Boston Review essays tend to follow a somewhat predictable pattern, and I couldn’t be happier about it. A serious, well-informed, literate, critical mind challenges the conventional wisdom about a controversial and highly politicized subject or issue of undeniable significance and urgency. Here are the two opposing views we commonly hear and debate, the writer begins, but there is something wrong with each of them, and I want to offer an alternative, he concludes. Subjects covered in the current issue of the Review include the “post-racial” in the Obama era (Stephen Ansolabehere and Charles Stewart III); free market regulation (Dean Baker, Robert Pollin); tax cuts (Jeff Madrick); Guantanamo (David Cole); Afghanistan (Barnett R. Rubin); Iran (Abbas Milani); and new (old?) philosophical approaches to God (Alex Byrne).
Rubin’s essay on cities in Afghanistan is particularly worthwhile. Rubin, who has spent time in Afghanistan and with that nation’s leaders, provides a much needed historical perspective in clear, readable prose moving back and forth between his personal observations and an in-depth understanding of the country’s politics and complex culture. Byrne’s essay has left a lasting impression, too: “If a persuasive argument for the existence of God is wanted, then philosophy has come up empty [. . .] The funny thing about arguments for the existence of God is that, if they succeed, they were never needed in the first place.”
Boston Review poems tend to fit a particular mold, as well, though I am sometimes less happy about this than I am about the predictability of the style of the essays. This issue, however, there is quite a lot of variety. I appreciated, above all, a long poem, “Objects,” by Martha Ronk, a series of five “poetry paragraphs” (something between sudden fiction and prose poems). Here is a brief excerpt from the section titled “a photographic album”: “The experience of things missing seems itself to be disappearing, although I’m speaking here of one tiny realm of experience.”
In this issue’s “Poetry Sampler,” Karen Volkman introduces Brandon Shimoda and a poetry of “transgressive energy.” I am not sure what “transgressive energy” means, but I am glad to be introduced to Shimoda’s work whose rhythms are powerfully cautious. Shimoda must have to work very hard to get his language to work with such exquisite precision, while appearing so simple, but what makes the poems so magnificent is that we don’t see the process, the toiling away, just the sleek result (“Walking out to the water / Is more than walking to an ocean of repetitive pardon”).
This issue also includes essays on poetry by Amelia Klein and Brian Teare, one short story (Laura Van den Berg) and two essays on fiction (John Crowley and Neel Mukherjee), and a review of the movie, Synecdoche, New York (Alan A. Stone), and several short book reviews.