Literary Magazine Reviews
Posted January 18, 2010
Asheville Poetry Review :: Aufgabe :: The Aurorean :: The Bitter Oleander :: Broken Plate :: Cave Wall :: College Literature :: Field :: Geist :: The Hopkins Review :: Iodine :: Mandorla :: River Teeth :: The Round :: Santa Monica Review :: Third Coast :: Tin House : Vallum :: Wigleaf :: Yellow Medicine Review
Asheville Poetry Review
Issue 19 Volume 16 Number 1
Review by Henry F. Tonn
Keith Flynn, the editor, proudly states that this is the only poetry journal in the United States that subsists entirely on retail sales and subscriptions. It boasts a circulation of 3000 and has fourteen staff members. The latest production is 223 pages and contains a wide variety of poetry, interviews, essays, and book reviews. It was founded in 1994, and my only regret here is that I lack sufficient space to give this subject proper justice.
There is an excellent interview by Marilyn Kallet with poet and translator Marilyn Hacker in Paris. Here are the last four lines of a relationship poem by Hacker:
Must a mountain crumble before we can really speak?
Must I wait for an aeon’s erosion between us?
The morning light spells its name on my white coffee cup
but it aches with absence: there is an ocean between us.
Here is the translation of a poem by Hacker of Emmanuel Moses’s “The Lacemakers”:
they slide continually under bridges, flush with the water
passengers in the black skiff
Our Lady shelters them beneath her cloak of piety
when snow falls on the canals and covers the swans
pressed up against the trunks of old willows
There is a thoughtful and revealing review of Venus Khoury-Ghata’s Alphabets of Sand by Darby Darren Jackson, and much space devoted to the discussion and work of the poet George Oppen. And here is a protest poem by Al Maginnes entitled “Seeing the Brown Shirts":
On television they march again, amateur brown shirts,
homegrown Nazis, self-appointed
Television is as close as I need to come to their scraped heads
and spittle-red mouths, their uniforms
purchased with dollars saved from low wage jobs, laboring
side by side with the races
And a simpler poem entitled “Douglas Fir” by Sam Taylor:
It has stood here rising
For six hundred years
And it is here now
In your life, as you rise,
Watching, as you watch,
The sky shade magenta
One of the benefits of this publication is that it presents work from all over the world in translation – a cosmopolitan experience. This particular edition is well laid out and has a beautiful cover by Hector Acevedo. When you consider all of the production values that are required to create a literary poetry review, this one is certainly of the best in the country. Poetry aficionados should give it a try. [www.ashevillereview.com]
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
It’s a good thing Aufgabe only comes out once a year because it takes nearly that long to read the whole issue – and the whole issue is worth reading. The 2009 special feature is a huge section on Russian poetry and poetics guest edited by Matvel Yankelevich, who teaches Russian literature and language at Hunter College in New York and is a founding member of Ugly Duckling Presse. Poems, essays, and manifestos by fifteen contemporary Russian poets appear in translation (no originals are included), along with Yankelvich’s introductory essay. The poets’ essays are of particular interest, offering insights both about the nature of poetry in general and of contemporary Russian poetics in particular.
I was quite taken with an essay that reads like poetry by Dmitry Vodennikov, translated by Peter Golub. “It is very easy to live when you personally have to answer for nothing. Then, every private trifle seems interesting,” the poet says. His plea is for poets to answer personally for their poetry, and the juxtaposition of personally, private, and personally in this equation turns the purely “personal” into “personally responsible.” Quite a different thing altogether! There is an especially appealing intelligence at work here.
The issue also includes the work of a dozen and a half extremely inventive poets, some in translation. These poems and prose poems are serious, even solemn; often dense; always original; and rarely, if ever, ordinary or easy. They are not wildly odd as configured on the page, but few are predictable in their presentation either. In “Farm Stock & Crop Data,” Tyrone Williams creates lines ending in phrases elevated in tiny small cap superscript; and a poem by Laura Sims “In a field in a” repeats the phrase “field in a field” over 12 lines with variations in breaks (spaces) that create a visual “field” against which she sets the remaining lines.
The magazine’s final section consists of “essays, notes, and reviews” by ten writers. Most unusual is a beautifully crafted personal essay by Margaret Ronda, “The Hunger Patient,” a tragic family story recounted in a poetic and engaging style that fits the subject (starvation and illness), avoids sentimentality (it is sleek and raw), and reinvents the body of the essay form as its subject tried to reinvent her body. Work by Alan Davies, Paolo Javier, and Nathalie Stephens is equally original and engaging. An academic (as in analytical) essay by Trish Salah (“After Cissexual Poetry: Thinking Trans Figures and Feminist Poetics Now”) is accessible for the non-academician.
In her prose poem “Prehistoric Fable,” Paula Koneazny writes,
“In our era, we were percussive, timed to the minute, instead of
subtlety we were given explosion.” I’d say that Aufgabe,
on the other hand, manages – and beautifully – to give us both.
