Literary Magazine Reviews

Posted October 15, 2013

Bone Bouquet :: The Conium Review :: Dunes Review :: ecotone :: The Intentional :: Ninth Letter :: Ruminate :: Seneca Review :: The Southern Literary Journal :: The Virginia Quarterly Review :: West Branch

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Bone Bouquet CoverBone Bouquet

Volume 4 Issue 1

Spring 2013


Review by Anne Graue

The aims of Bone Bouquet’s editors have been abundantly achieved in this issue. The writers represented are women experimenting with imagery and poetic forms while at the same time exploring social agendas, dilemmas, and personal experience. Most of the selected poems subvert language and present readers with vocabulary and symbolism that confounds all expectations, expressing voices that are not often found in literary magazines.

In “I want to cut your hair” by Elizabeth Deanna Morris, the lines reveal desires that are outside of ordinary caring and need in a relationship. A conversation between the “I” and the “you” exposes what may or may not be wise to express:

I want to slit your finger pads
and spiral off the skin the way
you said it worked when you
had scarlet fever. . . .

The literal is not an option in this poem that hides and uncovers simultaneously.

What are readers to do with lines that challenge comprehension while sharing insight? The speaker in Stella Corso’s “Your Heart is Empty, Pal,” compares the “you” to “Serum for my casserole.” Sandy Florian’s “Big Plastics,” part of a larger work, opens with “You are inclined to make big plastics and long-range gods as well as to examine the goslings you already have.” And Liz Robbins’s “Gaffe Aftermath” begins with rain dispelling the “pollen gossip.” These images have entered a different plane of figurative language in which meaning seems to be arbitrary and yet exact. Words, lines, and stanzas have been rendered emblematic of existences that are screaming to signify meaning. In the language of semiotics, the signs in this collection of poems are not always easily determined, each poem having its own system of meaning with different signifiers, so reading each poem requires entering a new sphere of sense where what we might think we understand is different from what is real. Like Alice, we are in a state of wonder in which connotation and denotation mingle, creating a sense of confusion but also of innovation.

Of the seventeen poems in this issue, 14 are written from a first person point of view; a speaker narrates and refers to herself, and a number of the first person poems speak to another “you.” Because this is a magazine of woman writers, it might be safe to assume that the speakers in the poems are also female. This issue does not seem to include a male voice in any of the poems, with the possible exception of the piece by Amaranth Borsuk and Kate Durbin with Zach Kleyn. This two-page piece includes a pen and ink abstract collection of lines from which images emerge coupled with a page of inkblot image descriptions that may or may not fit a reader’s definition of poetry. A reader’s eyes might immediately go to the darker tinted text and read of “the bones fecund bouquet,” a “masquerade hidden,” or a “peonydaisybloodroot.” The play of language is exhilarating, invigorating, and pungent all at once. In this piece, point of view is from an outside space looking in on art that dissolves and solidifies.

Rebecca Farivar offers two minimalist poems in couplets with titles that provide a sense of disconnect thematically. In “Unprovable,” the speaker commands someone to question identity and enlightens that person to the truth: “You are less // than a second / a real person // and two / confederates.” Her poem, “Connect,” reveals a relationship in which one person requires more time alone, concluding “. . . I need / you more absent.”

Rusty Morrison’s “Its Measure” tells a timely story of an older professional woman, a victim of downsizing, forced to live in her car as she interviews for new positions. The subject of documentary, she takes pride that “Still, she has a back seat, / owns her car” and “It is / her trunk.” The most tragic revelation in the poem may be that “She still / expects.” The poem asks readers to wonder if the character of Sylvia is truly tragic or as strong as she claims.

Khadija Queen’s poem shows us someone “Overdue living the dream,” and the “real model” who “talks up her lake house friends.” The flash of the experience of the photo shoot is quick and divulging, exuberant, and poignant.

LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs’s piece has movement and energy emanating from the voices on the page. Her poem “damn right it’s betta than yours” leaves me feeling unschooled and unknowledgeable. The prosody lifts those voices, and I want to hear more.

Jill Khoury’s skillful and touching poem “The Sentence” hits all of the right notes in the song of mothers and daughters who cannot find a way to live in the world together. Khoury gives us drama without melodrama from the beginning phone call containing “The sentence / like a cartoon anvil falling / from the sky . . .” to the end when the speaker, back from third person to first, confirms the effects of hurtful words in her last two lines that reveal an overwhelming self-loathing: “The day had started out like: / I was feeling pretty.” This poem speaks to women and girls in a way that outlasts convention, with form that does not call attention to itself but accomplishes its mission: to break the reader’s heart.

Every poem in the issue contains phrases, lines, metaphors, and images that are new and baffling in their quirkiness and ambiguity and that challenge readers to change how poetry might be read silently on the page or out loud.

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The Conium Review CoverThe Conium Review

Volume 2 Number 2

Fall 2013


Review by Sherra Wong

The writers in this issue of The Conium Review have a talent for keeping things moving: tension, mystery, good old-fashioned action pulled off with clarity and skill, and the occasional bombshell of a metaphor. I found myself constantly itching to find out what was going to happen next, which is a feeling that literary magazines should induce more often in their readers.

