Posted February 15, 2013
Review by David R. Matteri
American Athenaeum invites you to step into their “museum of words” with their latest “Understanders” issue. Inspired by T.S. Eliot’s unwavering dedication to his craft in the face of stinging criticism, the editors dedicate this issue “to every artist who stays true to their art and vision amid the naysayers.”
Reading this issue really is like walking through a museum. The “Views from the Past” section features writing from across human history. There is poetry from Li Qingzhao and the Sixth Dalai Lama, and haiku from Matsuo Basho. Sojourner Truth and Henry David Thoreau speak of gender and the human impact on the environment in a pair of thoughtful essays. We even get a few laughs from the wickedly funny play “Philosophies for Sale” by Lucian of Samosata, a chapter from Hugh Lofting’s “The Story of Doctor Doolittle,” and James Kenneth Stephen’s poem “The Millennium”:
Will there never come a season
Which shall rid us from the curse
Of a prose which knows no reason
And an unmelodious verse:
When the world shall cease to wonder
At the genius of an Ass,
And a boy’s eccentric blunder
Shall not bring success to pass
It is this journal’s mission to bring together voices from the past and present, and there are plenty of strong contemporary writers here. For example, Ed Tasca shows us how the people involved in the trial of Socrates could have interacted if they had access to twitter in “If Plato Tweeted: A Techno Defense of Socrates.” The entire story is written in tweets as Plato tries to gather support for his beloved teacher. He does his best to defend Socrates in under 140 characters but is rebuffed at every step:
Meletus, you were the one who brought the charges against our great teacher. And all you care about is Glucosamine’s party?
Plato, my inbox is on overload! Give it a rest!
Plato’s frustration is confounded by the technology he uses. Not only do people disregard his arguments, but they also criticize his lack of technical savvy: @Aristophanes3xfestivalwinner says, “For Olympus’s sake, Plato learn how to tweet. All ur tweets are 2 long and don’t make sense.” The communication breakdown is parallel to our own dysfunctional internet debates. It is funny, but so close to the truth that it hurts.
Jacqueline West takes a leap into magical realism with her short story “Paper Dolls.” It is about a young woman living by herself in a big city. She works at a school, but does not interact with other people or get enough to eat. Loneliness and hunger permeate the story as the woman goes about her mundane life: “No one would have noticed, she knew, if she had folded herself into smaller and smaller shapes until she finally disappeared.” Out of this crushing loneliness comes the unexplainable urge to create a paper doll in her small apartment. Over time, this doll takes shape and an eerie, life-like personality. The woman starts to hear voices as her work progresses: “Hungry, they said. Hungry.” It would be unfair to tell you what happens next; let’s just say that the departure from the real world is sudden and shocking. Trust me; you have to read this for yourself.
Adriana Páramo takes us into the poverty-stricken heart of Kuwait in her essay “Cheesus, A Very Good God.” Sent to this oil-rich country as a teacher, Páramo goes on a quest to learn more about the mass of immigrants moving into the small sheikdom. She offers an extensive history of the country’s prosperity and shows how the multitude of jobs created by the booming oil industry attracted so many immigrants that the number of native Kuwaitis dropped to 37 percent of the population by 1995. Páramo witnesses the grinding poverty and abuse that came as a result of this mass migration by posing as a Christian missionary. However, Páramo also discovers that the missionaries she tags along with are just as capable of cruelty and ignorance as the apathetic Kuwaiti government. It is a tightly written essay loaded with gritty details of the horrendous living conditions the immigrants are forced to live under with the opulence of Kuwait City looming in the background:
The kitchen, a tiny windowless room of about ten-by-fifteen feet where, despite the lack of ventilation, ten propane cylinders were connected to ten small stoves with mismatched, amended hoses. The assemblage more so resembled a grade-school science project than a functional kitchen for grownups.
There is more to this issue than just solid prose and poetry. There are also reviews and historical essays, and there is a special section dedicated to authors promoting their latest books with stories that reveal their creative processes. American Athenaeum is a rich journal with plenty of jewels to offer. With that said, I’ll leave you with one more jewel from Editor Heidi Parton: “Reading opens us up to a larger community—however remote in space and time—that is always there, and through it we realize that we are never truly alone.”
Review by David R. Matteri
From the rugged state of Montana comes Camas, a unique literary journal that focuses on environmental and cultural issues in the American West. Their winter 2012 issue features essays, fiction, and poetry revolving around work, but they’re not talking about white collar jobs here, folks. This issue is dedicated to the men and women who perform manual labor found in the rural parts of the United States. It celebrates, questions, and examines all aspects of this form of work, whether good or bad, legal or illegal.
Sean Prentiss shows how rough manual labor can be in his poem “Hands & Fingers.” Written in couplets, this poem shows a day in the life of a lumberjack. Starting with a breakfast of “brown-sugar-sweet oatmeal to chapped & hungry lips,” you grab your Pulaski and feel “the echo of the steel head bite into bark & cork & sapwood.” At the end of the work day, your chainsaw bites your index finger. You stick the finger in your mouth and “Taste the hot iron of blood—of this woods life—on your tongue.” Prentiss loads his poem with great imagery and draws the reader into this world of hard labor; one can almost smell the sawdust, sweat, and blood dripping off the page.