Volume 14 Issue 2
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
“The Aurorean seeks to publish poetry that is inspirational, meditational and/or reflective of the Northeast.” In this issue, the magazine carries out its mission to reflect the Northeast with poems that specifically name or make reference to the area: “Mohonk moon” (“Scarlet Turnings” by Mike Jurkovik); the Atlantic ocean as seen from a “bed & breakfast” in Ogunquit, Maine (“Yellow Monkey” by Lainie Senechal); New England’s “slate skies” (“January Poem” by Ellen M. Taylor); a frosty New England context for the hammering of fence posts (“Fences” by Olivia Wolfgang-Smith); a salt marsh at Plum Island, Massachusetts (“Boardwalk” by Margaret Eckman); a weeping beech tree at Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston (“Weeping Beech” by Alice Kociemba); a cranberry harvest near Beaver Dam Road (the specific state is not mentioned in Judy Snow’s “Harvest off Beaver Dam Road”); a nighttime ride to Mt. Riga (“Mt. Riga” by David Sermersheim); an unusually warm first-day-of-fall near Mt. Adams (“If, Ands, or Buts” by Russell Rowland); a view of middle age as seen against the context of the view of a heron at Hall’s Pond (“Middle Age” by Robin Pelzman); the varieties of apples grown in the Northeast – McCoun, Northern Spy, MacIntosh, and Cortland (“The Ingathering” by Carole W. Trickett); and the wild Lake Superior cold (“Lone Baptism” by Steve Ausherman).
The issue also includes the work of two featured poets, Paul B. Roth and Kevin Marshall Chopson, as well as three pages of haiku, including the winner of the magazine’s Creative Writing Student Outstanding Haiku Awards contest, S.P. MacIntyre. My favorite is by Ruth Holzer, which, as it happens, also evokes a distinctly Northeastern image:
at the Walt Whitman rest stop –
If Holzer’s Walt Whitman rest stop is the one many of us know
on the New Jersey Turnpike (weary travelers downing burgers and
oversized cups of Coke from Roy Rogers), it is wonderfully at
odds with the graceful image of the southbound geese.
The Bitter Oleander
Volume 15 Number 2
Review by Robbie Dressler, Pacific University
The first few pages in this volume of The Bitter Oleander feature international poems, each first in the author’s language followed by the translation. I’m not multi-lingual, but I like seeing the poem in its original form. It gives me a feel for what can’t be completely translated. One such challenging poem is Rafael Jesús González’ Mexico, a “homage to the country in erotic hue.” The sexually charged imagery, such as “The banana bloom hangs like a horse’s sex / & your rough breasts give oil to suck,” makes me wish I could read and understand it in its original Spanish, as some of the nuanced sensuality is probably lost with the hard consonant sounds of English.
This issue features an interview with Oregon poet Elizabeth McLagan and includes several of her poems. McLagan shares her thoughts on writing strategies. She talks about how Keats’s idea of negative capability influences her work; she wants to take his notion of “being in uncertainties” even further. Rather than simply “being,” which is almost like “tolerating or enduring,” McLagan says the focus should be on the “uncertainties.” They “generate mental fluidity and openness.” I particularly liked her poem “Biographica Lyrica,” which includes the lines: “A river shamed me with its / gouging intents.” As a fellow Oregonian, I have sat on the banks of the Wilson River and considered the water’s incessant flow.
Besides poetry, this issue features short fiction, including two flash fiction pieces by Anthony Seidman. I’m always impressed when this form is done effectively, and Seidman is able to create compressed dark and seedy atmospheres of self-loathing. “A Murder Of” is the stronger of his selections, with lines like “I stare at my prick as it spurts a warm gush; it’s nothing formidable, and I wonder what it would be like to have an aperture into the heat of me, to bleed or weigh the heaviness inside, while the men careen on their commute to minimum wages.” His descriptions and the narrator’s attitude made me feel queasy and a little disgusted at the physicality of being human and alive.
In his strongly worded essay, “The Real American Education,” Duane Locke calls American schools an “assembly-line” whose main goal is to “produce high salaried slave mentalities to make profits for billionaires.” Compared with the rest of the essay, that statement seems down-right tame. He goes on to chastise education in general as producing weak individuals interested in career-oriented “petty prestige,” and has especially harsh words for English Departments in small private liberal arts colleges, calling them “the most pitiable of our educational disciplines.” I have to take issue with his argument, as I am an English major at a small private liberal arts college. I guess, according to Loft, I can have no lofty career goals in mind.
The Bitter Oleander showcases a wide variety of
material, from the dark to the uplifting, and the brevity of the
pieces allows the reader to move through those moods with ease.
It’s the type of journal you’d like to have on hand for those
moments of down time during the day, maybe when you’re on the
bus or have a few quiet moments to yourself. You can finish a
short story, poem, or interview in a few minutes, get a quick
fix of good literary pondering, and go back to the grind of the
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
The Broken Plate is an annual produced by undergraduate students at Ball State University, which includes the work of many novice writers alongside more accomplished contributors. Particularly noteworthy are poems and essays in the "In Print Section," which features the work of authors celebrated during the University’s In Print Festival of First Books (March 2009). This section is composed of essays on craft by fiction writer Kyle Minor and memoirist Laurie Lindeen, and the poetry of Nickole Brown. Minor and Lindeen’s essays are insightful explorations of their own artistic processes. Brown’s poetry is expertly crafted and polished. Her voice is wry and worldly, feigning innocence, but demonstrating savvy.
While not typical of most of the prose in the issue (the tone is more earnest), I especially liked a story by Benjamin Arda Doty, “Things Said and Forgotten,” an emotionally restrained, but nonetheless emotionally compelling tale about Alzheimer’s that takes place in Kazakhstan. I was impressed, as well, with a poem by Heidi Hart, “The Map,” lovely and lyrical, although this piece, too, is not necessarily typical of the poetry in this issue, which tends to be sharper and edgier in tone than Hart’s piece.
