Posted 17 July 2012
Alaska Quarterly Review :: apt :: Chicago Review :: Colorado Review :: Conjunctions :: Grain Magazine :: High Desert Journal :: Iodine Poetry Journal :: Journal of Ordinary Thought :: New Ohio Review :: The Ocean State Review :: Relief :: Sentence :: Spillway :: Tin House :: Valley Voices :: Verse :: The Wallace Stevens Journal :: Witness
Volume 29 Numbers 1 & 2
Review by Julie J. Nichols
Given my interests, while there is much to be said for the literary content of this publication, the focus on this review will be on the photography in this thirtieth anniversary issue: a special section consisting of 141 stunning glossy pages of photographs and brief essays commemorating “Liberty and Justice (For All): A Global Photo Mosaic.” From guest editor Benjamin J. Spatz’s introduction to the project:
The 68 contributors, among them many of the world’s leading photojournalists, were asked to select one image that speaks to their sense of the theme and to pair that image with a brief narrative . . . Taken together, their words and images create a tapestry of the varied nature of liberty and justice that coalesce to explore something more fundamental: the pursuit and importance of truth.
He goes on to say that the project was inspired by the lives of photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, who were killed while covering the war on Libya. He said they were “men who pushed boundaries and reshaped the landscape of visual communication.”
Some of the subjects in the photographs are a middle-aged Iowan couple who are both crossing their arms and pursing their lips in frustration as they await a tardy candidate’s appearance at a town hall meeting in 2011 (Brendan Hoffman); a ten-year-old Rwandan girl in pink mushanana, squatting among firewood scraps and singing, while her family gathers fuel from their refugee camp in the midst of the genocide, in 1994 (Yunghi Kim); two refugee brothers, one of them desperately ill, posing for the photographer’s revealing shot in Bangladesh in 2009 (Gielse Duley); four hauntingly-beautiful tourist boats on the teal-blue Dal Lake in Srinagar, filled with grim-faced, camouflage-wearing soldiers “guarding” the border in 2003 (Ami Vitale); and a lone cellist, her head wrapped in traditional gear, practicing for the only symphony orchestra in Central Africa as she sits behind a green fence in a rough Kinshasa neighborhood in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Andrew McConnell).
The images cover all continents, many decades, and a great and terrible range of violations of global liberty or justice. In these pages are child soldiers from Liberia and the DRC; grieving war widows; silenced female singers of Muslim nations; rioters protesting oppression in Iraq, Egypt, and China; members of outcast sects in America and Spain; East Indian slaves; victims of water and weather-related inequities in Africa, India, and the United States; and, finally, some remarkable images of dignity, beauty, and hope in the midst of brutality and subjection. These last include a seven-year-old African girl whose right arm has been slashed off by terrorists of the civil war in Sierra Leone. She is shown wrapped in the embrace of an anonymous helper in a boat behind which is the blurry shape of the Statue of Liberty. On her way to receive a prosthesis and a new family in America, the dreadlocked child flings her left arm to the sky in imitation of La liberte. Like all the rest, this image is accompanied by a fervent passage from the photographer, Carol Guzy: “[This child] is a radiant example of the good that can be accomplished by the small acts of a few compassionate people who are determined to make a difference.”
On the previous page is a head shot of a lovely Saigonese woman at age eighteen, with short, dark hair and parted lips (she is now in her forties, the accompanying paragraphs say) taken by photographer David Hartman. Alongside the dozens of other photographs and narratives here, Cat Tuong Nguyen’s story of determination and ultimate success in the United States, following a solo escape as a preteen child from the country of her birth, leaves, at least, this American reader moved and humbled. Hartman says, “Too many of us who are born in America take our freedoms and opportunities for granted.” This may be a cliché spouted over U.S. children forever, but the images in this issue of AQR drive the truth of it home. The world is full of human suffering. If we can see it and say it, we can help to overcome it.
In addition to the powerful photo-and-essay feature, this thirtieth-anniversary issue of AQR includes 5 works of fiction, and poems by 22 poets. In Viet Dinh’s short story, “Good Neighbors,” the young protagonist blurs the distinction between hauntings by ghosts and hauntings by ignorance and bias.
Sarah Blackman’s experimental “The Dinner Party” recalls Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in a postmodern, point-of-view-play kind of way. Kathleen Flenniken’s “November Tritina” exemplifies the overall excellence of the poems included in this issue: “November is a necklace of daytime headlights . . .
November is a grey silk
suit, white shirt, dark silk
tie with a wine stain, Sun-
day coat, all in a pile, headlight
beams through a scrim and a distant horn. . . .
Listen to those sound patterns! Feel those metaphors! There is nothing in this issue of AQR that does not profoundly reward its readers’ attention.
Review by Sarah Carson
I should start by saying that I’ve been holding a grudge against apt for some time now. It turns out that if you don’t read their guidelines very carefully and submit something out of their reading period, they send you a very snarky e-mail. I’m not a fan of snarky e-mails; in fact, they kind of hurt my feelings. So I had vowed to hate apt forever.
But their 2012 issue makes it pretty hard to hate them. In fact, the issue accomplishes something few literary journals do: it begs you to come back and re-read it. And not just once or twice. This is the kind of journal you want to keep around.
The collection is filled from cover to cover with strong, daring pieces, which makes it hard to pick any favorites. I call them “pieces” because the editors of the issue have been intentional to blur the lines between prose and poetry. Though it’s hard to be quite sure which you’re reading at a given time, it doesn’t matter. Nearly every piece is filled with fierce narratives and clever surprises. There’s not a single selection in the issue that fades into the background.
Take, for example, Breonna Krafft’s “I Have Been Thinking about the Ocean.” The poem spans eleven pages, using punctuation to create the effect of waves. Beyond the clever visual arrangement, though, Krafft’s meditation on water is thoughtful and prophetic. She confidently spans topics as diverse as family, tsunamis, pollution, funerals, coral reef as used in bone grafts, and the gigantic heart of the Blue Whale. The effect is a contemplation that seems to unfold as easily as waves lapping at the shore.
Or there’s Thomas Nowak’s “The Teen Years for Jesus.” It’s not only irreverent. It’s hilarious, imaginative, and, probably, spot-on:
Jesus went from job to job
and his bosses would tell him
to clean himself up. Maybe shave.
He eventually started playing guitar
Next to the train station. No one
gave him money, but they smiled
at his cover of “Wonderwall.”
The issue is filled with moments like this that make you giggle, gasp, and think. Another good example is Russ Woods’s “Murder the sun.” in which a narrator emphatically tells the reader that “There is a sun out there and it needs to be murdered. By you.”
In Lindsay Coleman’s “Last Party,” an eight-year-old doesn’t want the other kids at her birthday party to think the game of bobbing for apples is rigged: “I can already hear the conspiracy theories from the other kids swarming above me. I’m not out of breath yet so I stay down.”
Or Thomas Mundt’s “Let’s Play Bomb Scare” in which a couple decides to make their lives a bit more exciting by pretending the empty baby car seat in the back of their “Certified Pre-Owned Civic” is “a knapsack bomb, like the one that sad, sunburned white man was accused of planting in that pedestrian mall during the ’96 Atlanta Olympics.”
In the editors’ note, the apt team points out how they have intentionally arranged the pieces in the issue to cross the borders of genre and style and to let each narrative lead you into the next. The effect is a collection of work that is fun and eclectic. Having already read it twice, I’ll still be carrying this issue around for a while.
Volume 56 Number 4
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
The Chicago Review remains one of the best eclectic reviews; its pages are continually full of essential reading. Packed with a consistently broad range of diverse and challenging writing, every issue delivers one surprise or another, and the latest doesn’t disappoint.
In the center of the issue is a gallery of photographs presenting a who’s-who of American-based sculptors from mid-century. Often the photographs occurred in the studios of the sculptors where they are seen alongside their ongoing work. This is an endlessly-compelling, fascinating series of images. All the photographs were taken by John McMahon and arose from a 1965 gathering in New York: “In the spring of 1965, dozens of New York artists met for an invitation-only conference called the Waldorf Panels on Sculpture.” As described by the organizer, Philip Pavia:
The name, Waldorf Panels, [was] chosen as homage to the method used by the old Eighth-Street-Club’s pre-club. This pre-club met informally and regularly at the old Waldorf cafeteria on Sixth Avenue in the early to mid-1940s. Its method—the conversation panel—was a fuse through which working ideas and soul-searchings were exchanged in practical ways.