The truck stop holds a near mythical place in the imagination of the West: an oasis for truckers and other travelers weary from riding long and lonesome highways. Jeffrey C. Alfier captures the essence of the truck stop in his poem “Heaven on the Point System at the Petro Truck Stop.” Our speaker tells of the “warm mercy” found in a stoneware cup that “could be the very one / you held in tired fists on any coast behind you.” There is Kat, our waitress, who brings plates of breakfast “no matter / the hour, because truckers who sleepwalk / from counters to washrooms and back / mean it’s dawn somewhere in the world.” Alfier paints a wonderful portrait in this poem, giving this average truck stop a Zen-like quality.
“Rootedness” by Laura Farmer is a powerful work of short fiction about fifteen-year-old Hoyt Freeman learning how to live and love after his parents abandon him with his Uncle Phil. Phil assures Freeman that his parents are good people, but “they aren’t thinking clearly.” Over time, Freeman accepts the fact that his parents are never coming back and helps his uncle with work around the house. Freeman and his uncle fill the loneliness in their lives by creating a familial bond between each other through their work. Freeman then meets a girl at a bar, and Uncle Phil instructs him on the finer points of writing love letters. By the end of the story, Freeman realizes that his childhood is over and he is transforming into an adult. It is a solid coming-of-age story that avoids sentimentality.
“Twisted Music” by Julia Corbett is a short essay that questions the value of progress and its impact on the environment and human health. Corbett flies over Wyoming and looks out her window, taking note of the number of new natural gas wells dotting the landscape only a few miles away from her cabin. Her county produces the most gas in the state, but Corbett is not convinced the consequences are worth the price:
The handful of Pinedale citizens who speak up about the serious air pollution from the massive gas fields just outside of town not only face the usual regulatory obstacles, but also ostracism from fellow residents . . . The mantra of jobs-jobs-jobs is so strong, so powerful, that it’s easier to charge that activists are “against progress” than to admit that the pollution is causing widespread respiratory ailments and three-day nose-bleeds.
Corbett also talks about the “fracking” process to extract more oil from the earth and how most people don’t think about where their energy is coming from or how much of it is wasted. Corbett ends her essay on an ambiguous note. This essay does not provide answers to the question of energy consumption in this country, but it does open the question for further discussion.
Richard Manning’s “Come or Bleed” is an excerpt from his upcoming book, which shows his childhood and teenage years living with his family in rural Michigan. This piece is rich with detail and stories about Manning’s family. His father, for example, hunted deer illegally and sidestepped the “crooked lawyers” and IRS by selling flowers and doing menial labor without leaving a trail. As a boy, Manning helped his father at a cement factory but almost burned to death while they tried to find a shortcut to complete a particular job. Manning admits that his upbringing would be considered horrible by today’s standards, but he claims that the people who raised him come from a different breed and lived by a different set of codes:
When I was a child, “work” meant something more than minimum wage at a 7-Eleven, bundling sub-prime mortgages, or punching keys. Both Marxist academics and editorial writers for the Wall Street Journal fail to grasp this deeper significance of work and the people who did it.
These “heroic” people Manning lived with had a kind of battle cry they would say during their work, whether it was splitting wood or mixing cement. It was a battle cry that instilled strength and pride while acting as a kind of prayer against losing a finger or an arm by the end of the work day. That battle cry was: “Come, motherfucker. Come or bleed.”
This is a short journal with only forty pages, but the quality found in each page is phenomenal. Juxtaposed with gorgeous black-and-white photographs of the desolate landscapes of the American West, this offering of writing can be enjoyed by anyone who works hard at their job, no matter the color of their collar.
Review by Mary Florio
Mudfish, a journal founded by Jill Hoffman in 1984, marries poetry and art in a spellbinding series of verve and verse. For a quick and accessible view of the art in full color, the Mudfish website has an exquisite introduction to a moving collection of drawings, paintings, and photographs included in this volume. The poetry is likewise compelling and contains this year’s contest winners, as selected by Mark Doty. But for the poetry in its entirety, you may have to schlep it to a Barnes & Noble, where select stores feature the journal—see the website for participating locations.
The volume is so well-edited that one has difficulty celebrating any particular poet out of the entire collection, but I want to provide analysis for certain dog-eared poems that spoke to me. Althea Rose Schelling’s poem “Bukowski” succeeds in referencing William Faulkner, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Charles Bukowski in an eerie, four-stanza tribute that shatters the typical referential form. For example, she begins with a twinge of mercy:
I find him crumpled at his desk:
the sunken, swollen drunk,
the levitating genius.
Face lined with ennui
and all the ugly little things.
Then, in a lovely, damning arc, she concludes:
I tell him he can be my
I will call him Hank.
I will never tell him he is
as good as Faulkner.
I tell him he will never be as good as
And you should really buy the volume just for what lies in between those stanzas. It is as close to the marrow as certain images from Chuck Palahniuk, a radical departure from the Romantic subject matter in poetry, refreshing.