I liked very much a poem by William Doreski, “Visiting My Cousin in Serbia,” which begins:
Christmas crawls over the Balkans
on its knees. Vranje. Nis,
Paracin. We’d stop for lunch
but fog pouring down the ridges
could be ancestral ghosts, the gargle
of surly rivers may restate
death rattles of recent wars.
And I was much taken, to my own surprise, I admit, with a poem by Ryler Dustin, “Stone Birdsong,” which I wanted to dismiss (too colloquial, just one more poem about a dead parent), but which is simply too clever and well put together not to admire – and reread with renewed appreciation.
Frankly, I’m not sure if “Everything in its Place,” by Katie
Berger, is fiction or nonfiction. But, it doesn’t matter. It’s a
wonderful piece of prose that begins: “If you want to know more
about my father, stand in the basement between the shelf of
broken coffee pots and the model sailboat he started in his
20s,” and then goes on later, “To understand my mother, you must
disagree with everything my father says.” Is she writing about
her life or mine?
Review by Spencer Hadduk, Pacific University
Cave Wall is a modest literary magazine that succeeds in its simplicity. It is a thin volume and consists exclusively of poetry, though it doesn’t leave you wanting anything more. The quality of the selections is consistent throughout. In the Editor’s Note, Rhett Iseman Trull sets the tone and the context for the issue saying “we cannot remain in one place. The circle of life keeps turning. In memory and in our art, however, we can revisit a moment, letting it touch and change us anew.” Organized by author, each address this theme in their poetry; it is interesting to see each approach as a powerful examination of this very important human issue.
There is art by Deborah Mersky on the cover and sprinkled throughout the publication. Her work exemplifies the simple, almost elemental, nature of the magazine and does wonders to unify the presentation. All of the works are ink prints of nature and animals. The contrast of the ink and the page creates a silhouette effect, almost like a cave drawing. The Contributors’ Notes says her work “combines the tension and sadness of our current environmental state with imagined imagery.” Her pieces compliment the imagery of the poetry.
A good deal of the poetry in this issue is grounded in vivid natural details that paint sharp and powerful images for the reader to contemplate. One of the featured poets, Karsten Piper, has a knack for striking visual descriptions. In his poem, “The Jaw Harp,” he describes a man on the street playing a harp:
He plucked a shining harp
like nails and teeth untying knots.
His ancient throat-stone bobbed
beneath his collar, and ductile notes
spilled out among his fingers,
each chasing the one before,
before it echoed over the cliffs, away.
This type of language is so physical and real, and is a recurring quality throughout this issue from authors Jonathan Barrett, Michael McFee, and Anemone Beaulier to name a few.
This wonderfully simple collection of quality poetry can be
taken anywhere and shared with anyone; even those with the most basic interest in poetry
will be 'touched and changed anew.'
Volume 36 Issue 4
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
This “general” issue of the journal includes analytical/critical essays on Archibald MacLeish, current writing about fatherhood, an examination of burlesque in classical myth, an exploration of a novel by Gail Godwin, review essays on Melville and books on pedagogy, and book reviews of books on poetry, rhetoric, and film. While clearly intended for an academic audience, the journal is nonetheless quite readable for a less specialized audience, in particular essays by Raymond A. Mzurek, “Work and Class in the Box Store University: Autobiography of Working Class Academics,” and Arielle Greenberg and Becca Klaver, “Mad Girls’ Love Songs: Two Women Poets – a Professor and Graduate Student – Discuss Sylvia Plath, Angst, and the Poetics of Female Adolescence.”
Like many academic journals, College Literature provides excellent abstracts of its articles, so you can decide what you what to spend your time reading. I appreciated the range of themes, from the classical to the contemporary, and the purely academic to the more personal (in fact the Greenberg/Klaver, teacher and student, piece is highly personal).
For me there is clearly a standout in this issue for non-lit-crit
fans, which is Mazurek’s essay on class issues in the
university. Mazurek, associate professor of English at the Berks
campus of Penn State, grew up in a rural farm family with no
ties to academia. His exploration of working class literary
realities and experiences in the college world is authentic,
necessary, and engaging. His essay will remind you why
College Literature – and college literature – matters.
Review by Jessica Ferguson, Pacific University
The most recent issue of Field, Oberlin College Press’s magazine of poetry, begins with a symposium on Phillip Levine’s work, including some of his most famous poems, like “Animals are Passing From Our Lives,” along with short essays analyzing each. Even those readers who are not interested in the analysis of poetry will find the poems themselves excellent. The strength of this issue, however, is in the original contributions, many of which take inspiration from nature and are full of references to wolves, foxes and various birds, including ravens, crows and swans.
Jesse Lee Kercheval’s “Blackbird,” like many of the included poems, explores the effects of death on a partner and examines the power of memory. After her partner’s death, she writes, since “all memory is fiction,” he is what she makes of him. Thus, the man afraid of birds becomes a blackbird after his death. She can describe the two of them together as swans, mated for life, even if he “hated all things avian / in life.” He becomes something else in her memory, not a different person, but someone who matters less in himself and more in what he meant to her. For Kercheval and the other poets in this magazine, poetry and memory are less about the truth of what is and more about the truth of feeling and emotion.
The strongest contribution was Chana Bloch’s “A Mantle,” a poem about a recently widowed woman finding both that “she wants to hurt / the world back” and that “When he lived / she was smaller.” It explores the multiplicity of feelings in the face of death, both the lifting of constraint as well as the depths of grief. The best of the poems in this issue face complexity head on, and in taking this stance, are ultimately hopeful. They encourage the reader to find a place to stand and create new directions.