The star of the issue is, without doubt, “Garbage Cannes.” In Claude Clayton Smith’s novella, an unnamed Yale graduate and sometime-student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop tries to make a movie “about his boyhood.” With a somewhat deranged old friend, Iron Mike, as his sidekick, the aspiring filmmaker manages to score seed money from the “C. R. A. P.” fund, talk a German pilot-turned-Connecticut-farmer into flying a plane for the opening aerial shot, and get himself and Iron Mike dishonorably discharged from the volunteer fire department at his small hometown. The whole thing is ridiculous down to the details, but it’s great fun. It also satirizes sentimentality and prettiness through its narrator: Iron Mike’s eyes were “as innocent as the pure blue cloudless sky of my boyhood,” the antique car he rented for the film “looked just like the Little Black Stinker of my boyhood.” You hear “my boyhood” enough times, and you chuckle where you’re supposed to tear up with nostalgia. The narrator knows he’s absurd, and he embraces it. And so, like the loyal Iron Mike, the reader willingly goes along for the ride.

But you might be hard-pressed to extract any sort of deep feeling, or even closure, after you close the book on “Garbage Cannes.” Nothing seems to have changed for the characters after the adventure: the narrator invites Iron Mike to continue making the film, and Iron Mike says, as he has throughout the novella, “Sure.” This lack of transformation, of a sense that something has changed, seems to be a pattern in the stories in the issue, but there’s nothing wrong with simply showing the reader a good time.

Listen to the language here in Robert McGuill’s “Territorial Imperatives,” describing a guy warming up before a bar fight:

Verkauteran turns and throws a few lazy warm up punches to get the old adrenaline pumping. He dances around, doing a respectable-looking shuffle in the gravel, then looks up at the cluster of bystanders near the building and gives them a confident wink. He’s feeling good. Iron-balled.

The rhythm of the sentences starts with a roll, then gets clippy when it should. The story, told from the separate perspectives of a couple who have just had a fight, is efficient: there’s only as much standing around and thinking out loud as necessary, and what rumination there is is woven into the action so seamlessly that you hardly notice it at all. At the end, though, it’s hard to say that I’ve gained much insight into the characters, or even a sense of how their lives would go forward.

The poems are a mix of the bizarre and the lyrical, as well as sometimes breathtaking moments such as Richard King Perkins II’s “Gaze”:

we rhyme perfectly
and it’s heaven looking
with her pearl eyes
out at us

It might be a love poem, or a description of a moment of communion or synergy. Whatever it is, it treads the line between cliché and over-the-topness very, very closely: “rhyme” is the understated but central activity, and “pleased” is likewise a simple surprise.

Natalie Peeterse, too, cuts to the core of experience: “The terror of this weather, I let out, / when what I want to say is I’m terrified of the day // going on much longer. . . .” More than the “eleven blue crosses” in the distance or “the hammer of the sky,” the speaker’s terror paints a visceral picture of the bleak landscape. And then this to end: “. . . Someone has lain down / to rest here and was unable to rise.”

As entertained I am, the pieces seem to run out of steam after the first three-quarters. At the end I often wonder, “Why do I feel like I’ve been set up for more than this?” For example, Paola Capó-García’s “Growing” leads us through a body’s metamorphosis and then drops the end with “These / metaphors don’t work.” I have to decide whether the ending is a deliberate anti-poetic stroke, or the poem is simply giving up. Thomas Mundt’s “I Was Very Sick,” which spins a dreary hospital stay into an absorbing read, ends with this: “That was against the doctor’s orders. He didn’t have my home phone, though. There was no way he could catch me. I wouldn’t let him.” But that idea doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything earlier.

This issue of The Conium Review is packed with work from skillful writers. You’re never at a loss for action, or flipping to the end and wondering how long this angst-filled internal monologue is going to last. The rewards of reading, though, tend to come during the process rather than in a satisfying end.

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Dunes Review CoverDunes Review

Volume 17 Number 1

Winter/Spring 2013


Review by Denise Hill

It was a surprise to find Dunes Review on the shelf at NewPages. As it happens, I have Volume 1 Number 1 of this publication—dating back to 1997. The mastheads confirm this is one in the same: Founding Editor Anne-Marie Oomen still figures prominently as a submissions reader. Hers is a name that sounds of “home” to me. Home being northern lower Michigan, the launch site of this journal, now published by the Michigan Writers with the Glen Arbor Arts Association and the Beach Bards. Dunes Review has always been and remains Pure Michigan—at least behind the scenes. As for content, that is geographically open.

I started with the editor’s notes, but was a bit put off by Jennifer Yeatts’s over-the-top emotional exposition on the journal contents. I think if the writing has something to say, it will say it to me, I don’t need the editor telling me that. “Meh,” I said to her and moved on to Melissa Fournier’s “The Goldfinch,” the 2013 William J. Shaw Memorial Prize for Poetry first place winner. The narrator, finding a dead goldfinch along the road, picks it up. In this tiniest detail, Fournier fills the reader’s mind with imagery: “I caress wingbars, drape her bony feet / over my finger.” Then, in the second stanza of two, relates, “I have done this before—” as the narrator parallels the experience to a human: “I’ve draped / her gripless fingers / over my thumb,” drawing the two into such a tight knot of imagery that by the end of the poem, I literally gasped and choked back a sob. Yeatts had been right, and suddenly, I was comforted that she knew how I felt, had even tried to prepare me.

William J. Shaw was a poet and teacher at Northwestern Michigan College. It is wonderful to see his life memorialized with the awards in this publication, though it would be helpful if there was some mention of who he was and why/how the awards continue to this day. His predilections for poetry were steeped in tradition, the forms he taught in the classroom setting, but he also believed in and encouraged inspiration and experimentation. The award winners have been aptly chosen to represent the prize namesake.

