Posted September 18, 2012
Assaracus :: Bellingham Review :: Blue Collar Review :: Cave Wall :: Five Points :: FLARE :: Indiana Review :: The Kenyon Review :: The Liner :: Louisiana Literature :: Monkeybicycle :: Moonshot :: Skidrow Penthouse :: South Dakota Review :: Versal :: Verse Wisconsin :: Whitefish Review :: Workers Write!
A Journal of Gay Poetry
Review by Aimee Nicole
Assaracus, a journal dedicated to providing a stage for gay poets and poetry, is a part of Sibling Rivalry Press, which also prints Lady Business: A Celebration of Lesbian Poetry. Rather than including a slew of writers in each issue, Assaracus introduces about a dozen writers, each with a short biography, and then dives into a several page spread of their work. This really allows the reader to get to know each individual writer in depth, rather than just giving us a quick taste.
A couple of years ago, there was a series of suicides by university and high school students as a result of being bullied for their sexual orientation. In September 2010, Rutgers University Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington bridge after his roommate secretly filmed him kissing another boy and posted it on the internet. Former Rutger’s student Anthony Lioi writes a poem to Clementi in this issue called “A Spell for Tyler Clementi”:
Sweet ghost, dear Tyler, it’s time to gather
up the bits of you spread out across the Web:
the pose of Clementi-playing-violin, the grief
of your parents, the roommate’s mug shots . . .
That same month of his suicide, four other teenagers took their lives, and celebrities and media brought a lot of attention to this epidemic, calling it a wake-up call. For many, myself included, poetry was our means of response.
In his poem “Opposites of Straight,” Jonathan Bracker takes the time to describe what being gay is, and what it is not:
Not: queer, crooked, wayward, out-of-joint,
Gnarled, wizened, bandy, bowed,
Crippled, snaking, knock-kneed, askew,
Maimed, deviating, knurled—
Many people don’t realize how hurtful labels can be, and I have never thought of the words “curving” and “bending” as being so beautiful. Bracker turns a list into a flowing, liquid, breathing animal that lures you in with its mesmerizing language.
But Assaracus isn’t just a magazine about being gay and the ridicule and pain that many have experienced; it is a magazine about passion. Patrick Stevens contemplates music and music composition in his poem “Heroes and Villains”:
Those who claim that music
should be simple should be
hunted and their pianos
smashed for lack of knowledge
lyrics are lesser things boys and girls and charms and love but a melodious
craft is not for
the two-chord proletariat
it is to be slaved over
composed of feathered angels
yellow poppy opiates
the sudden wings of doves
tucked inside the scientific structure of a parabolic curve and if you are lost
assume that music composition is not for you
Music has developed into a digital production, and some forms have lost the raw realness that used to be an essential component. Stevens challenges music composers to reflect on the music they are producing and to consider whether or not is up to par.
To introduce his poem “Amadou Diallo’s Ghost Reminisces,” Dean Kostos quotes The New York Times: “An unarmed West African immigrant with no criminal record was killed on February 4, 1999 by four New York City police officers who fired 41 shots at him in the doorway of his Bronx apartment building.”
“Police—hold it. Stay there”
But they wore jackets & jeans. I fumbled
with keys, couldn’t—
“Turn around. Keep your hands
where we can see them,” they snarled.
Shouts from every angle—
a hive of vices.
I couldn’t think, couldn’t act
my keys, the ice cream.
This defenseless man was shot 41 times. It is an incredible thing to give someone a voice who does not have the ability to speak. After bullets have drilled into his body over and over, the narrator slips away from us saying: “My forty-one eyes gleaming.”
From the first page to the very last of this issue, I was mesmerized. The writing not only entranced and entertained me, it taught me about life, about love, and about the human condition.
Volume 35 Issue 64
Review by Mary Florio
You will love the most recent Bellingham Review on a microscopic level; you will love it on a macroscopic level. You will find considerable literary achievement down to the expert punctuation. The writers in this journal have a mastery of plot and a quiet rebellion of framing stories in segments. When reading this journal—as long as you aren’t in a subway—you will discern almost aurally a powerful philosophical clarity.
Becky Hagenston’s “The Afterlife,” which is the last story in the issue, evidences a great gift of language in addition to a unique talent for plot and pacing. The story concerns a woman traveling to Russia in the wake of an accident that has rendered her husband a living “ghost,” a man in a near vegetative state with no memory of his wife or their shared life. The details of the St. Petersburg tour contrast starkly with her emotional voyage; one reads of a lost passport in clean metaphor to the loss of a different passage back. And while the story is tightly crafted, it is poignantly experiential: “She could imagine all of this so clearly that it was as if it had already happened, a memory in reverse.”
It is not a nameless depression that makes the protagonist ask, “How do you get through the day when night never comes?” It is not a modern emptiness that cauterizes her memory; it is a loss more like a bubbling burn: “He was the ghost of her husband . . . wavering between worlds.” I am shocked by the ending—the mastery of her style that allows her to weave between time and place and the topography of emotion. “Sometimes when she’s talking to Jeffrey, she’ll be thinking about the tourists skating on their paper slippers over ballroom floors, as if they’re at a party that no one among the living can remember.”
What happens when a parent loses faith in Dostoevsky? The answer may rest in the ability to organize information that is delivered in manners consistent with the reader’s lifestyle. Bellingham Review is a resurrection of the classical elements of literature one loves—organization, exercises in measured, effective phrases and sentences, a commitment to telling a story that works on large landscapes even if the dramatic action takes place on a simple platform. The magazine succeeds in keeping classical elements in sturdy use but also speaks to a reader that accepts information in the format of the day.
You can see this averment characterized on the microcosm of their award winners. The prize-winning poem, Jennifer Militello’s “A Dictionary of Mechanics, Memory, and Skin in the Voice of Marian Parker,” draws on history and a strong subjective grounding in nonfiction. Jay Torrence’s nonfiction piece “Buckshot” reads like a poem; the story’s segmentation is successful and the fluidity of ideas link effortlessly and skillfully. Judge Ira Sukrungruang also attributes the “lyrical impulse” as one of the reasons why “Buckshot” secured First Place.
Lauri Anderson won the First Place fiction award for “Hand, Mouth, Ring,” and her style borrowed heavily from a memoir organization and essay. For years, American teenagers have been taught to write nonfiction like fiction. After the re-popularization of literary journalism in the 1960s, Wolfe and Talese and Capote captured the academy’s imagination and the expectations of a nation. What’s fun with Anderson’s piece is that she reverses the tactic—“Hand, Mouth, Ring” steals trope after trope of an essay, but then slyly pulls back and casts the story as fiction. The pacing, plot and characters—coupled with the brutal economy of measured language of essayists like Susan Orlean—is an example of crossing genres and styles that make the modern reader okay with skipping over metaphysics just for a few minutes to try out something daring.
Paul Byall’s “Do You Remember Me” continues the tradition of holding up disparate parts of a narrative in a cohesive enterprise, and he does so in the second person. Daisy Hernández unpacks Santeria with a demure magic. “The more we live with a thing, the more ordinary it becomes,” she writes while narrating an important discovery about faith and family: “padrino, and collares—is part of an oral language in my world, and yet here in this book, the words are written down, stationed among commas, squeezed between periods, as if they were important, as if they were real.”
The problem with reviewing Bellingham Review is that it is uniformly excellent: all of it, without any discernible exception. David Meischen’s short fiction “Crossing Over” took the top of my head off. Manda Frederick’s “What a Poem Can Be,” an interview with Robert Wrigley was engaging and inspiring. Sarah Marty-Schlipf’s “Feet” made me hungry for rain. Patrick Hunt’s “Sooyoung at the Shore” was better than anything in The New Yorker in the past three years. Rebecca McClanahan resurrected Manhattan on a two-dimensional plane in her short nonfiction “Sublet.”
Here I am, out of words, full of other people’s dreams expertly executed, and I haven’t even broken the membrane of the poetry. I think you’ll agree that we need to see more of these talented writers.
Volume 15 Issue 3
Review by Sarah Carson
The editor’s note of this issue of Blue Collar Review reads, “We must not allow ourselves to become demoralized or cynical because to do so would be suicide. As poets, we must reclaim our culture and its narrative of community, solidarity and social conscience, recognizing the power of culture in defining our identity and vision.”