If the magazine is somewhat plainly produced, it is still
sturdy, laid out cleanly and pleasing to the hand and eye. Its
lack of visual art is no fault in this publication. The focus of
the magazine is excellent poetry, and at that goal it certainly
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
I would move to Canada just for the magazines, Geist among them. Geist is published in Vancouver (one of North America’s most creative cities on so many levels), and I don’t imagine it’s easy to find this side of the border, especially on the east coast. But, I doubt they’d turn down your subscription! And I doubt you’ll be sorry if you subscribe.
Geist includes “features” (longer essays with photos, fiction, groups of poems); “notes and dispatches” (short reviews, personal essays, single poems); “findings” (a collection of excerpts and illustrations; “postcard lit” (exactly what it says); “comments” (short analytical pieces); and “departments” (letters, crossword puzzles, a full-page graphic feature, and similar regular contributions). The magazine always manages to be visually exciting, without working too hard to dazzle or distract. There is nothing frivolous, artwork and photos appear in the service of story, message, meaning.
It’s hard to do justice to the sheer range of ideas and realities Geist manages to bring to life in 88 short pages: a provocative little essay on the origins of Halloween in the US by Stephen Osborne; a reflection by Serbian writer and now Calgary resident David Albahari on the absurdities of cultural affiliations and traditions; a “list” by painter Lenore Rowntree and her sister Beth (who “lives in a group home in Vancouver”), a writer, that is sadly smart and smartly about her (“Some things about my sister Beth that I can’t think about for too long without getting sad and confused”); a brief essay considering the meaning of the number of civilian deaths in Iraq since the American invasion on March 20, 1993 by journalist Robert Everett-Green; excerpts from an oral history of native peoples in British Columbia in the first half of the last century reprinted from Paddling to Where I Stand: Agnes Alfred, Qwiqwasutinuxw Noblewoman; a full-page color reprint, “What do You Say Now, Brother?” from a Red: A Haida Manga by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas (a manga is a hybrid form that developed in Asia combining illustrations and stories, something on the order of a comic; the Haida are native peoples in British Columbia, Canada); an extraordinary long photo essay, “Memory and the Valley,” by Sandra Shields and David Campion on British Columbia’s Fraser Valley; another by Marcello DiCintio, “Wall of Shame” about Morocco; a commentary about Canadian resistance to the war in Iraq by Stephen Henighan; a group of poems, “McPoems,” about McDonald’s (the fast-food empire) by Billeh Nickerson; and reviews of books a reader in the US would never know existed unless she heard about them in Geist, including travel memoirs, novels, and short stories.
Don’t let “Badlands. The Canadian Map of Outlaws and
Evildoers,” the “Caught Mapping” last page of the magazine
diminish your appreciation for all things Canadian. It’s the
names! Old Witch Lake. Iago Glacier. Lac Hades. Poison Ivy
Falls. Lac Dracula. Medusa Bay. Scrooge Lake. Satans Creek. I’m
The Hopkins Review
Volume 2 Number 2
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
An eclectic and sophisticated journal that aims to sustain the past (a posthumous short story from Walker Percy), enliven the current moment (new poetry, fiction, and essays from a dozen writers), represent a range of nonfiction options (from a historical look at the use of puppets to literary criticism), serve as a mini gallery of visual artistic expression (fascinating drawings by Graham Nickson), and serves as an arbiter of current reading (reviews of fiction, poetry nonfiction, and other media by five experienced reviewers).
The range of styles, tones, and intentions here is impressive, from Tracy Daughtery’s short fiction, “Very Large Array,” with its casual, conversational approach, to an essay by J. Hillis Miller, “’Mr. Sludge, C’est Moi,’ the Conflict of Media,’” which “tests out Derrida’s proposition about the socio-politico-personal-performative effects of a change in media by looking at an example of the collision of two media in Robert Browning’s poem, ‘Mr. Sludge,’ ‘The Medium.’” I particularly appreciated the “performative effects” of a story by Claire Vaye Wakins, “Ghosts, Cowboys,” which begins: “The day my mom checked out, Razor Blade Baby moved in. And at the end I can’t help thinking about beginnings.”
Nickon's drawings are utterly amazing. Intricate, detailed black and white renditions of human figures against the beach/oceans, highlighting the body’s musculature and juxtaposing the angles of lifeguard chairs, umbrellas, towels, and wooden bridges with the body’s limbs and gestures. These images may sound trivial. But, they are not. The contributors’ notes indicate that Nickson’s work presents a “sense of the uncanny.” And I can think of no better way to describe them.
I think “uncanny,” is, in fact, a fair assessment of the
magazine. Unexpected. Uncommon. Uncanny. From fiction to poetry,
this is serious work intended for serious readers, but it
manages to not be dour or dowdy, and to succeed at being
fresh (new, engaging) without being fresh (overtly edgy, sly,
coy, or showy).
Iodine Poetry Journal
Volume 10 Number 2
Review by Julie Israel, Pacific University
Just as the mother of a large family on a tight budget attempts Christmas shopping by making her dollars work magic, so Iodine Poetry Journal is economic with its pages; by spending space only on poems that will satisfy in numerous ways, the poetry journal fulfills and exceeds expectations. This volume, like the foolproof gift of assorted chocolates, captures an array of artfulness. The goods of both established and emerging writers are found here, all under a cover adorned with an abstract painting by editor Jonathan K. Rice, who is also a visual artist.