The transcript of this Waldorf panel was originally published in IT IS 6 accompanied by photographs of some of the participants. Some of the photographs in the Chicago Review selection were not previously published. The above mentioned “working ideas and soul-searchings” are on evident display in the faces and body language throughout all of the photographs: these are clearly artists living both in as well as through their work. From Ibram Lassaw’s struggling for ease while sitting with his dog beside an apparently finished work upon a desolate beach landscape to James Rosati or David Silka captured mid-work, cigarette in either hand or mouth, placing perhaps finishing touches on pieces in their workshops surrounded by others mid-process, the question that was a favorite adage of Abstract Expressionist painters of the 1950s—“when is it finished?”—haunts these photographs.
A new poem of Susan Howe, “Echolalia in Mrs. Piper,” drawing as it does in typical Howe-fashion on archival manuscript and esoteric orthography, nicely sets off the opening pages of this issue in perfect complement to the rough-hewn dilemma on display among the sculptors. While Italian poet Amelia Rosselli’s (1930-1996) essay “Metrical Spaces,” translated by Jennifer Scappettone, along with several poems from the newly published Loco motrix (U of Chicago Press 2012) demonstrates the promise in Rosselli’s contribution to the “problematic of poetic form”: “the language in which I write at isolated moments is only one, while my sonorous, logical, and associative experience is certainly that of all peoples, and reflectable in all languages.”
In addition to the above and more, this issue of the Chicago Review contains an alternate version of Alec Finlay’s introduction (with accompanying photographs) to Ian Hamilton Finlay: Selections (U of California Press, 2012), new poems of Brian Teare and Cole Swensen, and a generously laid-out and solid visual effect fiction piece by Nancy Fumero—the editors deserve credit for publishing such non-traditional prose. With the next double-issue set to be dedicated to the work of poet A.R. Ammons, in a return to what’s become Chicago Review’s now classic Special Issue format, this current number spins a good take on the traditional literary review and comes up with several pleasurable gems.
Volume 39 Number 1
Review by Sarah Carson
Since 1956, the Colorado Review has been dedicated to publishing the best in contemporary creative writing from both new and emerging writers, and the Spring 2012 issue is no exception.
The latest issue is rife with conflict, tension, and humanity from, quite literally, cover to cover. Starting with the artwork that wraps around its spine—a photograph by Regine Cloet—this issue of the Colorado Review puts relationships, characters, and everyday life under the microscope. The effect is an issue that is both heartbreaking and thought-provoking.
All of the writing in this issue is of the sort that makes you think long and hard about your own humanity and makes you wonder if you are actually the kind of person you think you are. Editor Stephanie G’Schwind remarks in her opening comments that the stories contained within fit well into the category of characters with whom trouble is visited. She calls the fiction section “On Our Best Worst Behavior,” but that distinction may well suit the rest of the issue just as well.
The fiction selection includes stories from Andrea Dupree, Antonya Nelson, Charles Haverty, and Heidi Diehl. All four stories center on discontented domestic scenes—marriages strained by infidelity, disease, or depression and a daughter struggling to connect with her mom. My personal favorite, though, is Haverty’s “Tribes,” in which a failing television comedy writer loses his wife when he bets $10,000 that Jimmy Carter will get re-elected. Tasked with getting his nephew back home to Maryland from New York City, the protagonist hatches a plan to reconnect with his wife with a little help from his son. Haverty’s characters are real, honest, and heartbreaking—especially the son, Allen, who is simultaneously seeking his father’s affection while also beginning to understand what a bumbling screw-up his father might be.
In keeping with the theme of “Our Best Worst Behavior,” the issue also offers two non-fiction essays. One is a meditation from Contributing Editor Charles Baxter on “undoings”—both in his own friendships and relationships and in those of the characters of some well-known fiction, non-fiction, and plays. The real standout, though, is Regina Drexler’s “Landslide” which juxtaposes the way both natural disasters and our own relationships have the capacity to upend our worlds in ways we never saw coming. Her essay, about a stay-at-home mother searching for companionship outside of her own tumultuous marriage, examines just how desperate people can be for connection and just how easily they’ll betray it to preserve themselves.
The poetry section of the issue features the work of 29 different poets, and, although the poems range comfortably from the narrative to the experimental to the surreal, the pieces included here seem to mirror the conflict and character in the journal’s first half.
Daniel Gutstein’s elegiac “Leaves” tows the line between nostalgia and lament as its narrator looks back at autumns past: “I walk the runoff to the river / find the cove / among rain-filled rock / where Warren and I used to spit chew.” The narrator’s ruminations along the water leave the reader with a poignant sense of contented resignation: “This, another year I’ve come alone / to watch the leaves light up the river.”
And there’s Erica Anzalone’s “Tentative Forward,” a poem told in three fragmented, stream-of-consciousness moments about what it means to exist in a world where so many people move in and out of our personal lives and spaces. She writes, “The world wants us to be different / faster, younger, perfect / as a little girl in a snowsuit / in the snow—”
My personal favorite is Bruce Bond’s “Crossfire,” which details the last moments of a hunted woodcock’s life with precision and curiosity: “The woodcock tilts his head / the world a puzzle.” Bond leads the reader through the Woodcock’s flight with drama:
When he stares ahead into the future,
it looks right through him. When he is hit,
it is one voice, one animal that cries,
to break the pool of heaven where he falls.
Though the pages of this issue are certainly filled with surprises and eye-opening moments, altogether the journal comes across as pensive. There are no big, happy endings or whimsical twists in the pages of this issue. But the sense of reflection that runs through each of its sections left me with a greater sense of what it means to be a resident of the world—and that, after all, is what good writing is supposed to do.
Review by Shannon Smith
Conjunctions is a slippery, difficult journal, and its current issue, “Riveted: The Obsession Issue,” is no exception. As is par for the course with Conjunctions, the writers appear heavily vested in a particular attention to language, with extremely idiosyncratic patterns and constructs of thought. Although ostensibly clustered around a theme, their writing offers broad interpretations of various obsessions that run the gamut from the expected to the unexpected, the probable to the improbable, the tangible to the intangible.
Christopher Sorrentino’s “The Cursed,” one of the most memorable pieces in this issue, invites the reader into the depressed mind of Nolan Dane, who is failed in academia, failed in life and who believes he has been cursed by Frederic Constant, an underground filmmaker. One of Nolan’s friends passes off information that causes Nolan to think that Constant placed this curse on him as revenge for a detested interview with the filmmaker’s biographer. Throughout the story, Nolan suffers a series of misfortunes that he blames on the curse until, near the story’s conclusion, he decides that his situation is not the result of a curse. “This was,” he thinks to himself, “perhaps how it went. Through your very own prescription, the mechanism of your compulsions and rotten habits, your prejudices and phobias, you led yourself to your own destruction”
This story guides the reader from the concrete to the abstract and back again. It explores Nolan’s various mental states, which range from fixating on blaming others to fixating on blaming himself, as he tries to find reasons for living a life he considers failed. Sorrentino’s story interprets the theme of this issue more literally than many of the pieces, although like most of the issue, it twists the theme in a satisfyingly original way.
Another story that flirts with failure, but treats it with a more absurd touch, is the leading story in this issue, “Clear Over Target, the Whole Town in Flames,” by Fiona Maazel. In this story, which bursts with interesting, original language and one of the strongest opening paragraphs I’ve come across in ages, a woman named Nancy plans a party for her father. From that innocuous premise, the story grows odder and darker, revealing that the party is being held so that Nancy’s father can apologize for his role in the Allies’ destruction of Dresden to her daughter’s German, sort-of boyfriend. Nancy sends out 500 invitations, but only about five people show up. The party is, of course, a disaster, but the characters encountered on the road to that disaster and peculiarities of their personalities and relationships make this story an incredible read.