In our current political and cultural climate, this issue of the Blue Collar Review reads as especially urgent and timely. The work in the issue says what it means and means what it says. The poems are straight-forward and without nuance, but they offer glimpses into a wide range of blue collar perspectives.
For example, there’s Neal Zirn’s energetic “Working Early,” which offers a glimpse into the routine of two milkmen who complete their deliveries while most people are asleep:
It’s 4 am on Saturday morning,
summertime, milk bottles rattling
in their metal cages. My door is
an accordion, like those on school buses.
And the air outside has the promise
of sandlots, girls in peddle pushers,
and long rides in the country.
Judith Robbins’s “The Morning After Payday” is a more elegiac take on the blue collar life, recounting memories of a life lived from paycheck to paycheck:
How much money is left? she asked,
I rummaged through my father’s pockets,
the wallet empty, but two dollars
and ten cents in the pants.
And, as one might expect, there are plenty of poems of protest, like “Ace of Pentacles” by J.T. Whitehead:
People with money
are funny, honey.
Give one of them
an outdated 8-horse team
& he thinks he owns speed
The back cover of the issue features this quote from Adrienne Rich: “Write as if your life depended on it; write across the chalkboard, putting up there in public the words you have dredged; sieved up in dreams, from behind screen memories, out of silence—words you have dreaded and needed in order to know you exist.”
It’s a quote that sums up not just the purpose of a publication like Blue Collar Review, but also why a journal this is worthy of being read.
Review by Aimee Nicole
Published twice a year, Cave Wall is dedicated to publishing the best contemporary poetry it can get its hands on. This family-run magazine is based out of Greensboro, North Carolina. I was fortunate enough to attend a reading where Editor Rhett Iseman Trull read her own poetry and participated in a Q & A. She was down to earth and intriguing, just like this edition of Cave Wall. The issue includes black and white art by Dan Rhett that compliments the poetry very well.
A poem by Matthew Thorburn exemplifies some of the best imagery I have ever come across. “A Fukuoka Wedding” contemplates a wedding and the people who are celebrating. Even though the readers are not in attendance, they can see and hear as if they are sitting in the pews.
She floated by in her shiro-maku—
so many rustly, puffy layers. So many
shades of white. Silver-white cranes glide
across a snowy field, or so it seemed
in that particular light. . . .
Even the choice of using italics gives the impression of words gliding across the page. Through Thorburn’s specific description, I was able to create the event, people, and attire. However, I felt like an outsider, a stranger who wasn’t even invited to show up to the wedding. Smartly, the narrator was also an outsider:
But the ceremony
took place in the dark
wooden shrine, where we weren’t allowed
to go—”ONLY FAMILY”—so we
watched them walk in, then stood
on the gravel path: hands in pockets, ticking
watches, talking and sweating.
Rather than becoming the narrator and identifying with the narrator on a more personal level, Thorburn allows the reader to watch as the events unfold.
Tory Adiksson takes a different approach in his poem “Anecdote of the Rabbit.” The narrator is a young child whose mother hits a rabbit with her car while they are driving late at night. I have always been sensitive to people hitting squirrels while driving and stepping on ants for fun. Before reading this poem, I thought I was the only one not desensitized to the value of animal life. Adiksson comments on the subject, and her opinion almost seems to chastise the human race. The second stanza is riveting:
After all, it was summer. No time for grieving.
Later, barbecuing, she’d daub
chicken thighs & pork shoulders
with marinade like a ceramicist
applying glaze. We’d sit at the table,
waiting for her to arrange meat & vegetables
on plates, setting them before us.
We didn’t acknowledge
anything: what happened after we hit the rabbit
was fiction: the stories we tell ourselves
over & over to keep the guilt in our bodies
from stirring, not even for a minute.
Our everyday lives have become the ultimate importance, and how we affect others can take the backseat. The mother has no remorse and no visual guilt for killing the rabbit. There are many different theories on how we as a race have become detached from the rest of the living life on our planet (for example, the media), but we bury our heinous acts under barbecues and routine.
Dan Albergotti writes a poem to a woman called “What I Wanted to Tell Her about Hell.” Through his description, she is clearly gorgeous, yet also an icy princess that spurned him in the past.
You would adapt, you know. And then (why not?) do well
down there amidst the brimstone, fire, and ash. You’re hot, my dear.
You’d rule that damned scene. Your ass could make Satan quake with fear,
each breast could strike ten minor demons dumb, those lips
that formed goodbye (my own apocalypse)
By the end of the poem, Albergotti is not subtle with his feelings for the woman and tells her to “Go there” (to hell). He built a clever little poem that was short and to the point. Sometimes I find it refreshing to just sit down and enjoy a piece of poetry that does not lead me down a dozen roads open to vague interpretation. Cave Wall certainly excelled in presenting me with a variety of writing that commanded my attention.
Volume 14 Number 3
Review by Mary Florio
This issue of the internationally-renown literary journal is dedicated in memory to Virginia Spencer Carr who had passed in April of this year. Dr. Carr left a brimming trove of literary scholarship in her decades as a writer, researcher and professor, including what is considered her masterpiece biography: “The Lonely Hunter,” about Carson McCullers who was often critically classified as a Southern Realist. McCullers, Carr, and this journal share an affiliation—formal or otherwise—with the American South, including but not limited to Georgia State University, which sponsors Five Points, and where Dr. Carr taught for over two decades.
I read this publication twice in its entirety and several more times in parts with an ink pen. I found Debra Spark’s “Little World” to be an essential prose contribution to perceptions of Western expectations. I can’t divulge the shock of the ending, but this idea of literature and art in a “post-urban landscape” becomes pointedly applicable when the reader completes the short story.
Spark keeps good company with George Singelton’s “Ray Charles Shoots Wife Quenching Earth,” which is technically brilliant in its thematic cohesiveness, and with James Rioux’s essay, “Tattoos, Death Metal, Shaving, and Other Ironies,” that is so well-crafted on the plane of language poetry that the lines leap off the page and demand better placement, although they fit fine exactly where they are—ribbing the piece with beauty.
I appreciated the coverage of A.E. Stallings both in Beth Gylys’s interview with her four contributing poems. The interview provides excellent insight to Stallings’s craft as well as biography that illuminates instances of Stallings’s subject matter or even the complexity of emotion that is delivered powerfully, metrically.
I have to admit that the epitaph honoring Dr. Carr sent me straight out of urban Birmingham to New York and back South again, trying to understand the framework in which this journal was cast. I read McCuller’s prose and poetry but couldn’t obtain Dr. Carr’s landmark biography by e-Book, audio-book, or in our local bookstore. I wondered if the various movements of the literary South had permuted into anything that could survive in the new landscape. Of course, it does, and it does so in its own way. The journal is not “about” the South in subject choices or in stylistic execution; there are Greek poets with roots in Georgia, English-professor emissaries to Czech outparcels wobbling on democracy, a musician with an online moniker and a brilliant turn of phrase, a veteran of the Afghani War, a Fulbright winner who grew up down the block in Louisville Kentucky . . .
In review of the literature in this issue, we do not have a story that is prescript, even as many of the writers have at one time or another called the South home. Perhaps all of us Americans who are not “Northerners” are all “Southerners” in non-obvious ways, and we cannot be classified as quickly and easily as “Southern Gothic” or “Southern Realists” or any other tag slapped on a heritage—no quick-fix identity politics here. And maybe there’s time in this fluidity of place, a kind of salve in the philosophy of diversity, that in a global village we who read and write are all just down the block from each other, in the words of Carson McCullers, together “watch twice the orchard blossoms in gray rain,” or as Edward Hirsch puts it in “Two Clowns” that opens the issue: “a faint needle of moonlight threaded / the branches and we stumbled back / onto the path to circle home.”
The Flagler Review
Volume 23 Issue 1
Review by Sarah Gorman
This magazine’s name was recently changed from The Flagler Review (which is now its subtitle) to FLARE, and the content of this issue sparkles in ways that justify the title. In addition to poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and visual art, FLARE includes screenplays/plays as a regular feature.