David M. Harris’s poem “A Polemic vs. Time” is unofficially surreal and has the kind of web of language that manipulates your imagination. And because it tests realities, you see a glimpse of the journal’s heritage that includes such fine poets as John Ashbery. Take these lines from Harris, for example:
I was a minute away from not knowing what time it was.
Like a door slam mistaken for a pistol shot,
Like a hubcap careening through misaligned headlight beams,
Like the Cheshire Cat smile of a suddenly red light,
I grow adept at description
Though it is clearly idealizing that must be stopped.
And then the poet seizes the most beautiful of all: “I stay up late to avoid dreaming of white clarinets, / To interpret the sound of my own bones cracking.” They are great lines to remember and resurrect as something else. In other words, his diction is powerful and inviting (“interpret”)—it mutates in memory like a kind of sand palace overwritten by the tide.
Angelo Nikolopoulos’s “Take the Body Out” (second place winner of the Mudfish Poetry Prize) starts out with an incredible conjunction: “But I love the body.” And he takes it from there with endless invention and discipline. An advertisement in a New York stylists’ magazine reads: “Chocolate [dye/hue] this rich doesn’t come in a box; you can’t get the supernatural from the supermarket.” Mudfish contains no supermarket poetry, and in Nikolopoulos it is supernatural. Take this stanza to consider: “I love the body / bookended by introduction and conclusion.” Then: “I loved his body even it its absence.” Then: consequences of love and the body. It transcends everything.
People have been arguing about poetry for about seventy-five years now, in a different tense than that of the 5,000 years of arguments about poetry that had come before it. Mudfish is a compelling resurrection; you can read it on the D train or between stoplights in Hoover, Alabama: each poem is chiseled in its own way and strong enough in and of itself to keep you going.
Volume 77 Number 4
Review by Kenneth Nichols
North Dakota Quarterly is a scholar’s delight. The well-chosen creative nonfiction, poetry, and fiction are bookended by two incisive papers and eight book reviews. All of the work is informed by an interesting frame of reference; the beautiful Great Plains can be found in these pages, as can knowing glimpses of the rest of the world.
Allen Josephs, past president of the Hemingway Society and Foundation, illuminates “The Meaning of Fishing in Hemingway’s Work.” In Papa’s writing, Josephs asserts, “the meaning of fishing, always anchored in a pristine natural world, becomes a spiritual matter of utmost importance.” The piece is revealing and reflects deep research; even better, it inspires the reader to go back to his or her bookshelf and reach for Hemingway’s Collected Stories.
In the issue’s other scholarly essay, Robert Lacy offers a biography of Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Lacy points out that Pirsig “was a geek back at the dawn of the computer age, before the Internet, before the likes of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg made being a geek fashionable.” Now somewhat reclusive, Pirsig seems to live a happy existence, comfortable in the belief that he has achieved his potential.
Andrea Kott’s story “The Guns” arrives at the perfect time, with the American relationship with guns under increased consideration. The first-person narrator is a mother whose teenage son, Ben, is suffering through the loss of his friend. Lucas, a one-time enemy, has died of a brain tumor. Ben is adrift, spending his time mourning, visiting his friend’s grave, and turning his room into a shrine. While away at camp, the narrator finds a rifle and a handgun hidden in the boy’s laundry. Even though they’re BB guns, mother and father don’t like the turn of events. Kott paints the heartbreaking final scene with a great deal of empathy. The story seems to reinforce a truth we sometimes forget: despair can only be countered with empathy and understanding.
I love poetry about historical artifacts and situations. Jeanine Stevens delivers four such poems. The Venus of Lespugue is a small ivory statue that depicts a woman with exaggerated secondary sex characteristics; the statue may be a work of sympathetic magic to invite fertility. Stevens imagines the small piece of art in the hands of a prehistoric man who discovered or created it. (It seems as though the reader may choose between the two options.) The man’s reaction reinforces the true meaning of art:
He could trade
for a fire-hardened spear,
but she is palm size, small
enough for a hunter’s pouch.
The Venus of Lespugue inspires Stevens’s prehistoric narrator, appealing to his need for art. Can’t we all relate to this impulse?
The reviews in this issue of NQR are top-notch, offering extensive summaries of the work in question in addition to critical appraisal. Fred Whitehead’s review of Thomas McGrath: Start the Poetry Now!, a new book of essays about the poet, also serves as an intriguing introduction to one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated American writers. Henry Braun considers the future of poetry in his review of Kevin Stein’s Poetry’s Afterlife: Verse in the Digital Age. Braun’s commentary makes Stein’s book a must-read for those of us who hope to return poetry to a place of importance in American society.
North Dakota Quarterly reflects the feeling of the region in which it is produced. The pieces offer great pleasure for those brave enough to surround themselves with unending horizon instead of skylines and concrete canyons.
A Journal of New Fabulism
Review by Julie J. Nichols
Here, complete, is Mathias Svalina’s “Poetry Prompt: Reformation” from this thoroughly intriguing second issue of Phantom Drift:
Step one: Break all of the bones in something that has no bones. Preferably something that has nothing even close to bones, like a flashlight or a memory.
Step two: Reform all of the bones so that the thing works in an entirely new way.
Step three: Ask the rearranged thing what its experience as the new thing is like. Write down everything it says. This set of words are all the words you are allowed to use in the poem.