Perhaps the most striking story in this issue, though, is Julia Elliot’s “The End of the World,” which mocks America’s nostalgia for elusive, unremarkable, and forgotten pasts by following most of the members of a band named Swole as they travel to ask the band’s most reclusive member if he will participate on a record called Loser Bands of the Nineties that a LA producer wants to put out. While that plot could sound amusing but insubstantial, Elliot skillfully fleshes out the relationships between the band members, most particularly the banter between them as they try to push what they all know is a stupid idea—but an idea that could make them money if the project goes viral—forward.
“Riveted: The Obsession Issue” of Conjunctions contains many other fascinating selections. “Parts List Counted in Ogham” by Karen Donovan stems from the alphabetic system of 5th and 6th century in Old Irish, “in which an alphabet of twenty letters is represented by notches for vowels and lines for consonants and which is known principally from inscriptions cut on the edges of rough standing tombstones.” Donovan’s poetry is broken into twenty sections, each featuring a different letter of this alphabet. Her language envelops both the worldly and the cosmos.
Michael Sheehan’s “Proposals for the Recovery of the Apparently Drowned” is as mysteriously formal as its title. It takes place in New York and investigates the condition known as “suspended animation,” where a patient shows no signs of life—paralyzed, but not dead.
Sigrid Nunez’s “Philosophers” starts with the intriguing pair of sentences, “The whole world can be divided into those who write and those who do not write, wrote Kierkegaard. Not that I’ve been reading Kierkegaard.” The story goes on to look at a life full of those kinds of qualifications.
The writing in this issue can be stylistically challenging, but it moves with a purpose. Like any obsession, fragments of these pieces will haunt the reader long after the stories are finished. Certain phrases, certain ideas, will creep in and lodge in one’s memory. In other words, this is an issue well worth puzzling over.
Volume 39 Number 2
Review by Aimee Nicole
Grain: The Journal of Eclectic Writing is based out of Canada and prides itself on publishing challenging writing and art each quarter. This issue includes the winners of the 2011 Short Grain contest.
Zoey Peterson’s “Two Monsters,” which won third prize in fiction, was actually my favorite in the fiction category. The premise is a night when two monsters go to speak at a local university. Reading the piece, I begin to replace the “monsters” with politicians, leaders, and icons. But this isn’t just a work of fiction that centers on observation; the ending is a clear moment self-reflection and introspection:
In ten years, maybe twenty, we will wake up sick and sweaty and realize who we are. We will crouch naked on bathroom counters, twisting and craning to inspect unseen parts of our bodies. We will buy security systems and avoid friends we don’t like and be avoided by those we do. And when we dream, we will see scales that glisten, not glow. And we will fear that death is not enough.
It makes me think: Who am I? What am I doing, and what do I want? I truly believe that the best pieces of writing make you change focus and look inside at what’s going on in there.
Another piece of perspective is written by Changming Yuan, cleverly titled “Private Perspective.” The poem is told from the point of view of an older husband who has been with his wife for many years. At the beginning of their relationship, he mentions that they treated each other as equals. The second stanza carries the punch:
Now we are getting newly old
She begins to look down on me
Because I have been shrinking
In every conceivable way
She can perceive
The physical lines also shrink toward the end, which I thought was very clever. They start out as equals, but the husband begins shrinking in his wife’s eyes. It gives the reader the feeling that the love in their relationship is ebbing out.
Yuan also writes a poem titled: “30 Monolines.” The lines/stanzas are numbered making the reference to the title easy to follow, and each line serves as a nugget of advice or wisdom. For example: “4. However pitch-dark the entire night is, it can never turn a single snowflake black.” And “6. A house for sale is never a home, while a heart unoccupied is a hotel for rent.” Each line serves as its own complete stanza in the poem that the reader mulls over before pressing onward. The last line sums up the longstanding question of meaning and purpose: “Like a silkworm, I have contributed all my silk to the human world. If it does not care, why should I?” Yuan is very talented at invoking thought and making the reader ponder.
The reward for reading the magazine can be found in “Haiku Horoscopes” by Jonathan Ball. My favorite is the horoscope for Leo:
Your decision to
Donate your brain to science
Has set science back
The haiku form for horoscopes is a natural fit considering the length of horoscopes we read in the paper. It amazes me that all twelve horoscope haikus maintain a high quality of form while being packed with humor and sarcasm. This ended up being my favorite part of the magazine, and I want to give Ball a high five for his moment of genius. It proves that good writing does not have to be only one story or poem at a time.
Review by John Palen
Here are five reasons why High Desert Journal continues to be one of the best “regional” literary magazines around.
1. It incorporates a striking variety of approaches to its subject area, the interior American West. This issue includes a stunning photo portfolio by Jim Leisy of objects collected over a decade in the Great Basin; an essay by Linda Hussa that will make you pay serious attention—if you don’t already—to Cowboy Poetry; and a prose poem, “Probability Clouds,” by Christopher Cokinos, that not only spans the Perseids meteor shower, an old love affair, the Manhattan Project, cave painting and quantum mechanics, but actually connects them all, beautifully and accessibly.
2. It’s a pleasure to hold and look at. The oversize format on high-quality glossy paper does justice not only to Leisy’s rich and sad photographs of old books, beer and oil cans, and a spice tin, but also to Karen Shimoda McAlister’s “Letters” and to Quintana Ana Wikwso’s “Wupatki, Houses of the Enemies.” This fiery photo/essay/prose poem bears witness to the artistic potential of adventuresome cross-media/cross-genre work when carried out in the right hands. Wikwso’s photos of sandstone pueblo towers were taken on “salvaged antique military and battlefield film cameras and typewriters . . . The chemistry and optics of these war-torn instruments record better than anything I can think of what spirals and coils at these sites—what remain, what lingers, what still exists.”
3. The writing maintains the high quality I’ve come to expect from High Desert Journal. Two favorites in this issue are Josh Beddingfield’s essay on a desolate corner of southwest Colorado, “Unsettlement,” and Lisa Wells eponymous essay on a similar place further west, “Fields, Oregon”—illustrated with black and white photographs by Bobby Abrahamson. Fields is home to less than a dozen people and is a quick stop to “middle-age liberal types” who complain about the price of gas and ask dumb questions before heading off “to another frontier, to scale the next mountain in their Gore-Tex. To pose and sip vitaminwater and condescend to earth.”
4. The magazine’s regional mission doesn’t stop it from publishing just plain great writing with only a tenuous connection to the High Desert. Case in point is Mary Jane Nealon’s “Amenable,” a wrenching essay about a homeless man who gets his life back from a mistaken HIV diagnosis—only to lose it intervening in a bakery shop robbery. The essay’s action takes place in New York City and its lovely epiphany in New Zealand. The connection to the West? Nealon now directs a health center in Missoula.
5. In addition to the high quality work already mentioned, High Desert Journal includes even more variety. There are poems by Terry Tempest Williams, Linda Hussa, Laura Winter, Scot Siegel, H. L. Hix and Jane Carpenter; an interview with singer-songwriter Martha Scanlon by
HDJ editor Charles Finn; short stories by Russell Rowland and Erica Olsen, both about love and/or sex gone wrong; a whimsical essay about the Occupy Movement by Jack E. Lorts, the mayor of Fossil, Oregon; and book reviews by Jamie Hougthon and Kim Stafford.
Volume 13 Number 1
Review by Charles Davenport
On the whole, the poetry in the Spring/Summer 2012 edition of Iodine: Poetry Journal is “poetry of witness,” a term put forth (if not created) by Carolyn Forché. Not every poem is dark and foreboding, however, but the journal is filled with wounds that beg to be healed, even if it hurts to do so. After all, isn’t that the essence of iodine, the tincture, to begin with?
As Iodine Editor Jonathan K. Rice laments in his introduction, publishing poetry doesn’t pay the bills much better than does, say, writing poetry. So, when he lost his “day job,” the one that actually did pay the bills, Rice chose to write about it in the introduction. Don’t worry, he tells readers, “There’s too much to do, and so much to be thankful for . . .” Pass the iodine, and let the healing begin.