The managing editors convey a sense of excitement as they introduce this issue: “We respect our roots, but it is time for us to venture into the unknown. It’s time for us to experiment with traditional and non-traditional works, to seek new and unique voices from across the world.” Contributor notes reveal associations with China, Greece, London, Samoa, India, Hong Kong, and the Czech Republic, as well as many states beyond Florida.
Two poems by Sarah Brown Weitzman, who retired to Florida after a career as a New York academic, grab the reader with their spare and passionate language. “In Rooms” and “Redheads” both glance gracefully off sexual allusions, but the power of each poem arises from its entirety. These are the last few lines of “Redheads”:
Though we’ve known the envy as ancient as henna
of other women, we grow up feeling different
within schools of darks, even blonds
and in being different there is pain and some doubt
about the recessive genes that produced us.
Odd though that we’re continually accused
of unnatural hues: “Are those tresses truly red?”
we’ve been asked all of our lives.
“Yes,” we reply, “really red,” proud too
of the private fire we can prove it by.
Among the four short stories, Athena Sasso’s “The Account in Question” opens with a burst of fluent charm flavored with what the author clearly likes about the South:
I was born on a pool table at the Flora-Bama Lounge. Mother told me about it when I was nine years old. Imagine the harm. Her account featured a banging window shutter and her moaning, one leg hiked up on the Florida side and the other hiked up on the Alabama side. The summer I turned fifteen, Mike Harper gave me a Playboy magazine for my birthday, and there was Miss July, laid out on a pool table with a cue ball balanced on her belly button. In a flash I knew Mother had confused the birth with the conception.
KJ Hannah Greenberg’s nonfiction piece “Writing as More than Bridges” includes the phrase “occasional weird choices in diction.” In their selection of the three works included here, the nonfiction editors of the magazine clearly subscribe to the elevation of such choices, perhaps indicating their version of venturing into the unknown.
The featured visual artist, Brianna Angelakis, contributes the four-color cover “Artemis on the Hunt” as well as three pieces reproduced in black and white, each representing a female figure. Two of these strong works, “Neurasthenia” and “The Crow Catcher,” powerfully convey emotion through realistic facial features and background detail imaginatively rendered. Angelakis, born in 1990, evinces a compelling talent that should have a bright future.
Laurence Klavan contributes the short two-character play, simply titled “Play,” in which he indicates that the children’s roles should be played by adults. In the play, the characters reveal family secrets and an innocent take on gender battles in their game of make-believe. Klavan’s dialogue captures both the idiosyncrasies and the universalities of the boy and the girl, as in this exchange where they act out the story of their first meeting:
ANNABELLE: I’ll play me. You play you. The story starts. Hi, Aaron. I’m Annabelle. I’m going to be your new strep-sister.
AARON: Oh yeah? I hate you! Having a strep-sister is like my butt!
[He pantomimes punching her and throwing her to the floor.]
ANNABELLE: What’d you do that for?!
AARON: Because that’s what I did when we met.
ANNABELLE: You were supposed to play that you were nice!
AARON: I was?
ANNABELLE: Yes. Now I’ll do this.
[She mimes kicking him over and over in the shins.]
AARON: But that didn’t happen!
ANNABELLE: Well, it should have! Or what’s the point of playing?
AARON: Oh . . . I get it now.
Readers of FLARE should get it now, after taking in the delights of this issue. Humor, intensity, insight, compassion, and a welcome humility mark the works presented here. Henry M. Flagler would be proud.
Volume 34 Number 1
Review by Mary Florio
Susan McCarty’s short fiction “Another Zombie Story,” in this issue of Indiana Review provides a flash of imagination that affirms hope in the midst of disaster. In ten linked thematic sections that are at times funny or ominous (but always insightful and compelling), the narrative warbles on a mysterious landscape, plays upon a portfolio of expectations and emerges resilient as the main character discovers love (and garden vegetables) against a backdrop of loss and instability. It is tightly drawn, lovely against an imagined—but all too real—wasteland. And isn’t darkly dramatic like other literary depictions of a wasteland: it rejects the nihilism that would characterize a wasteland; it teases along those shorelines and splashes right out of the water with a musical laughter you can hear through the pages.
You hear, in the literature of the Harlem Renaissance and the Post-Colonialist canon, creative work as a vehicle for social upheaval as a method for humanitarian repair. While one may speculate about the function of literature, I love it most when it speaks for the silenced. You can hear it second hand in this issue through Doug Paul Case’s review of Christopher Hennessy’s “Love-In-Idleness.” Case captures a metaphor of Hennessy’s as “affirm[ing] the validity of many queer youths’ lives: seventeen years of subterranean dormancy makes the song that much sweeter.” The lines that Case references from Hennessy’s poem are:
The cicada sleeps
underground for 17 years
to avoid the mantis and wasp.
But when it emerges, it sings.
There is no shame in that life.
No shame. You feel it in Natasha Sunderland’s debut short fiction “Eight, Nineteen, Twenty-Seven.” Her story is a love story, yes, but one made complex by the politics and traditions that have not yet changed, even though there are those calling out for that change. Sunderland does not confine the story to one kind of love—or one kind of loss. It is not like the short fiction of Justin Torres or Adam Haslett, which can peddle a sledgehammer. Sunderland succeeds in creating structural parallels that connect characters and ideas and traditions and expectations with the thinnest, strongest threads. The capacity of love for a wedded husband is neither greater nor lesser than a love for a lifetime lover; the vulnerability of heterosexual love is neither greater nor lesser than the vulnerability of homosexual love.
Political threads—such as the quiet revolution of a post-industrial town—emerge in Elise Winn’s “Presidents,” which isn’t about the loss of American industry overtly, but rather the story of a family that has been impacted by catastrophic job loss and the decimating of the manufacturing sector—not badly placed in a journal edited in the Midwest. Winn wields expert use of the second-person (the departing father) to convey the impact of economic devastation on a family, a community, a childhood. This scenario manifests itself in a vital message, without political fanfare or propaganda, and yet you feel it acutely.
Childhood is a large theme in this issue; children are frequently the narrators, or the vantage points of view, and play Tzadik roles even in the stories, poems or essays that are not directly framed by them. I’ve noticed a formula to stories narrated by children that have been published in the last few years; often times the writer will demonstrate or underscore a universal truth through the simple language and developmental delay of a child. The formula allows writers to speak very simply and justifies the poverty of language with the argument that a child wouldn’t move more quickly, elegantly or eloquently than the story that portrays such characteristics, and I find the pervasiveness of this trick to be overwhelmingly depressing. One story that evades this formula is Delphine Coulin’s short story “The Drops Falling from the Sheets,” translated by Paul Curtis Daw. The writing is rich with art, evokes it through to the end, quoted here:
And the shirt catches up with the dancing line of missing persons’ shirts, in the sky over the city’s noisy streets. It reaches the suburbs, then the countryside, and eventually the garments borne by the wind proclaim the existence of the desaparecidos throughout the continent. . . . There will be no forgetting, nor will there be pardon.
The disappearance of the political dissidents in Latin America might always be somewhere in the continental mind, looking as we do for literature that speaks against abuse, systemic or personal. But the sheets and shirts on the clothesline, often unseen, do not figure in the smallest ways against a tapestry of something as macroscopic as a pin on a map of foreign policy.
Sara Gelston invokes the “Other World” in her inventive avant-garde poem. In it, Gelston creates a fugue of simultaneity:
She prepares fika and poaches two eggs,
Stands in one doorway after another. You are both
walking home. You are both passing your streets by.
Gelson’s epitaph is a good grounding (“If we spoke a different language, would we perceive a somewhat different world.”). Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote, “The world is the totality of facts, not things.” And this spirit is not far from what Gelson magically achieves—facts, simultaneity, the fabulist Meaning, rather than any of the objects filling up our private spaces, our summarizing worlds.
Volume 34 Number 3
Review by Julie J. Nichols
This issue of The Kenyon Review sustains the journal’s well-deserved reputation as an elite, erudite vehicle for criticism, fiction, and poetry. It opens with a long essay by distinguished philosopher and essayist George Steiner. “Fragments (Somewhat Charred)” consists of philosophical observations on, or circling about, aphoristic phrases allegedly appearing on a charred scroll found in Herculaneum. Steiner deconstructs, linguistically and semantically, eight of these—phrases like “When lightning speaks it says darkness,” and “Evil is.” Of “When Arion sings why do I weep?” Steiner says “[it] encapsulates a perennial fascination by the powers and effects of music in Greek sensibility. An uneasy inquiry into the penetration of sung and instrumental music into the human psyche.” Later in the essay, he continues, “We know of no human community that lacks music. . . . Could a musical experience be the only human encounter with time made free of temporality as we know it in biological and psychological processes?” Such questions intrigue us; the effort to explore them deeply constitutes a rare offering.
