Posted March 18, 2013
AGNI :: Creative Nonfiction :: Event :: Freefall :: The Healing Muse :: The Hollins Critic :: Iron Horse Literary Review :: The Literary Review :: The Missouri Review :: New Haven Review :: Paterson Literary Review :: St. Petersburg Review :: South Loop Review
Review by Mary Florio
You know you should have bought a subscription to a magazine when you learn, one issue too late, that the editors were going to host a retrospective on Robert Lowell (AGNI 75). Or when, casually perusing the issue at hand, you discover apparitions of Ray Bradbury (see David Huddle’s piece), Cynthia Ozick (see Tamas Dobozy channel Harper’s The Bloodline of the Alkanas), and Allegra Goodman (see Wendy Rawlings’s ending channeling La Vita Nuova). The perceptible echo from these influences emerges from talented writers in their own right. And that’s just the fiction.
This issue of Agni is exceptionally well curated, which is why I draw the parallels above. Huddle’s “The Future” is as unforgettable as certain Bradbury stories because its futurism enables one to consider tough ethical questions when the variables are already in so many ways controlled by the author—not by assumptions of actuality. Huddle’s story, which functions as acerbic social commentary using an imaginative assassination ploy, completely upset my expectations. In fact, the story is tightly paced enough to begin with the invitation to choose. Per the narrator’s friend, an apparently brilliant woman with a slew of degrees from the most competitive graduate schools, the narrator can choose anyone in the world to be eliminated, and that person will die instantly with no trace of the identity of the executioner. After deliberation and some fuel to the plot, he selects [Supreme Court Justice Anton] Scalia. My chin bobbed upon hearing his decision.
However, in the story’s denouement, the narrator, having made his choice, retreats to the ‘safety’ of National Public Radio. His concluding statement is: “Terry Gross always makes me feel like the world is still an okay place to live.” The statement emphasizes “live,” such a binary opposition to the central act in the story, but it also plays with the idea that Gross and NPR can be just as mesmerizing as other kinds of propaganda. What I learned from this story strictly as a reader was that one should not be swayed by the preposterousness of the proposition. Even in fiction, even in futurism, maybe even in stand-up comedy, there are certain things one doesn’t take lightly. Sure, Huddle minimizes the apparent consequences—the individual selected would disappear without pain and without attribution. There is no violence, no element of an individual performing the murder—it is a decision to enable some grand machine to affect it, a kind of distant slaughter by the smartphone. It’s so well done that you have to catch yourself. To my initial response, I would ask if my politics were so polarized that I could even entertain such an outcome. The reasonable American wouldn’t want someone to disappear without due process. Even Scalia.
This proclivity of invention is exemplified in the poetry. Take Sydney Lea’s poem “When the Light Fails” and Eamon Grennan’s poem “Silence.” Both create, in a mechanical sense, a completely separate framework from what one might expect from a literary journal. Lea and Grennan stretch the parameters of the poetic line—the words glide off into a literary sunset of an inverted page. It seems as though these poets will not be silenced or truncated but rather will “Bring on more life!” as Grennan frames his conclusion. AGNI doesn’t crop the longer lines; these poems are free to unfold horizontally. Form matters. Look what happened when Dylan went electric.
Askold Melnyczuk’s “Shadowboxing: Occupational Hazards” considers form and order from within governance. If the astonishing “The Mozart of the Talmud” (Jeffrey Mehlman) can echo the evocative language of Benjamin Cardozo, then Melnyczuk crosses platforms in his own symphony, with subject focus ranging from the Occupy movement to censorship in its multifarious forms. He ropes in Hell-Raiser and Albert Camus and demands in certain, concise terms, for governmental transparency. His catalog of authorities is convincing; his arguments sturdy. What makes the piece especially effective is its inclusion in the magazine at all—the pace of topics on a given editorial calendar of a journal is generally expected to be glacial, but whenever Melnyczuk had penned this editorial was irrelevant because it remains true as to the writing of this review.
As to its own transparency, the AGNI website is a good compliment to the journal. It presents compelling information and broadens the channel of the print magazine, while at the same time respects the intellectual property of the venture by controlling access to the content. If more publications allowed readers to signal with their pocketbooks their support of the written word, more publications would survive. I want to see the translations, innovations and reportage rewarded, and I believe that AGNI’s approach is an excellent method for meeting that goal. And it’s a balanced value proposition—the range of voices is international and intergenerational and Paul Elie’s question in the December 2012 The New York Times Book Review: “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” finds an address in these pages.
Review by John Palen
“Don’t write like a girl. Don’t write like a boy. Write like a mother#^@%*&,” the Rumpus columnist “Sugar” advised young writer Elissa Bassist in 2010. Bassist took the advice to heart, making it into an “anthem and a lifestyle” that is about “quitting your bitching, getting out of your own ego, and getting to work.” Three years later, she and “Sugar”—now revealed as Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things, extend the discussion in an email conversation that appropriately kicks off this powerful collection of work by women writers.
The strength of the essays in this issue lies not only in good writing but in the research that makes it worth reading. For example, in “The Collection,” Mary Quade draws on her high school bug collection, her experience growing up Lutheran, and, years later, a visit to thousand-year-old churches in Turkey. The churches hint at Christianity’s often violent past. Her Lutheran pastor turns out to have been a sexual adventurer, although not with her. And she arrives at some very honest conclusions about her earnest young self and the extent to which she was willing to kill to succeed. “I put dozens of insects in the killing jar, pulled them out dead, and displayed them on pins. True bugs or not, they weren’t saved, and neither was I.”
