Literary Magazine Reviews

Posted September 16, 2013

The Antioch Review :: Banipal :: The Bloomsbury Review :: The Cincinnati Review :: Colorado Review :: First Inkling :: Fourteen Hills :: make/shift :: New Letters :: Passages North :: Salamander :: The Southern Review :: Versal :: Whiskey Island

[Back to Magazine Review Index]

The Antioch Review CoverThe Antioch Review

Volume 71 Number 3

Summer 2013

Quarterly

Review by Julie J. Nichols

The Antioch Review, as its website explains, has been publishing high-quality poetry and prose by the likes of Joyce Carol Oates (whose haunting 1966 “The Dying Child” appears in the “From Our Archives” section of this issue), Gordon Lish, Edith Pearlman, T. Coraghessan Boyle—the list is long and impressive—for more than seventy years. Over its venerable lifespan, it has seen changes in ideology, format, and focus, all a testament to its adaptability and continued emphasis on intelligence, currency, and “the best words in the best order.” Every year, TAR publishes an all-fiction issue (with a few poems), a celebration of the genre with more than twice as many entries as most issues contain. This year’s volume is a winner.

Take “The Way Out,” by Kent Nelson: Iris and her husband are finding the way out of the mountains after they’ve shot an elk in the snow, but Iris is also looking for a way out of a less-than-satisfying affair, which was a way out of an already even-less-than-satisfying marriage. Iris and Warren’s journey through the very cold dark, carrying their very heavy cargo, comprises the symbolic and literal narrative arc. Flashbacks and ruminations in italics show Iris’s backstory and her motives, the unfortunate neediness of the lover, certain unwanted events in that realm, then this hunting trip which, she is thinking, will give her a way out of the marriage. Nelson unpacks all this not exactly delicately, but with great skill; we don’t love anyone here, but we do want Iris to get what she wants, and it is almost certain she will. The stinging question becomes how.

Nan Cuba’s multi-layered story, “Taking Charge,” looks more simple than it is: a story of a grandfather’s calling to be a doctor, told by his granddaughter, Sarah. But no. Cuba is an investigative journalist, and though her narrator is not one of those, she puts together some anecdotes from her progenitor’s past that suggest an expanded version of his career choice, which she writes down and reads to her daughter (a doctor’s wife, like her mother and the three generations of mothers before her), who protests and disclaims it. But Sarah will not let her idea die. She reads it to her grandson, who appears in the opening scene next to Sarah’s father at a picnic table, bent over a newly-skinned squirrel, receiving an anatomy lesson. And the grandson has his own response. This is a story about generations believing and not wanting to believe, hypothesizing a truth and not wanting it to be false whether or not anyone else wants the same. All this in sixteen pages, with an ending to die (or fly) for.

It’s trendy, in contemporary fiction, to write irony and not-caring, and there’s plenty of that in some of the stories in this fiction issue. But it’s certainly finely-crafted. “Summer Conference Jack” by Peter LaSalle, a take-off on the myriad writers’ conferences that blossom all over the nation in the months between spring and fall semesters, has a jaded poet cultivating a gorgeous “dish” of a woman at one conference, only to decide that what he is—a jaded poet, a conference junkie—is sufficient, and he may not need her after all. The keynote speaker at the conference is

a polite, mousy woman with a dull black Prince Valiant haircut who had won a major award for a novel about a boutique organic-vegetable shop in Manhattan (man, what has happened to this world of ours, Jack thought, and this was a name national prize once won by dazzlingly intellectual Saul Bellow and also spookily metaphysical Joyce Carol Oates, he remembered, not to mention Hemingway right before he died, and now we’re talking about the trials, tribulations, and assorted epiphanies in seeking love and fulfillment for a protagonist who is a goddamn connoisseur of healthy carrots and avocadoes!) . . .

That’s only half the sentence, and there are others like this at well-paced intervals throughout the story, smart and funny and precisely indicative of the limits and aspirations of the titular character.

Similarly, the unreliable narrator in Nathan Oates’s “An Attempt to Set the Record Straight Concerning the Drowning” insists on his love for the woman whose drowning the title refers to:

What we are faced with is the death of a beautiful person, the person who’d brought me the only real, lasting happiness and kindness I’ve experienced, the person without whom, I often thought as I lay awake in bed beside her with the blue glow of the streetlights sipping around the edges of the blinds where they are buffeted softly by the wind, I could not survive, would not want to survive. But here I am. Alive.

By the last sentence of the story, however, all this is in doubt. What we care about by then is neither the narrator or his wife, but the rather horrible story itself, and the dramatic irony of what we know over against what everyone else thinks. Good reading (which requires such cursed hard writing) calls for awareness on many levels. These stories provide ample opportunity for that.

All the authors in this issue are much-published, much-awarded. Of the five poets, Jerome McGann’s clever excerpts from a collection of parodies of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll called Poems for Persons of Uncertain Age deserves particular mention. I envision these lilting rhyme-stories illustrated by Edward Gorey and held out to children—and then drawn back, swiftly, before little hands can actually grasp. As with all 20 pieces in this issue (plus editorials and reviews), a certain readerly sophistication is required. Devour and enjoy.
[antiochcollege.org/antioch_review/]

top of page

 

Banipal CoverBanipal

Issue 47

Summer 2013

Triannual

Review by Sherra Wong

Banipal’s 47th issue features fiction from Kuwait. I’ve never read anything by a Kuwaiti writer, and all I know about Kuwait I know from images of the 1990 Iraqi invasion: torched oil wells lining the blue sky and then what seemed to turn almost immediately into a decades-long American affair. Peacetime Kuwait is indistinguishable, in my mind’s eye, from any other small Gulf country, with an oil reserve, women draped in black, workers from India and the Philippines. What makes Kuwaiti fiction Kuwaiti?

“An Unexpected Encounter in Uppsala,” an excerpt from Bothayna al-Essa’s novel A Soundless Encounter, defies an easy answer. A young exchange student from Kuwait in Sweden meets a fellow Kuwaiti who has been asked by the embassy to be her guide. The guide harbors a mix of feelings about Kuwait: bitter about his outsider status as a Bedouin, full of contempt for his young charge and her simple love and loyalty towards Kuwait. Yet he also says: “I would be able to tell Kuwaiti and Swedish rain apart even if blindfolded.” Perhaps the ambition behind the story hobbled the narrative. The dialogue is stilted and seems more driven by the writer’s wish to pound out the theme than the characters’ own conflicts or desires.

Sulaiman al-Shatti’s “A Voice from the Dark” makes its point more subtly. Lying in bed, a man recalls how his acquaintances admired his expressions of high-mindedness during the day; then, cries for help pierce the house intercom, and he wavers between helping and fearing that it is a ploy by his enemies to kidnap him. The story switches deftly between the man’s thoughts and the presence of the unknown visitor, and its quick strokes and painless dénouement have a Chekhovian flair.

