Posted November 15, 2013
The Asian American Literary Review :: Cimarron Review :: The Gettysburg Review :: Grasslimb :: Green Mountains Review :: Indiana Review :: The MacGuffin :: The Main Street Rag :: The Masters Review :: Neon Magazine :: theNewerYork :: Paddlefish :: Ploughshares :: Prairie Schooner :: The Reader :: Willow Springs
Volume 4 Issue 2
Review by Sherra Wong
This issue of the Asian American Literary Review is packed with ambition. While many literary journals experiment with the elements and the appearance of language, this issue of AALR crosses the physical conventions of the idea of the literary journal. The contents, like the challenges to the physical form, provoke questions and emphasize ambiguities rather than entertain, which is perhaps fitting when the issue centers on “mixed race,” a sometimes questionable and often ambiguous term laden with history, exultation, and pain.
The issue comes in a rectangular box labeled with the AALR logo and the words “Mixed Race / in a Box,” and within are three mostly black-and-white booklets of different sizes, a folded-up glossy poster, and a pack of playing cards. The box immediately recalls controversies about the race question on the census and other forms, which is a point of departure for the way people and their communities box or refuse to box themselves in. The booklets are entitled “Mixed Race is an Inbox,” “Mixed Race is a Pandora’s Box,” and “Mixed Race is a Black Box,” each suggesting an aspect of the mixed-race experience. The issue is full of symbolism and word play of the sort.
Nonfiction makes up the greater part of the issue, and it explodes with variety. The subjects of the essays and interviews include the children of American soldiers stationed in Asia and the local women, unions between Chinese men and Englishwomen in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, mixed-race hip-hop artists in the Twin Cities, and the impact of the web on discussions on mixed-race experience. Several people from China, whose country generally regards itself as a homogenous society, respond to photographs of mixed families. Kip Fulbeck, creator of The Hapa Project, revisits a few subjects of his photographs from more than ten years ago in updated photographs and in the subjects’ own words.
The most successful pieces are those that stay close to the personal. My favorite is Leila Nadir’s “Chadars and Hairspray for our Muslim Daughter,” which chronicles the relationship among herself, her Afghan-born father, and her Slovak-American mother through the all-important vehicle of traditional femininity—to be controlled, flaunted, and fretted over—of hair. It was her mother who took her to her first professional haircut, against her father’s wishes, and it was her mother who shopped for her first chadar to cover up her hair for the mosque. In “Some Myths to Have a Good Time” Jennifer Kwon Dobbs meditates on her infertility and how she was given away to an adoption agency by her grand aunt when she was a baby in Seoul, because she was the child of an American soldier and a Korean woman. Both Nadir and Dobbs win me over with their honesty, the skillful layering of their stories, and their appeal to universal human experience through the particular.
On the other hand, certain pieces speak more directly from a political perch. The author is in the spotlight, and the work becomes a thin veil for an agenda hijacking artistry. “Lebanon in Two Hemispheres: Posts from a Post-Colonial World” by Shannon O’Neill and Amira Pierce consists of an exchange of e-mails between two friends and the posts on their shared blog. One of the friends is Karim, the child of a European-American father and a Lebanese mother, who has returned to Lebanon; the other is Mona, also both European and Arab, living in Dearborn, Michigan. The “Critical Quotes for Reflection” at the end of each blog post are pedagogical; I hardly expect to be condescended to in a piece presenting itself as fiction. Even the e-mails between Karim and Mona feel more like reportage than a conversation between friends; in fact, the story may have worked better as journalism or an essay, without Karim and Mona as puppets. The dramatis personae in Robert Farid Karimi’s “Unlost in the Supermarket” also put their races, biological and otherwise, front and center. I would have loved to get to know them as people. A part of me wonders whether the irony is deliberate: after all, people of color sometimes don’t get the chance to be known as people.
Finally, the deck of cards: each has a picture on one side and an explanation, reflection, or quote on the back. They make for hours of fascinating looking and reading. Why cards, though? Like races and ethnicities, they shuffle and combine; are played according to the situation; and some trump others. I’m just guessing, the way I might guess at the ethnicities of the ambiguous-looking individuals I come across. That is probably AALR’s best stroke with this issue: bringing home, on a visceral level, the feeling and perception of ambiguity, uncertainty, and the desire for certainty. Long after I’ve closed the box, I keep thinking about how that feels.
Review by John Palen
The hallmark virtues of this issue of Cimarron Review are polished works that are immediately accessible yet amply reward closer inspection.
The tone is set by April Dobbins’ front and back photos of old tractors. They have ordinary Middle America written all over them—the magazine, after all, hails from Oklahoma, and not much of it has a big-city feel. But look at the small, square, mysterious wooden-looking object perched on one wheel, the electric lines crossing and sagging overhead, the missing “D” after “FOR” on the grill. They’ll set your responses going.
Lesley Wheeler, whose Heterotopia won the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize, gets things started inside with two fine poems. The first, “Distractible,” evokes spring in buzzed-out, flip-card images of nature, youth, sex, and all the rest, including a sly dig at one of modern poetry’s canonic takes on the season: “April, you cruel, you sexy / month, you burn winter’s / secret skin sudden pink.”
Eliot’s poem shows up again in the other poem by Wheeler, “Powder Burn,” which describes a face-off at a party between a suspended blue-collar cop and an English major “eager to discuss / Native Son or participial line breaks / in The Waste Land.” At the end, through the ameliorating lens of memory, the poet finds her way across the social gulf to a well-earned empathy for both characters.
In the short fiction section, Philip Holland’s “Mentor” memorably tells the tale of Rory, a tennis player who had talent to burn—and burned it. “Looking back, he understood that his talent, while the perfect foundation, was also a ceiling. . . . Other players had to work like farmers, spending hours on the court, in the gym, before video screens, with sports psychologists, but not Rory. Or so he thought.” Stuck in an unchallenging job as a tennis club pro, Rory wavers despondently between accepting a job selling cars and trying to make it back on the tour. He finds a sense of commitment, though, with a young student, Conrad, who attends a “special” school. Rory works hard to get past Conrad’s lack of natural ability, and Conrad is an enthusiastic student. But the parents cut the relationship short, seeing no value in it for their son. Then there is a quick jump to a year and a half later and a bitter-sweet ending. Rory, now selling cars, spots Conrad playing tennis in a park—and learns something unexpected about what it means to teach.
