ascension that seemed unnecessary to address), I found it impossible to remember the names of anyone in the kingdom, they seemed to die so quickly, with hardly any effort to pull it off. And they grew tired, I’m sure, of my steady rule. But what to do? My rump had worn an indentation into the golden seat of my throne that no amount of metallurgy could undo.
This is a very successful story—one that succeeds because it is funny, if not a bit perverse, because it is daring, and because Wilson hits the language just right.
Another strong, but very different, story is Michael Don’s “No Matter.” This is a realist piece that follows the arc of a declining relationship, or, rather, a relationship that is extremely lopsided in terms of affection, with the male character Judd being seemingly uncommitted to his partner. Don uses both characters’ medical ailments to complicate their relationships even further. It’s an extremely effective relationship story, and I can’t help but feel a little broken when Judd’s partner, the narrator, finally fed up with his inconsistency, finally asks, “Why do you love me this morning?”
Another strong piece of writing is J.M. Gamble’s poem “I Can’t Believe How Still This Fire,” a meditation on fire in different forms, such as the sun, a cigarette, and a pyre. This fire imagery is twisted in with mentions of family; Gamble’s greatest strength is seen in the language that is both casual and perceptive: “I mean, the sun’s the fire’s mother, / right?”
I’ve long been a fan of Betsy Johnson-Miller’s poetry, and she doesn’t disappoint with “I’ve Heard the Stones.” It is a poem very much concerned with the body, starting out with a beautiful and disturbing image that is later complicated even further:
all over my body
six in my gut
three more in my right leg
I make noise
when I walk
Bluestem publishes a broad range of work, with strong art in addition to the writing, and it features plenty of solid material for an annual journal. The journal is fairly young, but seems to have a great deal of potential. This is definitely a journal to keep an eye on.