Similar marriages of research and memoir occur in Danielle R. Spencer’s “Looking Back” and in Elizabeth Mosier’s “The Pit and the Page.” An examination for a “wayward eye” takes a stunning turn for Spencer when evidence turns up that a childhood stroke has severely limited her vision. “Not many people experience something like this,” her internist tells her, “to learn that what you thought was the world is, in fact, only half of it.” Mosier’s essay alternates accounts of her work as a volunteer at an archeology laboratory with her painful experience caring for her demented mother, “who is dying slowly and furiously.”
Other strong essays in this issue are “The Memory Train” by Sara Dailey, “Elk Country” by Marissa Landrigan, “Regeneration” by Brenda Miller, and “Far, Far Away” by Pria Anand. The last is a fascinating piece about an informal “signing community” among deaf residents of a remote Caribbean island—a community whose limitations and safety are both affected by a rapidly encroaching larger world.
As it has since its founding in 1993 by Lee Gutkind, Creative Nonfiction continues to lead the parade of writers who “write like a mother#^@%*&” while producing “true stories, well told.”
Volume 41 Number 2
Review by Shannon Smith
Event is a Canadian literary journal associated with Douglas College in British Columbia. While they primarily publish poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and reviews from Canadian writers, they do accept submissions from all over. Their aesthetic seems broad ranging, with an inclination for stories that have a hint of the mysterious or unconventional.
Craig Davidson’s “Friday Night Goon Squad,” one of the more straightforward stories included, is also one of the more emotionally compelling. A social services worker at the Children’s Aid Society, who has suffered a miscarriage, but is newly pregnant again, narrates. The reader comes to know a bit about the narrator’s marriage, as well as some of her clients, in particular a 12-year-old named Oliver and his mother, who, the narrator informs Oliver’s principal, “scored 47 points on the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale . . . lower than most students” at the middle school. Oliver’s mother is also pregnant, delivering the child during the story. Tension derives from the imbalance between the mother’s care for Oliver and her inability to actually provide for her children. As may be expected, the story takes a turn for the dark.
Also quite interesting, but more elliptical, is Fraser Calderwood’s “The Mouth Parts,” opening with the line, “It woke and bit the big thing that was touching it.” The ground on which the story stands becomes less evasive and more concrete, relating a chronology out of order, as it progresses. The thing biting at the start is a black widow spider that a girl named Brigit encounters in a head of frozen lettuce she opens. Progressing through Brigit’s hospital stay and the reactions of her parents, the tale concludes in a scene with Marcos, a Mexican worker who leaves the black widow in the lettuce before it is bundled to be sold in Canada, because he, at 12, treats the spider with “the same indiscriminate curiosity that all bugs caused in him . . . It would be safe there, have good food.” Marcos views the world as a mixture of marvel and suffering, and he “saw no reason for the spider, also, to suffer.” “The Mouth Parts” touches on the haphazard and spiraling effects of the random.
Event contains a number of strong poems as well, including Jon Paul Fiorentino’s “Summary: The History of Sexuality,” which is a diagrammed drawing of a fan with parts labeled with phrases such as “Tolerance Space” and “Active Site.” And Fiorentino’s “Summary: Condensation and Displacement” is another industrial sketch with labels such as “Displacement,” “More Shame,” and “Reconsideration.”
Julie Cameron Gray’s terse “In Response to ‘What’s New?’” imagistically describes a state of emptiness, ending, “But other than that, nothing is new. / The sky was pale white, all day.” Danielle Janess’s “Last Time We Spoke I Was on a Payphone in Berlin” abstractly summarizes the gaps in the end of a relationship before reaching a denial, “I can’t follow you. In jeans and charcoal hat. I won’t.” Nick Thran’s “The Silence of Small Towns” starts, “I’m afraid of the silence of small towns,” and concludes, “through the centre of the silence of small towns”—using “silence” and “small towns” as refrains throughout. The sparseness of the poem echoes the fear and quiet of the first line.
The selections in this issue of Event are often atmospheric, full of opaque directions that crystallize in the language and last minutes of the stories and poems.
Volume 23 Number 1
Review by Shannon Smith
Freefall bills itself as “Canada’s Magazine of Exquisite Writing.” Their mission statement commits to publishing 85% Canadian content, ranging from new and emerging to experienced writers. The editor’s opening statement, written by Micheline Maylor, describes an opposition to demolishing Al Purdy’s A-frame house, asking: “If muscle has the ability to remember, then why not a wall, a house, a landscape?” Her preamble continues, “For what is this life without a little magic?” and sets the tone for the creative work that follows.
Rebecca Rosenblum’s short story, “Anxiety Attack,” concerns a perplexed Doug, who is “not the best help”: “He always read the manual, always had a working pen and everyone’s current address, but only because he feared a world without such precautions.” For reasons Doug cannot completely fathom, he has been made the emergency contact for Jake, the young son of his friends. Doug responds to the call, leaving his office to pick up Jake at school because of a bomb threat. Doug’s uncertainty and his disconnection from his reactions to Jake drive the narrative to an unexpected place.
Rona Altrow’s two-page piece, “Mozart,” begins with a chatty sonographer asking Glenda to hum as she undergoes an ultrasound. The sonographer goes on and on about herself, insisting that she was the same technician who performed Glenda’s previous exam. Glenda denies this repeat occurrence, thinking, as the sonographer flittingly describes her new condo, “If she calls that apartment awesome, I may walk.” The next words from the sonographer are, “My condo’s totally awesome.” “Mozart” investigates the uncomfortable relationship between medical personnel and patients, the gap between sensitivity and practicality.
Lisa Bush’s poem, “Please Do Not . . .” takes the form of “a letter to my grade nine students before taking the Provincial Achievements Tests.” It both hilariously and plainly outlines a series of instructions for students to avoid when writing short stories and business letters on this test. Guidance includes: “Please do not have music montages / or make up languages of your own” and “Please do not sign your business letters with hearts.” The last line of the piece veers towards the less nonsensical and more personal, “If you follow the above recommendations / you will do well on the Provincial Achievement Tests / and I will not lost my job.”