Other essays include a brilliant, well-developed discussion of Robert Lowell’s political authority and influence with scholar Jeffrey Meyers; a haunting personal essay about the strangeness of living in New York, by poet Rebecca McClanahan (“Ginkgo Song”); and a dark, provocative piece on “Literature and Revolution in Contemporary Cairo (An Oriental Essay in Seven Parts)” by Youssef Rakha, “an Egyptian novelist with a sense of political commitment.” The diversity of these authors’ positions confirms the position of The Kenyon Review as an international journal of cultural commentary.
Roger Desy’s beautiful “Winter Famine” is fourteen lines, but it isn’t a sonnet. Nevertheless it ends with what I think is the loveliest single line in the journal: “across the brilliance of the stillness of the lattice of a crystal on its eye.” To reveal the context would require a reprint of the entire poem, which I wouldn’t do here, but be assured that the sibilance is earned, in image and in sound. Akin to William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark,” this one-sentence meditation on what it must be like for a deer dying of starvation (and yet, like all good poetry, so much more than that), with its varying white spaces and stumbling line breaks, makes us gasp as if we, too, lay dying in a snowdrift, “exhausted by the adrenalin / of the rut and still recovering.”
Bob Hicok’s “Elegy Owed” wakes us to the variety and elevation of lament:
I spoke moon, I wish the bottom of the ocean
were sitting in that chair playing cards
and noticing how famous you are
on my cell phone
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
were a cigarette I’d be cancer, if you
were a leaf, you were a leaf, every leaf, as far
as this tree can say
And Wyatt Prunty’s clever, technically sparkling “Reading the Map,” a literal and figurative navigation of an anniversary—”following a trail / That, in order to be read, is inaccurate to scale”—revives faith in contemporary poetry, with its almost-Renaissance couplets and its Donne-like contortion of image to modern marital vicissitudes.
The pleasure of Debra Allbery’s “Ledger” lies in the element of surprise. Any list, any accounting, can stack up images we might engage with, but here the unexpected details of “a small life” add up to a fine breath of a poem.
Hugh Sheehy’s startling “Meat and Mouth,” a horror story of awful tenderness, and Judy Troy’s “My Buried Life,” a sweet/sad coming-of-age story about a young teenager and the teacher she never had anything as small as a crush on, raise the stakes: not only the nonfiction and poetry, but also the fiction, is of the highest order.
My favorite story, however, is Stephen Taylor’s “Driving in Snow.” Here, structural agility—a lissome jumping from one time to another, arranged just so—is juxtaposed with unanticipated character developments, revealing the inextricable interrelationship of deceit and compassion over time. I would say that in this issue of TKR, fiction rules, but then so does poetry, and so do the essays. Each of these pieces in this issue of The Kenyon Review have the strength to stand alone. Taken all together, they constitute a resoundingly excellent volume.
Review by Justin Brouckaert
As far as inaugural issues are concerned, The Liner’s maiden voyage couldn’t have gone much smoother. The journal includes short fiction, poetry, art, and photography along with an original questionnaire that corresponds to each author bio.
The issue opens with Gina Zupsich’s “Paris Underground: An Olfactive Journey,” a descriptive piece of second-person flash fiction that acts as a tour guide for readers, urging them to venture into “the heart of the city.” While this wasn’t my favorite story in The Liner, I enjoyed its placement; much like the narrator in this piece, the story seems to be mirroring the feeling readers get when they get lost in a good story, the nostalgia they have when they are forced to put it down.
As you finally regain your composure and proceed to your next destination, you find your steps slowing, moving you as if against your will away from that magical spot in the cross-current of chocolate, smoke and bodies. You feel a tinge of premature nostalgia for this most peculiar thing you have just experienced. And when you reach the outdoor air, you will have the briefest flashback to that glorious pain au chocolat.
Sherard Harrington’s “Ghouls and Goblins” is a compilation of nervousness, low self-esteem, absurdity, and uncomfortable silence, right from the beginning as the main character, a girl named Iowa tells us, “A red polo shirt, a beige cap, and dark khaki pants—I even borrowed my ex-boyfriend’s gold club. I was Tiger Woods that night. It was the easiest Halloween costume I had come up with since the third grade.”
The story follows the narrator’s friend Clint, who has big plans for having a great time on Halloween. He needs Iowa’s reassurance throughout the story, and when she “gently fish[es] Shaggy’s car keys out of his front pocket,” reminding her friends that she has to work in the morning, there is a sense of peace, or at least of stillness at the close of this story that indicates she may have succeeded, at least in saving this night for her friend.
Caitlin E. Thomson’s “Firefly: A Fable” and Lisa Wong Macabasco’s “The Next Morning” each embrace the absurd more in their flash fiction pieces, with Thomson’s short story of a relationship between two characters being heavily shrouded in cryptic metaphor, and Macabasco’s tale reading like a cross between Franz Kafka and Donald Barthelme:
I don’t know how to say this. One day, I woke up and I saw a part of myself I had never seen before. You can think of it as a third eye, a third arm, a patch of bright green skin, a furry tail. It was new, it was strange, and it was unknown, unexplored. I thought, I want to tell my good friends about this. Then I noticed they were all gone.
The poetry in The Liner is among my favorite kinds: brief, clear, poignant. My favorite was Kenneth Pobo’s “Sides,” a short poem that blends a sense of mathematical order, hierarchy, and predictability in suburban life (“Our neighbor Benny likes tools / TV, and kids, pretty much in that order”) with the difference in opinion that becomes so much more inflamed among people in close quarters (“Benny loathes / gay people. I’m being polite. He / loathes faggots. Benny scowls at us.”)
The poem is deceptive in its apparent simplicity; it tackles serious issues while remaining clear-headed and light-hearted, culminating in something that could be considered optimism:
Benny and Bjorn, who also dislike each other,
and Stan and I will find some pebble
of conversation that grows into a moon,
a planet, a galaxy, pretty much in
that order—and we can be off,
Fred, Ethel, Lucy, and Ricky
heading for California.
The Thornkin Questionnaire is a fun way to learn a bit more than just a bio line about authors, asking questions such as “What’s the first thing you think of in the morning?” and “What do you write with?” in addition to a normal bio. Overall, it gives the journal a distinct and intimate feel.
Visually, The Liner is absolutely stunning. The sleek cover design works well with the journal’s transatlantic and nautical theme, and the art and photography is some of the best I’ve ever seen in a literary journal.
When The Liner’s next voyage comes around, I’ll definitely be on board.
Volume 29 Number 1
Review by Mary Florio
In journalism, the number of inches designated to a story or part of an article would be considered as political as the words themselves. In this way, excluding coverage was the best offense, and the arrangement of objects, ideas or celebrity becomes a politics of space. I enjoyed this issue of Louisiana Literature: a Review of Literature and the Humanities, affiliated with Southeastern Louisiana University, because of some of these kinds of editorial decisions that relate to a particular politics of space. The issue’s judicious arrangement of poems and stories become miles of ink dedicated to the issues central to our lives, not just the parents and the lovers and the dumpster divers, but to those miles of shoreline splashed with oil, against a decimated New Orleans skyline.
The stories in this issue are reminiscent at times of Sherwood Anderson (Scott Kaukonen, lightly) or through a scrim faintly (Michael P. McManus channeling Nikos Kazantzakis). And yet the poems are conversational, a kind of testament to chiseled simplicity. It is a fine volume to carry with you for those moments you are dreaming of Frank O’Hara or Billy Collins. Take, for example, Amanda Walton’s short fiction piece “Found Things.” Walton takes a love story set in poverty and garbage and gilds it with humor and a compelling sincerity that is all her own. Surely we could class it with any great love vignette, but hers resonates as universal and original all at once. It is an achievement: the setting of the something that in other hands—even the best of hands—could spiral into cliché. But Walton’s detail and brilliant management of details escapes this predicament.