Yousef Khalifa’s “18 Very Short Stories” teach their lessons at about the same pitch: their agendas are obvious, but they also dispatch the agendas with skill. In “A Beating” for example: “The father beat the mother, nobody moved. / The boy beat his sister and the father beat him. / The boy was confused.”

The portraits of women in Banipal are varied. Some recall stereotypes, such as the seductive Tiba in Mona al-Shammari’s “Black Kohl . . . White Heart.” Tiba married into the household from Saudi Arabia, and even the child narrator—Tiba’s niece—can tell that not all is well with the arranged marriage. Tiba’s husband is fat and stupid, and there is little she can do about it—or so it seems. Her protest is quiet, and the most effective kind for a woman in her circumstances. Helplessness and power both emanate from her body and her status as a woman. The story is satisfying, but their layers leave questions open: does Tiba have designs beyond what her immediate goal appears to be, and is she a woman to be pitied or feared?

In contrast, Amwag, the thirty-year-old director of human resources of a large corporation in the excerpt from Basima al-Enezi’s novel Black Shoes on a Sidewalk, commands awe from men and envy from women with “her movie star appearance . .  . and the high esteem in which the top administration held her.” She drives a white Range Rover to work, which she parks in a spot reserved for a top manager, goes to workshops in Europe and the United States, and has “disentangled herself from the prospect of marriage to a man who would have hindered her progress and toyed with her dreams” the way she disentangles a Chanel earring from her hair. Amwag would have cut a striking figure even in more liberal societies, and no wonder that she “epitomize[s] the moral decadence of the times” for some, despite the fact that being a woman does not appear to have impeded her ascent to power.

Designed to present a variety of voices from a single country, this issue of Banipal ranges from the delightful (the travel agent’s voice in Ali Hussain al-Felkawi’s excerpt from Traveller of the World), to the moving (an Egyptian looking for work in Kuwait in “Welcome to the Abu Ajaj Construction Company,” excerpted from Taleb Alrefai’s novel The Shadow of the Sun), to the awkward and mystifying (the romantic relationship conducted entirely over the phone in Suleiman al-Khalifi’s “Love at First Call” defies even suspended belief; and we’re never told why the “honeymoon” in Fatima Yousif al-Ali’s “Return from a ‘Honeymoon’” seem like an ending of an epoch). The efforts of Banipal and its translators are much needed in a literary marketplace dominated by work originally written in English. At a time when tension and stereotyping rhetoric permeate discussions of the Middle East, Banipal reminds us that the region is more than war, oil, and women in black, and Kuwait is more than a dock for American aircraft carriers—as I definitely knew, but could not feel or see, before I had opened this issue of Banipal.
[www.banipal.co.uk]

top of page

 

The Bloomsbury Review CoverThe Bloomsbury Review

Volume 31 Issue 3

2013

Quarterly

Review by Julie J. Nichols

Occupying the centerfold of this issue of The Bloomsbury Review is a wise, pithy conversation between two award-winning women writers of the West: Page Lambert and Laura Pritchett. Both have written for decades in multiple genres, but I had never heard of either. Their conversation is inspirational—grounded, specific, filled with references to writers, books, and the relationship between place and heart. “We are bound by a real and raw love of books and land,” Pritchett says near the end. For her, books and the natural world are so linked she “can barely see the difference,” possibly because she read books by the river when she was a child. Lambert says that Place (with a capital P) is as central to stories as a main character, listing Isak Dinesen, Jack London, and other writers as having formed her sense not only of place but also of writing that transfigures Place as Place transfigures the characters within it. The conversation—whose provenance is nowhere listed (where did it take place? When? Who transcribed it, or was it originally written rather than spoken?)—introduces me to women whose work I see I must learn more of. But by “work” I mean not only their fiction and nonfiction but also the unconventional ranching work they do daily, devoted to livestock, home, and place—the American West. Because this is where I live, this issue—this conversation—calls to me in particularly strong ways.

Such unique conversation is central to this issue of The Bloomsbury Review, not only materially—in the centerfold—but also conceptually. “For more than 34 years,” says an announcement toward the front of this 24-page newspaper-format magazine, “The Bloomsbury Review has reviewed books from small, independent, university, and large presses and from self-published authors for readers who wanted and needed to be informed about this . . . often overlooked spectrum of literature.” An advertisement on the back cover says, “We don’t plug the mega-bestsellers. . . . We seek out hidden gems and see that some of those new books find an interested and talented reviewer to do them justice.” No more worthy statement of purpose is needed. You won’t find Gone Girl here, or The Telling Room. You will find an essay on Aldo Leopold (“Learning from the Best” by Tom Wylie), describing who Leopold was and how children might be taught his wisdom. You will find Scott Russell Sanders’s 2012 collection Earth Works reviewed so intelligently (also by Wylie) that you’ll want to find a copy of it immediately and go to a river to read it. But you’ll also find over two dozen concise, well-reasoned reviews of fiction and nonfiction of the American West, and far beyond, fiction and nonfiction you’ve probably never heard of, and probably won’t anywhere else. This magazine thus renders a necessary and laudable service—and does it admirably.

It gets complicated to list the reviewers, summarize their reviews, and keep straight the books they evaluate so helpfully. Suffice it to say that no review is too short; every review is a brief essay, thoughtful, well-edited, and convincing. Both fiction and nonfiction are covered so well by reviewers like Denver gardener and yoga instructor Joan Isbell (reviewing a most thorough Organic Gardener’s Companion: Growing Vegetables in the West by Jane Shellenberger, published by Fulcrum Publishing), John Nizalowski (reviewing Gifts from the Heart: Stories, Memories & Chronicles of Lucille Gonzales Oller published by the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs), Ray Gonzalez (reviewing Begging for Vultures: New and Selected Poems by Lawrence Welsh, published by the University of New Mexico), and many others, that readers in search of the new and unknown are enlightened quite beyond expectation.

The first half of the issue is, as I have remarked, devoted to books about the American West. Reviews in the second half, after the conversation between Pritchett and Lambert, are as diverse as in any literary supplement. There are also poems: the late Robert Burlingame’s “Crossing Rio Bravo Into Juarez” describes a man’s (a tourist’s? American?) concession to the foreignness he encounters on the other side of the river: “in his leaving / he heard life’s half-warbled low laugh / scarlet as the wounded sky.” Somewhat similarly, the late Janine Pommy Vega’s “Boots” is a poignant farewell to the footwear that has taken her on travels now irretrievably past.