Jennifer Juneau’s poem is directed at a “you” who was an “honoured guest” at the narrator’s wedding, although no other attendees knew they were lovers. The poem moves through the narrator’s complex attitude of loss, concluding:
You must have thought me a fool
to think I was in love with you
because I was marrying somebody else.
You must have thought me a fool
to have you as an honoured guest at my wedding.
The piece leaves out the details of the relationship, dwelling instead on the narrator’s ghosting perception of the lover’s perception of the narrator.
Freefall also contains interviews with Pamela Porter, Mar’ce Merrell, and John Wall Barger, as well as book reviews.
A Journey of Literary & Visual Arts
Volume 12 Number 1
Review by Mary Florio
Illness, arguably the direct or indirect source of human suffering, prostrates us all. Accordingly, theories of illness and healthcare form an uneasy truce for such icons as Karl Marx, Pope John Paul II, and Ayn Rand even though their philosophies would diverge on many other topics. Moreover, one might argue that the management of limited medical resources has become the preoccupation of our age. But when you are sick, philosophies fail; you seek mercy, and sometimes the voice of that mercy comes from literature. The Healing Muse, a journal produced by The Center for Bioethics and Humanities at SUNY Upstate Medical University, offers a platform for such voice. As editor Deirdre Neilen notes in her introduction to the journal, “The land ahead may be unfamiliar territory, but the same humor, resilience and desire propel our poets and essayists and their characters to chance the unknown and to chart the journey for us.”
Unlike the conventional approach to a literary journal cover where the art is more coincidental to or abstractly thematic to the literature, this volume initiates the conversation with its cover: Marguerite McDonald’s painting, created after a devastating diagnosis. The literary journey begins with Founding Editor Bonnie A. St. Andrews’s luminous poem, “Opening the Summer House”:
Sun-drenched again and one
with the universe I am
sweeping this kitchen singing
at the top and bottom of
essentially tuneless lungs.
It’s still winter here, and Andrews’s poem creates a sense of hope when one might expect a preponderance of grief. Also skirting laughter is Kevin Bray’s darkly comic essay “It’s All in my Head.” In Bray’s off-beat tempo of maladies, the speaker explores the mindset of hypochondria and the perceived ironies of anti-depressant medication.
Carole Glasser Langille’s “Who Are You” excellently portrays how illness (in this case neurological damage from a car accident) affects those around the individual who is ill or hurt (I am not using the word “victim” or “patient”). You can see many different portraits of illness in the history of world literature, but in The Healing Muse, I see originality in the face of that hyper-saturation. I’ve been studying F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night as a portrayal of caregiver psychology, but Fitzgerald’s original text—with all of its terror and starshine—fails the closeness of Langille’s achievement. When Langille’s story ended, I really wanted to see more.
Susan Huang’s essay “Prime of Life Redefined” is also very good at telling a story with a measured tempo. It captures the triumph of a young physician who faces a serious watershed but remains resilient: “Every day is relished because I learned life is fleeting.” Huang doesn’t employ any wiles in charting the course of her illness—this is no Lauren Slater—but you feel that the subject does not require it. I feel that Huang’s challenge in this case is uniquely tied to the manner in which she described her ultimate success. Often times in the literature of illness and healing we blow up (i.e. enlarge) the disease because it is that daunting. Metaphor helps us understand what we face but cannot stare down head-on, but Huang simply spells out her experience with a grace that we can appreciate for its forthright approach.
A second balanced take on the psychology of a young physician is Timothy Vo’s “Getting Wisdom.” I enjoyed the narration infused with “new” media—Vo cobbles together a message from both Robbin’s Pathological Basis of Disease and Facebook. It is also reasonably economical and straight-forward, which suits the subject matter of the essay exceptionally well.
More centered on the craft are David C. Manfredi’s “Vespers” and Allan Peterkin’s “And What Felled the Princes of Europe?” Both poems, more in the tradition of Wallace Stevens than Linda Pastan, radiate the symmetry of life and that which sustains it. You feel the spiritual seething into “Vespers”:
The white coats drift quietly
from one malady to another
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
and always the patient
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . how bright the eyes
how strong the voice
how tired the soul.
“Vespers” invokes the 1885 Swedish hymn “How Great Thou Art,” in a setting where such is integral to the nature of healing—the prayer at the base of every medical intervention. And he says none of this directly—there is no “telling” in this poem—he simply weaves together a faith-full shroud or baptismal robe in a place where all of us go to be saved.
Peterkin’s epiphany concerns a small cut on the one hand and several generations and continents on the other—through the thinnest scrim. His sixth stanza captures the essence of pain: “Some must have / seen the frantic beauty / in all this.” He concludes the poem:
I get to forget (again)
all I learned
all I once knew.
and the body I take for granted.
Peterkin’s epiphany is a masterful riff on a form that has bloomed in poetry well after William Carlos Williams but still functions beautifully after all the plums are gone.
Volume 49 Number 5
Review by Sarah Gorman
Spare, elegant, and graceful, The Hollins Critic descends like a belle of the upper South on bibliophiles starved for beauty. Fittingly, this publication emanates from the first women’s college in Virginia, an institution with a proud tradition dedicated to creativity and “effective self-expression.” The accomplished artist Susan Avishai, after decades devoted to the international study and practice of art, entered Hollins University in 2001 to pursue a degree in creative writing. Between writing seminars, she painted in Hollins’s studios, and since 2004 has contributed a striking pen-and-ink cover portrait to each issue of The Hollins Critic. Avishai’s art perfectly launches the reader into the fierce economy of its unique format, its passion for literature, and its flair.
