This issue of the magazine seems particularly serious (in the sense of “of consequence”), which I find entirely appropriate for the present moment (historically, politically, socially) and in keeping with my expectations for New Letters. Steve Paul interviews poet Edward Sanders and in his introduction quotes him as having said, “Poets should again assume the responsibility for the description of history.” And as it happens, this issue’s special feature section, guest edited by Mia Leonin, is titled “This Side of War,” with work by 15 poets who, for the most part, explore both recent and current wars, accompanied by the black and white photographs of soldiers by Stephen Grote. The poems offer a range of perspectives on “being at war,” from deployment abroad to the civilians who remain at home to the experience of civilian victims of military violence.
The Sanders interview is followed by six poems from his book-length work in progress America, a History of Verse, Volume 7, the 18th Century, an ambitious and fascinating project in which the poet attempts precisely what his title announces and also incorporates illustrations and photos.
Both of the issue’s essays describe experiences abroad. Renée Giovarelli’s “Fermented Milk” considers her experience working in the USAID project office in Kyrgyzstan where she conducted fieldwork about land reform and women’s land ownership. Her writing is fluid and unpretentious and she gives us a useful glimpse into life in Kyrgyzstan. Krista Eastman’s “Friends with Fatima” also considers the life of women. Fatima was a woman Eastman befriended when she spent a year (some time ago) in Senegal. Her essay, too, introduces us to a natural voice and easy pace, focused more on character than imagery or language.
Poems in this issue, outside of the special feature section, include work by some of the most established voices of the last half-century (Maxine Kumin, Affa M. Weaver, Roald Hoffman, among others). I hadn’t seen much new work by Hoffman in a while and was glad to happen upon “Constants of Motion.” (Hoffman is a Nobel Prize-winning chemist, much of whose poetry is science-oriented). The poem is comprised of three columns, the first in two sections, “Classical” and “Equations,” the second “Quantum,” and then “Time rate change,” all preceded by an explanatory note about mechanics. Hoffman’s poem, coincidentally (or not) also alludes to war as one of the things we must “move on” through as “stasis is not an option.”
Affa M. Weaver’s poem, “Interpretation of Tongues,” may well sum up the issue’s overall significance in its work to “describe history.” He asks:
What voice speaks to you in the middle of the silence,
the empty barn at night, fixing a bridle?
What voice speaks to you without music,
siren in poplar trees, you the mute solider?
I answer: These! These! These!