Avid readers agree there’s almost nothing more satisfying than discovering more worthy books. What better thing could there be, then, than another review magazine, somewhat smaller than The New York Review of Books and much closer to home than The London Review and altogether devoted to two of any bibliophile’s prime causes, the independent press and the lesser-known writer? TBR is a wonderful find.
[www.bloomsburyreview.com]

top of page

 

The Cincinnati Review CoverThe Cincinnati Review

Volume 10 Number 1

Summer 2013

Biannual

Review by Justin Brouckaert

Now ten years old, The Cincinnati Review has established a reputation as one of the top literary journals in the Midwest. This issue, which includes work by writers such as Porter Shreve, Daniel Anderson, Erin Belieu and Michael Mlekoday, holds up to the journal’s reputation. The issue includes a hefty mix of fiction, poetry, artwork, nonfiction, and reviews, with formal and aesthetic diversity showcased in all categories.

In “Sex-Drink ‘80s” from The 80’s: A Brief Primer, Michael Reid Busk utilizes the flash fiction form to make a common scene—and a time period—come alive:

[W]hen couples went to bars before and after having sex, they had to order drinks with old-fashioned, unsexy names. After all, who the hell was Tom Collins? Who was Jack Rose? They needed new drinks, with new names, and since they had sex on the brain it infected the naming of these new cocktails.

In the nonfiction piece “My Mother in Her Mail-Order Scott Paper Company Dress: A Portrait of Intergenerational Neuroses,” Julianna Baggott writes about her memory of her mother’s obsessive compulsive tendencies being exacerbated by “The Big Paper Craze” in the sixties:

During the summer of 1966, my mother mail-ordered two paper dresses. She sent two dollars to the Scott Paper Company, and within a few weeks, she received the dresses—one paisley, the other a black-and-white print—along with a dollar and four cents worth of coupons for Scott paper supplies. Why did my mother order the paper dresses? Out of fashion or thrift? No. She ordered them because she was a deeply neurotic germophobe, and, in many ways, ahead of her time.

Baggott’s mother’s neuroses are passed down to daughter and granddaughter, illustrating a web of family neuroses. In the end, though, it is not a sense of repulsion or resentment that dominates the narrator’s memory of her mother; instead, it is an attempt to categorize the mother’s compulsion of one borne of love:

In my memory, I see her in the kitchen, hands cracked and bleeding from compulsive washing, yet still scrubbing our pots with ferocious energy. She doesn’t let us drink from coffee mugs because of her fear of lead poisoning. She trims the toxic waxy edges off our bologna, scrapes the DDT from our raw meat. She tosses out dented canned goods. She hovers when we’re sick. She worries, and it is a prayer.
Why? Because she loves us, and her love is an engine that can’t rest—even when she knows it should.

In poetry, Michael Mlekoday’s “Forage” stands out as one of the best pieces amid a large sampling. More than just an articulation of hunger or an explanation of poverty, “Forage” is a strange and unabashed admission—not necessarily of guilt, but of the boundaries that needed to be broke to satiate a hunger:

I have skinned
the animal I found in me
& watched him wrench himself
back into the flesh,
I have made gods
of my skinned hands.
I, all thirty-two teeth
of me, yes.

In all, The Cincinnati Review features a strong collection of work in several genres that is strong, evocative, and well worth a read.
[www.cincinnatireview.com]

top of page

 

Colorado Review CoverColorado Review

Volume 40 Number 2

Summer 2013

Triannual

Review by John Palen

Colorado Review has found the sweet spot, with material accessible enough to be enjoyed and edgy enough to shake you up. Terry Shuck’s wrap-around cover photograph sets the tone, with idyllic clouds and leafy trees above a dry swimming pool, patched and smeared with shades of ocher, aqua, and green. The empty pool has an eerie look. Are those clouds and trees really all that idyllic? The image makes you look twice.

You’ll want to look twice as well at the main character in Lauren Watel’s short story, “Happiness Sucks.” Damien Furnish-Moore is a precocious, well behaved young boy who decides to carry out an ethnography project on his own family. Is it simply the onset of puberty that causes him to steal his father’s expensive pen, walk into a bad part of town with his baby sister and a girlfriend, and do a Bartleby with his favorite teacher? Or does the strange distancing that has possessed him have something to do with his role as ethnographic “participant-observer”? This wise, funny story may make you reflect on how much you have become a participant-observer of your own life, and what that may be doing to you.

Similar themes of 21st century estrangement permeate the other three stories in this issue: Chaitali Sen’s “The Immigrant,” Erika Seay’s “The Great Barrier Reef,” and Robert Yune’s “Cottontails.” I particularly enjoyed “Cottontails,” a dystopic story in which Tara, a young adwoman, tries to hijack the consciousness of a college athlete to help her sell more effective product placements. Something in the athlete resists, though, and disaster ensues.

The nonfiction section is equally strong, with three essays reflecting on loss. Kelley Clink, in “Surfacing,” recounts her struggle after the suicide of her brother. In “The Running of the Brides,” Jessamyn Hope weaves reflections on her mother’s death into a barbed, funny description of the annual bridal dress sale at Filene’s Basement. (If the fictional Damien Furnish-Moore demonstrated the dangers of participant-observer status in adolescence, Hope shows us how the pros do it.)

In the third essay, “Hugo,” Karen Maner reflects on working in the family pet store and on the death of her blue beta fish, who had lived his short life stricken with spinal curvature. Selected by Rigoberto Gonzalez for the 2013 AWP Intro Journals Project award, “Hugo” is a pitch-perfect meditation on our conflicted relations with animals.

There’s a generous selection of poetry, too, and much of it also finds the sweet spot. Representative of the interest and quality of the selections is this poem by Heather Christle, which keeps us riding on its freshness and surprise:

Just because we’ve broken my head
doesn’t mean we must glue it together
There’s other work to be done
                                             and dark
grass freezing

Poet Courtney Kampa also has good work in this issue, as do Ashley Seitz Kramer, Edward Mayes, Jena Osman, Erin Rodoni, Kate Rosenberg, Michael Martin Shea, Rodrigo Toscano, Sarah Vap, Brent Armendinger, Monica Berlin and Beth Marzoni, Darin Ciccotelli, Jesse DeLong, Nathan Hoks, and Shane McCrae.

The publication’s design, including typography, is a model of what literary journals should strive for. It has balance, contrast, proportion and unity. Above all, it is readable. And there’s plenty worth reading.
[coloradoreview.colostate.edu]

top of page

 

First Inkling CoverFirst Inkling

Volume 2 Number 1

2013

Annual

Review by Anne Graue

According to the mission statement, “First Inkling is a visionary print and online medium dedicated to seeking out the most talented student authors in the English language, and publishing their work alongside criticism from the most important writers of our age.” With its second issue, the magazine has attempted to keep this mission foremost in mind. The collection of student writing in five genres between its artful covers is representative of writing programs and universities from ten of the United States and the UK. Published by Rockland Community College of the State University of New York, it lays claim to being “the best college and university writing in English.” These momentous goals aside, the 2013 issue of the magazine contains some gems to be mined by thoughtful readers.