The magazine, entering its 50th year in 2013, publishes in each issue one essay that surveys the whole body of a contemporary writer’s work, as well as book reviews and poems. It reviews but does not publish fiction.
In this issue, Rhonda Brock-Servais, professor of English at Longwood University, surveys the work of Peter Straub. She wastes no time orienting the reader to the oeuvre of Straub, instead assuming some degree of familiarity with his writings. (A brief biographical sketch appears separately, along with a list of his publications; as is customary, he is the subject of the cover portrait.) This appraisal of Straub’s work plunges without apology into the tangled strands of horror, mystery, and the gothic, as well as the recurring characters, places, and relationships that characterize the world created in his novels and short fiction. The essay invokes some of the profound themes of the gothic employed by Straub: “those who can accept and learn from what appears outside the rational are the ones who thrive” because, despite the gothic trope dictating that characters cannot escape the darkness within which they are entwined, Straub allows that transformative opportunities can emerge from a world that is oppressive, threatening, and confined. Although the past continues to haunt, he allows redemption for his characters who can see through their traumas to a deeper level of meaningfulness. To an inquiry from his reviewer, Straub rather winningly responded that his Blue Rose trilogy (Koko, 1988; Mystery, 1990; and The Throat, 1993) “are probably at the heart of whatever [he has] managed to achieve.” Brock-Servais clearly has made a thorough study of her topic and brings her familiarity with the literature of horror to her understanding of Straub’s imagined world. This survey would have benefited from a further round of editorial attention, although to mention this deficiency seems, even to me, tactless, like objecting to the beauty mark on the neck of the southern belle.
The mere titles of the four poems in this issue provide pleasure: “Autumn All Over,” “Obituary,” “Hunter Thompson in Hell,” and “Experiencing Sacred Geometry,” by Helen Wickes, Jeffrey Dieter, William Miller, and Matt Prater, respectively. The titles compel the reader’s attention, and reading the poems rewards it. Poetry Editor Cathryn Hankla has selected beefy poems full of images that conceal as they reveal, as in these lines from Prater:
I looked into the windows of the school.
I noticed the sunset: like a Matisse,
a Rubix of suns, fragmented into brass rectangles.
This faded as I watched, and night came on.
The windows remained, then melted, pooled away.
I got back on my bike, and rode to town.
Everywhere I went, the streetlights rhymed.
This issue provides eight book reviews, ranging from a brief description of an “excellent” new translation by John Ashbery of Rimbaud’s Illuminations; to Finding Grace by Kurt Rheinheimer, a book of linked stories that the reviewer, Amanda Cockrell, describes as “lives told backwards”; to Editor of The Hollins Critic R.H.W. Dillard’s enjoyable review of the novel Love’s Winning Plays, by Inman Majors, which Dillard describes as “a full speed exhibition of comic and romantic broken field running through the world of SEC football.” I mean to seek out and read this novel because of all the virtues commended by Mr. Dillard.
This 24-page publication performs the noblest role of the literary critic. It broadens readers’ awareness of contemporary American literature and deepens our appreciation of the ways that unfolding sensibilities grapple in our day with age-old themes. Like the southern belle, it boasts of impressive, enduring strengths beneath its pleasing outer form.
Volume 14 Number 6
Special Issue 2012
Review by David R. Matteri
Strong fiction does not have an expiration date. You can leave it on a shelf for centuries, but it will never lose its potency or the sense of joy it instills in new readers. The 2012 thematic issue from Iron Horse Literary Review celebrates the strong fiction of American author Nathaniel Hawthorne by showcasing three of his most popular stories: “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “Young Goodman Brown,” and “The Gentle Boy.” The issue celebrates his fiction, but it also reexamines his work through the eyes of three prominent women authors. There is a heavy dose of irony here because Hawthorne dismissed women writers of his time as “scribblers” of market fiction. The result is a terrific issue juxtaposition of Hawthorne’s voice and voices of contemporary women writers.
“The Minister’s Black Veil” is about a holy man who hides his face behind a black veil. No one knows why he wears the veil. This mystery fuels speculation in his small village as many suspect he hides from a terrible sin. Hooper’s wife asks him to remove the veil, but he refuses and the two go their separate ways. The story ends on Hooper’s death bed, where he damns those around him, and the veil becomes a reflection of human cruelty.
Gina Ochsner responds to Hawthorne’s story with “Look,” a tale that examines the universal power of love. Ochsner’s story moves the setting to the cold Alaskan wilderness of the late 1880s. She changes the point of view to Hooper’s wife, a half-English and half-Yupik woman whose spirituality is planted in both her native tribe and Christianity: “Though to cling to the cross, she was learning, was to lay hold of splinters.” She teaches the beliefs of her people to her new husband, a young minister from the south: “God is water, but his highest form is light, which is his glory. Which is why they had to exercise such care with their gaze.” She advises her husband to never look at the sun without the snow goggles her people make from caribou antlers, but he ignores her and becomes snow blind. The permanent damage to his eyes shakes his faith. He urges his wife to leave him and search for a better life in the south, but she refuses to give up on him: “The darkness within and without, she said. We will look at it together. We will look, she said, lifting the veil. We will look and will not avert our gaze.”
“Young Goodman Brown” is Hawthorne’s classic tale of a religious man meeting the Devil. Brown’s wife, aptly named “Faith,” urges him not to go on his journey into the forest, but he ignores her and goes on his way. As his journey progresses, he is shocked to discover that his neighbors and close friends are in league with Satan and the “devilish Indians.” He stumbles into the hellish scene of a satanic ritual and loses his “faith” to the dark side of human nature.