Jim Crockett’s second-place poem “Cadences” explores the cycle of life from song-beats of nature (the grosbeak, the owl, trees), to the work from nature (famers and honeybees), to humans making music—for pleasure and for war, to the press of buildings, and to the final press of death: “The singer, like the earth, / wants nothing left but dust.”

Third place winner “Dry Ice Love Poem” by Kris Kunz shows the breadth of form and style of those selected, hers being a prose poem creating relationships between concrete and surreal imagery, concept and feeling: “I say, certainly the pull to swerve into is universal. Or how about the guardrail? The urge to drive over, just beyond?”

The remainder of the volume is poetry, though Dunes Review does accept fiction and nonfiction. Poems of note for me include Kirk Westphal’s “Bodies of Water,” a first person point of view creation myth. The lines flow beautifully, creating a sensual relationship between Sky and Lake, reader and poem:

My white and grey have been you,
Your grey and blue have been me,
and in between the colors
liquid questions rise and fall
in shapes and crescents of waiting
to hold their answers—
           How, then, did we ever live before?

Natalie Solmer’s “Hammock” uses concrete language in such combinations to create the kind of poetic imagery that is hard felt: “I churned with bad moon // while summer ate / its yellow-green.” And Bob Astor in “Swimming Pool Beyond Poverty” has the narrator relate images succinctly detailed but long lasting in the reader’s mind: “everywhere outside / open hands of dusty children // men with leprosy / toothless smiles of old women.” Juxtaposed with the image of a swimmer in a bikini, this one left me with a sense of having “been there,” as if recalling the memory as my own.

The range of poetry for such a slight volume is immense. That there is a single sensibility or type the publication favors can’t be said. Nancy Eimers used excerpts from entries on Google to create a tricky meld of “found” lines in “The Brown Pelican: Unfinished Sentences.” It includes excerpts about birds, cars, organizations, and who knows what, to close on content on the Gulf oil spill and an obituary excerpt from Nancy Cutbirth Small, “environmental activist and teacher.” Like many of the poems I encountered in Dunes Review, the full impact culminates with the final line.

Marcy Branski introduced me to sijo, a Korean form of poetry similar to those of haiku, tanka and the like with line and syllable counts, using narrative or theme, with a problem, a resolution, and a twist. “Sijo by the Dozen” is twelve, three-line poems, each a reflection from daily life encounters and experiences, examined under the poetic form to reveal new insight:

We have nightlights in each room; we get up so often in darkness.
We buy Kleenex in bulk for new allergies and old drippy noses.
But we’re down to a single alarm clock we rarely have to set.

Included in this issue are two poems by Holly Wren-Spaulding, one of the readers for the publication, and Karen Anderson, a long-time area resident and writer. Seeing editors/readers works in a journal never quite seems right to me—smacks of self-publishing—and long-standing local names make me question the selection process. If they solicit, that’s fine, but they should say so, along with the editorial process for general submissions.

I’m thrilled to see Dunes Review has continued on through the years and has not lost its commitment to quality literary content from a wide range of styles and appeals. Being able to pick up a publication like this and find several works that resonate immediately is what will attract readers and writers to the journal. More than that, Dunes Review is an Oh-my-gosh-you-have-to-read-this journal, and it’s that editorial sensibility that has led to its longevity.

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ecotone Coverecotone

Issue 15

Spring 2013


Review by Anne Graue

In his comic strip in this issue of ecotone, Jeff Koterba tells readers that people move through life “never imagining that we carry the bonds of home, wherever we go.” This idea is a connecting thread, in keeping with the theme of home that Editor David Gessner tells us has been “with us from the beginning.” He also writes that “Human beings are animals,” and “we are living in a time of deep danger and uncertainty,” and “making a home in this uncertain world has never been harder than it is now.” Readers of this issue will be certain of these truths as they are uncovered and rediscovered by writers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in this spring offering from the magazine whose title means “a place of danger or opportunity.” This issue brings it all back home for the editors, writers, and fortunate readers.

Danger is clearly evident in the opening piece of fiction, “Animals” by Chaz Reetz-Laiolo. Adept at diction and dialogue, Reetz-Laiolo creates the world of a commune in the here and now, revisited, with all of the trappings that communes always seem to have while appearing to be safe havens from the outside. Aaron brings his girlfriend, Darly, to spend time in this place that is clearly significant to his life. He knows the others there intimately—they’ve seen each other naked—and Aaron introduces Darly to Ford in the first glimpse of exhibitionism: “He was tall and half-undressed at the washing machine, his high, hairy buttocks out from under his T-shirt. He clapped Aaron on the chest, and Aaron could feel Darly trying not to look at his bunched penis.” This preview foreshadows the characters’ attempt to retrieve a feeling, elusive to them now, of the home they once shared in wild abandon. This is a story of nostalgia, community, and terror that is a fitting first step, a foray into the comfortable idea of home, only to have it pulled from the floor beneath feet thought firmly planted.