The issue opens with a quotation from Shakespeare, Macbeth’s resolve to act on impulse, without restraint, reflection, or contemplation. In Act IV, Scene 1, Macbeth says, “The very firstlings of my heart shall be / the firstlings of my hand.” This he says just before revealing his plan to kill MacDuff’s family and all who live within MacDuff’s castle. As an opening quotation to set a theme for the second issue of First Inkling, the lines set the tone of vengeance and violence that readers will find conveyed in many of the magazine’s works of fiction, poetry, and narrative nonfiction.

“A Fake Candle, Glowing”—G.A. Rozen’s story of a group of boys’ plan on Halloween to stink bomb a house, in which a father had imprisoned and held his family hostage before being taken out by a sniper—fulfills the promise of the quotation, but readers might find that it is more a story of boredom among 12-year olds in suburbia. The most satisfying writing in the story is the narrator’s description as the group of four find their way to the house that was the setting of a hostage crisis which “. . .was only the latest in a string of fucked-up happenings to hit my particularly rich, particularly white, suburb . . .” Spencer, the narrator, describes the stink bombs in his friend’s hand and says, “Each looked like one of those rocket-shaped suckers, a three color spectrum of red to yellow to green.” Despite the occasionally elegant prose, the story is reminiscent of Stephen King’s short story “The Body” that became the film Stand By Me. The “first inkling” for the reader that G.A. Rozen’s story is referential to King is mention of a local boy who had shot himself. In both King’s and Rozen’s pieces, the boys are curious adolescents without much to do but throw stink bombs at houses and think about dead people; Rozen’s narrator has insights that are cautionary warnings about a generation growing up in contemporary suburban America.

Violence is a perfectly fitting theme of Jennifer Maritza McCauley’s “The Last Saints of Yonce.” It is used as a plot device to tell a story of family and regret and forgiveness. The Louisiana setting is made real by the writer’s adept use of dialect in the dialogue of the characters who then become more real and true as the story progresses. Readers become invested in the story from the moment that “Mr. Greggs’ spirits, already quite low, deepened into a dejection so fantastic, he wished he could trap it in a mason jar.” McCauley gives her characters the ability to express metaphor and feeling in their conversations even as she uses metaphor in her descriptive prose. McCauley’s prose evokes emotion, even empathy, for Sugar Red when she says, “And bein’ a black woman you need skills, bein’ so vulnerable in a world with so many leeches.” More emotional is the narrative crescendo the story reaches that is virtually akin to Greek myth when Sugar Red brings her grandmother Booey down in a whirl of vision and imagined danger.

Much like an intermission, “Robot Girl” by Maya Kern, a graphic short, appears midway through the magazine, pausing the reader for a story that offers a visual distraction from plain text. The theme of the piece is unrequited love; the main character is a robot girl who is looking for love and unable to find it among robots or humans. The story is quaint, somewhat predictable, and yet still satisfying. It takes the form of a fairytale or folktale with its repetition and traditional conflict and theme and is a sojourn away from the rest of the journal.

This issue of First Inkling also contains prize winners of their Sammy Awards for 2013, awarded for the best poem, short story, or narrative nonfiction piece. The three award winning submissions are worthy recipients and are notable for their craft. The winning poem, “Single Successful Guy” by Zackary Medlin is a finely crafted three-part poem in which the speaker shares his views on the uses of the necktie, claiming, “I like wearing neckties. / I think it’s the way they function / like an arrow to my crotch.” The candid lines do not stop there and end in a macabre, and yes, violent image of “. . . a man / dangling from a coat hook.”

The winner of the narrative nonfiction category, Kit Peterson, shares her childhood wish of being murdered like Polly Klaas, her body “under the floorboards, blood has stopped, and something feeds on the soft tissue first, then the tendons,” where “there is no sound. No little reaffirmations of a life once lived.”

The fiction winner, Peter Alexander Bresnan’s “We Could Always Settle for Saturn,” is a gripping love story with prose that soars into space in a tragic allegory. The main character Aster and his companion, David, are portrayed as fearful yet determined in their love for one another. The immediacy of the situation is evident in Bresnan’s use of the present tense: “. . . Aster thinks that 300 million miles isn’t even near sufficient. At 300 million light years, maybe, he would be able to conquer that heaviness conceived and sustained in him by the proximity of one small town on one small blue planet.” These tragedies are happening now.

The poems, short stories, nonfictional narratives, interviews (with former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky and authors Audrey Niffenegger and Jane Smiley), cartoons, and the graphic short that grace the pages of First Inkling’s second issue satisfy the thematic potential of Macbeth’s words. And yet Malcolm’s words from the play are also fitting after reading this issue: “Though all things foul would wear the brows of grace, / Yet grace must still look so.” Through tragedy and violence in art, some grace can still be found. Readers will recognize it.
[firstinkling.com]

top of page

 

Fourteen Hills CoverFourteen Hills

Volume 19 Number 2

2013

Biannual

Review by David R. Matteri

Fourteen Hills, the literary journal of San Francisco State University, has already received a lot of praise. This journal specializes in presenting experimental and progressive poetry, fiction, and illustrations from vibrant artists living in the US and abroad.

“The Grand Piano Party” by Thomas Israel Hopkins is a short story about a violent gang of old men jumping a young man at night: “I was half a block from home when I saw the small cluster of old men loitering at the street corner. They all had that look—that familiar look of confidence, indignation, a healthy diet, and regret—that should have been my tip-off, a warning to me of imminent danger.” Our narrator cannot remember what it was that triggered the attack, but he remembers some vivid sensory details: “All I could feel at the time was a cluster of old bodies around and behind me; all I could smell was the musty odor of what seemed to be a common cologne.” This gang of grumpy old men is one of many gangs that roam the town looking for youngsters to beat up. They are angry at the misconception that their tax dollars are being used to give the younger generation free music lessons. Tightly written and absurd, this is a very short story that hits you as fast as the wandering gang of grumpy old men.

Eleanor Paynter’s “Bernini’s Pluto and Persephone” is a poem that is based on the famous baroque sculpture. Paynter does an effective job translating the sculpture’s mixture of sexual desire and cruelty into words:
The story begins in her thighs, his fingers
gripped, her wrenching to escape. Moves
to his face, lust and lavish
hard as his eyes on her twist, his taut shoulders turned
in the direction he wants to pull her.

Every line in this poem is filled with sexual tension and I like how the final stanza suggests that the sculpture is alive: “And she will bruise, maybe / right after you leave the room.”