Readers hungry for a story-like, narrative element will be dazzled by poems with the most subtle dusting of the mystical, including poems which double as ballads, fairy tales, or fables. See the first stanza of Mark Belair’s “The Amateur,” which could easily be a song or nursery rhyme:
My friend from Bombay
told the story of an uncle
who, late in the day,
sang beautifully – but
only if unbidden.
The speaker in T. Patrick Hanson’s “Arrogant Crescent” makes the moon into a living entity, like something from an ancient and forgotten tale. In one of Amy MacLennan’s entries, the title itself seems a moral: “Be Grateful for Running Water.” Her poem tells the story of a pregnant woman who falls into a well, and (spoiler alert!) leaves the reader with a fable-like outcome:
The villagers must drink
the common water, the ground
too hard yet to break. They wash
with her, drink tea made
from the fall of her hair,
cook meals for the lone man who,
come spring, will dig twice.
Move to the next row of sweets and you’ll enter the world of dreams: Larsen Bowker’s “A German Opera in Portugal” combines the narrator’s subconscious regret with Wagner, all in his sleep. Close by are the darker morsels, the stark emotional poems. In these you’ll find ruminations like Robert Cooperman’s “About Everything,” which shows a husband by the hospital bed of his second wife. He realizes he has taken her for granted as his fingers rub “gentle prayers into her hand.” A hurricane outside makes the lights flicker all the while.
Thumb a few pages more and you may find a new strand of
literary pieces: Here one laden with biblical references, there
a snapshot of history or perhaps a nugget filled with rhythm and
thought. In short, this issue of Iodine Poetry Journal
may be seen as a series of vibrant explosions. As Richard Allen
says in his poem, titled appropriately the “Essence of Art”:
writing presented like this is the “the gallery of the universe
itself, exploding, still exploding, taking us along for the
Review by Xiao Palmer, Pacific University
Mandorla subtitles itself “New Writings from the Americas” and also identifies itself in Spanish as: “Nueva Escritura de las Américas.” The magazine is a bilingual collection of essays, poetry, short stories, and excerpts published mostly in untranslated English and Spanish. If you are uncomfortable with the conventions of Spanish-language literature, the fast switches from one style to another may require you to adjust your expectations. You’ll need to embrace some confusion.
If this warning does not dissuade you, certainly give Mandorla – particularly this volume – a try. The overall theme appears to be mystery and weirdness, and no time is wasted jumping straight to it. You’ll move through a disjointed interview with a made-up Los Angeles celebrity concerning AIDS to an essay about an infamous Latin American transvestite and the difficulties that come with writing about trans individuals to multiple poems about toothaches, gemstones, runny eggs, and the orbits of planets. Pieces run throughout this publication about subjects that probably would never occur to most people to think deeply about, much less write about and show a wider audience, but each is provoking and even edifying.
Best of all, the majority of these pieces are written beautifully – even I, who does not speak Spanish fluently – can recognize the gorgeous cadence and choice of words in, for example, Jessica Díaz’s poem “Puchero” (“Ese pez de cara triste / mueve su boca de / puchero de arriba / a abajo / parece preguntarse / ¿qué hago aqui?”).
There are also a few photographs included (and an essay by one of the photographers, explaining his inspirations and creative process), which are always sparse and strange and never in color. But they efficiently add to the eeriness and oddity of the journal overall.
And at nearly 400 pages for only $10, Mandorla is
certainly worth a read, and the price.
A Journal of Narrative Nonfiction
Volume 11 Number 1
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Editor Daniel W. Lehman says his own stories seem like dreams: “Real-life writing sometimes is that way: the stakes are high; the details sting.” In a world where what constitutes “real” (nonfiction) and invented (fiction) is not merely blurred but often obliterated, the stakes are, indeed, very high. And River Teeth deserves high praise for recognizing and honoring the difficulty of the task and for selecting work that respects readers’ commitment to and on-going interest in the nonfiction enterprise. Alongside the masterful work of well-known prose stylists Rebecca McClanahan (an interview with her also appears in the issue) and Brent Spencer, there are worthwhile essays here by ten other writers.
These essays are marked by appealing and credible voices; competent prose; stories worth sharing; and a decided absence of self-indulgence in the telling. Most have unusually engaging openings. “The Cow” (and this essay is about a cow!) begins: “David Branning starts every morning at 4:30 a.m. with 100 sit-ups, 150 push-ups, half a hoagie from the local deli, a large coffee, and an ibuprofen pill the size of a piece of chalk.” Lehman is right, it’s the details that sting. That half a hoagie! Jill Christman’s essay about the death of her fiancé fifteen years ago and the recent birth of her daughter, “The River Cave,” begins: “In my twenties, many years before my daughter was born, I had a question: in a crazy, dangerous world where wars are fought and children are neglected and starving, in a world where six year-olds are raped and dogs are abandoned in paper bags on highways, in a world where young women want so desperately to be thin they stick their fingers down their throats to purge all that is wrong and bad – in a world like this, can I really have a baby?” Lehman is right again, the stakes are high.
I liked very much an essay by Chris Rose, “Hell and Back,” for its unsentimental honesty, paced just right (“Before I continue this story, I should make a confession.”); Mark Massé’s “Transformer. How a Tough Tragedy Shaped a Journalist’s Mission,” a timely consideration of reporting on the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma; a grim exploration of the murder of nine men in Cape Town in 2003 by Mark Behr; and Kathy Fagan’s “Autumn,” which can certainly claim the most intriguing opening line of any essay in the volume (maybe in any volume): “I’m writing this quickly – I have to rush out to buy coyote urine.” I won’t spoil the story for you, but I will urge you to read this clever and moving essay.