The journal opens dramatically with two poems from Jeffrey C. Alfier, a two-time Pushcart nominee who spent twenty-seven years in the Air Force before becoming the editor of the San Pedro River Review. Alfier plays with colors, shadows, plumes of coal-black darkness, and light that never seems to blossom into radiance in “The Gathering Light at San Cataldo” and “0800 Intelligence Briefing, 14 Feb 06.” War in Alfier’s poetry is like a broad brush that discolors and dims everything with a gray mist; nothing is ever fully hidden, nor is it every fully revealed. It’s possible that nothing is as it seems, but it’s also possible that it is exactly how it seems. Such is the nature of memory of chaos and trauma. Alfier’s poetry is, perhaps, emblematic of soldiers’ poetry immediately after their war experiences in which certain events are kept at distance through metaphor. However, in the fifth stanza of “0800 Intelligence Briefing, 14 Feb 06” an image emerges as stark as a nail protruding upward from the ground, and it is as haunting as it is vivid:
And finally, in living color this time, counter-sniper
Fire—the effect of a 50-cal. on a poorly-hid enemy,
his right arm, complete with shoulder blade,
tossed away in the air at the bidding of velocity.
With the inclusion of Alfier’s poetry, Iodine can be counted among those journals making it a point to take on the writings of veterans who, like Alfier, Brian Turner, and Bruce Wiegl, have turned away from the politics and patriotism of war and speak more directly to the horrifyingly chaotic and traumatizing nature of war itself. And for that, they deserve a lot of credit.
From Alfier’s accurately dreary visions of war, Iodine shifts its focus to more domestic matters, though the mood remains almost as bleak in Gilbert Allen’s dystopian-like vision of a dried up American Dream, “Encore.” Allen lives in South Carolina, but the setting for his poem could be any town that has suffered in the massive mortgage foreclosure crisis. He doesn’t focus on the banks, Wall Street, or even the people who lost their homes; instead, he chooses to tell us about a single house that sits empty and the automatic sprinklers that dutifully water the lawn twice a day at precisely the same times every day. Even the living move about the landscape with machine-like predictability: “the post office has / a new directive, friends and relatives / gathered, dispersed, the dogs shedding / on distant, disparate sofas.” As Allen suggests in the title, this is nothing new to the American landscape but rather the script for an encore that everyone knew was coming. Poetry of witness often has the feeling that our present has caught up to the future dystopia we feared.
But, not all losses are as tangible as Allen’s mortgage foreclosure dystopia or Alfier’s casualties of war. In her poem, “The Man Goes on Holiday to Gather Words,” Tobi Cogswell reminds us in the form a third-person narrative that sometimes what we lose is the comforting sense of something or someone occupying our days and our hearts. Cogswell, who writes the poetry blog for online arts journal Fogged Clarity, opens the poem with a “sprig / of rosemary from a summer / walk along the ocean” sitting atop a dresser next to a delicate sand dollar, an olive branch and an extra pair of sunglasses. “She sees these things, / but doesn’t see them.” Now, the man who is no longer there is foraging the earth for, presumably, inspiration. In the last stanza, he remembers “the crook of her neck” while she struggles to remember “as her rosemary fades to gray.”
This issue of Iodine is about loss, but there is enough here to gain that it warrants a close reading of more than just this issue.
Review by Mitchell Jarosz
Let’s call it “folk art.” It’s certainly folk literature. It would be chic to call it urban myth, but I call it my history. Who doesn’t remember the sand man and the boogie man? I feel sorry for them. Then there’s the wahoo man, and the weird aunt and the uncle who . . . The Journal of Ordinary Thought is just that. My neighborhood, my people. It’s not just a trip down memory lane; it’s decent literature, in the language of the people I grew up with, speaking to me about many of the events that we experienced and that you’ll enjoy reliving.
What does it read like? Well, if you’re looking for the best professional work, this isn’t it. It is in fact, ordinary. It’s average style by average people. It’s best to put your feet up and follow the JOT writers through urban legends, rumors and tall tales, most of which will remind you of your own childhood. It isn’t necessary to have been young in a major city. There’s something in this collection that will bring back memories to nearly everyone. And it’s just like sharing with your friends at an evening get together.
This issue, “I Believed Every Word,” includes Found Art and a variety of works from not only from Chicago’s Neighborhood Writing Alliance but also contributors (particularly the found art photos) from a variety of people from (your?) neighborhood. Their narratives are entertaining—their stories and images really are yours and mine. Well, I can’t speak for every generation, but the stories and poems certainly speak to the urban memories that I and my friends have shared.
On the non-traditional side, there are variations of old myths that absorb modern problems; see “Don’t Look Under the Bridge,” by Claire Bartlett. If you know that trolls were the social outcasts of society, then it comes as no surprise that troubled veterans can become our modern trolls. Artists have always commented on society, and a collection such as this one is no exception. These people speak to us of our shared fears and our shared hopes, from the first walk down the street at night to first communion to the unearned gift from/to a false love to “I was four and a half year old when my . . . “
The poetry ranges from traditional rhymed to live mic to pretty darn good, but is always heartfelt. The ethnicity of most of the work is “Chicago.” The poems are Serbian, Latino, brother, neighbor. And I can’t imagine not having fun visiting the neighborhood. Similarly the pictures can take you back to your childhood; well, if they used cameras and black and white film when you were a kid. But even if they didn’t, the photos run from “quaint” to telling.
“JOT strives to be a vehicle for reflection, communication and change.” It works.
Review by Erin F. Robinson
I usually try not to pigeon-hole magazines into a theme, but with this issue, it’s difficult not to do so! Clearly, there is a bird theme flapping its wings in this issue, from the multi-media “Penguins” cover art, to the more than a handful of stories that were cleverly pecked and then nestled together in this charming and diverse journal. And it just so happens that many of my favorite pieces of the issue were the ones which involved birds.
In poetry, Robert Cording’s “Pelicans” is pensive, introspective, and philosophical as he describes an evening of good conversation and drinks in the sunset with friends, which eventually turns stale and boring as his attention is turned toward the view of pelicans dancing on the water and setting off into the pink sky. Who hasn’t been silenced by the beauty and mystery of nature at some point in their lives? Cording is able to reach the human psyche in a very delicate and understated way through this poem as he writes, “I felt like a child in hiding, / alone on the deck, made fearful and alive / by the darkened Gulf, the stretch of the beach / now entirely empty.”
A quirky and humorous piece is “The Muse of Work” by Ellen Bass. As Bass writes, she wishes for a muse like Greek poet Sappho’s lover. Bass does her best to imagine this beautiful woman, but good-old Mom keeps barging in:
When she opens the door, a flurry of spring,
apple blossoms and plum sweeps in.
But I’ve been assigned the Muse of Work.
It turns out she’s a dead ringer for my mother
as she scrambles the eggs, sips black coffee,
a Marlboro burning in a cut-glass ashtray.
Bass is lighthearted and a bit ironic as she admits that she still cannot control what inspires her poetry.
The immediate fiction standout was William Kelley Woolfitt’s “Crow.” A touching and poignant love story about a little boy who grew up with a crow as his pseudo-sibling, he writes, “Crow did fly at six weeks, but not away. He pecked the door if he wanted out, the doorbell if he wanted in. He learned to talk before me. His first words were in, out, food, water, sky, crow, boy. Those became my first words too. He called my parents by their first names. So did I.” Woolfitt creates lovely and haunting imagery, reminiscent of Poe’s “The Raven,” but a younger, more innocent version, perhaps intimating what the raven’s baby story might have been. This story was a pure joy to read, and I reread it several times, each time falling more in love with it.
Another strong fiction piece was Spencer Wise’s “The Farm,” in which the main character, Dean, takes a road trip to his girlfriend’s childhood home, a farm in Maclay, Georgia. It’s a hilarious retelling of the city slicker who makes a fool out of himself with the rugged ranchers on a working farm, but this one involves a future father-in-law, which makes it all the more laughable. About his girlfriend’s dad, Dean says, “He sits there gently rocking with an Old Testament dignity. His cologne smells like horse leather. I want to burrow my head in his shoulder and sniff him forever.” Now, who wants to sniff their girlfriend’s dad forever? That’s the absurdity I’m talking about. Wise creates a sweet and believable dichotomy between city Jews and country Christians as he gets to know the family he may marry into and gathers insight about his own family, too.