Other highlights in this fine issue are Matthew Gavin Frank’s inventive essay on Iowa, “The Fata Morgana in the Loosemeat Sandwich”; Adeena Reitberger’s memoir on her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor; and first-rate poems by Stan Sanviel Rubin, Jeffrey Bean, Jim Daniels, Michael Walsh, and Robert King.
Published by Oklahoma State University, Cimarron Review is one of the most consistently stimulating literary magazines on the scene today.
Volume 26 Number 3
Review by Kenneth Nichols
The Gettysburg Review deserves its reputation for excellence and consistency. Editor Peter Stitt and his colleagues have put together another issue packed with work that examines the human condition from a number of geographical and emotional perspectives.
This issue gets off to a great start with Joseph Levens’s “Black Sunday.” The somewhat passive narrator of the short story introduces us to Altea, a widow who teaches high school trigonometry. Much more importantly, Altea loves music, Black Sabbath specifically. She puts together a band, though she never plans on performing for anyone. Levens deals with Altea in an honest and unexpected light and the story’s end manages to make use of a unique image to relate the protagonist’s sense of loss. Her husband’s final breath was
held inside a birthday balloon . . . for weeks, shrinking little by little. When it was no bigger than a grapefruit, Altea untied the knot and inhaled the remaining air into her lungs. She left it there as long as she possibly could. Then she exhaled. And then she cried.
Altea earns the greatest compliment a character can pay a reader: we wish we could spend more time with her in the white space that follows the story’s final sentence.
Gabriel Heller shares a very painful experience with the reader: his grandfather, terminally ill, has decided to end his own life. The grandfather was an uncommonly brave man who had survived time in Auschwitz, working his way to a professorship in medicine at the University of Illinois. Heller avoids the clichés common to these kinds of narratives; he doesn’t depict a teary final hour with grandpa and wasn’t there when the deed was done. Instead, the author crafts a powerful remembrance of a man who refused to live in the past and “threw himself into his work, trying with all his energy and will to move forward, to leave the past behind.” In that spirit, Heller ends the piece with a moment that occurred weeks later. In a free moment, he makes his way to Midtown Manhattan in search of the building where his grandparents had lived upon arriving in New York. That building, of course, is gone, but Heller solves the “simple, uncrackable mystery:” our bodies will die and decay, but we reside in the memory of those we affected.
Writers, regardless of skill level or era, are part of a proud fraternity. Paul Zimmer’s poems put him in conversation with Thomas Hardy, his dearly departed brother in literature. Through the course of nine short poems, Zimmer examines Hardy’s “The Fallow Deer at the Lonely House” through a number of lenses. The subject is sometimes the setting of the original poem and sometimes Mr. and Mrs. Hardy themselves. Although we’ll never have an answer, it’s illuminating to consider the specific questions Zimmer asks about the text: “Thomas, why did you write, ‘fourfooted’? I know / ‘Tiptoe’ gave you something to rhyme with ‘aglow.’”
I suppose what I love most about this short suite is something personal. As someone who grew up in the suburbs of Syracuse, New York—the snow capital of the galaxy—I may not have much in common with a Victorian novelist whose works have stood the test of time. After being invited into the conversation by Zimmer (a Wisconsinite), I enjoy that all three of us can deeply appreciate the beauty of a landscape dusted with new-fallen snow and inhabited with graceful creatures.
It’s a bittersweet inevitability that literary journals are increasingly moving online. Like any progress, this development isn’t all bad; there are countless knockout digital lit mags. The Gettysburg Review continues to represent the best of a classic form. This handsome and generously sized volume demands your attention with every element of its production and could very well turn an uninitiated friend or family member into an instant fan of the traditional literary journal.
Volume 11 Number 2
Review by Denise Hill
I’ve eyed Grasslimb for a couple issues now, drawn by its simple, clean tabloid-style design. Each issue has had only two sheets, center folded, for eight, 11x14 pages of reading. I like this ‘local newspaper’ style, and the heavyweight paper adds to the reading pleasure. Easy enough to hide behind on a bus ride, solid enough to stand up through bumps and turns.
The front page features prose by Jennifer A. Powers, “Indian River,” and I have to admit, I’m of the camp that knowing genre would help. While it reads as memoir, a recounting of the narrator’s interactions with friends on a camping trip, namely Marley, the narrator’s partner, not identifying genre can cause analysis, understanding, reviewing, etc. to suffer. The writing itself consists of nicely woven moments of interaction between characters—the narrator attempting to understand those and other relationship moments—and the ending leaves the reader slightly chilled, wondering if all those connections had really only been disconnect.
Jody Azzouni’s “Plasma Television” is undoubtedly fiction—unless, of course, plasma TVs can really talk. I loved this piece for the realism of the relationships between city neighbors who know of each other, but don’t know one another, and how that distance becomes a tense weirdness when issues need to be addressed—such as, ‘whose garbage is it?’ The slight surreal shift adds tension to the story but also some comic relief (in case the way people behave in these situations isn’t comical enough). As this work proves, experimental, avant-garde or surreal fiction “is often more interesting” to Grasslimb than traditional stories.
And there is so much poetry in here with so much variety. Clearly, Editor Valerie E. Polichar’s range of what resonates is broad because some hit me hard, made me smile, made me stop and look out the window, didn’t connect except upon re-reading, didn’t connect at all. Not every style suits every sensibility (even upon trying and re-reading), but this is what makes a publication worth telling others about.
“Some Fur” by Anna Elise Anderson is one poem I’m still puzzled by but was drawn to repeatedly for its narrative imagery interspersed with a kind of slipstream memory recall: “You’re spilling my name in hot soup. You’re carrying me like a baby through the / pool. We sit on opposite sides of the house laughing in puddles of our own puke,” and later, “I am stacking pancakes on your ribcage while you sleep.”