Poems and essays intermingle throughout the issue and reveal images of home or the loss of home, of humans traveling or existing far from home, of places that may only be temporary or indefinable homes. Jill Sisson Quinn, in her nonfiction piece “The Myth of Home” writes, “research shows that, at least very early in life, the place we love most is a place we may have never set foot in.” This knowledge, this sense of place is the quality inherent in the selections of this issue of ectone, found in Lisa Fay Coutley’s two poems that are companion pieces with a poet and an astronaut as central characters experiencing a long-distance relationship, a marrying of earth and sky. The narrative of each cascades down the page in rivulets, in a waterfall of space, time, geography, and human contact that depicts art and science and their interdependence and influence, showing they are “growing closer together in lesser conditions / spinning uncertain & dumb & out of time / until bone is skin is air is fire.” Coutley’s lines are true art that repeats the necessary and illuminates certainty and uncertainty.

The themes of home, place, and territory are major in this issue, but lying closely in the undergrowth is another theme: the theme of water, of fluidity, of “the river in spate,” from Ciaran Berry’s poem “Shannon,” or the lake that “believes it is the ocean,” in Quinn’s piece. From a swimming pool in “Animals” to the “frozen villages of Russia” in Jeff Koterba’s “Russian Air” to John Lane’s “confluence where the creek that drains Calhoun Lakes enters Lawson’s Fork,” there is a subliminal, but not so very subtle, message of continuance, one that is worth exploring further to find where all the textual water meets the literary ocean.

Readers should also note Paula Rebsom’s art installation, “If we Lived Here,” and the maps on pages that are “River Bend Chronicle Geography” by Ben Miller and Dale Williams. Each of these pieces at once entertains, informs, stimulates, and demands attention.

In “Of Frisbees, Physarum, & Cow Paths: A Creative Code,” David Oates writes:

A desire path is what every good piece of imagining follows. It might be a very smart piece—an experiment, an essay, a painting; it might be full of information and intellect and cold logic. But I guarantee that comes to be born—like all living things—from a burst of pleasure. Sheer, randy pleasure.

Discovering this is a kind of homecoming, a joyous event, as David Gessner concludes; readers will recognize this and find their paths as they follow the routes laid out by the magazine’s selections. This issue of ecotone, they will find, delivers on its name, and gives readers glimpses of dwellings and emotional atmospheres on the earth and in the spaces within, above, and around it. Readers need only to follow the bread crumbs.

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The Intentional CoverThe Intentional

Issue 2

Fall 2013


Review by Kirsten McIlvenna

The Intentional is a new magazine that aims to “capture the twenty-something experience and explore innovations that might augment quality of life for millennials.” After reading Kate Jenkins’s editor note in the first issue, I, as a twenty-something myself, knew that this would be a magazine worth reading, and I was right; I read this second issue cover to cover, start to finish, all in one sitting.

Margaret Herre’s “The Applicant” jabs and pokes fun at the application process as a few years after deciding to pursue art, she ends up applying for medical school:

I’ve been spending a lot of time sending messages and hoping for an invitation from schools to meet up and commit. I even accidentally called my OkCupid profile my “application” once—an uncomfortable amount of soul-baring is required for both in order to be attractive.

And so she goes on to give us sample application questions with sample answers, trying to garner that attention. Take, for example, her response to “discuss a challenge you have faced”: finding an apartment in New York City. “I prevailed in the face of real estate adversity,” she writes, “and now you and I are neighbors—so I think it would be really fucking rude if you didn’t accept me.” Cleverly and wittingly displayed, this essay asks questions of how far we will go and how much of ourselves we will show in order to be accepted.

The stand-out in this issue was the collection of essays about ethical travel. Andrew Crosson introduces this section by discussing how when we travel to a new place, we must really immerse ourselves in the culture and stop seeing it as just a paradise destination. The people that live and work in those vacation spots are serving the others on vacation. “There is no guarantee that venturing abroad will produce a connection [with the local people],” Crosson writes, “but as young Westerners we chronically underestimate the ripple effects of our actions and interactions away from home. Realizing this and being thoughtful about how we represent ourselves to others, especially abroad, may be the first and most critical step towards more ethical travel.” Three essays of the writer’s experiences abroad follow to round out this discussion.

Of particular interest to me was David Campell’s “Common Ground” in which he tells his experience of working for an adventure cycling company in Europe. Working as a luxury adventure guide, he experienced people who were fascinated for the first five minutes of a helicopter ride only to be distracted and turning to their iPhones seconds later. He then goes on to work in Senegal for the Peace Corps. And while he was there for so long, he feels he was never fully accepted into the community because, just as all of the other volunteers do, he eventually has to (and does) leave. Now working on his master’s thesis, he anticipates returning to Senegal at which point his host mother will ask what he has been doing:

I’ll search for an explanation that could somehow be meaningful to someone who has never been more than a day’s bus ride from where she was born, but ultimately I’ll hide the full truth out of modesty and shame. I’ll say simply that I’ve been studying. How exactly can I explain that I did so in New Zealand, on the opposite side of a globe whose vastness she cannot comprehend, thus causing that chasm between us to grow?

These ideas stuck with me. When we travel, how do we interact with the culture we enter, and how do we identify with its people?

And I was continually reminded of Colin D. Laursen and Breanna Forni’s “From the Beltway to the Backgrounds” for the next week after reading, as the people surrounding me, like their neighbor, told me how they do not want to discuss politics in the same way that “Tonight Donny doesn’t want to talk about politics, but he does want to tell us that Obama has ‘done wrong’ and that we need someone who can change things.” They don’t want to talk about it, but they would like to gently insert their vague opinion.