This issue’s feature was Collaborations, and one piece that struck me as a stroke of genius was Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Koch’s “Woody Woodpecker Goes to Paris.” It is almost unbelievable the talent these two men have. This piece came about from a live poetry stand-off in which Ginsberg was to play Woody Woodpecker, and Koch was the city of Paris in a blank verse drama. The most endearing parts of the improv drama were the ones in which they fell out of character and teased each other about their respective writing styles: Koch says,
He cannot keep away from certain rhymes
Although he should be speaking in blank verse.
In truth he is only a bird
And birds aren’t very good at poetry
But he is very good, I think, in song
Won’t you sing something, woodpecker, for me?
He puts Ginsberg on the spot to sing a woodpecker song, which is the perfect conclusion to a charming and quirky bird-themed issue.
Volume 1 Number 1
Review by Justin Brouckaert
The Ocean State Review’s debut issue features the work of writers who presented at the University of Rhode Island and/or its Ocean State Summer Writing Conference, and includes art, poetry, fiction, nonfiction and craft essays.
In terms of looks, The Ocean State Review gets high marks. The cover photo for this inaugural issue is vibrant and engaging, and the journal includes a satisfying amount of content while remaining relatively compact.
Unfortunately, the writing is not as fresh as the design. While the journal features some well-published writers from across the country, much of the prose and some of the poetry is a bit on the stale side: safe, carefully-developed (if not a bit dense) and just a touch short of entertaining.
But that’s not to say there aren’t bright spots. Robin Lippincott steals the show in fiction with the shortest piece in the journal: “Singer,” a fantastic story about a man who moves to a town by the sea in his twilight years to live the life he had always wanted:
He had come here at age seventy to follow a dream, or rather to fulfill one. Approaching retirement, he had, over a series of agonizing weeks, made a list, stopping when he noticed that it was comprised only of things he would rather not do; it was then he realized that what he wanted to do was live out the rest of his days as a singer. Never mind that he couldn’t and had never been able to carry a tune; it was all he wanted in this world.
The story begins slowly and carefully, as if mirroring the hushed tones in which legends are spoken of, and builds gradually into absurdity, a pleasant oddity that readers want to have faith in. By the end, that oddity builds into something more serious, more believable—a sort of artistic manifesto and a powerful statement of human ambition and entitlement:
He felt that he had earned the right to sing because of all he’d seen and lived and heard, all the experiences—the deaths and losses, the sadness and triumphs—but more than anything simply for having survived daily life for all those years. When he finally stopped singing, he knew it would be only because he was out of breath. Nothing else mattered to him: this was the living end.
The poetry of The Ocean State Review varies from the stylistic formalities of triplets and sutras to poems that experiment more with form and space, like Derek Pollard’s “The Wave and Flutter” and Melissa Hotchkiss’s “After years,” which is printed horizontally to fit on the page.
Likewise, the voices of these poems are diverse; each is a sampling of a shout issued across the pages from a writer working in his or her own distinct sense of style. The result is a cacophony of eclectic voices, a grab bag of poetry that exists on the pages of a journal still in the process of discovering its own identity.
There is Mary Giaimo’s “Fragments of the Affair,” for example, which, true to its title, is indeed very fragmented in thought and style. The poem starts off with the line, “The king is inquiring into ancient history / When did he learn to whisper?” and much like her king, the speaker also seems to be finding her voice. There is a dignified tone to the poem, a distinct reverence of history and a sense of re-discovering the past that, through the words of a disconcerted modern speaker, results in lines like, “Terrible Eros / Who is the sumptuous blackmailer?” and “Ardor’s a felon bridegroom.”
Where The Ocean State Review shines the most, though, are not in the poems that demonstrate technical aptitude, or the highly allusive and interlingual poems with multiple layers that resolve themselves too cleanly, but rather in the ones that embrace the undecided. They are the conversational poems, the character-based poems that elicit a clean sense of voice resonating as echoes long after you finish reading.
By that criteria, Denise Duhamel’s “An Old Novel by My New Husband” is brilliant. It is fresh, casual and confessional. I was hooked from the beginning, let in on the emotional background of the speaker in just a few short lines:
[An Old Novel By My New Husband]
is a love story about a hipster Romeo
and a down-and-out Juliet
and of course I am afraid to read it
because I prefer to believe
my new husband never loved anyone
I can’t stop though
because it is so good.
Duhamel is direct, but not simple; imaginative, but not distracted; grounded, but not blunt. There is a subtle humor and an emotional sincerity throughout the poem as the speaker gauges her place in this new relationship, in her role transposed against that of her husband’s “old” Juliet:
I think, wow, this is amazing and then I think
wow, this Romeo is my new husband
or at least some small part of him
and I wish I were this Juliet
although not really
she has her troubles and hurt
which remind me
of my own troubles when I was her age
and I want to tell her
look I’ve made it all the way here
Kevin McLellan, too, exhibits an emotional and confessional honesty in “Listening to the Be Good Tanyas on Grassy Hill Radio,” a poem in which the speaker inwardly explores the exchanges of gifts that are synonymous with courtship. McLellan is casual, humorous and inquisitive, using questions and fragments to mirror the wandering (if not sporadic) movements of a mind left with too much time to itself.
The best of the nonfiction and craft are Betty J. Cotter’s “The Accounting,” a woman’s gradual discovery of her father, a former sawmill man, through old account books, and Robin Hemley’s “Exceptions,” an adaption of the writer’s keynote talk given at the 2009 Ocean State Summer Writing Conference. Hemley offers sound advice for writers while recognizing that the same tips he and others offer to writers are often riddled with contradictions.
While less than stunning, The Ocean State Review shows potential in its debut. I can’t help but wonder if expanding beyond Rhode Island’s summer conference and soliciting submissions would help the journal hone in on its own identity as it continues beyond this inaugural issue.
A Christian Literary Expression
Volume 5 Issue 2
Review by Julie J. Nichols
In this issue’s introduction, which Editor Brad Fruhauff has entitled “Literature by Necessity,” Fruhauff reminds us that a rich literary diet “[confronts] some of the hardest realities of our time” and “will ask you to feel grace for a strung-out drug addict as well as for a cynical woman dealing with her abortions . . . to be merciful with an adulterer and to re-live the death of a childhood friend. These pieces," says Fruhauff, "are not safe.”
The language in that introduction, and the title of the journal, prepare the reader for specifically Christian-oriented work. But, as Fruhauff makes clear, it’s not all love and harmony, and none of it is polemic. The great strength of this journal is its conviction that true Christianity is inclusive, nonjudgmental, and revolutionary. It brooks no self-righteousness, but stops at nothing to celebrate the victory of the good, the redemptive, the ultimately beautiful.
For example, “Remission,” Jean Hoefling’s concise and lyrical prize-winning essay, weaves together images of blood (menarche), evil (the too-sexually-mature bully boys that follow her home from eighth grade and say the f-word “loudly all the time”) and the need for salvation (“the muffled shiver of tiny communion glasses, half full of mystery”). “That was the year,” she concludes, “I knew I could not outrun my death forever.” The narrative is half-sinister, half full of wonder. Loss of innocence is the beginning of deliverance. (Christianity is nothing if not paradoxical.) This same notion—that each of us is complicit in the ill that besets us all and eligible to overcome it—fills Scott Cairns’s “Two Trees,” the Editor’s Choice for poetry:
For all we know, the end
of knowledge is pretty much
that we might come to glimpse
how all we dare admit
continues spinning well
beyond our ken,
at the same time that another “still / bright tree . . . stands to quicken any who / would care to eat of it."
Other poetry concurs. "My Son Says What if Jesus Were Playing Basketball," a prose poem by Cindy Beebe, is one of many requiring us to re-think what "redemption" might mean ("until the voice, they didn't expect Jesus to be black"). Maryann Corbett's "Knowledge" describes the effect of unexpected information whose ultimate effect is to demand that the narrator re-think her opinion of her parents—even to forgive them. Lynn Domina's "Omniscience in Babel" imagines the Biblical moment of confusion of tongues in marvelously postmodern terms:
The most studious
recalled how God had spoken
them each into being, and they believed their own speech
could rise, each of their new languages
deepening God’s own voice.
Yet the mason wondered who would interpret
his command for labor...
And who among us
which cry is a prayer,
which a curse?
