While reading the summer issue of The Sewanee Review, I decided to poke into some historical trivia. It was founded in 1892 and devoted to book reviews, theology, political science, literature and such. Poetry didn’t appear until 1920, and the Winter 1966 issue, at almost 1,000 pages, was devoted to T. S. Eliot.
This issue, with its theme Honoring Words, is more manageable. I read it front to back and was most impressed by the closing pages that pieced together articles under the heading The State of Letters. It’s packed with works that will appeal to readers and writers alike. For example, Ann E. Berthoff chose “Libraries Here and There.” She compares Boston’s branch library’s “buzz of human activity,” to Tanzania where a teacher friend writes that “99 percent of the schools have one book for each class” of 50 to 70 students, and the lone book is used by the teacher. The remedy? Berthoff’s friend and a volunteer wrote 90 stories for student use.
In another example, though I’m not a big fan of Jane Austen, I love Merritt Moseley’s opening in “New Facts About Jane Austen.” He writes that 2015 was the 240th anniversary of Austen’s birth. “The date may not be as resonant as 2014’s bicentenary of the death of the Marquis de Sade—and its celebrations will undoubtedly lead to fewer hospitalizations—but it’s a good reminder of Austen’s lasting importance.” His forthcoming book promises new findings for “Janeites.” I may have to reconsider my viewpoint.
Also in The State of Letters, David Yezzi profiles 95-year-old poet Marie Ponsot. He describes much of her work as “poem-portraits” of females. But males are not ignored, as you see in Ponsot’s lines about a body of water:
A girl dips her foot in, holding her shoes.
A boy throws stones so splashes distort
The pool; most males do, as if they confuse
Marking with marring; as if, innocent,
Inept at awe, they smash what they can’t use [ . . . ]
Note that she published her multitude of writing while raising seven children.
Poetry rates its own section in The Sewanee Review. John Poch’s “Train Wreck” caught my attention with a preface about an 1896 demonstration of a train wreck for an audience of 40,000 in Crush, Texas. In the poem, an antique swallow necklace is considered:
The thought of that pendant makes my hands nearly reckless
for balance, to become the ambidextrous
[ . . . ] Perplex us
with swallows, voracious with your reflexes,
with the crush of you in the terrible state of Texas
that like a staged train wreck (in a good way) wrecks us.
Don’t overlook essays in this volume. George Keithley’s “Sunlight on the Sea of Cortez” observes the world of migrating Pacific grey whales. Pregnant females lead the pack from the Bering Sea to the coast of Mexico. In a description only a mother whale can cotton to, we witness their eating habits:
A toothless bottom-feeder, the grey whale has a shovel-shaped lower jaw with which it scoops its food from the seabed. [ . . . ] using its tongue, it pushes silty water out through more than one hundred thin plates of baleen—whalebone that hangs from its upper jaw to form a filtering grille, [ . . . ].
Mel Livatino calls his essay “Not Waving But Drowning,” borrowing the title from Stevie Smith’s 1972 poem. Livatino’s work draws on conversations and aloneness: “While the media has become frantic, personal communication has become inert,” he writes. He ties in two major life changes, his retirement from teaching and his wife’s dementia in this emotional, cautionary piece.
Short stories by high-volume writers Wendell Berry and Kathleen Ford are included, as are book reviews. Several sections of The Sewanee Review might benefit from larger fonts, especially the contributors’ listings. But overall the review is a significant collection of literary works featuring insightful voices that most definitely fulfill its theme of Honoring Words.