Passages North is a vade mecum. A canon. A bible for literati. An authority. A serious digest. A volume that induces wallet-cracking extra-baggage charges. This annual journal sponsored by Northern Michigan University publishes short stories, fiction flashes, modular and traditional essays, and poetry—loads and loads of poems of every possible breed: ghazals, sonnets, pantouns, free-verse, coupleted-cantations—diversity in form, theme and content receive open-armed welcomes at Passages North. From Pushcart winners to first-timers, from experimental to toe-the-liners, this volume is hefty hefty hefty, and by following the editorial compass of publishing only what deserves “merit,” they have produced a book to please the masses. If you can’t find something that thrills and rocks your sacrum, email me, and I’ll give you the number of my therapist, or maybe we can photoshop your name onto my prescriptions.
With over seventy contributors, all bursting with quality, where to begin?
Normally, modular essays leave me dry, so I avoid them, but Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson’s investigation, “On Nostalgia” is laced with tight prose and a looping narrative structure that takes the reader through the historic heart of Baltimore and her relationship with her father.
Our minds play tricks on us. The brain is hardly reliable. A light rail train runs near my house. The tracks are just across the river, hugging the edge of a hill. I hear the train sometimes at dawn, when I am coming out of sleep, and it sounds like wailing. As I wake, it takes me a minute to understand that it’s only the brakes of the car gripping the tracks as it enters a curve. A trompe l’oreille. A trick of the ear. What did that man say about the streetcar? A curious signature howl. I am making something out of nothing, hearing a chorus where there is merely utilitarian.
Archimedes Palimpsest works as a metaphoric framework that guides and inspires both reader and writer. No wonder it won the 2015 Thomas J. Hruska Nonfiction Prize; it’s worth every second of reading time.
“Motherline” by Kristine Ervin is another fine nonfiction essay I was prepared to dislike but couldn’t; the tight narrative trumped my pre-disposition to the genre. By recounting the history of Oklahoma’s first mall (now housing Federal offices), Ervin comes to terms with the death of her mother, who was kidnapped from its parking lot and then raped and murdered. The beauty and power of Ervin’s essay comes not only from brave prose, but how she transcends the personal to include the historic, the political, and the horrific random violence that strikes down Americans daily. The author’s battle with grief on the page, “I stand above your grave. I never know what to say when I read your name,” is inspirational and medicinal, especially for those in the midst of loss.
This issue is not all serious profound nonfiction. The editors have curated an equally enjoyable ride, as with David Ebenbach’s “Page Turner,” a twisty flippant ruse:
I’m going to write a whodunit, but in this one
you’ll know who the murderer is, right away;
what you’ll have to figure out is who they killed.
With comic stabs, the poem takes a unique poke at the structure of a mystery novel, much as in Martin Amis Time’s Arrow, we are tossed backwards through plot. Juxtaposing this lighthearted poem between longer serious pieces gives the journal room to exhale.
Another example of this semi-lightheartedness buffering the heavy comes from Emily Rose Cole’s “She Remembers the First Time”:
Our fingers locked & poised like hammers in a gun.
Clyde, when you ordered me that first whiskey
sour, I knew we would die with lead in our mouths.
In Mackenzie Regier’s “Non Parlo,” we have another quotidian moment turned sublime:
In an Italian fitting room, surrounded
by candy-bright panties and B cups laced
with foreign tags,
The point being, like good filmmakers, the editors at Passages North have assembled an issue that tickles the heartstrings with pleasure before delivering forceful ruptures. The works they have collected are above par, and the manner and order of the presentation has added value. Whether reading chronologically or dipping in and out, Issue 37 is a solid addition to the bedside table stack with enough content to last more than a year.