So the Christian message is not simply that we can be redeemed: it’s that the redemptive journey requires violation, some kind of death, some breakdown of imagined incorruption. Thomas Allbaugh’s short story, “A Point of Saturation,” shows a store manager on the brink of adultery. To his chagrin, the woman he wants to sleep flaunts her discovery that he has a wife and kids. No one forgives him his desire, or absolves him from it—but he’s left knowing things about himself and about his life that he will have to face before he can go on. This is strong stuff, good to read, scouring in its intensity.
As is “Sins of the Mother,” Virginia Hernandez’s short story. Be warned: this one does not have a happy ending. That’s part of Relief’s agenda. The Christian story is not that everyone’s life is, or can be, or is intended to be, “happy,” whatever that means. The point, in the story and in the journal, is that even in this terribly imperfect world, what counts is the “yearning for the actual ability to wipe away. . . guilt because [of] love despite the dereliction."
Essays testify to that as well. In "Drowning the Albatross," Chelly Roach finds that her support group's attempts to come to terms with abortion don't fit her sense that she ought to feel terrible about having had one. Even if a reader doesn’t agree that abortion is a sin, this essay is still evidence of the power of the idea of redemption and of the need to interrogate it in order to achieve it.
An interview with poet Ann Cefola, and four haunting black-and-white photographs by Eleanor Leonne Bennett, round out the issue, with its rich diet of thought-provoking verbal and visual art. “Please,” says Fruhauff, “eat slowly.”
Review by Justin Brouckaert
Brian Johnson takes over as the editor of Sentence in this issue, and if his first issue at the helm is any indication, this journal won’t miss a beat with the change.
Sentence features more than sixty prose poems that are brief, beautiful and complex, often adding to the discussion of how far to stretch the ever-evolving boundaries of prose poetry through their own exploration.
In a genre that was born and lives within gray areas, Sentence continues to extend the definition of what the prose poem can be, flirting around the borders of free verse poetry nearly as often as it approaches flash fiction or the essay form. Despite the wide range of styles and content displayed in Sentence, its poems all share similar traits: they are poignant, often hauntingly so, and achingly complex on many levels. They are both open and distant, with meanings and images that often linger just beyond my reach, close enough to stay fresh in my mind long after I read the final sentence.
Sentence is diverse, inclusive of poetry that ranges from the blatant silliness of Charles Harper Webb’s “Wiener Dogs No More” (“If mixed drinks must bear poets’ names, let it be so. But wiener dogs? In yips like helium thunder, I say no”) to the linguistic playfulness of Michael Mlekoday’s “Minor Conversion, Kitchen Table” (“It’s a strange feeling, realizing you’ve been mispronouncing a word for your entire life”) to poems with a much more serious tone.
Somewhere in the middle of this spectrum is Sarah Blake’s “Dear Kanye,” one of several published or forthcoming poems by Blake dedicated to rapper Kanye West. Blake’s poem is a contrast, even within itself, torn between absurdity (“I can’t draw a parallel today between you and the branch I saw on the sidewalk”) and something deeper, a voice more sobering and deeply confessional. It is that voice that caps the poem with the line, “I realize some days I shouldn’t write about you.” It is this juxtaposition of the humorous and the disturbed, the way that it shows contrast even within itself that makes this poem stick with me.
On the opposite end are poems more assured in their identity but equally complex, the poems that echo hauntingly, just out of reach, like the voice over the radio in Karin Gottshall's “Rain”:
Goodbye God, whom I met under the awning. You’ll take the crosstown bus to the burnt-out factory. One long afternoon in the rain: sometimes I turn on the radio just to hear the disc jockey’s voice, just to hear him breathe.
Jie Tian’s “Chinese New Year in Illinois” also finds its strength in similar feelings of separation and displacement:
The lantern of childhood still burns my eyes. I pull out my own Sichuanese recipe book and begin to read. I read into night, past time and winter until I see wind-dried sausages lit by red pepper, blood angles glow on bare boughs. I read so attentively I could be study the composition of poetry or alchemy. There is no hunger like this, no such longing.
In the Sentence feature, “Abstraction and the Prose Poem,” guest editor Richard Deming looks for prose poetry that, rather than being defined by “short, compressed, narrative, often surrealist in nature,” stretches back to poets such as William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein, whose attention was guided by “word, phrase and thought rather than by story.”
Deming defines abstract by indicating that it is “difficult insofar as it subverts or counters expectations arising from conventions of grammar, rhetorical argument, and perhaps especially narrative,” but rather than placing the term opposite “concrete,” he hopes to have the dossier “serve as a conversation for abstraction and its place in prose poetry, rather than define.”
Much to my delight, the poems in this section lived up to Deming’s hopes—they are playfully explorative and teasingly clever; in short, not at all abstract in the stigmatizing way that I often find myself placing poems with that label.
Rod Padgett’s “Coffee Man” is abstract only in the way that it plays with syntax, cryptically altering words at the end of the poem that makes readers grasp at their meaning; we know it, and yet we don’t:
If I were to say quietly, “Good morning, dear, here is your coffee,” she would open her eyes and manage a groggy thank you. But when she realizes that I am standing there without coffee, I would forget which tense I’m waiting to lift from the jar with the red lid in the kitchen.
Similarly, Nancy Kuhl’s “Conflagration” links phrases together with unsaid words, the space between the lines that ties together the physical standoff between characters (“your growing impatience is a kind of promise until the space between us quivers like someone tripped a silent alarm”), the sense of fiery memory (“I remember the conflagration and your casual interest in the ashes. Near-silence before the blaze; crisp instant demanding heat”), and the effect that the two have when they are combined together (“Even wrecked, the boundaries mark something. I haven’t forgotten what your eyes can do”).
John Ashbery, already well known as master of indeterminacy, is both abstract and focused in “Homeless Heart.” Ashbery keys in on something cryptically familiar, a comment on craft and creation that is instinctually recognizable to me, yet still beyond my line of vision:
When I think of finishing the work, when I think of the finished work, a great sadness overtakes me, a sadness paradoxically like joy. The circumstances of doing put away, the being of it takes possession, like a tenant in a rented house. Where are you now, homeless heart?
In all, Sentence is a great read, though not necessarily an easy one. Its poems are as challenging to readers as they are to the very conventions on which they were created.
Review by Sarah Carson
Spillway, an independent, semiannual journal based in Orange Country, California has been around since 1993. But, Editor Susan Terris remarks in her editor’s note that it’s only been in recent years that Spillway became a themed journal.
This issue’s theme, “Crossing Borders “(or “Border Crossings” if you flip the cover upside down), is an eclectic take on borders of all kinds—seasons, wars, and changing family and relationship dynamics.
Some of the borders crossed in Spillway’s pages are more obvious than others, but the variety of perspectives on the theme makes for a diverse issue full of distinct voices, stories, and styles.
There are, of course, the expected poems of exile and loss, of a sojourner leaving one place for another. But there are also surprises, as well as borders that are not so easily defined.
Take for example, Lauren Nicole Nixon’s “breakdown of a shelterspace.” Nixon plays with the borders of the home: foyer, hallway, tearoom, attic, deck, and, my favorite, fort: “even with the lines give in and you have to rebuild it, you’re certain that / this is the safest place of all.” The compartmentalization of space serves as a map of the memories the narrator has made there, like in the hallway where “they refuse to remove your third grade picture. The one with the cowlick / the one where you’re looking at the camera / but not quite.”
Or there’s Richard Garcia’s apocalyptic “The Abandoning” where the narrator muses playfully on an ambiguous exodus: “Just when did The / Abandoning happen? Were there many abandonings, or just one? No one / knows, but downtown there is a stepladder embedded in concrete, some say it is / the letter A, but others say it is a memorial to The Abandoning.”
As one might expect in an issue about crossing borders, the issue is rich with translations and international voices. A standout is Naoko Fujimoto’s sobering “The First Night,” a poem in fragments remembering the Japanese tsunami of 2011. In sparse, powerful images, the narrator recalls the events with heartbreaking precision: “A little yellow shoe drifted away. I / clasped my hands around a tree / trunk & smelled the endless / water desert.” The result is a border the narrator must cross against her will:
I waved my hands to the silver
whistles of a helicopter in the morning
sky. It dropped a rope like a spider
thread three miles away from my tree.