In Gretchen Clark’s interview with McClanahan which closes
the issue, McClanahan describes the nonfiction writer’s job: “to
shape the text so that its truth is visible.” River Teeth
is visibly wonderful.
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
The title page of this inaugural issue lists Mary Gordon, Paul Muldoon, and Michael Burke as the “featured contributors” – pretty impressive for the debut of any magazine. All the more impressive when we realize, though one has to read the contributor’s notes to figure this out, that The Round is essentially an undergraduate student publication. Nowhere does the journal announce affiliations, but several writers, all undergrads at Brown University, are credited with being co-founders of the magazine in their contributor’s note. The issue opens with a foreword by Gordon who compares the writing in this issue – at least in its aim to “invoke large terms” to Donne, Herbert, Dickinson, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Flaubert, Proust, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, both Eliots, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Auden, James, Cather, Faulkner, Welty, Porter, Trever, Coetze, and Morrison. This magazine’s work will remind us, she says, that “literature is beautiful and joyous and the place where we [are] reminded what it is to be most fully and richly alive.”
While I think Gordon’s claims for the work presented here may be overly generous, I agree that these poems, stories, and short dramatic works are inclined toward “large terms.” They are not small, narrowly focused exercises. Take, for example, Elizabeth Metzger’s poem, “The Turning Point,” which begins:
There’s something dread about living here
if the sky turns out a curtain.
This is the turning point I tell him
the loose gold threads behind it, maybe wires.
How did this come to be he says,
meaning how did I.
Or Daniel Loedel’s essay “A Defense of the Moment,” which considers the “language of greatness” and what makes some writer’s work enduring and while other work feels only of the moment. Or Daria Marinelli’s short, allegorical fantasy drama “Beforeward,” whose characters are “where,” “when,” “who,” “what,” and “how.”
While this work avoids, for the most part, easy-breezy tones
and simplistic poetic solutions to complex human problems, it
is, nonetheless, often not fully realized. The pieces sometimes
read like young drafts of writing that has achieved a certain
level of competence, but seems not-quite-ready-for prime-time.
Excerpts from Alex Verdolini’s inventive fiction “Arabesques,”
concludes “I wanted to give a few of these stories, these
islands, to you. So that, on your way across the water, you will
have a place to rest and watch the sun set on the sea.” I
applaud Verdolini and her classmates’ efforts to broach “large
terms,” appreciate the sentiment as well as the island metaphor
here, and look forward to watching these writers develop.
Santa Monica Review
Volume 21 Number 2
Review by Katie Dressler, Pacific University
The Santa Monica Review has little space for drawings or photographs. From cover to cover, pages are packed with writing presented in a generic font as though it were simply a college essay waiting to be graded. It is rare to see a nationally distributed literary arts journal with a layout entirely devoted to sharing high quality writing without unnecessary visual distractions.
Published twice a year, the magazine promotes work by both well-known and promising authors. While I enjoyed the ten selections, I did find it difficult to determine which genre each belonged to. The contributors’ notes provided this crucial bit of information and some background on each author, yet I would have liked to know from the start whether I was reading fiction or nonfiction. The editors do dedicate opening pages, or what is titled the “AB INTRA,” to excerpts that tease at the content while also providing a suspenseful look into what’s to come – minus clues on genre, of course.
All ten excerpts did grab my attention. Dawna Kemper’s story entitled “Rondo” is presented with this alluring quote:
Mother told me once that my father died on the day I was born. This detail, along with the heroic swamp business, was all she would say, and eventually I grew weary of asking. But, oh, that night rescue mission – that was mine, and in childhood, in that drifty free-floating state just before sleep, I played it out on an endless, murky reel.
I enjoyed the sneak peek and found myself eager to move forward.
Matthew Crain’s essay titled “Emphasis Mine” starts out in the form of a letter and creates an intimate bond between author and reader. Not only are styles diverse throughout this issue, the content is as well. Nina Dutkevitch’s story, “Nady,” introduces us to a character from Cambodia while Steve De Jarnatt’s essay, “Chronicles of an Umbra Hound,” describes the splendor of Australia’s outback. Language is vivid throughout the journal and it is easy to become immersed in each author’s work.
The length of these pieces, some quite substantial, is
unusual in literary magazines. While this editorial preference
limits the number of authors the Santa Monica Review
publishes with each issue, it does allow the reader a
fuller grasp of each author’s work and the chance to stay
immersed in good storytelling. Overall, this issue is unique and
worth a good sit down.
Review by Kathlene Postma, Pacific University
Winners of the Third Coast fiction and poetry contests are announced on the first pages of this issue, with a justification for their choices written by judges Stuart Dybek (fiction) and David Rivard (poetry). The gambler in me skipped those pages and went right into the content of the magazine hoping to suss out the winning pieces. Would anything distinguish their work from regular submissions, except they got publication and a thousand bucks for their effort? Maybe it was the frame of mind in which I read, or the preference of the editors, but there seems an element of risk, physical and spiritual, running throughout the writing in this issue.
Jim Daniel’s poem, “Last Night a Reckless Cyclist,” in which the driver almost hits a cyclist while driving his troubled teenage son home from school, is a conversation on responsibility. The speaker’s son and the cyclist merge:
My wife asks is he alright?