Toni Jensen’s story, “Following Mr. Brown,” changes perspective and asks why the “devilish Indians” follow Goodman Brown. The setting changes to the future, where decades of fracking have destroyed the forest around Salem and left it a barren desert where haboobs, or intense desert storms, have become common. The descendants of the native tribes follow Mr. Brown as he meets with the Devil: “It was our job to follow Mr. Brown, to make sure he made no more deals, no more trouble. It had been our fathers’ jobs and some of our mothers’, too, and their parents’ before them.” There is a little tongue-in-cheek humor as the natives try to stay inconspicuous:
We flattened ourselves behind fences; we studied our tourist maps, and the moment passed like so many had before. We were growing tired of the Browns and their careful displays of all things newlywed—their chaste kisses and handholding, their box store furniture, their new towels with monograms slanted and looped in tasteful hues of pink and gold.
The heart of this tale is an environmental one. The natives care more about the destructive process of fracking more than the dilemma of Mr. Brown’s soul: “Turn on a faucet. Light a match. Watch it burn. Who doesn’t love a party trick?” Despite their intentions to keep Mr. Brown from causing any more trouble, they are thwarted by an intense haboob and their own uncertainty. The cycle continues as another Brown loses his faith.
“The Gentle Boy” is a story about religious intolerance and injustice. A Quaker man is put to death and buried in a nameless grave with other executed Quakers. His wife is sentenced to die in the wilderness while their son is left to mourn over the mass grave. A Puritan man takes pity on the child and brings him into his home and raises him like his own son. The rest of the Puritan community does not like this and ostracizes them from the community.
Edith Pearlman performs a gender swap on Hawthorne’s story in “The Gentle Girl.” The setting is moved to a private all-girls school in post-World War II America. The main character, Barbara Braude, is a young Jewish girl studying alongside mainly Quaker and Catholic girls. She is a good student, but nurtures a rebellious spirit:
She was singing hymns and repeating phrases that she disbelieved—Jesus Christ was not her Lord. She pretended respect for the school’s motto—Love, Loyalty, Humility—whereas her own clan’s motto, understood though unspoken, might have been Love, Limited Loyalty, and Getting Ahead.
Hypocrisy and scorn against Jews run rampant throughout Braude’s school. As her body matures into womanhood, so does her mind. She begins to recognize the injustices performed by those in power and condemns the school in a stunning outburst during class. Yet no one takes her condemnation seriously: “they didn’t give a damn for anything except good-enough grades and field hockey scores.”
If you enjoy the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and love to see strong women writers flex their literarymuscles, then you definitely want to check this issue out. It may inspire you to become a “scribbler” as well.
Volume 55 Number 4
Late Fall 2012
Review by David R. Matteri
The 2012 Late Fall issue of The Literary Review is out of control. No, really, the issue is dedicated to loss of control. “Control is an abstraction and a grail,” says Editor Minna Proctor. “Humans are driven to maddening distraction, dangerous and untenable lengths, in pursuit of control. We don’t ever get control, yet we hunt it.” The writers in this issue contribute a great selection of fiction and poetry that examines this hunt and shows how easy it is to lose control.
Ben Stroud’s “Amy” shows how a college professor loses control to his sexual desires. The narrator has a stable career and is married to a beautiful and successful woman. His life would appear to be ideal, but he confesses that something is missing: “I saw all my future years spent waking to wrestle with murky thoughts, to put cold words on cold pages no one would ever read.” He leaves the States to teach in Germany but has an unexpected reunion with an old friend from high school. They have sex and tour the country together like the lovesick teenagers they used to be. The narrator finally seems content with his life but then gets another unexpected surprise when his wife comes to visit. What I like most about this story is how there is no clear villain. All the characters have redeeming qualities, which makes it hard to say who is right and who is wrong. You will just have to read it and decide for yourself.
As I write this review, the gears of sequestration are being set in motion. Many Americans will be forced to find new jobs and polish their résumés. Christine Sneed’s protagonist in “The New, All-True CV” is also looking for a new job with her unique résumé in today’s estranged job market. It is a work of fiction in the format of a curriculum vitae letter. The author, Camille Roberts, is applying for the position of Chief Recruiter of a large corporation, but she is writing in an unorthodox manner: “Although I realize that my CV should only stress the positive, my scholastic and professional accomplishments in particular, this document’s viability is doomed . . .” Roberts tells her life story in the following pages of the CV without censorship, revealing of her heartaches and failures. Here is a sample from the Formative Years/Education section of her letter:
- 1982–83 - If you were female and grew to be five feet, seven inches tall by sixth grade and had largish front teeth that made you look, in some people’s opinion, like a fur-bearing, rapidly reproducing creature, and you needed a bra as big as a few of your classmates’ mothers’ bras, bigger in a few cases, you learned early on that life isn’t fair, that life is actually a cosmic joke played out over and over on the young who are sometimes desperate enough to consider suicide by mixing bleach and chocolate milk but (luckily) never find the guts to drink this lethal, disgusting beverage.
Sneed’s work is full of humor and tragedy as it reveals the faults of a very relatable character. It was great to read this wonderful story in such a unique format. One can only hope that this will be the future of CV letter writing.
There are many talented poets appearing in this issue, but my favorites are Alex Dimitrov and Jynne Dilling Martin. Dimitrov’s “This Is Not a Personal Poem” is personal (despite what the title says) and is not afraid to have a little fun:
This poem wants you to like it,
please click “like.”
This poem was written during a recession.
I’m so politically conscious
the word “politics” is in my poem.
This is not a New York poem.
There’s not enough room for all the wars in this poem.
Gay marriage is now in this poem.
Have you liked this poem yet?
Martin’s poem, “Autopsies Were Made with the Following Results,” loses control of reality and sends you into a dream-like trance:
I draw uncounted fugues from pianos but no consolation,
and recall the ogre who mistook hot coals for roasted nuts,
and dream of riding atop my sadness like it is a horse.