Step four: Write a poem that catalogues all the pains you’ve ever experienced.
Step five: The title of the poem is the name of the new, reformed thing.
This seems to me the perfect encapsulation of what “new fabulism” is. Though Leslie What thoughtfully defines it in the essay that opens the issue, Svalina’s prose poem seems to me to name what every other piece in the issue actually does. In “The Genre That Dares Not Say Its Name,” What provides a dozen other names for “new fabulism”: “Slipstream . . . Magical Realism, Fabulist Fiction, Transrealism, New Weird . . . It is rooted in folk tale, religious belief, magic, surrealism, and superstition. Fabulist writing blends literary tropes with fantastic conceits, and in the process frees fiction from the limitations of realism.” But refer to Svalina: quite simply, new fabulism ‘rearranges the bones’ of our thoughts so that they, and fiction, work in an entirely new way. This is a wonderful magazine, an awesome one—full of wonder, with some (lots of) awe.
Take “Skiing With Dostoyevsky” by David Axelrod. There’s Dostoyevsky, “one-hundred-eighty years old, give or take, and he’s skiing no worse today than he did a century ago, refusing to concede time to anybody, least of all to Time,” and there’s the narrator, irritated and wearied by last week’s long cross-country ski race, and there’s FD again, waiting for him at the finish line with remorseless Dostoyevskyisms, leaving him no recourse but to concede, himself. Short. Impossible. Perfect-pitch.
New fabulism isn’t just fun. Re-forming time and perception into twisted mirrors of their former selves, the pieces in this issue are symbolic, metaphorical. Then you ask, “Really? Aren’t we to take them literally—isn’t reality exactly like that?” In Chris Gavaler’s “Isn’t,” for example, the narrator’s named “Is,” but the reader doesn’t know, ever, whether the streets Is travels are or aren’t. The last third of the story turns her into “Isabel,” and her boyfriend becomes the relentless questioner the reader has been for the first two thirds. But she leaves him, as we are left. The “meaning” isn’t a concrete truth. It’s belief, it’s Is’s experience, the horror on those spectral streets of seeing her father betray her mother and not knowing how it could possibly happen. Was it here? Was it there? Do the streets still exist? To try to get her to pin the experience down is to deny her reality. To deny her. So we ought not to do it. That’s the point.
Shadows, ghosts, monsters, moonlight—whatever slithers just in the periphery of vision—this is the stuff of new fabulism. “Sunrise with Sea Monsters,” a story by Care Santos (translated by Lawrence Schimel), evokes a visitation from a deceased father. It’s made from the ache of desire for the kind of visit everyone wants, that final approval just out of reach. Elizabeth Schumacher’s two monster poems, “Feejee Mermaid” and “Iroquois Flying Head” follow Nate Liederbach’s “We Prepared Him,” in which “the humps of [the title character’s] hour-glass thorax bulg[ed] as half of us chiseled dirt from below those bifolded shoulders” and the “keen metal dew-claws” of his feet twitch. After the midnight fight, when “he” must meet the awful female champion, he confesses he is afraid, and the “we” of the title slink away, ashamed. It’s “The Lottery” with monsters, in moonlight, and it’s just—like—life.
What we can see, what we can’t; what we can imagine just beyond that which we prefer not to—these, too, are the stuff of new fabulism. Sadie, in Jessica Reisman’s “Boneshadow,” can see “bits and flashes, motions and beings. The world behind, the world within the world.” Which of us doesn’t know this world exists? Which of us strains to see it, which strains not to? New fabulism reminds us remorselessly that it’s there, whether we confront it or run away.
Dennis Ginoza’s “Other Names, Other Histories” juxtaposes a doubting priest, a riven city, and a revenant, rearranging for the characters and for the reader the story of Christ crucified. Bruce Holland Rogers gives us “The Midlife Forecast for Men” where “Behind this band of disappointment you can see the counter-clockwise motion of mortality pressure, and that’s going to draw disillusionment up from the south making for a powerful combination by the time it reaches us.” It’s funny, yes, but it’s also symbolic, and it’s also true. Every title beckons toward a “new, reformed thing.” Even the nonfiction—several reviews and essays—rearrange the reader’s mind. This is not a magazine to take lightly, but it sparks with light of many kinds. I’ll subscribe in an instant.
Review by David R. Matteri
By the time you read this review, the so-called Mayan Apocalypse has passed, and the human race is still kicking (whether we like it or not). But just because we missed our extermination date doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the latest batch of poems, essays, and stories from River Styx. Editor Richard Newman has dedicated issue 88 to the End of the World: “Something in us, often a small, barely suppressed voice, roots for destruction. Evangelicals have their own reasons—eternal rewards in heaven—but most of us harbor an itch to see the demise of things.” The works presented in this issue deal with The End in different ways, from personal and absurd to global and horrific.
“Song of the Jellyfish” by Lee Upton is a little poem about a jellyfish rebelling against Darwin’s Theory of Evolution: “I don’t care a fig who goes extinct. / I’m not evolving anymore.” This stubborn life-form is content as it is and presents a convincing argument against natural selection:
The shark is a perfect instrument,
a muscle of the fabulous,
gliding teeth, eyes flat as a psychopath’s.