I found Margaret McMullan’s short story “Elevation” to be an insightful meditation on character—in the story we have characters like the rapacious daughter Diane and her generous father good enough to make you want to weep, but we have other characters as well: Katrina, the BP oil company, and a dolphin drowned in gasoline, convulsing on a beach. McMullan presented an important message without suffering didactics. Her tone was rich—weaving between emotions such that the story was unusually well balanced. I felt anger and laughter from page to page.
Paul Christensen’s poem “Ode to my Mother” reaps a reverse Oedipal story, one of wanting to rescue the speaker’s mother from all of the torments of her life—“a cheap ring you made into a diamond,” where the speaker fashions an escape for his mother from the cries of a captured life. The older I grow the less I want to read poetry that “tells,” feeling that colloquial confession belongs in a family scrapbook. But the tradition is a fortress. I’m reading some of Rahel Bluwstein’s work, and the legend about her is that she would send friends poems by mail rather than having an aggressive publication ethic, and if you think about your friends reading your work in a message, you’d want what Bluwstein, and the Louisiana Literature editors deliver—which is, of course, all of the things that draws one to poetry in the first place—a storyline, an emotional storyline, a message of consolation and joy.
The journal features more poetry than prose, with a section for reviews. Referencing the lead paragraph of this essay, one enjoys the prevalence of verse and reviews of verse; if it were not for strong Southern literature and a robust appetite for poetry in the independent magazines, so much would be lost—not just the wreckage of Katrina or the politics of a region requiring poetry as an essential mnemonic witness—but something else. Perhaps it was Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel acceptance speech that set the stage for “Louisiana Literature,” an idea that honor and heroism is not merely the stuff of life, but the stuff of Southern grit and verve.
In Faulkner’s words:
[A man or woman] is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
You notice this legacy—honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice—in Louisiana Literature.
Review by Justin Brouckaert
Normally, I like to review journals that I’ve never heard of. I love discovering new or less-acknowledged publications, mining foreign territory for literary gold. I try to stay as open as possible to new writers and new journals, and while what I find isn’t always great, it’s something unexpected every time.
With Monkeybicycle, I know what to expect.
Okay, so I don’t know exactly what to expect—this issue included featured comedian murders, dancing aliens, penis-shaped birthday cakes, and one particularly memorable colonoscopy—but that’s what I like best about Monkeybicycle. Coming into this review, I had high expectations—and this issue didn’t disappoint.
J.P. Dancing Bear’s “Indefinite Divisibility” is the journal’s only prose poem, and it’s my favorite of the poetry. In it, a speaker details his subject’s interaction with a creation he’s been building, which “sometimes it’s a machine that duplicates other things: other times it is the shadow of an insect.” The speaker’s tone is a cross between admiration and pity as he details the budding relationship of man and machine, the seemingly inappropriate juxtaposition that ends up feeling right after all:
. . . you’ve fallen in love with the shadow of your creation: just like so many other creators: you lovingly: dutifully adjust the footing: it sounds like the ocean is laughing at you: or maybe it’s the bowls of duplicated water: or the praying mantis appendage: of your machine: it’s okay, you say: the greatest work attracts the greatest critics
Rory Douglas’s “The Best Birthday Party Ever” is downright hilarious. It’s exactly what it sounds like: Alfy Wiggins’s 12th birthday consists of a penis-shaped birthday cake his mother bought at the local erotic bakery, his father dressed as Neil Armstrong, three friends who will undoubtedly ruin his reputation the next week at school, and an extremely awkward game of Star Wars-themed Twister.
But that’s not the good part; the finale of the party, when Alfy watches his home go up in flames with “three kids who would surely tell everyone at middle school about Alfy’s awesome birthday party where his house fucking burned down,” that’s when Alfy gets the gift he really wanted: “I watched the firefighters spraying out house as the flames moved to the second story; watched my dad, still in his Neil Armstrong costume, smiling smugly; and pictured the frost on the penis cake melting and evaporating in the heat, and I couldn’t think of anything else to wish for.”
Jared Hohl’s “My Different Looks” is a persona piece of sorts, a clever bit of fiction that has the speaker taking on three different “looks,” or characters. My favorite is his “Brock look,” a section detailing a character who is infuriating in his arrogance but extremely impressive as an example of his author’s skill in crafting voice:
This is all beefed up, hair dyed light blond and shaved into a crew cut. My jaw gets much bigger for this look. I’m, like, “Brock!” Big muscles, you know. Cut the sleeves off my T-shirt. Camaro. There are some ladies who love to be fucked by a man in crew cut and muscles. Yeah, I’m dumb. But dumb can fuck long. Dumb can make hair sprayed tits come out of anywhere . . . Support the death penalty. I am loyal to my brand of deodorant. Clap loudly. Loyal to my Chevy truck. Whoop-whoop. I’m Brock.
Finally, my favorite complete piece in this issue is Analisa Raya-Flores’s “Why You Don’t Know My Stories.” This is one of my favorite kinds of stories—the kind that starts in one place and ends in another. In this case, the story starts with the main character undergoing a colonoscopy and ends with him in bed with his wife. He is cheerful despite his visit to begin, but after reflecting on the choices he’s made in his life, the way his wife always ignores his ideas, he is in a completely different state, physically and emotionally.
After he reminisces about a time when a bad haircut had led him to angrily jump a subway turnstile, the story closes with the following soliloquy:
A week after the haircut I watched some drunk teenager jump the turnstile and get a three-hundred-dollar ticket. Three hundred dollars, for the thing I had done a week earlier. The rest of the ride home was spent formulating this theory: You make all major life choices before you’re born. It’s not really karma and it’s not quite Calvanism, but it’s something in between. You make a pre-life decision and you have to stick with it, live it out, and watch others live out the options you refused. The choice I was given: You can either get a terrible haircut and fight all day with you wife, or you can get a three-hundred-dollar ticket. That time I made the right choice…And this whole colon scare, well it’s just another decision playing out. It’s as if I got asked, “Do you want to die a painful cancer-y death or do you want to live a pretty empty life with a woman you love more than she loves you?”
I think I made a mistake.
It is a brilliant chunk of text that deserves to be shown in its near-entirety not just because it’s the perfect ending for the story, but also because it embodies the twisting, turning, unexpected—but at the same time, expected—story that makes Monkeybicycle such a great read, issue after issue.
Review by Cara Bigony
Only on its fourth issue, Moonshot is a relatively new kid on the block in Brooklyn’s indie literary scene. Eighty-five pages long, the themed issue “Correspondences” offers brief introductions to 30 authors—all of whom have been published before, but don’t yet have major name recognition. As alluded to in the editor’s note, this issue is gritty and real.
While there were a handful of truly stand-out pieces in this issue, Moonshot still seems to be finding its footing among its better-established peers. The issue is composed of many short poems, borderline flash fiction, a variety of art, and a comic. While I admire this diversity, being introduced to thirty artists in such a short journal made for a choppy reading experience. It also made it easy to lose track of the “Correspondences” theme. That being said, some pieces simply blew me away.
Chloe Caldwell and Skye Tyler’s “Who the Others Were” is a three-page series of fast, sensual sentences. Caldwell and Tyler explore complex past relationships that, in a moment’s notice, can swing from kinky to violent to tender. As the narrator jumps from one ex-lover to the next, the urge is to read slowly and to try to squeeze more story from the teasers she provides. By the end, after so many glimpses of so many lovers, the reader is left sitting in tangled bed sheets. For people who have taken stock of their past, or have ever attempted to write their “list,” this piece is an enthralling read.
Nicole Steinberg’s three sonnets masterfully apply one of poetry’s oldest, strictest forms to her modern, consumer-based endeavors. Each sonnet contains original writing from Lucky magazine, and each finishes with a sentiment that forces readers to take a thoughtful pause. Throughout, her language is sharp. She describes “Prada–swathed, mini / Cleopatras” and “hipster horn-rims popped / with a confident cool.” Steinberg’s series lets readers familiarize themselves with her writing in a way that they can’t with the authors who only have one short piece in the issue.
Kevin Spenst’s poem “A Song from Bedlam” also stands out—particularly for his artful layering of images to create a scene. Rita Feinstein’s notable poem “Fourteen,” about a woman holding a snake for a group of people, was equally sensual:
feeling her varnished coils
slalom through your fingers
and loop around your wrists
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
She makes you burn.