I don’t know, I say, I don’t know.
He didn’t have a light, I say.
Everybody has a light, she does not say.
I’ll keep trying to find it, I don’t say.
That’s a dark street, she says.
I approach literary magazines with a fear that technical sophistication will win out over the stuff of the heart when it comes to editorial choices, but the pieces in this issue show a fine blend of both. The speaker or character questions and then gracefully submits to larger forces. Technique is done well and often with stunning results. This is especially true of Jose Rivera’s play, “Yellow,” which, along with a superb essay by Beth Alvarado, reminds us there is a war on and that heaviness touches all of us.
The magazine offers a lot – four genres, book reviews, a Q & A with poet Marvin Bell, and yes those prize winners. So how did I do? I was spot on with my choice of Ashley Shelby’s story “Winter-Over.” She takes the reader to the Antarctica where her characters’ foes are not the landscapes, but themselves. This detail rich story is full of surprises and humor. I was also gunning for “A Body Running” by Josie Milliken. I liked the story’s competitive spirit and its relentless drive toward illumination.
And the poetry winner? I wanted it to be Jen McClanaghan, whose poem begins,
Joseph E. McClanaghan will no longer be driving –
This isn’t a small matter, his being dead, so I thought
you should know.
I’m his daughter.
That one struck close to home for me, but the prize winning “The Skeptic’s Prayer” by Gray Jacobik, opened up on a second read. This plea, directed to “Dear Space,” takes time to absorb. The repetitions are reminiscent of an Old Testament psalm, but it is space, not a god, who is conjured and honored:
who coats the swan’s down with lanolin;
who sculpts the snow and casts the thief
who brings fisherman back
to port and the prodigal to his knees
Judge David Rivard writes of the poem, "[W]hat kind of skeptic
would address himself to a Maker whose existence seems so
doubtful? One who would like to believe, in spite of himself.”
That essential conundrum repeats itself in startling and
satisfying forms throughout this issue of Third Coast.
Volume 11 Number 1
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
“If you’re not seized by dread you’re not paying attention.” “We are now recognizing each other’s humanity, are connected and transformed by each other’s experiences. Or so we hope.” Do these statements contradict each other? Yes! Do they represent the realistic dichotomy of American life in the current moment? Yes! Do they summarize the dual themes of “dread” and “hope” that organize the work in this issue of Tin House? Yes!
Ever a model of design delight, this issue juxtaposes “dread” and “hope” with an upside down/backwards presentation. One side is dread; flip it over, the other side is hope. The journal’s business info and an abundance of fiction appear in “hope.” “Dread” is sort of disembodied. Is this to be expected or a surprise?
I love Tin House, despite its pretensions. And this dread/hope issue is terrific. “Dread” is a short story by the now ubiquitous Ander Monson (is there a genre in which he hasn’t proven himself to be a star?); poetry by Sophie Cabot Black, Mathea Harvey, and a number of other poetry stars; essays by Alex Lemon, Montana Wojczuk, Curtis White, and the fabulous novelist Sigrid Nunez (her last novel was the most under-rated fiction of its decade). Did you know she was the lover of Susan Sontag’s son David? I confess, I did not. Is that a kind of dread, that we have or will miss the obvious or what everyone else knows? The Nunez piece is a scathing, almost voyeuristic, and for that reason utterly engaging, glimpse of Susan Sontag.
“Hope” is fiction by Karen Russell, Alaa Al Aswany, Michael Byers, Michael Dahlie, and Abigail Thomas; poetry by Matthea Harvey (hope and dread!!) and – indeed, for the absolute essence of hope for his exquisite, elegant, heartbreaking verse – the late Mahmoud Darwish. If you love poetry, not to know Darwish’s work is, indeed, dreadful. There are interviews with popular novelist Lorie Moore and writer and painter Breyen Bretyanbach; an essay by Corey Doctorow and several short and original “Lost and Found” entries that explore the works of William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Patchen, and John Donovan. Nothing more hopeful than the idea that work of the past still resonates.
Dread or hope, the work is beautiful, original, memorable.
And, as always, Tin House is gorgeous. “We live in hope,”
concludes the Editor’s Note to the hope side of the equation.
Here’s hoping – and believing – the next issue will be as
Volume 6 Number 2
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
A special theme issue on play and the absurd, which includes the Children’s Poetry Contest Winners, an interview with composer Ruth Fazal, who sets excerpts (some of which appear here) of the widely acclaimed and popular book of children’s writings, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, from the Terezin concentration camp, to music; Ariela Freedman’s essay, “Letter from Jerusalem”; reviews; and more than two dozen playful poems. Contributors include the prolific and well known writer Lorna Crozier and a contributor too young to have made much of a name for himself yet, four-year old Mikhael Dylan Auerbach, who – absurdly or at least incredibly – “is currently interested in Spiderman, trains, soccer, and copying Old Masters like Braque, Matisse, and Da Vinci.” His drawings are exceptional, and if he really is only four, this is not so much absurd as frightening!