Why should he change? And why should I?
I’m not evolving anymore.
Sometimes it’s a good idea to stop before
the brain stem develops, don’t you think?
I enjoy Upton’s use of repetition in this poem, and the jellyfish speaker offers such wise words. Who needs a brain, anyway? Maybe we should have stopped before we reached the deep end of the gene pool and let some other single-celled organism develop that pesky thing.
The title of Gary Leising’s poem, “Scientists Say Deep Space Gamma Ray Bursts Come from Alien Nuclear Wars” reads like the front page headline of a supermarket tabloid, but the core of the poem is deadly serious. The speaker tracks the history of an extinct alien race and speculates where they came from and how they lived:
Could anyone have lived? Where have they gone?
Maybe they bounced from one world to the next—
a planet, say, of ice, then one of sand—
and every time they’d just get settled in
their enemies would find them, having searched
the universe with some tracking device.
As the poem continues, it becomes clear that their problems mirror our own: “By chance they found fuel bubbling beneath / the world’s thin, shifting crust. They drilled through it. / Another tribe arrived and killed them for it.” Annihilation follows and all that is left of this civilization are fragments of art, tools, and prayers. Perhaps our own species can learn from these aliens (if it’s not too late).
Jeffrey Hammond’s essay, “The Sense of an Ending: Farewell to the Apocalypse,” tells what it was like to grow up during the Cold War of the 1950s. Hammond describes the “duck and cover” drills he and his classmates performed as a child, knowing his desk could not protect him from an atomic blast: “Even we kids sensed the futility of the exercise. I remember wondering why we had to die in so uncomfortable a position.” Hammond weaves history into his personal memories and reveals the psychological impact the atomic bomb had on the American mindset during the fifties: “one push of a button by a deranged Soviet, and the good times fueled by the booming post-war economy would vanish in the twinkling of an eye.” This feeling of impending doom fueled end-time beliefs in religious communities, but Hammond explains that this is not unique to the fifties. From ancient times to today, people have always had a fascination with The End: “We’ve always played with the End, feverishly manipulating its gory details to suit whatever outcome we desire.” The fusion of political and religious history within this reflective essay makes a great read.
George Singleton’s “After School” takes us to a fictional high school that faces closure due to silly circumstances. Our narrator, a disgruntled teacher reaching retirement, tells us how it started with a transfer student from “either Arizona or North Dakota” with violent allergies to all the plants and flowers on campus. The administration orders the custodian to kill all the plants and trees; roses for birthdays and Valentines become verboten; and proms turn into corsage- and boutonniere-less affairs. Problems for the school only get worse with the arrival of a new student with an “hourglass-shaped head” and an intense allergy to peanuts, walnuts, and pecans. The absurdity builds and as more and more students come to school with doctor’s notes excusing them from classes because they have an allergy or strange medical condition until there is only one student left in the entire school. The ending involves a showdown between the narrator and the remaining student’s parents, who arrive in his classroom wearing scuba gear. It is a silly story and a welcome diversion from the doom and gloom present in the rest of this issue.
The second piece of short fiction in this issue is Geoff Schmidt’s “Down the Chimney,” which follows one woman’s journey through a zombie apocalypse. The protagonist, Danielle, loses her dog and her baby to the monsters and joins a group of survivors on a boat near the Gulf Coast. Some readers may be turned off by this concept, considering how our popular culture is saturated with the living dead, but what I like about this story is how Schmidt focuses more on the human drama surrounding the collapse of civilization. There’s also a poetic ring to his language:
You could say it started when Hell filled up. You could say it started when a comet tail enveloped the earth. You could say it started in the laboratory of a well-intentioned geneticist. You could say it started in a Haitian cemetery. You could say it started with a pulse of thought, desire in a dead neuron, need beyond need.
Terror lies in the fear of the unknown, and I believe Schmidt crafted a well-polished horror story with sympathetic characters and a chilling finale.
It won’t be long until the next Doomsday prediction starts circulating the internet and our day-to-day living. As River Styx has shown us, we just can’t get enough of the stuff. So don’t let the ultimate fate of our species stop you from enjoying this issue of River Styx or future issues. Provided we are still around to read it!
Review by Julie J. Nichols
The Northwest Institute for the Literary Arts (NILA) is a community of writers on Whidbey Island (Washington state) which supports, teaches, and guides upcoming writers by means of a freestanding low-residency MFA program, an annual conference, and this publication, Soundings Review. This was the last issue to be produced under the direction of founding editor Marian Blue. Subsequent issues will be produced by students and faculty in the Whidbey Writers Workshop, the Institute’s MFA program, where, according to the website, production of the Review is to become an aspect of the proposed MFA in Publishing and Editing. It’s apparent from the bionotes of the journal that much of the work published in Soundings comes from within the NILA community—but that doesn’t mean it’s local, or even regional. It especially doesn’t mean that it’s anything but “high quality poetry, fiction, and nonfiction” by writers whose deepest value is to create community and contribute to the field of writing. The institute’s website is emphatic about this; I find it very exciting.