The impenetrable beauty
of her slender curves
The element of collage in Steinberg’s poems resurfaces in Stephen Zerbe’s painted book pages. “Christmas in America” is striking, with bright paint smudged across New York City’s skyline. Another artist in the collection, B. Thom Stevenson, uses an uncommon combination of materials (acrylic, correction film, ink, marker, oil enamel, and Xerox on paper). Alexander Rothman’s comic “Reeling” is equally original and captivating, if not a bit complex. While I admire Rothman and Stevenson’s originality, I sometimes wondered if I understood their intentions.
Moonshot is a solid collection of writing. Even though there are pieces I wouldn’t revisit, and the “Correspondences” theme was a bit buried, Moonshot showcases some exceptional, memorable writers.
Review by David R. Matteri
Skidrow Penthouse’s website assures us that their magazine does not contain homeless people in suggestive poses (sorry to disappoint). They also assure us that their magazine is not “hospitable to eat-shit-shower-and-shave writing, or any kind of literary undertaking that aspires only to disturb the flaccid ghost of Bukowski.” It is a journal that specializes in absurdist literature and art, offering a “home for wayward voices, insect souls, architects of gutter, a place to hide one’s rain.”
Jody Azzouni offers seven apocalyptic poems in Skidrow’s latest issue. My two favorites are “Oracles for Modern Times” and “When all the Blankets Have Gone to Hell.” Azzouni uses a minimal amount of words to great effect, such as the first four lines of “Oracles”: “Notice there is too much gold / in the air these days. / It is a message from the ozone / that light will soon be acid.” It makes one think twice before getting a suntan. The opening lines of the next poem suggest that it is driving for a light-hearted mood: “We are frozen / (despite our furs). / (Dante would have loved it.)” The lightness then turns black, returning to the theme of humanity’s self-destruction present throughout the rest of Azzouni’s poems: “Let us whistle / (in unison) / our tunes of extinction.” I like Azzouni’s economy of words and look forward to reading more of his work in the future.
Bill Edmondson’s prose poem “Ora and the River” is a visceral work filled with violence and loss. The speaker draws the reader into a town “Named for what it destroyed” (name of town) and reveals an uncomfortable truth about the town’s founding: “The mill hoards the river, but if you were a white man at the turn of the Twentieth Century, what did you care about those damn rapids?” Part travel log of the Midwest and part gruesome history lesson, this piece juxtaposes images of Burger King and Mardi Gras against U.S. militia slaughtering people of the Sauk nation. The main character, Ora, visits the sight of this slaughter and imagines the days leading up to this tragic event: “Ora sees blood. It folds into current, slickens the riverbank.” The killing of the women and children were the hardest parts to read. As Americans, we have an obligation to remember that our country was built on the destruction of the native tribes. Edmondson should be commended for writing such a powerful piece that touches on this truth. We can’t change the past, but literature like this helps pave the way toward tolerance and understanding.
Carolyn Stoloff’s absurd poem “Antipasto” adds a welcomed amount of brevity to this issue. The second half of “Antipasto” is my favorite part because of how she personifies certain letters of the English alphabet:
‘I’ longs to stretch, flex and be U
‘S’ wants to stand straight
and march in the review
‘B’ wants to lie down or lose weight
everyone wants C to stop shouting
at G to quit smoking.
It reads like the script of a Sesame Street episode. There’s also a play on words concerning the head of a particular religious order: “what is the Pope’s appeal / when he’s peeled of his apparel?” Stoloff clearly had a lot of fun writing this poem and is inviting the reader to join her in the pleasure of language.
The speaker in Jim Corey’s “Advance Radar Warning System” offers a list of things to avoid. This list includes people we have all met at some point in our lives, such as liars: “beware the liar, who dwells in gridlock futures & realms of casual daring.” Others are a little harder to define: “beware grudgemeisters’ indelible ink anger hobby hobbling thru life on sharp elbows.” Here’s my favorite item on the list: “beware the talebearer skipping ear to ear w/ picnic baskets of schadenfreude sandwiches.” Sounds tasty. There are wonderful instances of internal rhyming and alliterations in Corey’s piece that deserve to be read out loud. Just remember to “beware the know-it-all & all other supreme beings.”
Issue 13 is dense, coming at you with 281 pages of absurdist literature and art. Every poem, story, piece of artwork is hypnotizing and makes you feel like you’re hopping through the dreams and nightmares of over 70 unique and talented artists. If the absurd is what you need, then Skidrow Penthouse is the journal for you.
Volume 49 Number 4
Review by Sarah Carson
When I first received my copy of South Dakota Review, I took one look at the cover—a photograph by editor in chief Lee Ann Roripaugh of roller derby queens “Olive Mayhem,” “Lady Boop,” and “Sandra D’vious”—and I knew I was in for a treat.
While the journal’s website declares the mission is to have only “a slight western regional emphasis,” its landscapes are distinctly American. Sure, there are jaunts to the Serengeti, Canada, and outer space, but still I couldn’t keep myself from picturing South Dakota as I could only imagine existed, replete with Patsy Cline, quarreling convenience store robbers, and flying saucers.
The fiction in the issue is among the most imaginative you’ll find, exemplified, probably, by “Boy with One Wing”—a surrealist tale by Katie Farris in which a young man with one wing hopes The Inventor of Invented Things will be able to furnish him with a second wing so that he might fly. As the Inventor struggles with his inability to invent the un-invented, Farris’s language is bold: “He had tried to invent the feather, but the complications of the hooking mechanism that holds the barbs together evades him. He wants to dig out the feather and find a warp to its weft. To invent a Boy so beautiful . . .”
The poetry in the issue is also notable for its surprises and originality. Much of the work resonates with a rural, western sensibility, and all of it is fresh and honest.
From Stephen Coughlin’s “What the Doctor Did Not Know,” where a mother succumbs to cancer, to Jasmine V. Bailey’s “Coalescence” about rain, the everyday becomes vibrant and urgent in this issue. “The droplets,” Bailey writes, “are not candy tossed from a dragon / in a new year’s parade. / Still I crave the storm / even as it consumes the porch.”
My personal favorite, though, was Paige Riehl’s “Mother Tells the Kids about All Good Things.” It’s the meta-narrative of rural life if ever there was one:
We were always waiting for something: recess, our turn
On the spinning playground wheel, the bus driver to see
The kid shooting spitballs, the car to birth her kittens
In the hay bales, the stray dog to stop pacing
at the screen door, the walleye to bite, Grandpa to turn
the boat toward shore so we could pee . . .
Overall, I left this issue of the South Dakota Review feeling not only like a reader, but a participant. The carefully controlled mix of bold imagery, unexpected plot twists, and off-center Americana makes it not just a treat to read, but an experience I’d recommend to anyone looking for a complex mix of craft, wit, and charm.
Review by Cara Bigony
Amsterdam’s Versal is a thoughtful collection of sophisticated, inventive writing and art. For the celebration of their first ten years, the editors included a mixed media art piece titled “750 Circles” that is a blank page with a balloon taped to it. Each of these pages is signed by the editors. The piece, they say, is to honor the many people who have made the last ten years possible. Small flourishes of creativity like this appear throughout the journal, making it not only a collection of great writing, but a united reading experience.
While an annual volume of this scope can’t be thematically characterized, debt and loss, a reverence for nature, and a young narrative voice are frequent players in this issue.
Andrew Michael Roberts exposes us to stories somewhere between prose and poetry. “The Week Before Ted Downing Disappeared for Good” starts at a small town meeting with two people admitting to having been kidnapped and “probed” in the town’s woods. These two voices are quickly overshadowed by general complaints about neighborhood squabbles, and the meeting dissolves. The piece ends with mention of the meeting’s refreshments of “spiced cider and cinnamon sticks.” The narrator’s matter of fact tone highlights Roberts’s much larger concerns with group mentality. Roberts’s piece “Assembly” shows a young boy in the wake of his brother’s death. The boy drifts through life, unable to synthesize the shock of death with his continuing daily routines. His writing is succinct and thematically ambitious.