Poems exhibit varying types of playfulness. There are inventive explorations of language, Sean Howard’s “Shadowgraph 25: THE DIRECT PATH HAS NOT BEEN OPENED,” for example, which considers “poetry detected in james franck’s nobel physics lecture, 1925”; and Katherine Anderson’s “ABRACADABRA,” an abc acrostic (“After all the aching why be anxious or anorexic.”). There are poems about the act of play or playful activity, such as Wanda Campbell’s “Taking My Daughters Tubing” and Ruth Roach Pierson’s “A Hard Nut to Crack” (though this is, admittedly, not about play as “fun,” but play in the service of distress). There are allegorical poems (“The Cat & the Fool” by R.D. Reeve), and poems about nature’s playful nature (“Lid” by Priscilla Atkins).
Freedman’s brief essay about the origins of modern Hebrew is
lovely, and the interview with Fazal about the process of
creating her Oratorio Terezin is instructive. Vallum does
an admirable job of presenting an intelligent and generous view
of its theme. The next issue’s theme is “luck.” I’ll take my
Review by Henry F. Tonn
This lit mag specializes in flash fiction and publishes stories on a regular basis nine months of the year. Then they publish their Top 50 selections: fifty short fictions that come from other journals. Several editors from Wigleaf routinely monitor what is being published throughout the country, select the two hundred they like best, and send these stories to another editor who chooses the fifty he judges to be the best of the best. A wearying process to be sure, but it makes for some great reading.
My favorite among the fifty was “Flies” by Roy Kesey, published by Hobart, about a little leaguer who actually hates baseball and prefers to catch real flies in right field rather than the ones hit to him. The author gives us a riveting description of the child’s attention focused on a fly buzzing around him while the game is going on, and when the inevitable crack of the bat sends a ball flying his way, he is hardly prepared. The last paragraph gives a denouement that is just perfect for flash fiction, a splendid ending.
“Hail Vulgar Juice Of Never-Fading Pine” by Kevin Wilson, published by Juked, presents the sordid tale of a young man who watches his father change dramatically upon the death of his mother. Parties are thrown in which people dress up in bizarre costumes and drink peculiar concoctions such as tar water. “The drink tasted like roofing tiles, sun-baked and soft, and I tried not to gag.” In the end a change comes over him that he and the father may eventually regret.
Another very good story is “Ankles” by Tai Dong Huai, published by Thieves Jargon, about a young girl who is trying to impress a boy she really likes at the swimming pool. “You’ve known about this possibility and you’ve hoped for it. You’ve worn your one-piece swimsuit under your t-shirt and cut-offs. You’ve brought a towel, an eco-friendly one, the one made from organic terry cotton. And you’ve packed sun block – Bull Frog SPF 45 – even though you never, ever burn, hoping he might ask to rub some on your back.” Unfortunately, the poor child makes a terrible gaffe. Wonderful writing here.
I would be remiss if I did not mention “Intercourse” by Robert Olen Butler, published by Vestal Review, about the last night on earth of Attila the Hun, with his new bride, Pannonia. “A sudden warmth deep in my throat like the bloom on the chest of an enemy as the arrow flies in and I cannot draw a breath and I lift up and try again and again…” Great stuff.
It is an accepted fact that the attention span of Americans is shortening. Therefore, flash fiction may be the future. If so, then Wigleaf is a good place to learn about this phenomenon. [www.wigleaf.com]
Review by Steven Ellerd, Pacific University
This is a thick, meaty text. At slightly more than 350 pages, this publication looks brilliant standing toe-to-toe with any anthologies you have marching across your shelf. The volume is packed with fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from over 50 contributors. The cover is described as a Po-Collage, a combination of poetry and visual art, by artist Valery Oisteanu. The collage of cupids striking at Siamese twins under the cover of umbrellas lends a threatening edge to a broad context. Appropriate, as the entire issue is devoted to commemorating the twenty years since the fall of Communism in Europe as depicted through the writing of mostly Eastern Europeans. The selected writings echo the disjointed nature between the menaces of both the past and present. The most striking example of the issue's focus comes in the opening stanza of William Doreski's moving “Life Studies.”
In Russia and Poland the snow
rests so firmly on the graves
of my ancestors it anchors me
to the sentiment of windy
treeless plains and war-rumpled cities
rebuilt in faceless concrete.
The fiction tends to be brief, but the impact and legacy of autocratic governments frames short explosions of intensity. Sharon Kae Reamer's “Republikflucht” combines an element of wistful supernaturalism with dogged determination to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall and its final victim. Balancing such hope is the bittersweet story of a gypsy boy's ambitions clashing with family obligations in Daniela Petrova's “Orpheus Ascending in Fakulteta Mahala.” An anxious Ivo is caught between the world of his own desires and the weight of history, and the reader is drawn into the pain of Ivo with the finality of a gunshot.
This dichotomy of what the dissolution of Communism could have meant and what actually occurred in the span of twenty years is showcased in Romanian poet Andrei Codrescu's opening essay “Return to Romania: Notes of a Prodigal Son.” He traces his several visits back to Romania in the 1990's and punctuates his observation with lamentation for how the new Capitalists were old Communists with new tricks. What the reader takes away is a multi-faceted view of what freedom really means to a society entrenched in attitudes of complacency older than any political system.
Of course, what guest editor Andrei Guruianu writes is true
as well: “[T]he idea of borders and divisions, economic and
political struggles, fractured identities and an uncertain
future struck a chord with writers around the world.” You can
find them in these pages, where the topic spreads to Lyz Lenz's
Korean story, “The Grandmaster,” and Susan Deer Cloud's poem, “My
Gypsies.” The emotions and truths that resonate with the topical
theme of the issue expand far across any static expectations of
the reader. What you receive in the Yellow Medicine Review
is a rich banquet stuffed with everything lean, the fat