Another memorable poem in this journal is John Morrison’s “Japanese Footbridge.” Morrison’s poem is set in Japan and dedicated to the men who are cleaning the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. The speaker of this poem compares these workers to the Samurai of Japan’s feudal past, which is appropriate because you would need a warrior’s spirit to take on such a dangerous job:

Beneath the ginkgos, we hunch with walking sticks
like wise men and travel to the power plant
beside the ocean to praise the Samurai
who go inside to staunch great gouts of poison steam.

The speaker respects their bravery, but also recognizes that their chances of survival are very slim: “In time, all of them will die of an explosion / or the turn of their blood.” This sense of impending doom heightens the mood of the poem and the heroism of the plant workers.

“Toenail Trimmings” by Adam McGraw is a short poem about two brothers and personal grooming: “His brother kneels, kneads / fists into knees, stares / at cracking toes. Diabetes / blackens the biggest digit.” The emotional impact of these four lines is astounding. McGraw is adept at packing in so much raw power in such a small space. The rest of the poem describes the other brother as he carefully trims the blackened toe, “gently and far enough from the quick / to avoid pinholes of blood.” Such a simple and seemingly mundane act is given a ton of emotional weight in this poem.

Jon Lasser’s “The Angel of Hunger” is a dark and creepy work of fiction that reads like a piece of mythology. The story is about a young boy named Darius who participates in a contest and rite of passage that involves diving for sea sponges. Darius wins and is blessed, or cursed, by a Priest who paints lamb blood across his family’s door. They are then visited by the Angel of Hunger:

The Angel of Hunger saw the cross painted on the door, and entered. Both boys’ bellies stretched taut like old drums worn thin with age. Their mother shivered on a threadbare blanket spread near one corner of the dirt floor. The Angel drank deep of the mother, took a bite from each boy, and slunk out through the cracked-open window with an indifferent draft.

Darius’s family is forced to live off of thin soups made of fish bones and olives while the Angel visits them on a regular basis. This suffering is supposed to be a rite of passage for the men living in this village, but the price of this passage may be too high for Darius to pay.

The staff and editors at Fourteen Hills should be proud of their latest issue. Regular readers and newcomers alike will be pleased at the high quality of work found inside.
[14hills.net]

top of page

 

make/shift Covermake/shift

Issue 13

Spring/Summer 2013

Biannual

Review by Karen Rigby

Access. Activism. Marginality. (In)visibility. Social justice. Key concepts in LGBTQ circles, whether explicitly or subtly voiced in an Indonesian metropolis or an American prison, Palestine, or San Francisco. In the newest issue of Los Angeles-based make/shift, a vital magazine that “embraces the multiple and shifting identities of feminist communities,” filmmakers, documentarians, project organizers, and others reveal lives marking daily realities through visual and performing arts as well as through grassroots actions. This insightful, cogent selection offers several contemporary perspectives on urgent issues, including: violence and murder among transgendered populations; racial profiling playing a role in the arrest of a teenager; lingering consequences of abuse; and, in a featured interview with Victoria Law, author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, the problems these women face, such as limited resources for childcare and shackling during childbirth.

Amid these moments, there’s no sense that harm must become a defining narrative. The writers consider successful outcomes—the teenager in question, for instance, was freed through sustained efforts and crowdsourcing for better legal representation—as well as possibilities for change, most innovatively in an article on local autonomy networks, by Micha Cárdenas, in which fashion and technology merge to create a warning system that may help prevent further violence in vulnerable communities, without relying on traditional authorities.

The Spring/Summer issue also includes art by Shizu Saldamando, a Japanese-Mexican-American artist who is interested in undermining the “tired notion of binary . . . this notion of good versus evil” by creating portraits of everyday individuals. Using gold leaf and unusual surfaces, including a handkerchief, and often set on neutral backgrounds, these paintings reveal both quiet intimacies and expressive gestures.

A series of posters by Tyrone Boucher, entitled “Queers Demand,” features simpler drawings with more overt political statements. Regularly recurring columns, a substantive reviews section, a crossword puzzle, two roundtable discussions on Girl Talk (a spoken word series) and Peacock Rebellion’s cabaret show that critiques nonprofits, as well as several other features round out the magazine. A particularly thought-provoking manifesto by Taylor Mac, an excerpt of “From Where I Stand”—in which succinct ideas on theater and craft become applicable to many arts—serves as the endnote.

With only one poem and one short story, it would be remiss not to mention them. “Love Letter to Industrial Agriculture from the Family Farm” by Chris Shorne is a satirical take on problems ranging from monoculture to increasing carbon footprints. Cascading down the page in pleading statements, it is a poem perhaps too dependent on message, ending with “Yes, I’m mad / (as a cow) about you: / eating myself / to feed you.”

Mia McKenzie’s “Longing” is a story on an impressionable child circling through images—a stand of beech trees, red nail polish—that remind her of her mother. Religion, domestic abuse, and memory overlap in understated ways, striking a balance between foreboding and love. Like many of the other works in the issue, there’s no shortage of hardship (this time, in the form of the mother’s suicide), but McKenzie doesn’t end on a brittle note, opting instead for resilience, brief tenderness, and a sense of increasing independence, if not forgiveness:

There was a tiny beech-tree leaf in my father’s hair, probably fallen from my mother’s favorite tree, and I took it out, delicately, so he did not notice. As we left the church, my father offered me his hand to hold. I did not take it. But I always knew that he was just a few yards behind me as I walked off ahead of him down Beechwood road, and on home.

make/shift is not glossy, nor overdesigned—produced in black-and-white with a columnar format, it emphasizes literary reportage, interviews, and other nonfiction, all of which resound with an invigorating cross-section of real, passionate voices. International in scope, while grounded in localities, this is a magazine of consequence.
[www.makeshiftmag.com]

top of page

 

New Letters CoverNew Letters

Volume 79 Number 2

2013

Quarterly

Reviewed by Kenneth Nichols

To what extent do literature and journalism perform the same work? Editor Robert Stewart prefaces this issue of New Letters with a brief comment that considers the relationship between these separate fields that may not be so separate. Stewart quotes Philip Roth speaking in an installment of American Masters: “There’s a journalistic side to writing novels.” Stewart goes a step further, asserting that “we don’t hear the word journalism often enough in literary discussions . . .” Writers of fiction need “the facts to present the story; literary journalists and memoirists need the story to present the facts.”

This philosophy can be seen in the work Stewart and his editors selected for this issue of New Letters. James McKinley’s “Confessions of an Actual Mad Man” recounts the author’s experience in the advertising industry during the 1960s. McKinley reinforces the television program’s core analysis of the industry. As McKinley puts it, “in the Ad World nothing is gray: All our messages were stark and obvious as embellished truths, prettified lies.” The piece is aptly titled; the author clearly favors confession and description of the milieu over narrative.