Other works tend to the more concrete, such as Tim Hunt’s “’Yes, Ma’am’” which begins,
Working class—some of us are, you
know, each with a particular shame
we didn’t realize was shame, the marking
we don’t quite see but somehow know
There’s no mistaking the identification us working class folk feel in reading this. Hard hitting but a comfort at the same time, and nicely followed on the next page with “Shears,” short prose by Lisa J. Cihlar: “She has never cut auburn. She wishes for a grandchild with auburn hair. She tells her friends at the cheese factory to look out for a red-haired man.” And on the theme of work, Janet McCann’s “Firsts” needs to be read and shared with every writing teacher from coast to coast: “What I wanted was verbs, not facts. / Movement jolting, crackling across the page, / Awareness exploding into understanding.”
Grasslimb introduced me to Dorothy Gambrell’s comic Cat and Girl with “Predators + Prey,” a conversation between a glasses-wearing cat and a young girl. Gambrell’s work is poetry in cartoon, lines become dialogue bubbles in a panel, panels with no words a stanza break. Her website features many more such creations as well as the ability to ‘create your own’ cartoon from her artwork.
A few more poems that resonated with me: Noel Sloboda’s “How We Were Caught,” yes, because I’ve stolen silverware from restaurants, but because he created deeper meaning of that; “Flood” by Jason Primm, because we’ve seen so many floods lately that his depiction helps us understand it all more humanly (“Lights of the sheriff driving by, he’s told you / No one can stay. Not that he would drag you off. / You’d like to sit on the roof with your shotgun, / Shoot the news copters out of the sky”); the slice of moment “Watching Peter at the Galileo Museum” by Janet McCann because of her clarity of detail and that she leaves it up to the reader to make it stick:
The security guard
is playing solitaire with
real cards, thick old ones,
while the dot that
represents my son moves
around the museum
as though he were a slow
pinball . . .
Grasslimb also includes artwork; the two drawings by NotKeith replicate well in this format, and I have to think were solicited in some way since they fit so well with the writing they accompany. There are also two photos by Eleanor Leonne Bennett, again well-matched to the writing and adding depth and visual interest to the publication.
It’s worth mentioning that Grasslimb re-publishes works. Finding publications that reprint is rare but appreciated by both writers who want more readership and readers who get the chance to experience work worthy of selection by multiple editors.
For its simplicity of format which only enhances the depth and complexity of content, Grasslimb is a top-shelf publication.
Volume 26 Number 1
Review by Mitchell Jarosz
This edition of Green Mountains Review draws us to its content as soon as we see the cover. The artwork is a compelling collage done by the featured and multi-talented artist, Lou Beach. As with Beach’s work, this issue is a collage of multiple works by or about the same authors, but what you notice is the collective quality of them all, that as a whole provides more than just surface entertainment.
The fiction includes intriguing pieces; the styles and intents are not as clear as some readers might like, but they are intriguing nonetheless. One such piece is Luke B. Goebel’s “Apache.” This is a coming-of-age story delivered in a style that you will like, or not; its familiarity will depend on the time period when you started your literary education:
Made him want to earn his name, have-to-earn-his-goddamn-name in the racing flats, to see the leathery man with the hand saddled beside him, or not saddled but barebacking on the buck spine of his little Indian pony he rode on.
He’d been called. Be this the real desert West or a fake, be him Apache or not full, be him Corporal or not a true Corporal, Kid had been called for a reason.
Another piece that can catch your philosophical imagination is Brian Evenson’s “A Report.” This short piece of fiction can readily remind you of moments that you’ve had, wondering, “Why not me? . . . Did they make a mistake? Did they simply forget it was my turn? . . . Or, worse, is it always the same man whom they torture?”
The variety and the interest continue with Lee Ann Roripaugh’s “Breakup Blog,” Lou Beach’s “Baseball,” and Don Schwartz’s “The Ravine.” Each piece provides a different perspective on life’s events and endings that prompt both thought and memories.
There is a beautiful opportunity to see multiple facets of an artist’s life here. Eight pieces of artwork by Lou Beach demonstrate his skill as an award winning illustrator of record covers and magazines. A fascinating compliment to his fiction writing that encourages the reader to go back and see all of the works in a different light, knowing that there is more to each artist than just the one piece that’s just been read.
Similarly, there are fourteen poems by Tony Hoagland, the featured writer for this issue; poems of haunting imagery and familial reflection, including “Erroneous”:
And don’t speak, please, of the nobility of nature,
since nature has a long and terrible
record of mistakes.
We did not invent love, or joy, or dying,
but it is to our considerable credit that we
came up with lying.
But Hoagland’s poems provide a variety of insights, such as the questions in “Controlled Substances”:
Why don’t they break down my door right now
and arrest me
for using sadness as a wisdom-substitute?
the sadness that is an eventual, inevitable result
of trying to explain anything?
The poems are only the beginning. We gain our insights into Hoagland’s canon by seeing other aspects of his work and the commentaries on his talent. These insights come through three essays: Mark Halliday’s “Tony Hoagland on the Difficulty of Living,” Kenneth Hart’s “The Quieter Side of Tony Hoagland,” and Hoagland’s “How I Escaped from the Autobiographical Narrative of Crisis and Resolution and Discovered Oscar Wilde and the Tradition of Theatrical Repartee: A Tortured Tale of Psychiatry and Make-up Tips.” In his piece, Halliday writes,
The originality and value of Hoagland’s work are inseparable from his stubborn brazen directness in letting the reader know what he’s brooding about. Indeed I suspect that Hoagland’s poetry is more naked, more transparent than that of any other very good poet.
But, of course, Hoagland best summarizes his own position:
My long, slow apprenticeship as a poet was, I see now, “a misunderstanding between myself and a young person.” Thank goodness I am done with that! I’m happy now to be married to poetry for the time being, drinking even inferior champagne. And I try to remember that accuracy is not the point.