My horse may be black yet in darkness is easily mounted,
This issue also includes reviews of books and poetry from authors such as Per Petterson, Lesie Adrienne Miller, Benjamin Stein, and Karl Ove Knausgaard. There’s plenty to like here, so don’t be afraid to lose control of your senses to the spells of these wordsmiths. Sometimes you have to let go and let the writing take you away.
Volume 35 Number 3
Review by Julie J. Nichols
One of the many pleasing things about this issue of The Missouri Review is the design of the magazine, easy to hold in the hands, with a neutrally-colored cover and larger-than-usual font. Easy on the eyes, gentle and pleasant.
But even more pleasing is its theme: Risk. There doesn’t seem to have been a call for work with that universally magnetic theme. The nonfiction, poetry, fiction, and interviews apparently simply all fell into, or were brilliantly chosen, for their adherence to it. Kristine Somerville’s excellent review of four books on class and race in America describes the always-risky business of critiquing social “norms” that are, in fact, kept in their oh-so-stratified places by systematic status-seeking, -mongering, and –protecting. And her absorbing essay on Louise Brooks narrates with appealing energy the rise and fall of the intrepid silent movie star’s career, one “full of tragic glamour, romantic individualism and large accomplishments.” Brooks was a risk-taker I hadn’t known about. Thanks to Somerville for thorough research and polished writing.
Two brilliant personal essays, Carolyn Miller’s “Arts and Science” and Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough’s “My War Zone,” narrate universal stories of chance and fate. Miller writes about her college years, their wildness and naïveté, with a poet’s lyricism. Hryniewicz-Yarbrough shows how her Polish family’s perseverance through peril influenced her entire life, even when her actual circumstances were different, and reminds us that our lives, too, are fragile.
Margaree Little’s honest, chilling poems illuminate the vulnerability of Mexicans trying to make it across the border. As a volunteer seeking to aid these refugees, she saw their failures firsthand. The poems do not flinch. “What Was Missing” lists absences:
of the hands. The hair.
The eyes. The chin . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Water that we could
have left for him.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Thighs. A name.
The face, the neck.
Little’s three other poems on this subject are equally unrelenting. That her subjects take terrible risks to achieve something better, and that she takes risks to advocate for them, cannot be questioned.
But for me, the fiction in this issue takes the prize in regard to this theme of “risk.” It’s not that the structure or the technicalities are particularly radical. They’re not. The stories shine with clarity, precision, lucidity. The characters, though, do take risks, real ones, stepping forward into life with reasonable fear and looking back with understandable sighs of regret, puzzlement, or disbelief. I loved all four.
Two are about teenagers. The eponymous protagonist of Michael Byers’s “The Numbers Man” is fifteen, his step-aunt Emily twenty-five; his father’s new wife thirty-five, and his father forty-five; “this tidily ascending numerical ziggurat pleased him,” we’re told. As he accompanies Emily on a fishing trip, imagining a certain potential conclusion to the outing, his mind casts over a “sense of his own relative good fortune despite everything, and a sense of the richness of things and the inherent interest of everything and even, in some way, its future utility to him. He had not yet discovered exactly how it would all add up, but he knew it would add up to something soon.” It’s a risk to go with her. He never does understand why she asks him to go. The last paragraph looks back from some years later with amazement: “by then it was clear to Paul that she was sort of crazy, had been crazy all along. Taking a fifteen-year-old boy out alone to go fishing! . . . A mission of mercy of some kind . . . ? But for what purpose? . . . What use could he possibly have made of mercy?” I like how Paul thinks. Life is risky, but you have to leap into it.
The other teenaged character, in Kate Rutledge Jaffe’s “Trickster,” is a victim of an online stalker. She wants to grow up, she invites the trickster into her life, but she knows perversion when she sees it and manages to save herself. For her, too, the final paragraph is a look back with wonder: how did she allow it to go on so long? Is the danger still there, even though she is older, married, the danger supposedly past?
Adult characters take chances too. In “Swarm” by Lauren Acampora, an elderly artist spends months on a huge installation project which costs his wife her life and which is taken down almost as soon as it goes up. In John J. Clayton’s “Jennifer, Naked,” an older woman flaunts her model’s body, to the dismay of her husband’s conservative friends—until the wife of the other couple decides to do the same, and reveals herself to be even more beautiful, in her motherly way, than the model. Relationships and ideologies are risked in this story. This issue of MR acknowledges that life is risk, energy is risk, effort is risk. We can’t survive whole in the world without it.
Review by Julie J. Nichols
Here is what to like about the Summer 2012 issue of New Haven Review:
— The table of contents has each writer’s name and a sentence encapsulating the work, plus the page number— for example, “Suzanne Richardson is desperately seeking Meredith 122” —no titles and no genre designations.
— The titles are all in 48-point boldface on the left-facing page, opposite from where the story or poem begins; this is where you discover the title and genre of the piece as it is not delineated in the table of contents.
— The tone of the website and the tone of the print publication are the same: “founded to resuscitate the art of the book review and draw attention to Greater New Haven-area writers. It was called The New Haven Review of Books then, which was too wordy, but at the time, we weren’t sure we would ever print another issue, so what did we care?” Inside, the mag feels just like that.
— The nonfiction is edgy. The first in this genre, by Jeff VanderMeer (“is pulling your leg, the one you think you have”), called “The Art of the Literary Fake (With Violin),” parses a book VanderMeer labels an excellent fake, The Art of the Funerary Violin, by “Rohan Kriwaczek.” You learn all about what makes a good literary fake: sequencing; a good frame; just enough toehold in the world of “real” to keep the audience admiring its toehold in the world of “real,” which is actually more disciplined than “real” nonfiction; and so on and so on. And of course, by the time you’ve finished with the essay, galloping along drinking in every allusion to all manner of literary fakery, you half-know this is a fakery too. There is no Art of the Funerary Violin—you think. I read this on an airplane and was grinning like an idiot the whole time so that, when the steward passed, he stepped aside and didn’t even offer me a drink. (Which part of the previous sentence do you foolishly believe?)