Christopher Patton’s “Dumuzi” (the God of vegetation) and Eric Magrane’s sonnet “The sky: untitled cloud vessel” are steeped in a respect for nature. Magrane’s sonnet reads as an ode to untamed nature and ends with the following final couplet: “…on no other day / did the sun warm the grass as on that day” (28)
One of my favorite pieces is Roxane Gay’s “Who We Are Beneath the Glass.” In a series of paragraphs started with anaphoric phrases like “my mother,” “my father,” or “my parents,” the young narrator introduces readers to her family dynamic through anecdote. Her writing is sharp and her insights poignant. The piece is tiring to get through, almost as tiring as being part of her family would be. And I mean that as a compliment (to her writing). I’ve read very few contemporary stories where the form so seamlessly and intensely enhances the author’s thematic goals. In the issue’s main interview, Michael Martone says, “everyone in the family had a version of history and it was impossible to get close to the original.” It seems to me this is exactly what Gay is getting at.
Martone’s interview is another gem of the collection. It is fresh, original, and wildly entertaining. The literary community recognizes Martone as a prankster, whose stunts (like publishing a novel then adding line breaks and trying to publish it again as a poetry collection) have gotten several of his literary memberships revoked. He tells stories about his string of five pathological liar roommates, his ghost writing neologisms for Merriam-Webster, and his creative (albeit irreverent) future plans.
The final piece in this collection to which I want to draw attention is “Ideas Green Sleep Colorless Furiously: Accidental Gap” By Daniel Takeshi Kruase Like many pieces in this issue, I can say I’ve never read anything like this before. “Ideas Green” is arguably organized by font. Five separate font types run through this piece, each of which carrying its own narrative thread. One font is a series of quotes about language acquisition, another is a person moving about a party, another holds a long monologue about words: “Sometimes the words are the way your mouth feels, more specifically how your lips curl and your tongue presses, intersected by the row of your teeth, and the cinching of your throat or the lifting of the soft palate.”
The five narratives harmonize beautifully to the credit of Krause’s design and smooth writing. In less capable hands, this piece could have easily been derailed into a chaotic, disjointed reading experience.
Versal has achieved the highest form of success that a literary journal can achieve: not only is it filled with unique, inspired writings, but the editors have assembled them with care. Reading Versal was truly a pleasure.
Review by Charles Davenport
In the July 2012 issue of Verse Wisconsin, co-editors Sarah Busse and Wendy Vardaman stress the importance of community, and everything about the print and online issues of the journal point to the wisdom of their claim. Before moving to Madison, Wisconsin in 2009, Verse Wisconsin was published by Linda Aschbrenner for 11 years as Free Verse. Aschbrenner continues to serve on Verse Wisconsin’s advisory board, along with B. J. Best, Cathryn Cofell, Ron Czerwien, Tom Erickson, Fabu, David Graham, Angela Rydell, and Marilyn L. Taylor. In other words, Verse Wisconsin is a celebration of community and poetry.
Since taking over as co-editors, Busse and Vardaman have transformed the delivery and the content of the literary magazine from a print-only to a hybrid publication, in which the online issue compliments the print edition with some of its own content. However, their book publishing arm, Cowfeather, is ramping up for an increased publication schedule, and Busse and Vardaman have decided to scale the print version back from a tri-quarterly publication to just two editions each year beginning in 2013. Consequently, this one will be their last summer issue.
The editors’ note explains that poets depend on the members of multiple communities. Readers and editors, fellow writers and family members, friends and acquaintances, even the neighbor’s dog all provide something that poets need. With its collaborative effort with the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as numerous click-throughs to the pages of Wisconsin’s Poet Laureate Bruce Dethlefsen and numerous other literary organizations and publishers, this issue of Wisconsin Verse is a tangible example of a poets’ community at work.
Near the final pages of the magazine, is an excerpt from an insightful interview with 2010-2012 Milwaukee Poet Laureate, Brenda Cárdenas, an outspoken creative writing instructor at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. In the interview, Cárdenas is forceful in her praise and defense for the study of Latina/o poetry: “If one is willing to look up ‘foreign’ words and literary, mythological, Biblical, and historical allusions when reading a poem by, say, T. S. Elliot or Ezra Pound, then she/he should be willing to do the same when reading the work of a Latina/o poet.”
Five poems by Cárdenas appear in the online edition. The only poem in the print edition, “Flexible Vitreous,” almost drips sweat into the center crease of the magazine. From its opening line, Cárdenas takes the reader on a writhing hallucinatory trip across what is either the floor of a jazz club or the sand around a campfire on a beach somewhere in America. Music turns to color, depending on the instrument (purple for the bass, orange for the saxophone), and bodies seem unable to avoid dancing:
Curls kink and spring
tendrils loose, sweep the floor,
spark the air. We lift
our faces, all bliss and flame,
in amethyst moans
glistening hot and wet.
Skim each other’s skin, barely
touch to twirl, clave keeps
our feet from landing.
In the second part of the poem, Cardenas ascends into Spanish and a magic realism as she describes the glass hearts of those in boats on a canal filled with Bird of Paradise and lilies, going in and out of the caves. Finally, she tells us, the magic of such things must be undone, that Medusa must be charmed back inside glass, if only that were possible.
In other places, the poetry can be almost dream-like, inspiring a sort of Zen-truth to the landscape of Wisconsin, one of that state’s best kept secrets. For instance, in “wild,” poet Robert Schuler of Menomonie paints a scene that is nothing less than serene and wild:
hanging from a cliff’s face
rising out of shale and sand
fans of ferns surrounding
bouquets of trillium
a wren spins in
Who wouldn’t want to wake up to that, especially after dancing all night with Brenda Cárdenas?
As much as the summer editions of Verse Wisconsin will be missed, Wisconsin poets, who are, after all, members of the global poetry community (aren’t we all?), will still have the online version of the magazine to return to over and over. Life is good.
Volume 6 Issue 1
Review by David R. Matteri
Whitefish Review takes their readers away from the comforts of civilization and into the wilderness with this issue. Editors Cristina Eisenberg and Brian Schott made a call for submissions that “explore the untamable and wild in astonishing ways.” Over 40 writers, artists, and photographers answered this call, offering literature and art that “explores wildness in all its incarnations and paradoxes.”
Tom Cantwell’s “Eyes Like Sky” is a great piece of short fiction that echoes the works of Jack London and Rudyard Kipling. The story revolves around a young girl hunting with a pack of wolves near Devil’s River, Texas in 1846. We do not know how long the girl has lived with these wolves, but it is clear that she has lived long enough to be accepted as one of the pack: “Lean but muscular, with pronounced forearms and calves, the girl wore skin baked by the sun, cracked with dirt and etched with scars, bloody or scabbed in a handful of places and tough as leather around her elbows and knees.”
Three men on horseback interrupt their hunt and chase off her adopted family. Then they capture the girl and take her home where she is greeted with disgust and fear by their women. It is implied that their intent is to civilize this wild girl, but their words are just noise to her ears. She defecates in the room they locked her in and kills a lizard with her hands before swallowing it whole. The girl is only concerned about the starving pups in her pack and escaping from the den of the “tall ones.” I love how the point of view stays inside the girl’s head; the reader shares in her mistrust of the humans and their strange devices. Cantwell does a masterful job of writing from a truly feral perspective and showing how the civilized world can never stamp out the wildness lurking inside us all.
Neal Brown’s poem “Cape P” is a funny depiction of one man’s hiking expedition at Cape Palmerston. The speaker pushes his way “through salal, / a forest of Bowflex / thick as night” until he deviates from the trail to find an unpleasant surprise: “I break from the trail / onto a deer and bear track. / Bear shit everywhere!” He then finds a quiet beach to contemplate his navel and “go OOOOOMMMM.” The description of the beach is terrific: “a small / beach of black sand / framed / by the Pacific Ocean / and black basalt cliffs.” He urinates into the ocean when he is done meditating. At the same time, a young couple “all decked out in Patagonia wear” shows up. The speaker turns with “dick still in hand” and offers a neighborly greeting. Reminds me of an uncle I know.