Robert Day’s “Barrel Heat” offers a wonderfully slow burn. The first person narrator offers a coming-of-age story that is interspersed with a description of the present-day events that inspire him to tell the tale in the first place. Decades ago, the narrator was a young man who worked for Bob Kincade, a master gunsmith and former champion trap shooter. The narrator learns the ins and outs of the hobby from Kincade during that crucial time in which a boy learns the kind of man he will become. Although the narrator becomes a creative writing teacher, he resembles the other characters he describes; they all have a deep well of emotion, but seldom express those feelings overtly.

Another highlight of the issue is Angela Elam’s interview with Valzhyna Mort, a poet who has made quite a name for herself at a comparatively young age. Elam is a good interviewer; her brief responses put the spotlight on Mort, but she isn’t afraid to ask perceptive and in-depth questions. Of particular note is Mort’s discussion of one of the issues that is raised when poems cross borders. One of her poems refers to “white apples,” a common Eastern Europe variety. In Europe, no one “perceives them as a poetic metaphor in any way. In English, however, nobody takes white apples literally. Everybody assumes that it has to be primarily a metaphor.”

Those who have been fortunate enough to teach a writing workshop understand the powerful emotions that are often at play. Students come to class having poured their hearts and souls into their work, sometimes coming from an emotional place. Maxine Kumin’s poem, “The Day My Student Teaches Me That Life Is Not Art” is simple, short and powerful. A student has brought a very personal poem describing the night a man assaulted her in bed. Kumin beautifully describes a feeling that I suspect is shared by many teachers. Although a teacher must evaluate and discuss works with a critical eye, they also sometimes wish to comfort their student in the same manner as a best friend.

While some of the work in this issue of leans toward the traditional, other pieces experiment more seriously with form and language. In all, New Letters offers work that will appeal to nearly any taste.
[www.newletters.org]

top of page

 

Passages North CoverPassages North

Issue 34

Winter 2013

Annual

Review by Anne Graue

This issue of Passages North transports readers in all directions to many destinations where memory is immediate and present and history is imminent and alive. The opening pages are home to the winners and honorably mentioned of the 2012 Fiction Prizes. The winning stories convey readers down corridors of metaphor and into realms of secrecy. Traci Brimhall’s story, “After the Flood the Captain of the Hamadryas Discovers a Madonna,” the winning entry of the short-short fiction category, is a poetic work of prose that clarifies with its ambiguity and wonderment. The opening paragraph immediately draws us in:

He pulled everything he could save out of the water—canoes snarled in tree roots, bruised mangoes, cans of chilies, crates and crates of plantains splitting from their tough yellowed skins—before he found her upside down in a kapok tree, robed in mud and fish bones, a woman’s floral underwear wrapped around her feet.

We know what is happening and we don’t, and in three additional paragraphs we have a story, an allegory, that pushes and pulls us toward meaning.

The two honorably mentioned stories, “Girl” by Nahal Jamir and “Dirty Girl” by Rochelle Hurt, are short works that encapsulate a cosmos on each page that is graced with sentences such as, “She tells me the dirt is red because it’s soaked with elephant’s blood,” and, “Two weeks with Miss Alice still tilling and planting, and I got to doing it almost every night, sometimes taking two fistfuls of dirt when I surfaced, and rubbing it on my bare arms, my chest, my neck—never my belly, at first.” These stories are quick reads, yes, but readers will want to re-read them for the concentration of metaphors and symbols found in the tightly knit prose.

The winner of the Waasmode Fiction Prize, Karin C. Davidson, has written a story so well constructed that it entraps the reader into the world of Meli and Sam Henrikson, a young married couple in Tulsa to see a horse they have bought only to find that what they expected is not the reality. The story is a 12-part narrative of love and loss and the realities of wanting what can never be. Sam, the narrator, describes his and Meli’s first kiss: “I was gone. That was it. As clichéd as it sounds, I was carried off to a place unreal and confounding, one I never wished to lose hold of.” This narrative voice carries the reader through a plot that is at once real and unreal, leaving the reader landing somewhere between the two.

The hybrid essays featured in this issue are a delightful mix of quotations, footnotes, lists, voices, excerpts, shifting points of view, poems, and prose pieces. Emma Ramey’s “When You Take Your Waking Slow” is a journey into dreams written in the second person; the reader is involved, is “you,” is left unfastened by the descriptions of sleeping and waking and nods at sentences such as “All you know is that you don’t mind finding a wolf in bed with you, even if it is in your dreams,” and, “There was an owl, once, that flew toward you as you slept in a field.” This hybrid piece is mesmerizing with a tone of danger.

Equally hypnotic is Kristin Abraham’s “Pink Jesus (Or, Budget Truck to Zion)” with its alternating voices and clarifying footnotes. The speaker of this piece struggles with the nature of sin:

Of course it is sinful to use good people who are doing what they believe in, people who are so full of hope that they want to try to show me the way and change my life.
Hence, the guilt.
Is it a sin if I’m not sure I believe in sins? Is it even possible to rob someone of language? If not, then I’m not really sinning, am I?

The poetry selections could make up an issue of their own and are worth spending an afternoon with from Oliver de la Paz’s “Nocturne with a Body Beside a Hive” which bestows a sweet, cruel nectar of words (“And the nectar is sweet as it is cruel.”), to David Lewitzky’s four poems on dance and poetry, one in which he tells us, “I Watusi’d on the shoreline of that sea of love, / That narcissistic, tideless, lifeless sea.”

In this issue, readers will find poems that make the ordinary extraordinary. David Cazden’s “Driving from the Vet” bequeaths moments after losing a pet with “A sandalwood box / rides on the passenger seat, / holding a plastic baggie of ash.” “TV Guide,” by CM Pretorius, compares a couch to “Our gondola, down the Grand / Canal of dreams, slowly rocking / To the flashing stirring of echoes,” a perfect poetic recreation of a familiar experience. Reading these and other poems included in this issue will alter a reader’s existence with their power to transform.

Reading through the pages of this issue, readers are met with genres familiar to them and one, the hybrid essays, that confounds, which seems to be the thematic streak running through all of the selections. Advice to readers: Stay close to this issue and absorb all you can.
[www.passagesnorth.com]

top of page

 

Salamander CoverSalamander

Volume 18 Number 2

Summer 2013

Biannual

Review by Mary Florio

In the opening sentences of Naira Kuzmich’s “The Kingsley Drive Chorus,” a group of women in an ethnically Armenian subsection of Los Angeles neighborhood find themselves collectively and consecutively isolated as if in parallel tombs in a glass mausoleum. The storyis told in the first-person plural to create a grammatical tense that conveys, through expertly crafted language, a community at once too-close and fissuring at the strain of immigration and assimilation. The story conveys a national heritage, with measured references to kyoftas and the city of origin, but the story is not limited to remembering; it is not a honeyed tribute to Armenian sociology or history or even the adaptation of these pursuits; rather, it is an almost Biblical story of violence and loss.