Three contests are showcased in this issue of Soundings. “The Queen of Roar,” a strong piece of literary journalism by accomplished educator-turned-writer Phyl Manning, won this year’s Founders Circle award. In anecdote and exposition, it chronicles the misfortunes and redemption of Nyla (an apt name!), a Sumatran tiger born and bred to work in Hollywood films. The piece begins with a mauling incident that nearly cost Nyla everything. But a particularly sensitive owner and an equally skilled trainer in northern California save her from execution, and she finds a home among other trained cats. Manning concludes with an engaging vignette in which she herself interacts live with Nyla, in such a concrete way that we understand fully Nyla’s appeal, while we respect fully her tiger nature. Good research makes good writing here. The piece is concise, informative, and engaging.
The First Publication Contest award winner “Cat Fights” is a hilarious short story by Whidbey resident Chris Spencer. And there’s a third contest, a Readers’ Choice, with a ballot in the magazine so that readers can vote for the piece they like best in the issue.
Will voters choose from among the MFA program’s students? Janet Buttenweiser’s incisive “Take A Deep Breath In,” a second-person essay to all who must proceed from Stage One waiting rooms to Stage Two and beyond, contending with ever-more-familiar radiology labs and machinery, ominous obstacles on the path to the final diagnosis? “Last Day at Alpha,” Jeff Suwak’s anguished account of a “retreat” from bitter war experience, from which kind and eminently desirable “retreat,” finally, he runs in terror? Ann Gerike’s sweet “Reading Alice Munro,” whose first-person narrator discovers the titular writer in his quest to become a writer himself, and finds his world remade?
The student poets are equally good. Jeremiah O’Hagan’s “When The Clock Struck Midnight on December 31, 2010” tells the awful story (maybe you’ve heard it) of the night when thousands of red-winged blackbirds fell from the sky in Beebe, Arkansas. “I wonder / what the birds thought, exploding / into flight, mad hearts churning / frenzies . . . / [When] they died did they think they’d arrived, / millions of wing flaps after they started, at beauty?”
Jill Burkey’s “White Space” begins and ends with “the silence” that happens when “the last line [of a poem, or of a life] is read.” Her “Visitor” to a cemetery points to “[so] much history in too little ground / . . . mingling / at a permanent cocktail party . . . // a tall dandelion the groundskeepers missed / now an arm waving to you out the window.” I might vote for Burkey.
Marie Hartung describes the strange, too-cheerful response of the medical community “One Hour after the Rorschach and Other Tests” when the on-the-spectrum diagnosis is finally undeniable. “Losing the Sense of Sound” may never have been so heartbreakingly evoked as in Joanne M. Clarkson’s poem of that name, and Donna Pucciani gives delightfully alimentary metaphors to “Learning the Parts of Speech in Italian.” It would be hard, I confess, to choose from among all these selections.
There are also a number of impressive non-student offerings. John Cravens’s skillful story “Grief” might win my vote for its complex attention, in one small episode, to the ravages of war on generations of men and women. “Elsie—At An Outside Table,” a prose poem (or is it a lyric essay? a piece of sudden fiction?) by Teddy Norris, lets
the resigned solitude of age flash into my awareness. These and other strong works assure us that the mission of NILA, and of Soundings Review, is admirably and certainly being fulfilled.
Review by Mitchell Jarosz
Now this is fun! Published out of Canada, Sterling gives us a handy (128 pages), portable (of course, most literary art is portable), and extremely enjoyable collection of poetry, fiction, plays, manuscripts, and an “interview.” The cover of the issue evokes the idea of Boy Scout merit badges, but for writers. With badges such as “First Typewriter,” “Rejection Letter,” and “Rhymed with Orange,” the cover puts forth its main badge that says, “All Stories Matter.” I like variety, and the Sterling premise is “I want to hear everyone’s stories.” Me too.
The poetry section only includes nine pieces by six authors, but that’s a nice change. Most anthologies are heavy on poetry, so this is a refreshing assortment that leads into the fiction section. The poetry opens with Teresa Del Mastro’s “New York,” a pleasant tease that transitions to the more serious and more reflective “Lon” by Tina Gagliardi: “. . . the pain / of being a woman is evenly unjust, / by way of her mirror / and of mine.” John Grey’s “His Death, the Way She Planned It” has the twist we might expect from flash fiction, and the works by Michael Casteels, Joe Massingham, and Kaye Spivey promise that we will hear more from them, because we want more from them.
The four stories that follow provide a variety of family experience, love, escape, and coming-of-age stories. Daniel Perry’s “Eyesore” prompts me to recall family differences; Armel Dagorn’s “Different Outlooks on Love” follows a set of connected youth through their expectation, fantasies, and disappointments; while Steven Mayoff’s “Money is Honey” and Channie Greenberg’s “Mail Order Bride” can remind us of many popular contemporary authors and themes. All four leave the reader looking forward to more of their work.
“Sterling Grade: Conversations with our Namesake, Part I” is brief, but commendably so. This succinct view of the author/actor/artist is as entertaining as it is informative. Usually an interview that focuses on “who did you know” doesn’t tell us much about the person being interviewed. In this instance, the “I” is clear as Sterling tells about the people who influenced him, or didn’t, as a part of his learning. Which is what we do as we listen/read about the experiences that influenced his work.