Beyond the special focus on Hoagland in this issue, there are 17 additional poets providing us with ‘fun stuff’ such as Bob Hicok’s delightful “Bumper crop”:
This child had such an easygoingmanner
on the swings, I asked him to be CEO
of the next ten minutes, he fired
the crows, promoted the mittens
There are also many, more serious works to be enjoyed. All of them commendable.
Volume 35 Number 1
Review by Anne Wolfe
Indiana Review is not a nicey-nicey publication. A fair amount of the content, while high quality, exhibits an “edgy” quality, as in it won’t-put-one-to-sleep, or make one sigh. It won’t give warm-fuzzies, or make one feel like cuddling up in a big chair with hot chocolate. What it will do is remind one of the hazards of existence and the unsettling realities of life in a vivid and entertaining manner.
It contains nonfiction such as D. Gilson’s “On Faggot: An Etymology,” in which the author tries to squarely look that uncomfortable word “faggot” in the face, find some peace of mind, and make some sense with it—and it isn’t easy. And Eric Tran’s nonfiction work “Release the Panda Bear” discusses the author’s strange and complicated venture (“What do you wear to an orgy?” he begins), and it is revealing but not comfortable.
In another work of nonfiction, “An Open Letter to World War I Soldier Alexander Bradley Burns of Downer Grove, Illinois on the Occasion of My Father’s Retirement After Six Years in the United States Air Force Reserves, Plus Twenty More in the U.S. Army Reserves” by Kathleen Rooney, the author is caught up with the mystery and romance of a young life she never knew, cut short, juxtaposed against the record of her father, who survived conflict. This piece, while sentimental, indulgent, and getting a bit lost in detail, still held my attention quite well. The author makes both lives seem relevant—the young soldier who sacrificed his life and the old soldier who sacrificed his family life. She points out the heroism in both their manners of service. The author compares the ironies in their lives and pays homage to both soldiers.
The fiction also has teeth. “Housewives, Mothers” by Misha Rai is a tale of young girls just as determined to conquer the world as young men are, but they can only succeed when they learn the cruelest lesson of all: they must defer to the awful young men they feel superior to. Only when they “lose” to the young boys do they pass the test—a tortured lesson of sexism, perhaps, or cruel reality, or is it simply life? I could not work out the lesson posed in the story because the ending was ambiguous. It might be a good trick women learn, or it might be the cruel fate of women—one should read it and think on it.
“The Bird Catcher” by Phedra Deonarine notes the pitfalls in trying to help an illiterate homeless man find gainful employment when he runs into problems he can’t solve by himself. Laura Ender’s “Repossession” takes one on a bumpy ride with a bumpy ending. The poetry is varied, and somewhat prickly in the sense in will stimulate rather than soothe. Stevie Edwards’s - interesting poem “Nobody Is Lost” begins, “Nobody is alone. Nobody is stalking / the playground like it will disappear again // into the dust of teenagers and flame.” The journey is perhaps existential, perhaps more real to some, and I felt as though it meandered down some pleasant paths. I didn’t push to figure out what it meant; I just let it run over me.
Don’t read this literary magazine as a cure for insomnia. Read this to cure brain fog, or boredom, or for not feeling alive. It will prick one into a sense of awareness that there is a world out there that does not conform to our ideals, and does not live by the rules, and will not go away.
Volume 29 Number 3
Review by Anne Wolfe
The MacGuffin, published by Schoolcraft College, is a treasure-trove of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, especially short fiction. The style is fairly traditional, which makes it easy to read and digest, but never dull. There is so much good prose that it is worth reading for that alone. It does not separate fiction from nonfiction, and I find it difficult to identify for certain mostly which is which—once on the page, what is the difference between fiction and nonfiction? Is there such a thing as nonfiction when it is words on a page? Which is stranger, or harder to believe, or comes across as more meaningful, or contrived?
These particular compositions are rendered with irony, tenderness, guilt, self-reproach, dignity—the spices one looks for in the genre. The pieces are hand-picked from high-quality authors from around the country and are fairly traditional modern, crackling with life. The poetry, which is neither fiction nor nonfiction, because it speaks directly to the heart, has some gems, including the poem “Kilkenny” by Deirdre Callanan—a very musical poem, with romance and a story: “Let the field resurrect a courtship framed by walking, where he sang / On the banks of the Suir that flows by Mooncoin.” It is rare that a poem pays attention to the sounds of words as closely as this one does, and so successfully. Another poem, “Lighter Than Air,” by Jim Daniels begins:
A child sighs in sleep
and I lose a thought.
Daniels ties his child’s dreams to his and manages to bring the reader along with him, dexterously.
In the prose realm, Trudy Carpenter’s “The Big Event” stands out. It flatly begins, “Everyone we know will be there.” Some ordinary friends, both divorced, discussing what to wear, turn out to be part of a very not-so-ordinary event—and the surprise ending has never come off so well.
“The Beast Tamer,” by Nathalie van Walsum is a frightfully fanciful yarn about two women who meet. One is a young wife, not so happy; the other is a confident single who purports to give some advice to the poor wife. It isn’t your average feminist story, but it has some funny and delicious aspects that might infuriate some and very much delight others, as it goes “over the top.” This yarn has a twist and is one of many imaginative, astonishing pieces in this magazine.
“Chimps and Their Keeper” by Shara Sinor tells the story of a young semi-privileged volunteer working at the Uganda Wildlife Education Center, who learned humanity working with a poor keeper of chimpanzees who had less food to eat than the primates he fed, but he didn’t complain.
In a unique story, or recollection, titled “A Favor Repaid,” by Richard Alwan, a man benefited from what he felt was an unfair act of the armed services that allowed him to continue serving when other deserving servicemen were being cut. Many years later, this man risks his own career when he has a chance to save another man’s. True or not, signed by a real person, The MacGuffin does not reveal.
I felt happier and richer for having read this collection of works, a sense of satisfaction that I haven’t felt in a while, and sense that there are other spirits out there searching for truths, meaning, humanity and wonderment.