The fiction curators of Salamander have a distinct eye for plot in their selections in this issue. Place becomes transformed by character, and character transcends the expected. In Linda Rui Feng’s “The Importance of Floating,” a teen with a mind that maps the midnight stars flutters through diurnal patterns in the waking world, the arrangement of mashed potatoes on a plate, the poignant signals of love. The attention to detail, and the judicious use of kinds of detail, characterizes the story. Look for these at the end of her paragraphs. “Above all, he tried to look at Junie as much as he could without staring.” Or “At such times, he thought the only appropriate thing to do was to lie down and slowly let the air out of his lungs.” In both examples, we note how the writer humbles the magnitude of her wisdom with ‘above all’ and ‘at such times’ which ropes the starlight down to the football field with gossamer rings of steel.

A different kind of force characterizes Mel Wells’s “A Missionary Position,” which examines—in a voice that trembles with humor against a scrim of holy rigor—the evangelical coming-of-age ritual in the Mormon faith. After the 1960s and 1970s, in the wake of momentous social change, pockets of sources of authority—certain religious orthodoxy among them—were challenged and often discarded without the kind of visible, collective movement that characterized the civil and gender rights movements. And so, for these less photogenic progeny, lovely and cruel memoirs abounded, followed sometimes by other kinds of accounting—exposes and affidavits. In this tradition, Wells’s story is fresh, nuanced and funny, and yet respectful, and it is clear that she is not writing a documentary dressed up as fiction. It is a story that could salvage anyone who has ever sought God or love in pastel spaces, the vicar, the sister, the road-bound fiddler. It was the first anti-authoritarian fiction I’ve read that applied to our times, and with what verve and imagination, at the crossroads of libertarian individualism against the knee-jerk promise of the collective ideal.

A thread throughout the first three stories in this volume changes in the light. In “Chorus” it represents a major climactic turning point in the protagonist’s trajectory. In “Floating” it is the crux of character development and dramatic action. In “Missionary” it is something that happened that indirectly led to the end of a beginning, that is, it was an indirect catalyst to the moment of crisis. Feng foreshadows the emergence gently: “She told Russell that it was the best thing that could happen to humans, to be underwater and breathing.”

Suicide is not a “normal” response to stress, per the Centers of Disease Control, but it is prevalent in literature. I think it is a very tough topic to write about on any level, and it tends to be represented more in fiction than in standard journalism so as—I was told as a print reporter in the 1990s—not to foster imitation. Toward the scope of this review, these writers handle a delicate subject differently, and they handle it compassionately. The stories here achieve catharsis, without any kind of cheap shots. They do not use suicide as a dramatic exit, but rather as a part of life, like a wicked storm, passing through.
[www.salamandermag.org]

top of page

 

The Southern Review CoverThe Southern Review

Volume 49 Number 3

Summer 2013

Quarterly

Review by Melanie Tague

The Southern Review is published by Louisiana State University and has a long-standing literary tradition dating back to 1935. It seeks to find work that pays careful attention to craftsmanship and technique and to the seriousness of the subject matter. The most recent issue is indeed a finely crafted publication that starts strong and remains so throughout. This issue is packed with fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and the art of Patricia Spergel.

Katherine Heiny’s “The Seamy Side” is tightly woven story that keeps the reader engaged with its unique characters, the occasional humorous moment, and overall beautifully written text. The story is told in the third person and revolves around a man named Graham, his wife Audra, his ex-wife Elspeth, and their inability to ever say what they really mean or do what they really want. Heiny uses dialogue in a very methodical manner to propel her story forward. In the first half of the story, anything Graham, Audra, or Elspeth say is followed by the narrator’s translation of what they really mean to say.

“Audra told me [your son] goes to the Gateway School,” Elspeth said. “I didn’t realize he was autistic.” I guess everything didn’t turn out so hunky-dory for you and Audra after all.
“He’s not autistic,” Graham said. “. . . Lots of kids there have exceptional IQ’s.” And, as anyone with a special-needs child could tell you, that sort of defensive speech was code for Watch it.

As the story progresses the narrator does this less and less, but the reader now knows the characters well enough that they can read into the dialogue themselves:

She slumped against her cart suddenly, forsaking her usual perfect posture. “Could we, like, not do this anymore?” she said. “Not pretend to be friends? I really don’t need you and Audra to show me how great your marriage is and prove to me that you were meant to be together.”

The withdrawal of these translations does a couple of things, it allows for a more genuine connection to the characters, and it creates a sort of void or sense of longing within the story. Heiny couples this with an actual sense of loss that all the characters are feeling at the end of the story as they realize that just like their words are not what they mean, their lives will never be exactly as they want them to be either.

“Corpse’s Lullaby” by Sasha West is a hauntingly beautiful poem that is immediately captivating. West used her title to work to her advantage by making the idea of death more explicit for her poem. The poem itself never mentions death, the reader can only assume from the title that is what the poem is about. The text of the poem works with its cascading form to truly create a lullaby, something comfortingly painful; there is a sense of loss that comes in the form of questioning:

How long would it take to wrap my lover’s body in red string?
         How many skeins and how numb the bending fingers when done?
                  How long would it take to weave my hair between the hairs of his body?

The emotional pain in the poem seems to come from the fact that this “lullaby” is written for a corpse, for the idea of a person and not the actual person. It is also compelling that the corpse could be perceived as the writer or the subject of the poem. The last line of the poem begs the reader to read the poem again and again, “. . . He returns / to the nothing I made him and lies down there on the idea of my body.”

This was a hard issue to pick out only a couple of pieces of work to talk about because, truth be told, I wanted to write about all of them. If you pick up a copy of The Southern Review (and you should) it will not matter which page you turn to, you are guaranteed to be reading something worthwhile, engaging, and powerful.
[thesouthernreview.org]

top of page

 

Versal CoverVersal

Volume 11

2013

Annual

Review by Mary Florio

It could be said that all surrealists are alike, but all nihilists are unhappy in their own ways. Fortunately for readers of this journal, it is sometimes hard to separate the two philosophies, which leads to astonishing feats of dreams and poignant detail, a crash course in the world by an impressive new wave of international literati.

Reading Versal, the English-language literary magazine based in the Netherlands, one might find oneself radically changed along these two axes of expression, the surreal and the nihilistic. You see it in the poetry (with a map of footnotes) and fiction (persistent innocence reflected in the slick side of a hermit crab). You also see it in the way you conceptualize an idea – through the body—segmented, and entirely referential. For example, Shena McAuliffe provides a different look at the femur, the fibula, the rack of bones and brawn. With discipline and tremendous versatility, she uses a diagram of the body to anchor the structure of an entire story. One is almost so overcome by the idea to fail to recognize the messages beneath it. One is transfixed, as if trying to understand what Bergman did in the sixties, this time in partial prose, with all the actors replaced by butterflies.