The issue ends with two essays—both of which meditate upon what it means to navigate life through verse. Lynne Thompson’s “At the Edge of the Grab-wheel” discusses the borders between the individual and the family by comparing the dynamic to works by Rilke, Neruda, and Yusef Komunyakaa.
And Shawn Pittard recalls an experience in which a young man he mentored navigated the border of people’s perceptions of his father’s suicide by performing the poem “Richard Cory” at his high school.
Both essays seem to lay out in prose the argument that the rest of the issue makes in verse: that perhaps there is no better tool than poetry when it comes to understanding—or attempting to understand—all of the various border crossings of our lives.
Volume 13 Number 4
Review by Shannon Smith
The summer issue of Tin House: cue an essay on “miserablism”—not in music, as Simon Reynolds once used to describe Morrissey and other gloomy Manchester bands but in fiction, as Gerald Howard employs in an essay on the “Merritt Parkway Novel.” More on that later, but let that brief introduction to this issue suffice to say that this isn’t exactly light-hearted beach reading. Who wants that anyways? The editor’s note says, “Consider this summer reading as providing a few grains of sand in your suntan lotion, a little bit of grit to remind of you the depth and breadth of the human condition.” So, let this Tin House do just that—give a dark, realistic, take on summer reading.
In “Notes on the Merritt Parkway Novel,” Howard discusses six writers who use Connecticut as a setting. He starts in the 1950s with Sloan Wilson, Max Schulman, and John Keats, goes into the early sixties for Richard Yates, and then skips about thirty years to get to Rick Moody, followed by Stephen Amidon, and Allison Espach. The essay is interesting, examining a loose collection of novels based on the way they tackle a location. Of course, it’s a troublesome thesis, as there are those unrepresented decades, but Howard’s central question of why these novels focus on the mundane, on the miserable, on the unsuccessful, when there must be plenty of happier folks in an American population generally considered optimistic, provides a certain tension and intrigue. Unfortunately, his conclusion that this is simply what writers gravitate towards and that “the whole business is hard to square,” while thought provoking, lacks finality.
The fiction in this issue does seem to bear out Howard’s assumption though. Alexander Maksik’s excellent, “Snake River Gorge,” starts with the line, “Are you happy?” The story is about a clearly unhappy boy named Theo who answers an ad in the paper about a job selling subscriptions. He joins a motley crew of coworkers whose even unhappier leader grows more abusive as the story goes on. Theo’s reaction to the abuse, the tension between him and the leader, and the slight ways in which he’s different than the other kids selling subscriptions fuel the powerful story. Maksik’s writing uses a riveting guttural realism to depict a world of outcasts.
Another story about characters who seem to have reached the end of their line is Kristen Iskandrian’s “The Inheritors,” which centers on two young women working at a consignment shop called “Second Chances.” The story builds a murky relationship between them that seems both predestined and completely out of the blue. But even though the relationship builds up naturally, it isn’t ever clearly defined, leaving the reader wondering about it in the end just as the narrator does. The writing is taunt throughout this piece, almost as tight and thin as the mysterious relationship between the two main characters.
As this issue seems focused on miserable people, it contains a number of stories about writers. One that stands out is Holly Goddard Jones’s “The Right Way to End a Story.” Jones’s story focuses on Juliet, a recent MFA grad trying to make sense of both her failed love life and a bleak job market. The story is set during a winter term when Juliet, who has been pulling together adjunct jobs, accepts a short-term teaching position at a rural private college with residency. Juliet’s extreme isolation is so honestly portrayed and pushed so hard that that the story transcends its dismalness, rather than wallowing in misery.
Those selections are only a few of the highlights in this issue of Tin House. There’s also work from Amy Hempel, Alice Munro, Sherman Alexie and Adrienne Rich, among others. As I’ve said, these stories traverse in the central themes of miserablism and realism, but none of the stories are miserable to read. They provide unique takes on sadness, on loneliness, on desperation, on all sorts of forces that drive people.
A Literary Review
Volume 12 Number 1
Review by Charles Davenport
If you like literature that looks, sounds, smells and tastes like Mississippi Delta blues and jazz, then Valley Voices: A Literary Review, published by Mississippi Valley State University (MVSU), would make a nice addition to your library. This issue celebrates the journal’s 10-year anniversary with a collection of what Editor John Zheng calls “the best creative works, poetry and stories, Valley Voices has published.” This issue is evidence that the journal has long lived up to its stated dedication to promoting the works of MVSU students and the cultural diversity of the Mississippi Delta through writers from the Delta, while maintaining standards of excellence in poetry and prose.
The editorial staff and the advisory board of the peer-reviewed journal are to be congratulated for their selections, especially the poetry. Anchored by poet and sax player Dick Laurie’s poem “authentic” and two pieces by blues poet Sterling Plumpp, many of the poems in this issue are notable for their musical structures and a shared voice that is part jazz and blues scat, and part narrative story-telling. Combined, these poetic elements sustain and give credence to the myths and legends that hover in the thick, humid Mississippi Delta air, as in the opening lines of “Territory I Explore” by Plumpp:
Mississippi, Mississippi / Clinton I was
born on the seventh
blues with a feeling / Juked at juke joints:
Curly’s or Checkerboards
Plumpp isn’t just providing the reader with a list of legendary blues figures; he is conjuring them up from the mud along the river banks, calling to them in the repetitive almost trance-like tradition of the charismatic songs of Delta churches. In this manner, the ghosts of blues masters such as Son House, John Lee Hooker, and Junior Wells—all of them great wanderers—are summoned and placed alongside the Shango Ogun spirits of West Africa. Ultimately, Plumpp makes the case that at its deepest roots, the blues is the language of his dreams, a spiritual language that connects him to his ancestors whose names slavery severed from their tongues hundreds of years ago.
Dick Lourie actually sits in and plays the blues with Big Jack Johnson, the subject of his poem, “authentic,” which holds tightly to many of the jazz-poetry conventions embraced by Jack Kerouac. Lines in the poem are treated like jazz phrases, repeated throughout the poem but with subtle differences. “Big Jack played it wrong,” Lourie writes in the second stanza, and then in the third stanza he imagines telling Jack, “but I have to tell you: you got it wrong.” Four stanzas later, the phrase is repeated again, but this time as a question: “should I say ‘Jack you’ve got it wrong again’?” The answer to his own question, Lourie discovers, is “No”; not only should he not tell Jack he got it wrong, but rather that he got it exactly right, thereby providing an eloquent twist at the end of the poem, like the surprise lingering note at close of a Thelonious Monk composition.
Prose has also had a place in Valley Voices over the course of the last ten years, and in this issue its place is in the second half of the journal. It is not a slight to be placed at the end of the journal, by any means, for included in this edition are pure gems by an excellent array of writers, including Tayari Jones and Steve Yates. Jones’s entry is an excerpt from her third novel, Silver Sparrow. Yates’s piece, Coin of the Realm, takes up the last 28 pages of the journal. It has been published in bits and pieces in several places, but in its entirety first in a 2008 issue of Valley Voices and again in this issue.
But the most interesting piece, in light of recent news that parts of the Mississippi River are now so low that ferry boats cannot cross in some places, is the essay “When the Mississippi River Dried Up,” by Don George. History, George tells us, makes much of the great floods of 1927-29. But, in a voice that sounds like someone’s grandfather is telling the story, George writes, “I believe it was in 1923 or 1924 that summer came early.” Not only did it come early, but it stayed awhile. And, when it did rain, it rained and rained like it would never stop, levees bursting up and down the river’s banks.
This issue is packed with writing that deserves more attention than can be given here. The great Mississippi River comes alive on every page, and I want it to carry me away.
Volume 28 Numbers 1 & 2
Review by Tanya Angell Allen
Excerpts from Jean Donnelly and John Olson could be used to sum up the style of work in the latest issue of Verse, a magazine that publishes chapbook-length submissions. Donnelly’s “Some Life” begins “read poems to know / how to live,” and midway through switches to the abstract
then empty everything
& fill it with this
night too has raccoons
in the alley with Alex
Earlier, in John Olson’s “So You Say” we read:
. . . I sometimes go crawling through words expecting to find an oasis, an exciting staircase, or a parable of sorcerers and collar studs. There is nothing like a pulse in a string of words to pump new life into your inflatable shrubbery.