Volume 18 Number 3
Review by Anne Graue
The Main Street Rag is published quarterly out of Charlotte, North Carolina. This issue opens with an interview with photographer Bryce Lankard, whose photos grace the cover and are included within the pages of text. The interview is a contemplative discussion of art and its purposes from Lankard’s point of view. His photos after Hurricane Katrina serve two purposes, “one to address the public debate and a second to address the loss.” He goes on to say that he “wanted to show New Orleans as flawed yet beautiful” and “remind people of the city’s cultural uniqueness and how rich it had been in providing the fabric of America—so the rest of the country would not abandon New Orleans.” His NOLA photographs accomplish these objectives. His 9/11 photographs reveal where the photographer was when the planes hit the towers and show life moving at an accustomed pace even in those moments. Lynda C. Ward’s interview illustrates Lankard’s passion and approach to the world.
Poetry is in abundance in this issue, complete with narratives and imagery, characterizations and observations. Every poem in this issue is a work to be reckoned with, swallowed whole, and then dismantled to afford a closer look into its effectiveness. Many of the poems achieve greatness, and all aspire to it.
Alan Haider’s “Salesman” delivers an extended metaphor both chilling and profitable in the sense that readers profit from reading poetry that constructs as it tears down. From the speaker’s statement “I’m underwater without a tank,” the mood is set and the die is cast; no surprise that the poem ends with a corpse that won’t sink. A chilling view of capitalist culture.
A number of poems contain nature images that confound and inform, distress and delight. In “My Mother and the Wolves,” John Guzlowski reveals an image of an “adam’s apple / as if it were some mouse hidden / under a blanket of stubbled skin.” Kenneth Frost’s “One More Candle” begins:
My beagle dove
for a woodchuck
he cornered and
got a dirt hole
shoved in his face.
And David Radavich invites readers to contemplate “Climate Change” in which
Spring will burn
and the moon will turn
before any fall
before any harvest.
A prediction that “If this is always, / we’re in trouble.” Frederick Pollack delivers a poetic narrative of a family sheltering from and surviving a storm in “Heartland,” in which “the sky blackens, and wind / shoves and pulls and howls in / all directions . . .” The imagery in every poem is stark and exact, beautiful and terrifying.
Poetry of relationship both to people and place also finds space in this issue. Lynn Pattison’s “Little Candy Shop of Heartache” promises “Every sweet // ache you ever tasted,” and delivers on that promise. In Timothy Geiger’s “I Had to be Taken” readers are presented with a story taking place in a seemingly small event in a teen son’s life as he’s driven to a basketball game that grows large from stanza to stanza. Geiger’s poem celebrates the nuance in each moment and conveys mood with each change of scene in which the speaker understands his father and his devotion. The layers of metaphor in the following lines should not be lost on any reader:
So he shifts to go back out, and when I also open my door
he stops me, grabbing my parka sleeve. He wants
to tell me to sit in the car, but instead says,
“Get to your thing,” and motions with a wet glove
toward the lights beyond the cemetery.
Reading these lines over and over is a satisfying experience in making contact with emotion through poetry. Symbolism is restrained yet powerful.
The poems highlighted here are just the tip of the poetry iceberg in this collection. Reading this issue of The Main Street Rag will be a journey of discovery through the high-quality poems that have been selected and showcased.
The four works of short fiction are an eclectic array of prose sprinkled throughout the poetic works. The standout is the longest story in the collection, “Stretch Marks” by Simone Martel, which weaves the narrator Ann’s past and present, examining who she is now compared to who she was as a girl of twelve. The common thread is the “famous artist-carpenter,” Phil, who belongs to both eras of Ann’s life, when she babysat for his child and in the present when she has hired him to build a fence. The remaining three stories have qualities that distinguish them one from the others if only by their settings: one set in the Greek islands, one in Tennessee, and one in the Caribbean. All tell stories worth the time.
This summer issue of The Main Street Rag holds poetic gems and inventive prose. The readers have the task of mining its resources to reach treasure.
Review by Mary Florio
It could be said that The Masters Review presents the same value proposition as do The Best New American Voices, The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” fiction showcase, and Poets & Writers listings of leading new poets. That value proposition is the culling of new talent from diverse sources, a way of framing a structure of gifted writers today under the strong light microscope of editorial review.
Each story in the collection is cogent—even more so than certain efforts collected in the 2010 New Yorker assembly. But, like the latter, The Masters Review provides a strong place for talent among highly competitive, somewhat collegiate ecosystems, where the echoes of self-expression are deafening. Anthologies, awards, faux-bios of literary icons, echoes of the canon cut the chase. That aspect acknowledged, this collection reflects a purity of narration, a discipline and order to the prose that is effective beyond the storefront promise of the best new bards. These writers remain fantastic messengers, fleet-footed, brave and sure, which is a tough feat when they might be seen to blast the voice of a generation. Taken story by story, they do seem masters of an extraordinary relay—almost like craftsmen carrying a candle through a hurricane.
An especially powerful essay was Courtney Gillette’s “How to Like Girls.” In this endeavor, Gillette joins the second-person renaissance that has blossomed in recent popular fiction (and mainstream media). Complete with the how-to conceit, the essay transcends any renaissance in a frank, funny, perfectly-paced study. I couldn’t put it down and read the ending again and again, not because it is my own mantra in better words, but because it transcends expectations—social, cultural, literary, in its own brave exuberance of love:
Like girls. Even when you don’t get what you want. Even when your mother accuses you of just never having met the right guy. Even when you get called names. Even when the girls you like cheat on you or . . . break your heart . . . or never call you back. Wake up the next day and do it again. Believe that love exists. Live in a city where girls like girls. Smile. Go up to her and say hello.
Throughout her prose, you feel the energy—the magic of ebullience, the thoughtful, surprising adjectives and dramatic crescendo of her paragraphs.