Whitefish Review dedicates a good portion to photography and other visual arts. My favorite artist in this issue is Ben Venom, whose specialty is making quilts with heavy metal t-shirts. His work, “Raised by Wolves,” appears on the front cover of this issue and, if you happen to be a metal head, you may recognize certain bands in that quilt. I enjoyed his explanation behind his craft:
The idea to mix Heavy Metal (machismo) with Quilting (a predominantly feminine activity) was a conscious decision. My work is able to operate in three different worlds . . . Fine Art, Crafting, and the Heavy Metal scene. I’ve always liked the idea of combining opposing forces much like the particle accelerator in Switzerland. The concept being that Heavy Metal (Tough! Loud! Bigger than Life!) is shot at near lightning speed towards Quilting (soft, quiet, crafty) and creates something new and different from the explosion.
Venom includes another one of his works in this issue, “Am I Demon?” I was able to recognize Slayer and Ozzy Osbourne in that quilt. Just goes to show you that even the Prince of Darkness needs something warm to cuddle with at night.
This issue also offers essays that touch on various themes on the wild. Brooke Williams’s “That Wildman Cain” examines a painting by Fernand Cormon called “Cain: Flying Before Jehovah’s Curse.” The painting “illustrates the miserable destiny of Cain, the elder son of Adam and Eve, who after the murder of his younger brother Abel was condemned to perpetual wandering.” Cormon’s work inspires Williams to find a deeper meaning behind the painting. He examines the intricate detail put into the muscular bodies of Cain and his clan members and their tools: “I believe that our wild or savage state still exists, buried beneath ten thousand years of civilization. Is living in a natural state still possible?” He wonders if the Biblical story of Adam and Eve “is the mythical retelling of our monumental transition from archaic hunters and gatherers…to civilized farmers.” Williams does a great job of keeping this essay informative without sliding into dryness: “Was that a domesticated apple Eve ate? – a Rome, Jonathan, or Delicious?” Writing an essay that covers so much territory is no easy task, and Williams deserves praise for such an enlightening and entertaining piece of writing.
Another impressive essay in this issue is Sarah Ward’s “Lemon Drop.” It is a personal essay about her late grandfather, who instilled in her a passion for reading: “Although my grandpa died when I was only eight, his stories and his wisdom stayed with me. He passed his love of words on to me with each story he told, every poem he recited, and vocabulary word he explained.” Ward drops in small details about her grandfather that have great emotional impact: “When he met me at the bus stop, he would give me the bag of Fritos and tell me that I could have one handful because I was young, and he could have three because he was old.” The best part about this essay is that the author is only thirteen years old. Her writing is tight and shows a mature grasp of the language that many adults lack. Ms. Ward will have a bright future ahead of her if she keeps writing like this, and the editors at Whitefish should be commended for giving her the chance to shine.
The works assembled in the latest issue of Whitefish Review shows us that the wild can mean many different things, such as nature, freedom, evolution, and even a little bit of attitude. This was an exciting theme, and I look forward to see what this Montana-based journal has in store for their next issue.
Review by Charles Davenport
Attempting to chronicle a war is a massive literary undertaking, but trying to piece together a cohesive narrative about a half dozen or so combat zones from the poems and short stories of 17 different authors sounds like, well, hell. I’m a Vietnam-Era veteran, and even though I was never in combat, I was close enough to it to know that literature rarely captures the truths of war and the combat zone.
This summer, during a writing workshop I was teaching for veterans, I was reminded again and again of the uniquely horrifying characteristics of battle and the heaps of shame and self-loathing piled onto the backs of veterans. When the editors of New Pages asked if I would review “Tales from the Combat Zone,” Issue 8 of Workers Write!, published by Blue Cubicle Press in Plano, TX, I was quite certain they did so because they knew of my workshop and heard that I was a veteran. “How cute,” I thought; or rather, that is what I would have liked my inner voice to have said at the time. What I actually felt was something more like a paralyzing dread, and my inner voice spoke in words never meant for literary reviews, which is what this is supposed to be and what I am trying right now to make sure it is.
Thing is, I sat on this book for two months without opening it. I carried it around with me without ever opening it once, setting it next to my bed every night, and placing it back into my bag before leaving for my cushy university quasi-administrative part-time adjunct faculty position (I haven’t a clue as to what my job actually is there). I stared at the black-and-white photo on the cover: two soldiers frozen mid-step, each with one-knee bent, one foot in the gray water of a jungle stream, the other foot hovering just above the surface ready to step into something neither of the soldiers will ever want to remember and will never be able to forget. Maybe it’s a photo of their last step, a step they will take forever without getting any closer to whatever it is that is off camera. I spoke to the soldiers, drank wine with them. I sweated bullets over them, and then regretted ever having used such a stupid analogy, promising to never do it again, even though I knew I would. The more I thought about the book and the longer I carried it around with me, the heavier it became, and the larger it grew; until, Kafkaesque-like, it no longer fit into my bag. I couldn’t carry it with me another day. The excuses I gave myself for not writing about this book piled higher and higher, and soon the book would no longer fit in my house.
Left with no other choice, I began reading it in my basement. One of the veterans in my writing workshop said he spends two weeks in his basement each summer, pretending that the Fourth of July fireworks blasting over his neighborhood don’t sound like Iraq. Two weeks ago, I picked up this book and realized after reading Jeffrey C. Alfier’s poem “0800 Intelligence Briefing, 14 Feb 06,” on page 141, that he might be in his basement on the Fourth of July, too. I have written about this particular poem before, how it drills down into the image of a human body being blown apart, the entire ordeal captured on film for the purpose of debriefing the soldiers involved. But, it is the last stanza where Alfier tells us the truth behind the facts of the debriefing:
If men are knit by God in their mothers’ wombs,
then briefings are theaters we watch them fearfully
and wonderfully unstitched in, mirrored to the Maker
in sand we once swore we could burn to glass.
And so, perhaps my review is as much an unstitching of myself as it is an attempt to convey the monumental stitching job the editors of Workers Write! undertake whenever they attempt a project like “Tales from the Combat Zone.” But, putting a book like this together really is just hard work, and that’s all it ever is and ever will be, at least for as long as we have a constitutionally protected free press (but, that’s another review for another time). For now, though, editors don’t die when an author’s words explode on the page, and life doesn’t drain out of copyeditors as they make changes to page after page of a writer’s best efforts, late into the night tracking changes like dead bodies. However, if the editors do their job well, the writers’ tales become a part of the readers’ own personal narrative, part of the readers’ own experiences. It is safe to say that the editors at Workers Write! do their job very well.
A good example of the quality of the fiction is Fred McGavran’s short story, “A Count in the Afternoon,” which tells the story of U.S. soldiers sent on a mission to count the number of dead bodies after a B-52 bombing raid in Vietnam. One bomb hits its target and what they discover in a clearing in the jungle is shocking: bodies and limbs cradled ghost-like and silent in the mist high in the branches of ancient trees and draped haphazardly like cloth over the edges of the crater left by the bomb. There are so many, the major tells the sergeant to count the bodies and then double the number just to be sure. The smell rotting corpses in the rain and the heat, both seemingly unending, is overwhelming and no one can keep themselves from vomiting: “‘You can’t even tell what they were!’ the major cried, stabbing his toe into something white and putrid. ‘I don’t know whether to count that as one or two.’”
When they return to their camp, the major complains about the smell of two large dead rats underneath the kitchen. He wants the rats cleared out: Does the smell of the dead rats remind him of the smell of dead humans? Or, do the dead humans smell like dead rats? In either case, the major loves his job, which is to order others to kill and then report on the killing, but he is annoyed by the evidence of the resulting consequences of his job. If a person’s values and sense of right and wrong are unstitched by war, then the ending of McGavran leaves the reader wondering which has the stronger pull on a soldier’s judgment, fear or duty.
The stories and poems extend back to World War II. That the editors were able to include tales from the Korean War is a notable achievement. The Korean War remains a mystery to most of America to this day. We’ve come a long way since the days of WWII prison camp sitcoms with laugh tracks and Korean War MASH units with the zany antics of the heirs to the Keystone Cops.
In his introduction, Jim LaBounty, Colonel, U.S. Army (Retired) comments: “These stories—and the combat and wars they reflect—are not for the faint of heart. But then, neither is living through them.”
I think he cut himself off too soon. Living through the combat and wars reflected in the stories took more luck than it did strength. War isn’t hell. Hiding in your basement every time a firecracker goes off for the rest of your life: that’s hell.
Keep it coming Workers Writes! I have more stitching to do. We all do.