And certainly I could go on and on about each individual piece in this issue—each one is worth reading—but I’ll stop here and let you enjoy the rest for yourself. While each individual piece is well written and each page wonderfully illustrated and designed, the collection as a whole is really what strikes me; it is doing what the editors set out for it. It’s a publication that is as important and meaningful to read as it is enjoyable.

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Ninth Letter CoverNinth Letter

Volume 10 Number 1

Spring/Summer 2013


Review by John Palen

Ninth Letter, entering its tenth year with this issue, is published by the University of Illinois, with faculty directing a large corps of students in presenting work from established and emerging writers. The magazine has a reputation for being ambitious, brash, lively and visually challenging, and this issue lives up to the reputation. You may not find everything to your liking, but Ninth Letter will reward the time you spend finding out.

Standouts in my view—to choose just one from each writing genre—are Brian Trapp’s short story “Michael and Sal,” Thomas H. McNeely’s memoir “The Burning Bed,” and Anne Barngrover’s poem “Bluetick Hound.”

In Trapp’s amply proportioned story, Michael and Sal are preemie twins, Sal with severe brain damage from a bleed. The story’s length—7,000-plus words—gives Trapp room to capture the daily, unremitting pressure that such a situation puts on a family. As the boys reach the age when children learn to talk, Michael begins to “interpret” Sal’s sounds for his parents. Does he really understand what Sal is trying to say? That’s not implausible, after all. Or is he putting words in Sal’s mouth to manipulate the parents? Or himself? For their part, the parents are utterly believable people, fighting their way out of their difficulties—and occasional shocking failures—with awkward, blind grace as their boys struggle to grow up.

McNeely’s memoir deals with his father, a Houston doctor who is “radioactive, incandescent, a walking hard-on.” While McNeely is living in Boston in a one-room studio, working on becoming a writer, his father shows up out of the blue. At a sushi restaurant, he tells his son that “Dora was coming.”

Who’s Dora, I said.
Dr. Mishima’s wife, he said.
Where’s she going to stay?
At your place, he said. With me.”

McNeely’s father is a tightly wound, closed-off man who recognizes no boundaries with others. One thing leads to another, and McNeely’s therapist tells him he has to throw his father out. McNeely does so, carefully following the therapist’s script. But the descent into alcoholic chaos that follows is swift and frightening.

In Barngrover’s poem, the speaker is at a party for a much-abused dog named Darlene:

She was starved
to a hot wire. Her leg broke
a campaign. She was taken
& returned & taken & returned.

The speaker finds an uneasy kinship with Darlene when a memory surfaces of a humiliating gynecological examination:

in stirrups & paper gown, tested
for a girl in heat when he just
couldn’t keep control.

The language is explosive, lean and fiercely bonded to the experience.

In each issue of Ninth Letter, students and colleagues associated with the magazine write short essays about “the wonders, oddities and complexities of the Heartland.” The feature is a nice opportunity for student writers to see their work in print in association with the kind of professionals they assuredly will soon become. I particularly like assistant editor Natalie Mesnard’s appreciation of the Loda Cemetery prairie restoration, a tiny island of native plants in an ocean of corn and soy. “These liminal places, so much a part of the Midwest landscape,” she writes, “allow us to draw closer to death while simultaneously challenging it: I may not go on, we say, but I can tell you, something will.”

There is much other fine work in this issue, and if you like over-the-top, break-all-the-rules typography and design, with a mélange of fonts designed more to be looked at than read, you’ll love that aspect of Ninth Letter. If you don’t, don’t let that keep you from the good writing. Just tell yourself, Gee, they all seem to be having such fun with this.

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Ruminate CoverRuminate

Issue 28

Summer 2013


Review by Kirsten McIlvenna

This issue of Ruminate is titled “not forgotten” and contains stories and poems of memories and of preserving them. Editor Brianna Van Dyke writes, “it is not our memories that give us solace, but rather the promise that we are not forgotten, that with tender mercy the morning sun rises upon us. I try remembering, try holding it all—the hard truths and the good truths, together.”

Easily my favorite piece in this issue is Lindsey Deloach Jones’s “Fall in Love, Lourdemie” (which also holds second place for the 2013 VanderMey Nonfiction Prize), a chronicled experience of when Jones takes a young Haitian girl into her home for a short period of time as the girl has surgery for club foot. Unable to have her own child, Jones gives Lourdemie love, even if Lourdemie can’t fully understand what the words “I love you” mean:

Now every night at bedtime when I say to Lourdemie, “I love you, see you in the morning,” she repeats it back to me . . . totally unaware of how the phrases would translate. To her the words are a string of syllables, our evening refrain. She only knows that I say them every night when I pull the covers up to her shoulders and rub my thumbs across her perfect eyebrows before kissing her forehead. They do not sound like what her mother said to her every night. But they mean something to her; they mean enough to bear repeating.

This story is about understanding because here, understanding isn’t found through language—as they don’t speak the same one: “Language is a shortcut to gratification, a way to get what we want without the wait.” Connection is instead found as Jones tries to understand Lourdemie through other means. But even though she may not understand everything Lourdemie needs and even though she cannot keep her forever, in the end, Jones can still be a mother right now, scraping “sandwich crusts into the trash can like a mother would do.”