Suzanne Richardson’s “Meredith is Missing” flashes with anxiety, toggling back and forth between present and past tense, following the missing M with memories and mention of mental instabilities until she’s finally found; but then it ends with a metaphor that throws you to the ground. Fantastic.
“On Growing Up Between Genders” gives us Stephen Burt’s forty propositions about gender identity, like “17 How do I want my body to be?” and “30 I don’t want to be one person; I don’t want to be one thing.”
I rejected Willard Spiegelman’s “Senior Reading” before I read it because it seemed like he was going to parrot Alberto Manguel, but then I read it and saw all manner of truths about my own seniorish reading habits, such as that I don’t have the energy to read what I don’t want to. Voila! Spiegelman, I’ve found a kindred spirit!
— The poems are sweet and readable, and the fiction is scary good. For example, “Toby Jenkins Perkins tells a short story that begs for forgiveness” With “I Remember the Miracle.” I read this first for some reason (I need forgiveness too, I guess) and had a tremble-hearted viscerally-knotted reaction throughout this frighteningly flat-voiced story of racism and violence. A story to shake at. And Nick Mamatas’s story (“Five Days a Week the Commute Was”) takes a genius all over BART, the train system of my hometown, annihilating everything. Whew!
Here’s what not to like about this issue of The New Haven Review: Nothing! It’s a winner!
The print version comes out twice a year, but new work comes online at odd (and happy) moments any time. Go online to get a taste, and then subscribe. The Literistic seeks you—and you, if you like good writing that originates anywhere, need them.
Review by Kenneth Nichols
The Paterson Literary Review only arrives once a year, but leaves a lasting impression. This Passaic County Community College-based journal boasts 400 pages of poems, stories and essays and could easily keep you occupied during several intercontinental flights. In her editor’s note, Maria Mazziotti Gillan declares one of her primary motivations for selecting work from the 10,000 submissions the PLR receives each year: “I attempt to be inclusive of the work of writers from many races and ethnicities, choosing what I believe to be the best works.” She certainly achieved her goal; the journal balances the experimental and the traditional, the personal and the universal.
I’m not really sure how I missed her work before, but the five poems Lyn Lifshin contributed to this volume are a great introduction. Lifshin’s poem, “When My Mother Felt Like a Balloon Getting Smaller” articulates the simultaneous specificity and generality of grief. Lifshin collects a number of events that occurred between a mother and daughter:
When she stopped telling
me I ruined my hair . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
When my mother, who could
sprint up Beacon Hill in
spike heels had to sit down
in malls . . .
In each of her poems, Lifshin engages the reader with a conversational style, and her choices in punctuation and lineation create a great deal of momentum.
“Gravity,” a short story from Jaimee Wriston Colbert, stands out for a number of reasons. Colbert grabs her reader immediately, establishing the narrator’s life in the doldrums and the interesting thread that runs through the story: Mel Gibson is coming to scout the restaurant at which the first-person narrator works as a waitress. Everything around the narrator is also in the doldrums: the region is in decline, her mother is addicted to pills, her boyfriend is preoccupied by alternating thoughts of explosions and his ex-wife. Early on, Colbert indicates that her narrator may have a chance at a better life: she literally flew away to Hawaii after winning a radio contest and is focused on her figurative desire to fly away in the same manner of the birds she loves. Colbert’s story nails the voice of the character and offers a satisfying conclusion.
What is the connection between depression and great writing? David Ray’s essay examines the extensive history of mental illness in writers and attempts to explain the long list roster of writers who, to paraphrase Hamlet, opted out of experiencing any more of the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. Ray examines a number of cases and draws on a number of interesting sources to make his ultimate claim: “Perhaps true dedication always involved sacrifice of the self in one form or another, and the balancing act essential for survival is not always successful.”
The issue concludes with the winners of the 2010 Allen Ginsberg Poetry awards. First Prize was shared by Rafaella Del Bourgo and Kathleen Spivack, both of whom submitted stream-of-consciousness memories that contemplate life in a different time and place. Del Bourgo dedicated “Olive Oil” to her grandmother, a woman whose marriage was arranged and who outlived her husband. After he died, Del Bourgo’s grandmother was forced to dismantle the life she had shared with her husband by selling the objects she loved in order to survive. Spivack’s “Their Tranquil Lives” evokes the joy of Vienna “before History,” before the passion for destruction replaced the passion to create.
The sheer bulk of this issue of Paterson Literary Review ensures that any reader will find plenty to enjoy. Editor Maria Mazziotti Gillan managed to blend work from an impressive list of established writers with material from relative newcomers that quickly prove they belong.
Review by Kenneth Nichols
The body of great literature being created outside of the English-speaking world is vast; St. Petersburg Review is taking great strides to bridge the gap between cultures and languages that sometimes keep writers and readers apart. The thick volume is jam-packed with fiction, poetry, plays, and creative nonfiction plucked from everywhere in the world. A great deal of the work has been reflected through the prism of translation: a double-edged sword. Reading work in translation is, in some ways, like seeing a great painting through a pair of cracked eyeglasses. You can see the whole of the work and take it to heart, but there will always be some measure of intellectual distance between you and the artist. On the other hand, translations such as these are wonderful because you get a taste of the different music made by phrases that emerge from minds trained to think in unfamiliar languages.
