Published by the University of Montana, CutBank turns a neat trick: the journal reads like a great radio station sounds. Each short story, poem and piece of nonfiction flows into the next in an interesting, thematic way. A short story about a man who tickets rainwater collectors precedes a pair of poems about the calmer ways in which rain complements our lives. A short story featuring an uncle who stands in, slightly, for the boy’s father is followed by a nonfiction piece in which the author seeks to understand his uncle’s suicide. In this way, Editor-in-Chief Josh Fomon has created a sense of momentum, propelling the reader through the slim volume.
A look around America’s contemporary celebrity culture reveals that fame and fortune are often assigned by fate instead of talent. Josh Denslow’s short story goes one step further in considering the societal ethos, reminding the reader that “Not Everyone is Special.” The story takes place in a world in which 95% of the population has a “Power.” The usefulness of the Powers range wildly, from the ability to become invisible to the ability to turn pepperoni into sausage. The first-person narrator, on the other hand, has failed miserably in his attempt to discover his Power and fears he’s one of the Powerless minority. Ultimately, Denslow’s story affirms that true Power and true achievement come from hard work and dedication.
While I am fascinated by particle physics and string theory, I can only understand the concepts on the most superficial of levels. (I am quite sure many literary-minded folks agree with me on both counts.) Ryan Spooner’s nonfiction piece “Ineffable” uses theoretical physics to put life—both ours and his—into perspective. Spooner relates each of the ten dimensions to the human experience, a neat trick considering how few we can perceive with our senses. Learning about the hidden complexity of the Universe made Spooner feel “fascination like Rudolf Otto spoke of as mysterium tremendum et fascinans: attraction to, but at the same time repulsion from, the ineffable otherness of the unknown and the unknowable.” We understand that people, like lines, are two points connected invisibly. Spooner entertainingly illustrates how we and the people we love are “a line between two everythings.” Spooner’s most important accomplishment is the reminder that, although scientific progress has far surpassed the understanding of the laity, we are still bound by the innate tendencies of forces seen and unseen.
Sean Bernard’s “Water” is a short story that is as calm as it is engrossing. The first-person narrator is a young man who can’t keep a job but always manages to get another. Cast by fate to Tucson, he gets a job citing homeowners who violate the municipality’s water conservation policy. His boss soon turns him onto another opportunity: destroying the vessels in which residents have collected rainwater. Walking suburban alleys, he sees worlds he’s never known existed: “enormous and intricate systems of tubes and trash bags and woven banana leaves that cascaded into ceramic cisterns.” He observes that the residents preserved water “like the very ancients.” Just as the narrator gets comfortable in his situation, he wants to leave. Bernard is trucking in powerful conflicts: the nomadic life versus civilization, comfort versus excitement, and stability versus freedom.
CutBank’s poetry editors seem to like verse that is cast in a wide range of forms. Some of the poems live in the traditional left-aligned form, while others meander about the page or mirror themselves on the opposite page. This eclectic taste reflects the overall character of CutBank: the pieces respect traditional forms but violate them when necessary.