The only fiction piece, “The Creché Lady” by S. Frederic Liss, is certainly worth the investment. Carla “Waddy” Pelletier is a taxidermist, and when a couple brings in a long-tailed weasel in its winter coat, she can’t think of a better challenge of her skills. That is, until Leona McFall, the owner of the breakfast diner next door, brings Carla her recently deceased human baby:

Where would she make the skinning incisions? Pray had no body hair to hide the cuts and stitches. How would she peel skin so thin and flimsy without tearing it? . . . Would it survive fleshing and shaving? Or tanning? . . . And she would have to do everything right the first time. No second chances. No opportunity to practice her technique, to experiment, to see what worked, what didn’t.

Liss certainly gives an original tale, well told.

Sarah Green’s poem “What to Expect When You Become a Traffic Light” is also imaginative. Combining elements of yellow, green, red, and that “orange” we all speed through, this second-person poem predicts how you would feel:

In thunderstorms, you’ll whiplash furiously.
When the electricity’s out anywhere, even
across the ocean, you’ll swear
you feel that.

In her poem “Whispered,” Lynn Domina personifies Mercy as a woman she would “like to offer a cup of coffee.” The word choice and pace makes this poem soft, and I feel the need to whisper, to gently ask for mercy instead of to cry out:

                                             I could turn
and whisper her name. Mercy, I could say,
and she would lift her eyes, her gaze
resting on my face as I felt
my body lighten, the word
eased from my lips, Mercy, Mercy.

Another short poem, Sarah Fawn Montgomery’s “Scar,” gives a glimpse of loss as the narrator skins her ankle in the shower the day after her grandmother dies. She covers the cut with her finger, “held it closed to clot,” and compares it to the way her grandmother hid her despair: “I can feel my heartbeat / fast in my finger.”

Not realizing until I read the editor’s note that this was an issue about remembrance, and not really picking up on the link until I was reading the poetry, I found this issue to be about more than just preserving a memory. I found it to be about finding human connection, about trying to understand someone else’s world. So step inside, and start reading.

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Seneca Review CoverSeneca Review

Volume 43 Number 1

Spring 2013


Review by Julie J. Nichols

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that reading a collection of lyric essays can require more concentration, more effort, than reading a collection of short stories or personal essays, and that is true of the pieces in this issue of Seneca Review. This intense hybrid genre, a form of many forms, gives rise to responses like responses to poetry—visceral, shocked, troubled, enraptured—partly because it is filled with images, juxtapositions, and gaps, yes, but partly because it depends on the frontal lobe too, the facts and footnotes of argument and persuasion, at the same time it claims the personal, the fragile and emotional.

Catherine Taylor’s “Inanimate Subjects” juxtaposes segments explaining drone warfare through the eyes of her pilot brother with segments exposing the strange magic of puppetry. “Like a puppet,” she says in a segment that joins the other two types of segment:

the drone is both an extension of the operator and an object unto itself. Something manipulated. A body with a distant mind . . . Drones have the strange appearance of autonomy found in robots, automata, and puppets . . . It leans more instrumental than performative. Or does it?

This has the look of prose, of argument, but it has the same feel as the starkest war poetry, so that the reader wants to rush away and not see what Taylor insists that we see. “Maybe this is the way love puppets us,” she says, “—the strings that attach me to my brother yanking me away from thinking further about the murky questions of the ethics of domination.” The sentences in some segments are fragments, contradictions, parallelisms of affirmation and denunciation; in other segments, they are chatty, drawn-out, explanatory. The ultimate effect is more distressing by far than either a textbook discussion of the effects of drone warfare, a novel about a fighter pilot, or a strident, sorrowful poem, because it is all three. In this piece, Taylor controls every gift the lyric essay offers her subject.

“The Lonely Hunters: A Ballad, Alphabetical” by Sonja Livingston is about two-thirds the length of “Inanimate Subjects,” but, like Taylor’s piece, it is also segmented and looks like prose, each of its twenty-six segments given a one-word title in alphabetical order. “The Lonely Hunters” deftly weaves images and information. A meditation on the TV show Ally McBeal, it remembers the soul singer Al Green, the nineteenth-century romantic poet Fiona MacLeod who was actually William Sharp, and Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, threading them all with the needle of love desired and imagined and almost, but not quite, accomplished. Livingston’s lovely piece is an energy vortex, reminding us in a spiral whirling both up and down what it feels like to want to be loved, and where in our culture we have seen that desire acted out.

But not all the pieces in this issue of Seneca Review look like prose. In “The Abstract Humanities,” Sandra Simonds tells a chilling story of an experiment gone wrong, whose echoes resonate in poetic stanzas with other attempts at control and perfection that fail miserably, as they must, though we keep trying them and hurting ourselves and others. And in “The Traveler’s Vade Mecum, Line #614” and its companion, “. . . Line 4088,” Sandra Beasley presents aphorisms and vignettes in poems that breach our objectivity:

. . . Every breath
is a child’s hand rummaging through a bag of grapes.
Your fingers and mouth grow stickier by the minute.
The jails within us keep multiplying

Not all the pieces are by women, either, though I’ve used their work as examples so far of the fierce combinatory beauty of this lyric essay issue of SR. Steve Coughlin’s “Another Life” gives us two men, “the man who is not my father” and the one who is, two strands of a braided “essay” mourning a family shattered by a brother’s mental illness and murder. It’s a short, harrowing piece. And in “Knowledge Transfer,” Piotr Gwiazda provides snapshot after snapshot of the difficulty of teaching poetry in a world dissolving in an acid crucible of unjust politics.