Liu Jian’s “Rock Soldier” hooks with its first line: “If it wasn’t for rock ‘n’ roll, I never would have donned the uniform of the People’s Liberation Army.” The story describes the first-person narrator’s youthful infatuation with rock music, a rebel genre in China. Liu Jian, known as “the punk” around school, listens to banned music and eventually starts composing his own songs and playing in a band. (The Review classifies the piece as fiction, though the author and protagonist share a name.) The author’s biographical note explains that “Rock Soldier” will soon be released as a novel. The portion included in the journal stands on its own, but also serves as a powerful first chapter that leaves the reader wanting more.
Nathan Deuel’s essay “Night of the Gun” describes an experience he shares with his wife while in Saudi Arabia. Unable to refuse the standing invitation any longer, they visit their landlord’s home and estate. During the tour, the landlord laments that his children are being influenced too much by fundamentalists and proudly proclaims his heritage:
Growing emotional, Mohammad began telling us how his family had been a powerful tribe for centuries. There had been a battle here, right where we were sitting, just after the Prophet’s time. The leader of his tribe, he told us with an air of melancholy, had led his men straight into the strongest part of enemy lines. Spears had pierced his horse’s chest, Mohammad said, but the leader had pushed on.
The Deuels’ visit indeed concludes with the appearance of an unloaded gun, brandished by Mohammad, their “would-be-friend.” Deuel’s story reinforces the contradiction that can separate people from different cultures; our different understandings of the world make interaction interesting, but can also lead to unwanted tension.
In 1918, Russian poet Aleksandr Blok wrote a programmatic poem in reaction to the Bolshevik Revolution. “The Twelve” collects half a dozen vignettes representing the perspectives of a wide range of men and women affected by the changing political scene. In an introductory note, Polina Barskova comments that it is difficult to tell who had Blok’s sympathies, and she’s right. Barskova is also correct in her assertion that the greatest joys can be derived from the way that Blok “collected all manner of rhythms and sounds,” transcribing the “music of revolution” that was being played around him. The editors gave translator Peter Scotto’s work its own section in the middle of the issue, deservedly so. Scotto imbues “The Twelve” with a great deal of narrative momentum and finds innumerable ways to arrange the text to allow the reader to hear that “music of revolution.”
Very few of us, sadly, have the resources necessary to travel the globe and mingle with the literary elite at every stop. Reading this issue of the St. Petersburg Review is a satisfying alternative.
Creative Nonfiction + Art
Review by Mary Florio
The editors of South Loop Review invite “essays and memoir, lyric and experimental forms, non-linear narratives, blended genre, photography and art . . . personal essays and memoir with fresh voices and new takes on presentation and form.” I reprint the description for emphasis. The magazine is not feigning interest in the experimental. Rather, essays appear (in Micah McCrary’s case) as meditations on color through a list format, toy with a redline feature as a method of managing conflicting emotions (as in Adriana Páramo’s case), and explore what one might term the “meta-essay” through the careful tides of stating and redacting comments about what illness can signify (see Vicki Weiqi Yang’s essay).
In a nod to innovation, I’ve taken three especially courageous examples and distilled them for your review below.
The first example: Micah McCrary’s essay “[Red]” uses a numerical format to discuss a plethora of topics that are all connected thematically. He wraps and unwraps the significance of color and the color red explicitly to craft an insightful and daring memoir. Example: “25. To compare then, is to understand.”
To take what could be construed as a “list poem” out of context risks the impression that the work might be more abstract than it is, but in many ways McCrary grounds the essay in unobtrusive signals. For example, the reader quickly becomes aware that the essay crosses genres—his essay has the richness of poetry, the insight of a foreign correspondent (somehow more formal than ‘witness’) and the framework of multidimensional art. But it is this fluidity that allows him to segue between objects as grounding as bicycles and gods and monsters and the cascade of analysis such as #25 above. I enjoyed his employment of the infinitive here: “2. It was the first of many things . . . The first of things that helped me to travel through childhood.” That childhood is to be traveled through is as apt as his employment of Wittgenstein’s “Remarks on Colour,” which he weaves though in yet another dimension: the ‘impersonal historical’ made personal through its employment in a memoir.
The second example: Adriana Páramo’s essay “Dear Sister” narrates the story of a young woman, wrecked by a form of post-partum malaise, who is betrayed by her husband and sister while she is seeking to tend to her baby. The narration becomes increasingly complex as the sister’s sexual identity emerges and the husband is incarcerated for charges unrelated to his infidelity. Páramo does a fine job telling the story, but it is in a typographical departure that she achieves the finest ruse. She uses the redline technique to mask and seek to remove feelings that perhaps might be interpreted as cold. In this way, she illustrates the necessity of her own silence, by silencing a few key phrases in strategic places. Example:
I gave it a shot, then I gave up. I divorced him. You came out of the closet (and yes it did and still does make me super cool, thank you very much for being a lesbian.)
The third example: Vicki Weiqi Yang’s “Field Notes on Hair” is a wonderful wash of language—the author qualifies her narrative and its components with careful incision. In fact, she achieves a critical voice with the very first footnote in her very first clause: “After the brain thing, the world became divided spatially and temporally.” The footnote is: “Among friends, I almost always refer to it as such. To do otherwise would endow it with undue weight.” Next paragraph, “I suppose I should say now that this isn’t a sob story.” Her precision can veer into dark humor such as when she describes the viability of a will or whether hair is a living organism. And to tie it altogether brilliantly, she ends with a few broken phrases: “But I won’t dye. A strand here, a strand there. Like so many reminders to live with authenticity.” Her final word is surgically precise for this piece because she spends so much energy eking out an authentic statement in the memoir’s entirety. Her effort is a chiseled Nabokov.
South Loop Review is composed of many innovative efforts in what one might view as a utilitarian climate where the economy of language and minimalist realism are king. Such a journal is indispensable regardless. The editors are to be congratulated on their fine selection and their daring decisions—to see a platform for literary experimentation in such a lovely compendium is refreshing and arresting.