Gillette’s talent keeps fine company with the other writers in this year’s issue of The Masters Review. Jennifer Dupree suggests a surreal pregnancy in the context of the modern American newsroom, bookending a new kind of life against the essay that ends the collection, Traci Cox’s work about the end of a life, the closure of motherhood, the ravages of sorrow when one loses a parent.
The stories cannot be examined as variations of a theme, which makes it versatile literature. Should you tire of realism, you might read Dustin M. Hoffman’s strange trip through a looking glass. Should you tremble on the expectations of adulthood, try Jane Summer’s “Peaceful Village,” a timeless parable against terrifying uncertainty. Laurie Ann Cedilnik’s “Sunshiny Days and Mostly Clear Nights” nodded neatly to a modern Scott Fitzgerald with a kind of even prose that propels the story’s passion. Zoe Vandeveer’s “Coffee for Dead Children,” which, like Cedilnik’s story, is narrated by a young woman, is chilling, partly because the story’s structure and subject matter and partly because the writer has hit a new archetype squarely on its head. These are not “chick lit,” or the formula of it per se, but you feel them graze the sensibility of a young woman coming of age, or drowning in it, as the case may be, and they have amazing, arresting pull.
On the website for this year’s collection, the editors specify innovation and “authenticity” as criteria for inclusion. The diversity of voices and styles seems to support these aims. And while generalizations are not empirical, because the editors list the names of each writer’s graduate school, you might construe a particular aesthetics from a graduate of the respective institution.
The ten stories in The Masters Review foretell an inspiring future of American letters if these writers maintain their course. They signal more than talent; they suggest a willingness to experiment significantly, to examine a theme thoughtfully and, like the metaphor referenced above, to convey the flame and anchor the story down in the event of wind.
Review by Denise Hill
Neon hails from the UK where Editor Krishan Coupland accepts works from around the globe. Neon favors literary and slipstream short-form writing: “We err towards the dark, and like to experiment with language and form” with “a particular taste for the apocalyptic.” Dark and apocalyptic has never been my style, so it makes me wonder how I found such comfort in much of what I read here.
Jenny Gray’s poetry opens the volume, portraying the darkness of human behavior in her characters. In “37 Milvington Road” there is ‘maybe’ an affair going on, as the players converse:
lean on the door, “Will you
“Nothing happened,” I say.
And in “Hampshire Saddleback,” a farming couple’s argument comes to an unfortunate end for an innocent victim:
He paused a moment, he put his wife’s
face on the sow and the sow’s
face on his wife.
When he was done beating
he scooped the sausage meat into a refuse bag
and went to bed.
Dark, but not just for the sake of being dark. In the context of the whole poem, dark because it is the way humans are. Dark as a perception of the world around us.
Other poems tending more toward the slipstream include Noel Sloboda’s “The Cannibal Affair” (we dragged // bony bodies to a secret banquet / in my Toyota’s tight backseat”), “My Stepfather as a Porcupine” (“spikes that lanced my kidneys, / scratched my lungs, / and pricked my brainstem”), and “My Mother as a Raccoon” (“Dropped us in trashcans / filled to bursting with blessings”).
Sarah Greenfield Clark’s six poems show a proclivity toward darkness like that in fairy tales. With “But What Can We Do About It?” there is a kind of texted-dialogue that reads like the big bad wolf is loose:
It’ll run its course
What if it doesn’t
He’ll grow bored of her
Bored? He’s never had so much sex.
“This Gun Takes Vowels and Consonants” has the Prince Charming: “Reload, ‘He’s nice enough’ (for someone else)” and the fatal demise of the princess, “The victim / smiles with false precision; / an artist’s impression.” Two others continue that underlying thread, “(Smug Sister) I Don’t Mean to Brag But . . .” and “Hunting in the Snow” with its ominous one-liner: “Your hunting season’s over.”
For more narrative-style poetry, Derek Adams offers three works, “What You Need to Know About Your Caesarean Section,” which is the kind of writing that creeps me out, “Paranomal Investigation” (enough said), and “The Eels,” which is dark of the kind that Nature makes and that creeps us all out. And not to leave out Deborah Sellers and Annette Volfing, whose shorter poems deliver high impact imagery and nerve chilling emotion, most especially Sellers’s “I Need a Sharper Knife for This” and Volfing’s “The Row”—appropriately placed at the close of the issue.
There are only two fiction pieces, but they provide significant substance with strength of style. Interestingly, both end with characters in the future looking back over the events of the stories. It’s an intelligent technique that can easily go cheesy, but both authors handle it skillfully. “Nothing, Shadows” by Jack Brodie begins, “I was lying alone in a double bed, doing terrible things to a pair of knickers.” How can you not want to keep reading? A dialogue-centered piece, Tom and Dylan discuss whether or not Dylan’s girlfriend is cheating on him. Its comfort is in the typical, late-night, drunken exchange between friends, and in the assurances the third wheel is always obligated to provide to get the couple to resolve it so everyone can get some sleep. The conclusion resonates deeply: a childhood friend recalling the reality of a simple time in youth which becomes the slipstream through memory.
If I was saving best for last, it would be Nicole Cloutier’s “Coyote Runs,” which begins with a version of the universal fire-theft myth: Coyote stealing fire. Parts of this are woven throughout, a few italicized lines placed to parallel with the main story. The end of the intro and the start of the main story show how deftly Cloutier has entwined these:
Between Coyote’s gritted teeth is a stick that burns from one end. The red flames devour the scorched bark and singe the hairs on the coyote’s cheek. The sun rises orange. Each breath burns.
A girl, fifteen, throws her leg through the open window and straddles the sill, balancing one foot on the loose toilet back, the other on the coiled hose that hangs carelessly against the house’s panel siding.
The story is three teens on a secret night outing, a sequence of events detailed with the kind of surrealism that late-night escapades can make person believe they see and feel (perhaps influenced by marijuana). What’s actually refreshing about this piece is the gentle, innocent actions of the characters—compared to what I see so much of in other writing where a girl sneaking out at night and smoking weed will inevitably end up in rape, maiming, or murder. Maybe that’s the Americanized version. In “Coyote Runs,” an abandoned house is the destination for nothing more than to hang out. One of the teens actually cleans the floor. The mishap that occurs on their way home is handled ingeniously, even humorously, and most of all, believably, in the way we probably all got away with something when we were teens that we’re shocked to look back on and believe we actually got away with. The Coyote in all of us, stealing fire.