Each of the two dozen or so lyric essays here deserves (and requires) a careful reader’s time and attention. That this is a genre far more than the sum of its parts is without question. Seneca Review, which since its beginnings in 1970 has emphasized poetry, including translation, and which embraced the lyric essay in 1997, is to be praised for showcasing this challenging, versatile mode.

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The Southern Literary Journal CoverThe Southern Literary Journal

Volume 65 Number 2

Spring 2013


Review by Melanie Tague

The mission statement of The Southern Literary Journal is to publish “articles on the literature and culture of the American South and especially encourages global and hemispheric comparative scholarship linking the American South and its literatures and cultures to other Souths." This issue features both articles and reviews that present fresh and compelling ideas to the strong body of comparative scholarship that already exists on the literature and culture of the American South. Articles range from analyzing Gone with the Wind to the trauma of lost sovereignty within the South to the analyzing of Ellison’s Invisible Man as a “public jazz dance” in which each individual chapter on a grand scale represents the movements of syncopated communities.

Christina Henderson’s “A Nation of the Continual Present: Timrod, Tennyson, and the Memorialization of the Confederacy” discusses Timrod’s direct role and Tennyson’s indirect role in “articulating southern identity during and after the civil war.” The article makes sure to back up claims with plenty of proof, and Henderson makes sure to walk the reader through her thought process. The history that goes along with the argument is also presented in an engaging way. Henderson centers her argument on the idea that Tennyson’s re-imagined use of the mythological Camelot in his own work was what sparked Timrod’s similar use of Camelot where Camelot is the American South. Regardless of whether a reader has any background knowledge of any aspect Henderson is talking about, the article is easy to follow and well worth a read.

Gone with the Wind and the Trauma of Lost Sovereignty” by Erin Shelly exhibits strong writing skills. The thesis is not only solidly constructed and clearly stated but it also is well defended. Shelly discusses how the loss of sovereignty in the American South during Reconstruction is displayed in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind and how it marked a transition from the loss as an individual trauma to an externalized and collective trauma. Shelly examines the main characters in Gone with the Wind as representations of “history becoming . . . the collective record of private American families.” This article is beneficial for anyone looking to explore a new lens of race and gender issues or looking to understand the idea of sovereignty within the contemporary world in general.

One more worthwhile piece is “Syncopated Communities: Dancing with Ellison” by Joshua Hall. In this piece, Hall affirms two widely acknowledged tropes in Ellison’s thought and works and then intertwines them. The two tropes he discusses are the novel as a function of the American democracy and the other being bebop-era jam sessions serving as a figurative condensation of democracy. One of the most interesting sections of this essay comes as Hall analyzes The Invisible Man as a kind of “public jazz dance” in which each chapter represents a different song and has its own corresponding dance with its own primary characters or “dance soloists.” The various movements of these individual characters are then analyzed next to the movements of communities as a whole or individuals within a community. This essay is well thought out and presented in a clear, comprehendible manner. As a reader, make sure not to skip over this one!

This issue of The Southern Literary Review is a fine vessel of comparative scholarship with something in it for everyone. I promise whether you are a historian or a creative writer—or you fit somewhere in between—there is something worthwhile in this issue for you.

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The Virgina Quarterly Review CoverThe Virginia Quarterly Review

Volume 89 Number 3

Summer 2013


Review by Mitchell Jarosz

The theme of this issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review is “People and Place.” The featured writers are Ann Beattie, Catherine E. McKinley, Garret Keizer, and Tess Taylor, but all of the 25 contributors are impressive and well worth reading and re-reading.

Garret Keizer’s “Walt” provides a personal remembrance that can’t help but trigger the reader’s best memories of their own most influential family member. “Step one: Fall for your high school sweetheart. Step two: Fall for her dad.”

Benjamin Rachlin’s “The Accidental Beekeeper” is supported by the photographs of Peter Frank Edwards. We travel through the North Carolina countryside and are given a delightful description of the bee industry in a homage to both the people and the place, made even more comfortable by the fact that both the words and the pictures truly allow us to see rather than just imagine the experience. Like all of the photo essays, the pictures can be enjoyed without the text; the text can be enjoyed alone, and the combination brings you back to the experience.

The experience of people and place is just as vivid in the variety of poetry, in works such as Kevin Hart’s “Apart”:

Above me in the night
My unknown neighbors walk
Across a creaking floor
        And sometimes fight.

The poetry selection adds a poignant note to the longer essays and short fiction. Each one provides its own personal commentary on our search for place and identity. Each supports the beauty of the photo-essays.

In “Summer On The Island,” photographer Benjamin Rasmussen shows us home in the remote but endearing Faroe Islands. Next we are given an artist’s collection in Audrey Niffenegger’s portfolio “Awake in the Dream World.” Telling photos by Scott Dalton reinforce Lauren Markham’s essay “First the Fence, Then the System.” The photos of the border captivate the eye while the essay strongly impresses us with what happens when Central American children illegally enter the U.S alone and then enter the ‘system.’

The most colorful (since they’re all impressive) are the photos by Thabiso Sekgala accompanying Catherine E. McKinley’s essay “It’s All About the Cow," which showcase the dress of Namibian women and the place of politics in fashion. These collections have the reader enjoying the text and the photos twice over and then some.