The Manuscript Club is a prompt-based workshop in Toronto.” A section of this magazine is dedicated to that workshop, and although the first suspicion is that it might be no more than the average college’s student collection, it is far from it. The writers included here provide very fine work and leave me with the hope that I will see a great deal more from each of them in the future. “The Manuscript Club”: a substantial part of this issue because that, after all, is the core source of the material. “Writers of all levels create and refine new pieces around a particular theme," say the editors. "This past session, in honor of its 10th anniversary, we took our inspiration from David Simon’s The Wire.”
Eight authors provide their entertaining results. Even if you’re not familiar with The Wire, all of the pieces will interest you, and no, I am not going to quote or paraphrase. You will enjoy them if you read them; you will not enjoy them if I provide teasers.
Plays: “Cold” by Stacy Lane. We’ve come full circle. The style reminds us of the poetry the issue started with. Throughout the collection there’s a sense of flash fiction. The entire collection consists of honestly short works; “Cold” is three pages max. It has an effect. That is the same response I had to all of the other work, whether it was to my usual taste or not. I don’t measure good by how much I like it. This collection is good, and I believe you’ll like it.
Review by Shannon Smith
Unstuck, a relatively new literary journal based in Austin, Texas promises “literary fiction with elements of the fantastic, the futuristic, or the surreal . . . everything from straight-up science fiction and fantasy to domestic realism with a twist of the improbable.” After reading this thick—well over 500 pages—issue, it is that last line, “domestic realism with a twist of the improbable,” that seems most applicable to the surprising pieces in Unstuck. While many of the selections could be called “weird” in one way or another, most of the pieces are grounded in a reality.
In “Maria and the Mice” by Charles Antin, for example, a recent graduate who won “The Award for Excellence in English” takes a temp job caring for mice that are scientific research animals. He finds his prize applicable to this job in that “it was a liberal arts thing so I’m very good at picking up stuff. I learned how to learn.” That disconnect grows deeper as the narrator imagines that Maria, the woman training him, is falling for him, as his thoughts place her and him in situations that are clearly derived from his reading or movie-watching. When he gets bit by a mouse and Maria tends to the wound, he sees himself on the Italian battlefields of WWII, being treated by a nurse, only to be crushed when Maria is won over by an Italian soldier after the war. He then gets gonorrhea from a Macy’s sales girl while riding in a taxicab in New York City. The allusions range from the obvious to the more obscure, but are funny, and the story winds up with an innovative ending.
Julieta García González’s story “The Beginner in a Yoga Class” (translated from the Spanish by Toshiya Kamei) concerns a brash new student to a yoga class who “came in trying, as always, to get noticed, but no one paid her much attention.” During this lesson, however, the class is forced to pay attention to her as her posture and appearance begin to take on aspects of each pose that the instructor asks of the class. Her transformation starts slowly, in tadasana, the mountain pose, with dirt appearing between her toes and on her thighs without any apparent reason. The changes become more drastic, as her body becomes coated with armor during the Warrior 2 pose. The story hovers between the unreal and real as the class bands together to try to rescue the woman from being permanently stuck in a pose.
“Family Mart” by Elizabeth Browne takes place in Thailand. The main character is Martine, who’s shopping at Family Mart after taking time off from her job because her left arm is sprouting a hoof. As the story progresses, Martine becomes closer to Charo, a Family Mart clerk who helps her down the instant noodle aisle, remembering “all of her preferences.” She tries to hide the hoof, but when she eventually encounters Charo at Chatuchak Market, an enormous and more traditional stall market, secrets come out for both of them. Browne’s writing neatly tucks absurd elements into the daily lives and emotions of the characters.
Another great story in this issue of Unstuck is Elizabeth McCracken’s “Foundling,” which is about a baby who gets returned into the book drop at a New England public library. The librarians decided to keep and raise her, and the girl grows up among the stacks. McCracken skillfully intertwines the life of the girl with the slow disintegration of the library.
Unstuck contains exciting pieces by a number of other writers, among them, Caitlin Horrocks, J. Robert Lennon, and Ed Park. There are poems by Dean Young and Matthew Zapruder and others, and a nonfiction piece by Erik Anderson. Unstuck does a superb job of mixing newer authors with more established ones. The work in this journal weaves an idiosyncratic tone and provides the reader with strikingly original viewpoints.
A Journal of Indigenous Literature, Art and Thought
Review by Mary Florio
There is persistent music in this volume, and it is not limited to the poetry. From Denise Low’s “Gambling in the Heart of Winter” to Dawn Karima Pettigrew’s “An Indian Doctor,” the prose narratives invoke other echelons in a mesmerizing language. “Mesmerizing” is a very fat word for what I mean specifically—that is, the success of these writers in engaging tradition to create new meaning. The language is rich, the styles often magical, but even in a lush literary landscape the authors in this volume evade over-writing or purple prose. It’s a tough and beautiful presentation.
