In his editor’s note, Robert Stewart reveals that this most recent issue of New Letters may “expose idealists among us.” Those idealists certainly include the martyr poet Jose Domingo Gomez Rojas. His poetry inspired Pablo Neruda and, more recently, New Letters contributors Thomas E. Kennedy and Raymond B. Craib. Through their fiction, essays, and translation of Rojas’s poems, Kennedy and Craib give us the opportunity to hear the voice Chile’s prisons could not silence, the “tender cry that still beats in cradles, / Of the divine voices that vibrate in the pure / sky beneath the light of virgin moons.”
Of course, idealists are not limited to revolutionaries from Chile. As the editor explains, New Letters authors and artists from around the world share their dreams “as aspirants, mostly, unsure and often humble.” This combination of hope and insecurity is especially evident in the memoir written by Clarissa Hay titled “Queens of Pain.” As Hay tells her story, we simultaneously learn about her complicated journey toward identity and the world of women’s roller derbies in New York. According to Hay, roller derbies have become the outlet for women who want to be both tomboys and princesses: a place to “hit other women . . . play dress up, [and] be a rock star.” At the end of Hay’s narrative, I found myself wanting to cheer, not just because it’s another underdog story, but because becoming one of the Queens of Pain—a path anyone who’s endured the rocky road to womanhood can relate to—led her to a re-imagine her ideal self and find “pure, unadulterated bliss.”
Other idealists’ struggles are represented in poems, fiction and artwork throughout the volume. Some of the best include Albert Goldbarth’s “Earth” and “Diminutive for Grand” where Goldbarth reminds us of the paradox between our insignificance and our power to change the world in a moment of “sheer bullheaded decency.”
Another side of human nature is explored in Phong Nguyen’s short fiction story “My Hand Is My Cup.” Nguyen reminds us how war can crush idealism, even long after the blood has dried and the fighting has finished. The issue of conflict can also be found in Margo Berdeshevsky’s collection of photographs from the series Occupy Paris. One of her most striking photos is the negative image titled “Ideas + Dreams.” The reverse of light and dark gives each person’s face an eerie quality that suggests the dystopian societies found in science fiction novels like 1984 and Brave New World. Berdeshevesky’s choice to flip the image allows the photo to become a metaphor for the lower class’ desire to reverse their economic situation and close the gap between the very wealthy and the very poor.
Whether their messages are haunting or hopeful, the writers and artists in this edition of New Letters reveal both the joy and pain of humanity’s struggle for the ideal in a far from ideal world.