Most readers will not find poems here that will teach them, as Donnelly writes, “how to live.” However, word-lovers crawling through Verse may find the energy-boosting equivalent of a trip to a contemporary art museum.
One flaw of this issue is that there’s no editor’s introduction or contributors’ notes. This is a shame, as it would be ideal to be able to read about its intriguing writers. Laurie Blauner is particularly noteworthy, as reading her poems feels like an immersion in the frightening, strange, gorgeous paintings of Bosch. Endi Bougue Hartigan’s echoing music is also addictive. Her “Begin at the slippage” begins “How many poppies? 10,000,000 poppies. How many poppies? Negative 10 poppies. / How many poppies? Hope in the shape of poppies. How many poppies? Estimated hope.”
G.C. Waldrep has great lines, such as “Porn travels through our physical bodies / At astonishing speeds, often approaching light.” Ezekiel Black contributes ten fine prose poems with titles like “Scrimshaw Acid Test,” “Cottonmouth Acid Test,” and “Hickory Cloth Acid Test.” And Tony Mancus writes shorter poetry, several of the pages of his portfolio containing only one line, such as “Feeling half right or more than just,” or “The same as any number of doors.”
With large distribution in the United States and United Kingdom, this journal helps writers publish larger pieces of work and get greater recognition. It’s a nice alternative to chapbook contests.
Volume 36 Number 1
Review by Tanya Angell Allen
In the poem “A Figure Half Seen,” published in the latest issue of The Wallace Stevens Journal, Dennis Barone writes that, when Wallace Stevens left an exhibition of the work of the artist Jean Arp,
A Southern cheese—sharp and
Strong, un-tasted (not Brie),
Brought him back to the things of
This world . . .
The Wallace Stevens Journal is the type of publication that goes well with cheese, and although the current issue is based on “Stevens and the Everyday,” it’s still a highly academic journal that uses phrases such as, “Analysis of routine or habitual practices, and their attendant objects, discourses, and institutions, can disclose the ideological underpinnings of even the most innocuous phenomena, adding up to a vast illusion whereby an historically contingent social formation passes itself off as natural and inevitable.”
Cheddar, please. Or perhaps one from Stevens’s home state of Connecticut, like the Italian-style Pleasant Sun cheese.
Cheese-eating, non-academic, everyday-lovers of Stevens’s poetry will enjoy the magazine as its papers draw light to new aspects of his work. The quote above, for instance, was taken from Benjamin Madden’s “What’s So Ordinary about Stevens’s ‘The Ordinary Women’?” Madden argues that the poem should be given as much attention as “The Snow Man” and “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” including discussion about early developments in cinema that influenced the piece.
In other essays, Andrew Epstein compares Stevens’s work to that of Francis Ponge—a French poet with whom he’s seldom aligned, even though Stevens once recommended Ponge, Randall Jarrell, and Rene Char to Korean poet Peter Lee. Charles Altieri focuses on Wittgenstein and Stevens’s book The Rock. Siobhan Phillips also explores the influence of Stevens on James Schuyler, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery.
Many admirers of Stevens’s poetry will probably be most interested in the section of poems about and in the style of Stevens. Of particular note are James Valvis’s collections of “Last Lines from Wallace Stevens” (“In any book / the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream, / of flesh and air”) and Clarke Otter’s “On Her Way to Heaven in 1913, Harriet Tubman Stops in New York City to Visit Wallace Stevens.”
“The Interview, 1958” by Ronald Moran, is also memorable. The poem’s narrator asks a frat-boy-like insurance man whether he knew Stevens. “You know he wrote poetry?” The man responds “Hell no? / You sure Wally wrote poetry? I’ll be damned.”
It’s a good reminder that although many people loved Stevens for his poetry, he was also loved for being a fine businessperson and a good, everyday man. Bart Eeckhout and Rachel Galvin write in the introduction that this was their very aim, “to pluralize this conversation by offering a range of ways to think about Stevens and the everyday.”
The Magazine of the Black Mountain Institute
Volume 25 Number 1
Review by Julie J. Nichols
Witness is, according to the editors, “an internationally recognized journal that blends the features of a literary and an issue-oriented magazine to highlight the role of the modern writer as witness to his or her times.” A publication of the Black Mountain Institute of the University of Las Vegas, Nevada, “an international literary center dedicated to promoting discourse on today’s most pressing issues,” this issue’s theme is “Disaster.” As the description suggests, the magazine is provocatively responsible (yes! one can be both!), of consistently high quality, and, in this issue, ruthless. The world is more full of disaster than you might want to know.
But what is disaster? Outgoing Editor Amber Withycombe points out that “our fascination with the documentation of disaster far outpaces our ability to comprehend the contours of its impact” or even its definition. Maybe disaster is a cancer diagnosis (“Here I Am,” poetry by Hugh Fox). Maybe it’s falling asleep at the wheel, obliterating one’s own face in the ensuing wreck (“God Created Night and It Was Night,” poetry by Sarah Blake). Maybe it’s three friends alone in a wilderness hut, each with his own peculiar ghost (“Snow Leopard,” fiction by L. Lee Löwe).
At least in these three examples, however, something makes the disaster shimmer with possibility. Fox’s speaker knows love and appreciates a heroic poet. Blake’s protagonist turns his disfigurement into art. And the ghosts? Well, that piece shimmers with mystery, the aesthetic triumph of impossibly braided grief. It’s a remarkable story.
So disaster + art = something else, something beyond, through, above or in addition to mere calamity. It foregrounds the “torture of the opposite, the fact that it could exist,” as in Robert Shuster’s “The Existence of the Opposite,” a story about Middle Eastern war and the grief of women searching for their dead men. War. Disaster. These affect women in specific ways: “The history of girls is always told as a tragedy,” as in “The History of Girls,” a story by Ayşe Papatya Bucak, in which a boarding school explodes and all the girls die but one, buried by the rubble. War, violent death, the necessity of living in the midst of heartlessness and waste—these are all disaster. “Growing old is a tragedy and so is dying young.” But the compassionate storyteller can raise it above itself.
So maybe disaster + art is just someone’s disaster used in a beautiful way by someone else. Many of the pieces in this issue are about poverty. One is transcribed from a blog by a homeless man, Oggy Bleacher, “themaninthevan,” who describes a day spent looking for and avoiding backbreaking temporary work (“The Saga of Poco Diablos”). One is a poem, “Rent the Elements,” by Weston Cutter, lamenting that “there’s / no limit to the MacGyvery lengths gone to by those / who tend but don’t own.” The center art exhibit, a set of colored photographs by David Wells, captures the shock, despair, and strangeness of foreclosure. Isn’t all disaster like that—shocking, estranging, driving its victims to desperation?
Sometimes it drives its victims, and the ones on the sidelines, to rumination or to unexpected action, or inaction. Imagine Katrina, the Iraqi War, 9/11: “And what, after all, does a monument do but usurp tragedy?” says Colin Rafferty, in “Notes Toward Building the [Pennsylvania] Memorial”:
42. When they build the monument here, it will lose the spontaneity of this temporary wall. It will lose this nearly frantic desire to leave something, anything that the people who come here feel . . . The new wall will only say:
43. Here is the site, and here are the names of the people who died.
44. What will be lost? What will be saved?
Helen, the mother in Chris Gavaler’s “A Very Light Fever,” cannot face that her son Brian has been accused of rape, by an anonymous postcard in a feminine script. For her, it’s an unimaginable disaster, and the vacation she has planned with her husband (who is, she says at one point, just like Brian) is ruined.
There are more disasters covered by the literary works in this issue of Witness: forced emigration from a loved home in Algeria (Marisa Handler’s story “Blood and Honey”); upheaval in China (Yang Zi’s poem “1976,” translated from the Chinese characters by Ye Chun, Melissa Tuckey, and Fiona Sze-Lorrain); and plagues (Colleen Kinder’s essay “Measure the Sky Over Mexico City” and Kevin Haworth’s essay “Plagues”). And even more, brilliantly arranged and arrestingly diverse. Besides its annual print issue, Witness publishes two online issues every year; this one takes its subject matter to breathtaking literary heights.