Cheryl Savageau’s short prose piece “Not Your Average Lullaby” reads like music. Savageau, whose lullaby is a tribute to the narrator’s mother, captures the essence of understanding one’s heritage through a pop cultural lens. She writes in the bold tones of a generation, reaching for a recognition of tradition through different versions of her mother. She begins: “You want to talk about something, I wanted to tell them. How about Janis Joplin. Now there’s someone who’s really not dead. I know, man, because my mother is Janis Joplin.” The story weaves through histories, concluding with the gentlest, most elegant epiphany: “She wouldn’t talk about it anymore, and I wouldn’t either. I mean, who’d believe it. That Janis was my mother, and all those feathers, the blues, was really an Indian thing.”
“Indian thing” may refer to pre-colonial peoples expansively. The guest editor, Chip Livingston, chose to highlight the work of writer Jamie Figueroa. She had recently graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts of Santa Fe, and her work transcends genre and any limitations one might derive from a vantage point of identity. For example, her “Revolution of Body” is perhaps the finest story I’ve read about gender identity in the context of ethnic identity. But it is not a story you would describe in those clinical terms. It is a better assessment to call it a love story, but a love story made more complicated by the histories of its characters, a Romeo and Juliet in the setting of someone’s kitchen.
Before deconstructing “Revolution of Body,” one looks at Figueroa’s efforts in a microcosm. In a form of flash literature titled “Hunger,” she writes, “Everything appeared falsely clean, glowed white—the walls, the sheets, our teeth” (emphasis added). In a few paragraphs that sound like poetry and read like prose—a disciplined pacing, a victory of language—she tells a story that with a little imagination becomes a five-part elegy, full of possibilities. Many of the stories in the volume concern tradition, but in Figueroa’s work she is complicating tradition with another tradition with another tradition, and she executes this maneuver without all of the liabilities one can derive from “identity politics.” She never excludes the personal, the individual, the humanity behind the best writing.
In “Revolution of Body,” Figueroa narrates the story of an unlikely mother-in-law who visits her pregnant daughter to see that her daughter-in-law speaks little Spanish. What is perhaps more unusual is that the in-law tension has to do with the fact that the marriage is with another woman, not a man. The transcendence is captured in Figueroa’s joyous ending:
We all pretended nothing was happening, each of us submerged in our own thoughts. Iva [the mother-in-law] would leave soon and her perfume would haunt our home for days. Meanwhile the baby would continue to bloom in Beth, and then, soon, we would be mothers.
The joy that Figueroa provides is an achievement—the dream that one will overcome prejudice, as possibly realized in the two women’s lives. Given the journal’s focus on those connected with silenced peoples, it is liberating to see each piece’s evidence of exceptional creative interpretation and strength—these are resilient voices. I end with Livingston’s observation that opened the journal:
Family stories have it that my great-great grandfather, Hadjo Pokke, AKA Richard L. Taylor, died at 103 years old when he fell off his front porch dancing. He is held up generations later as an example on how to live our lives, dancing until the end of our long journeys . . .
The music in this volume seeps even into the introduction—all of it measured and somehow not too far away.
Volume 28 Number 3
Review by Shannon Smith
ZYZZYVA publishes prose, poetry, and artwork from West Coast writers and artists. This regional focus is hardly limiting as this issue is made for consistently compelling reading. The stories are on the longer side, allowing the writers to burrow down into the characters, whose lives skew towards the bleary and darkly complicated.
In “Oh, Oh, Oh,” Chaney Kwak’s first published piece of fiction, the paths of two different Jacks—a Jackson and a Jacques—intersect when one chats with the other online, trying to arrange for sex. The story starts before the two meet, and continues after, but it is their encounter—on Christmas Eve, in a house with decorative lighting so legendary it is covered in a TV news story—that defines this bleak yet hopeful tale. Like the holidays, the story contains both depressing and uplifting features, and Kwak’s distilled writing neatly plays those facets off of each other.
Andy Stewart’s “Synesthesia” concerns classical music and the dismal nature of academic politics. It is narrated by a slightly off-his-rocker piano professor who is in deep competition with another pianist in the department to replace the department chair, whose wife is sick. Or, the narrator at least thinks he’s locked in a competitive struggle, for the story is colored by his unreliable viewpoint, and it is only at the end that his viewpoint is re-aligned with reality, a position that sits as well with him as a strong punch in the face. Stewart’s writing illuminates the petty nature of longstanding disagreements and how they infuse character.
“Sawmill” by Earle McCartney starts off: “Less than a week before the sudden death of his only son, Miller Dolbow bought a sawmill.” The story concerns the circuitous nature of mistakes, how easy they are to make and repeat, and how unconsidered actions can come to be defining moments. Without being heavy-handed, the story explores how the activities undertaken by Miller Dolbow in this story could come to be seen as responsible for leading to his son’s death.
The middle section of ZYZZYVA features a series illustrations and writing by Wendy MacNaughton called “Pier 70 In Its Own Words.” The drawings and narratives trace the transformation of Pier 70, a formerly defunct shipyard that is being developed into commercial and residential property. This change mirrors the changes that have swept the whole of San Francisco, and MacNaughton’s carefully inked pictures explore this neighborhood and the particulars of its remaking.
ZYZZYVA contains excellent, extremely strong writing and innovative artwork; the stories unfurl with surprising depth and compassion. There is not an uninteresting piece in this issue.