Neon includes black and white artwork and is available for free online or by subscription in print. Editor Krishan Coupland is a grad student who could certainly use the support of subscriptions, but more than that, his ability to select solid works with nearly a decade of publishing shows a sensibility worthy of recognition through readership.
Review by Anne Graue
Because theNewerYork is a different breed of literary magazine entirely (“We are changing the publishing world,” the website states), it’s only fitting to go with an unconventional review, in this case, “An Imagined Instructional Editorial List (in Review)”:
1. Capture readers’ attention with the immediacy of writing and art with selected works that heighten awareness and make the unnoticed more noticeable.
2. Explore ideas and quirky turns of phrase in experimental flash fiction in narrative and other forms no longer than two pages. For example, present Gideon Nachman’s “Unheralded Monsters” as a chart of drawings and text from an 8-year-old’s birthday party (The piece includes “The Giant Rock” that describes the image as “an absolutely humongous rock. That can also fly.” Point of view is spot on). Also include “Soothe as Excalibur” by Uzodinma Okehi for its conviction that “something is always missing” and Shane Jesse Christmass’s “My Delicate Response to a Child’s Writing Prompt Website” that expresses the what ifs of the prompts in innovative language such as “I’d purchase a yacht and shade my walk up and down the bridge deck, grabbing a box of matches and striking a light.”
3. Rouse readers with images of a city “under the weight of ten thousand Chevy Impalas” and “tangents o dripping laughter and skyblue and burgundy and things whispered under flannel” from Jane Huffman’s “Vegetables.”
4. Mesmerize with magic tricks, glossaries, and provocative art between the pages of flash. Alarm with Charles Holdefer’s “The Amazing Sticking Quarter,” a piece impossible to look away from (diagram of a twopenny screw included). Define Facebook as a “pixelated party place; purposelessly posting personal pictures presenting poorly parented pre-teens.” (Smile at the alliteration).
5. Invert selections to have readers flip the magazine over or sideways to engage with works that test reader resolve. Invite readers to gaze at art depicting a head on fire in a field in “La nube roja” by David de las Heras; Eric Boyd’s “Our Bodies,” a Venn diagram that compares the bodies of a human and a butterfly; and Nils Davey’s “Numbers,” a silhouette of a person constructed out of numbers.
6. Exhibit a “Flipbook” of letters by Christine Gosny, an array of photocopied poetic desk notes expressing love in five possible scenarios. Expose her talent for seeing the unseen in relationships, in describing a man’s lips as “puckered like / The anus of a balloon,” and in revealing truths such as “This morning I was cleaning up the glass, I cut myself / On the side of my foot and the blood made me cum again / Because it reminded me of the inside of your mouth . . .” and in breaking your heart with “A tree grows in place / Of my ache for you.”
7. Experiment with text size, color and style, with backgrounds and superimposed images over text. Showcase “Proverbs 10:22” by Stephen Lipman that displays a woman’s semi-naked image hanging upside down from her feet as if she were Christ inverted. Use color, bold, black & white in a diverse array of works.
8. Select imaginative works of creativity that defy genre and risk re-definition. Include among these Jeremy Bachman’s “Rejected Submissions to ‘The Complete Baby Name Wizard’” and “Show & Tell: An American Game” by Anton Nimblett. Present these as “Submissions” and “A History” respectively.
9. Hope that readers will notice the madness in the method and read “The Shy Prologue” that appears at the end of the issue which embraces ideas in words written by Percy Shelley, the editor’s “favorite atheist,” drawing attention to Shelley’s idea that we are “shielded, most of the time, from the miracle of life,” and that ends with editor Joshua S. Raab’s command to readers to “Be alarmed.”
10. Publish an issue of theNewerYork that offers readers an experience with literature that they will find engaging, evocative, and remarkable.
Review by Sherra Wong
Plain, and rooted in the plains: that’s what remained with me after I finished reading Paddlefish, the annual literary journal from Mount Marty College in Yankton, South Dakota. A photograph of a boundless golden field and blue skies spreads over the front and back covers; the book reviews visit the Nebraska landscape and snippets in South Dakotan history; the stories and poems touch on post-military and Native American life. Paddlefish is plain, too, in its subjects, sentiments, and language. The reader is often told exactly what the writer is thinking, a mode that may appeal to some but which, to others, may leave too little to the imagination.
The authorial voice casts a long shadow in many of the poems. The speaker in Scott Bormann’s “Love Not War” declares his veteran status early on and becomes indignant when he sees an antiwar bumper sticker on a Prius. The anger and the disdain burst through the page: “Maintain your merry march to madness, / imagining your importance and intellect, / never stopping to see the world around you.” I was shocked at the assumptions heaped onto the driver based on nothing more than the choice of a hybrid car and a sticker that reads “Support the Troops . . . Not the War.” The poem offers no other evidence for the driver’s purported self-importance or ignorance of the world around him or her. Sentiment propels the poem, and the facts or images that would have supported the sentiment are nowhere to be found in it.
By contrast, Charles Bownden’s “Jericho” focuses our attention on his landscape and allows the heaviness of race, poverty, and violence to thunder underground like the invisible heart. It’s hard to box it in structurally: the speaker jumps from the Old Testament to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, from Pancho Villa to the drones that fly over the U.S.-Mexican border today, never in any discernible order and towards no apparent conclusion. Is it a sermon? Is it a song? As a reader I go willingly with him, because the place and time markers are just clear enough for me to not lose my way, and because the language is gorgeous enough for me to not care where I’m headed: “I fly with ten billion migratory birds hailing from a 1000 [sic] species and half of us will die each journey and none of us will build that wall. We have no papers, ever.” Exulting, melancholic, and defiant all at once, and at the same time hinting at the real-world issue of immigration without pounding it to the ground like a pedantic pundit. Black-and-white illustrations by Alice Leora Briggs intersperse throughout: birds, a man who looks like he’s known the roughness of life, beggars, and what appears to be a cherub-adorned mirror.