Christopher Rosales’s “The Mule,” in prose, bookends the journal with Traci O Connor’s “BFH,” also prose. One might find Rosales’s story about drug trafficking to have little in common with a story about picking up a traveler on a desert road. But they have shimmering similarities—the ability to work with a realistic frame in a new kind of surrealism, the successful pacing of stories that reference genre just enough to drive the narrative forward, the humming electricity of their language.

With all due respect to the genre-hopping bards, here are some snapshots, delivered as such because the journal sometimes shows a shard of light in fragments:

In poetry, “Autobiography of a Marguerite,” by Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle will break you like your first book of poems by John Ashbery and should not be read in bed or prior to sleep. “On the Day Neil Armstrong Died,” by Joey De Jesus will warm you with such ecstatically perfect words as “alp,” but should not be read with the expectations of having poetry for lunch. “Bad Luck,” by Rochelle Hurt, crosses genres and evokes the best of all of them—the freewheeling passion of metaphor, the terror of memoir, that physical pain in your sternum that comes from believing you know what she means, because you connect with her words. Consequently, one should not read this poem in exile.

In prose, Leah Bailly’s “Pussy Willow Seeds,” showcases the nihilism of the journal with the most clarity. The voice is riveting, the confession horrifying, in the sense that sex without love can be described with the vapor of wind. “Almost human, pathetically not.” Probably not to be read with Camus, or on the way to the geneticist.

John Vanderslice’s “The Dealer’s Brother,” rescues us from the post-modern haze of The Paris Wife and Z. We readers receive such a small chip of Van Gogh that we have to cope with what we are given (an artist’s model and a louse) which is probably the first time I saw such a device utilized with such restraint. Probably a great read at a frame shop.

Gregory J. Wolos’s “Knothole” appears more straightforward than the other efforts in the journal, but I find its clarity deceptive. Warm, funny, and moving but with a sharp twist at the end; I recommend you read it second in the lineup if you are less comfortable with experimentation.

By way of background, the journal describes itself with a language and a literary vocabulary that is as advanced as that of those writers who take considerable risks in creating a movement within its pages. “Versal and the writers behind it are also at the forefront of a growing translocal, European literary scene, which includes exciting communities in Amsterdam, Paris, and Berlin,” journal editors state on the website. Regardless of where their poets hail from, the voice of the journal is distinct; the politics of space and sound and art united in a movement. I haven’t seen such cohesion and inventiveness in recent literature yet—and though it does require outlandish thinking at times, it is not the middle finger to the art world that intellectual revolution usually suggests.
[www.wordsinhere.com]

top of page

 

Whiskey Island CoverWhiskey Island

Issue 62

2013

Biannual

Review by David R. Matteri

Whiskey Island is the literary magazine of Cleveland State University, and, according to their website, the name comes from a neighboring peninsula that has gone through several metamorphoses over the years: “it has been a dump, a US Coast Guard Station, a ship graveyard, and a predominantly Irish immigrant shanty town.” This peninsula now shares the name with a magazine that is rich with strong fiction and poetry.

“A Little Bit of Nothing” by Roxane Gay is a tale of two sisters and how their relationship is pushed to the edge while living under one roof. Ursula is mature, has a job, and is married to a responsible, career-driven man. Candace, on the other hand, acts like she is still in high school and has developed a taste for more exotic thrills: “When Candace moved in with her sister and brother-in-law, she was fresh out of a relationship with Peter the Mathematician. Two days earlier, Peter had broken up with Candace when she told him her favorite smell in the whole wide world was the smell of heroin in a spoon cooking over an open flame.” The point of view is centered on Candace as she stays at home to satisfy her addiction while her sister and brother-in-law go to work. We catch a glimpse into her drug-induced consciousness and see her self-destructive tendencies: “There was something appealing about destitution, living on a little bit of nothing.” Her sister knows Candace is doing drugs, but cannot bring herself to kick her sister out because they still love each other very much. But everything changes when Ursula discovers she is pregnant. This is a moving story that makes you want to believe that everything will turn out alright, but Candace and her addiction only continues to spiral out of control. This is a great story, but you’ll have to look elsewhere if you want a happy ending.

Michelle Donahue takes us to the realm of fantasy in her short story “What You Need to Slay Dragons.” The story reads like a detailed checklist and survival guide to hunting down and slaying dragons. You will need essential items such as bandages, bows and arrows, binoculars, more bandages, a canoe, and beer: “Lots of it. Aluminum cans of something cheap, so you can drink a lot and drink in the canoe.” A story about a dragon hunt is weaved into this checklist, but the plot gets complicated when certain secrets are revealed: “Day four: you write sick love poems to the dragons. Because you do love them. And hate them. They are beautiful and mean and you need them now.” The ending is sad and heralds a loss of innocence, but that’s what makes this story stand out. I highly recommend this one, dear reader, but remember: “Dragons are magical and can do whatever shit they want.”

Another good story is “A Train Leaves the Station” by Sarah Scoles. It is about relationships, regret, and trains. Lora’s boyfriend, Brian, is a high school math teacher who loves trains. Lora does not:

She hates railroads. The passenger trains are always delayed, especially when you’re leaving from a station with inadequate shelter and it’s February; the freight trains delay traffic and wake her up at night in the middle of dreams in which she is having sex with people who are not her boyfriend, which she likes, even though she loves him.

Lora’s inner conflict stems from dead end jobs and a growing disconnection from Brian, who is clueless and seems more interested in trains than Lora’s problems. Her dream on the night before their vacation sums up her feelings of alienation quite nicely: “She dreams that she is at an airport and has forgotten her identification.”

Zachary Green’s “Year of the Pulled Pork Sandwich” is a delicious poem with great sensory details. The lines and words are stretched and pulled apart like the sandwich, creating a very pleasing marriage of words and imagery. The lack of punctuation pulls the reader along a string of dream-like prose: “When the film is not happening / I interpret / my athleticism / what lightning lives like inside of / the mammoth on the threshold.”

Laurel Hunt’s “Plant Eats Bird” is another solid poem. The style and punctuation is reminiscent of e.e. cummings: “you are mauled by the most beautiful lions. it is twenty-ten, c.e. / in that year you are always mauled by the most beautiful lions. / then your body makes benzoin.”

Whiskey Island is simply a solid journal full of strong works. If you can choose which island you would want to be stranded on, you’d better make it Whiskey Island.
[whiskeyislandmagazine.com]

top of page