Tyler Stiem’s “For Everyman A Wife” is a short story about a man’s attempts to regain old memories, old friends, and old lovers. The third world context adds to the flavor of the intrigue we experience as he travels through dangerous locales:

Appiah, the guide, and the two soldiers reached the summit at midday. . . . The Congolese border cut the lake in half, an invisible wall that kept the chaos at bay. They ate the packed lunches while the younger soldier watched them and smoked. He was too familiar.”

Stiem’s sparse style hammers detail after detail to reinforce the tension of the central character’s feelings.

Early in Joyce Carol Oates’s “The Jesters,” the scene is set for a story of confusion and lost direction in what should have been a predictable place and a predictable life: “Like a labyrinth, it was! Crescent Lake Farms was not a residential area hospitable to strangers. Easily one could become lost in a maze of ‘drives,’ ‘lanes,’ ‘ways,’ and ‘circles,’ for the gated community had been designed to discourage aimless driving.”

Each of the pieces uses the author’s style to reinforce the feelings and responses of troubled characters. They remind the reader of a time and place; that’s what the best is supposed to do. And this collection does.

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West Branch CoverWest Branch

Number 73

Fall 2013


Review by Sherra Wong

Two strains run through this issue of West Branch: personal interiority and power. Most of the poems, with nonlinear narratives, seemingly unrelated images, and a variety of traditional and more unorthodox forms, are concerned with the former. It’s harder for these private and original forms to reach the reader, and so I find myself more interested in the latter theme explored in this issue: what happens when people become aware of their relative weakness in the world they live in.

In Michael Derrick Hudson’s account of a battle between the Lakota and the U.S. Army,

. . . Our silver dimes will get hammered
into earrings, our boots chopped into buckets. A United States
cavalry pennant in shreds, plaited red and star-
spangled blue in the braids of Sitting Bull’s second wife’s hair.

To be more exact, the speaker of the poem is “Drunk in Bed Reading a Lakota Account of the Battle of Little Big Horn.” The drunkenness may be why the “Lakota account” actually sounds like one written from the perspective of a U.S. soldier, even though the facts—representing the Lakota victory—are correct. But no matter. What I like about the lines quoted above is how they stretch further than their immediate meaning and their directness. On one level, that’s just what happens when you lose a battle: your stuff then belongs to other guy and his wife/girlfriend (shown with great audiovisuals here, of course, with “hammered,” “shreds,” and even the more subtle “plaited,” though also more insidiously suggestive of violence). On another level, the “civilization” being pushed onto Native Americans—dimes, boots, cavalry pennants—were dismissed and remade into what they actually considered useful and beautiful. And the lines in the beginning of the poem are just plain fun: “as my horse oofs to her knees. Another arrow // thfffts past my ear. No matter how hard it gets, it’s not tragedy // if you can’t remember what you wanted here. . . .” Hearing the oofs and thfffts in the poem, I’m almost wiping my brow and thanking the Lord for my life, and I’m also wondering why I’m out here in Montana getting killed.

The migrant worker in Piotr Florczyk’s “Elsewhere” isn’t afraid to make the natives’ rhetoric his own: “Now that Poles have conquered an island / without firing a single shot— / ‘Ireland’s beautiful,’ ‘The people kind.’” Takeover is a common word hurled at foreigners, but the immigrant speaker in the poem seems to say, “Well, it’s kind of true, but can’t we be friends?” He takes us through his workday and his frolics; the romantic is woven with the grit:

Do you miss our old apartment, Love?
Once, I stood beside the chimney,
thirty feet above the ground, cleaning guano
off the siding with a squeegee.

Working as a bellringer, “[t]he pay was low, but the view to die for.” He rang for his host country’s every “national holiday, tragedy or triumph,” and waved to the tourists pointing their cameras at him. The immigrant experience in the poem is individual, yet not exoticized, or politicized with a heavy hand.

Naira Kuzmich reveals another, and more somber, layer of the immigrant experience in “Miles to Exit.” Sarkis, an elderly immigrant from Armenia living in Los Angeles, is teaching his fifteen-year-old grandson Armen to drive. Sarkis brims with anxiety about Armen’s lack of an ordinary masculinity and the dangers and uncertainty this must mean. Of Armen he thinks:

The boy does not run. He does not lift weights. He does not swim. He does not, does not. Armen sits. Armen stays. His teachers describe him as nice.

Armen rebels in his quiet way against Sarkis’s push for him to drive. Sarkis’s fears seem inextricable from his narrow daily experience—we only see him interacting with other Armenian immigrants—and therefore his unfamiliarity with the imagined, and menacing, Los Angeles. He cannot imagine how Armen will survive in Los Angeles, but when he compares his grandson with the grandchildren of his Armenian immigrant friends, it seems that he cannot imagine how Armen would have survived as an Armenian either. This is Sarkis’s immigrant experience: neither here nor there.

The men from the West Virginia mountains in Matthew Neill Null’s fast-moving “Gauley Season” come into contact with the outside world through the visiting whitewater rafters. In addition to the economic boost that these rafters bring, the world also intrudes in the form of pollution, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the EPA. In the beginning of the story, a man and his daughter from a Washington, D.C. suburb die in the rapids. The reason for their deaths is a stark illustration of the power struggle between the disenfranchised local and the man behind a desk in the capital. Null’s writing is lyrical and superb.

This issue includes a substantial section of book reviews, some academic and some more personal, but all thoughtful. Whether you’re looking for work that engages with the world or is more concerned with the private realm, West Branch has something for everyone.

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