In the same vein, David Lee never lets you be sure of where his poems are taking you, but you go along anyway because the rewards are not in the destination, but in the ride. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Bill Evans and yes, Hamlet are the soundtrack for his “Driving Solo: Clovis Rants a Monologue in Five Acts with Intermission,”; and quite appropriately, Lee’s language is slanted at an angle like jazz, catching you off guard at the first listen but in fact striking in its brilliance. Riverbank brush is “bent frostquivering willowwhite,” and “tightfisted” is a style of driving. The desolation is in the rhythm:
I’m on my way
out of Ely with love and squalor
walking along minding my own business with my hot
cuppacoffee on the one way path to my pickup, me
I’m getting myself ready to start the last half of this trip
over with once and for sonofabitching all
I can’t say there are stories in this issue of Paddlefish: they’re more like scenes. Johanna Schiech describes a slow afternoon in a bookstore in “Picture Books & Porn Mags,” which includes the narrator’s judgments about the buyer of several pornographic magazines and an exchange with a customer that even the narrator recognizes as nonsensical (“Seriously, what do you say to something [the customer’s remark] like that?”). Neil Harrison’s “And Be Somebody” buries potential when it lets go of the conflict about to explode between Patty, college junior and a supervising lab assistant, and Ray, a brassy older student who does not appreciate her seriousness and trails off into an existential moment.
For the most part, Paddlefish is a collage of promising, but uneven, efforts. There’s nothing fancy here, and when handled well the quality of plainness is almost always a virtue. These pieces aspire to it.
Volume 39 Numbers 2 & 3
Review by Julie J. Nichols
Travis Holland’s “Planet of Fear” is one of a number of brilliant stories in this all-fiction issue of Ploughshares, edited by Peter Ho Davies. Holland writes beautifully. Three strands make a rich, bright braid: the narrator’s work with an exceptional youth in a boys’ correction facility, his frustration with his dementia-disabled father, and his love for his smart but innocent five-year-old daughter. Scenes slide seamlessly from one of these strands to another, the tension level rising slowly, steadily, as the client is bullied, the father drifts further and further from his original professorial authority, and the daughter grows into her own. Each episode is wonderfully drawn. Of a “nature walk” through an unfinished housing development with the daughter, Holland writes:
Black utility pipes bristled like decapitated daisy stems from the concrete foundations, across which the sand encroached in wavy layers, like cake icing, from old storm flooding, or just years of wind, doing its quiet work. Alligators occasionally nested in the sawgrass beside the footpath . . . Walking along with Sofia, I kept an eye trained on those placid-seeming thickets, ready to snatch her away. I’d warned her about snakes and black widows too, and so when she wanted to look under a particular rock, it was my job to flip the rock over.
The images, each a mix of danger and benignity, underscore the unsettled sense of responsibility weighing on the narrator in each of these three strands of his life. Nothing is in imminent danger, and yet nothing is quite safe. When the boy in the correctional facility finally cracks under the bullying, the façade of order crumbles. Readers feel the inevitable truth that nobody can fend off danger forever—only it’s more complicated than that. Something has to give, and everyone who cares has to pay. The story works on every possible level. Every single sentence achieves its potential.
The same must be said for Jerry McGahan’s “Arlene in Five.” The “five” are numbered scenes, following no particular logic but the logic of excellent fiction. Arlene’s cow dies; she has non-routine sex with her husband; he dies of pancreatic cancer, but before he does, her father-in-law weeps about his son’s impending death; her son comes to her with the news that his wife has left; a hunter kills an elk illegally on her land. There’s a summary, but this story is enormously more than the sum of its parts. We know Arlene through her terse dialogue and stoic actions. We know the complexity of her character through her interactions with men of various kinds—hunter, city-dweller, farmer; ignorant, grieving, needy. I would like an obituary like this story, whose final image is of Arlene’s own need, pushed away but known, refused but not forgotten.
Finally, Nancy Welch’s “Pretty,” another stellar piece in this issue full of luminosity. As in “Planet of Fear,” a man whose mind is failing plays a prominent part. He is the husband of Trudy, a high school teacher who’s been teaching one year too long. Pretty is the name of one of her students—not one of the Exceptionals; one of the entitled and unruly. As Trudy and Karl are driving on Trudy’s 40-minute lunch break to yet another doctor’s appointment about Karl’s deterioration, they are almost T-boned by a white station wagon with Pretty in the back seat. Shaken and angry, Trudy pushes on to the doctor’s, grateful nothing actually happened. But as it turns out, Pretty has been kidnapped.
Trudy tries to imagine Pretty using her words. That’s what she sometimes says, exasperated, to Karl—Come on! Use your words!—as if he were a toddler. Maybe Pretty has coaxed the boy, the other man, into smoking a joint, drinking a few beers, and then, once they passed out, car parked on the side of some dirt road, she slipped away. Maybe she is trying to make her way home . . .
The authorities are appalled to discover that Trudy has not reported either Pretty’s truancy or her presence in the white station wagon. Karl’s inability to communicate is a complicating factor, as are Trudy’s assumptions about both her student and her husband. Both are upended before the story can come to its conclusion; readers’ presumptions are too.
In his introduction, Peter Ho Davies ponders the impossibility of introducing someone else to what one loves in literature. But these three stories, and the eight others Davies has chosen, suggest that what a fine writer loves, many readers can readily appreciate. An illuminating “Look2” essay by Robert Anthony Siegel on Kawabata Yasunari, and a fine “Plan B” essay juxtaposing wreck-diving and writing, by Elise Levine, round out this exceptional issue. Ploughshares’s national reputation as a worthy showcase for the intelligence and taste of its guest editors is in no danger whatsoever of faltering.
Volume 87 Number 3
Review by Kenneth Nichols
The cover of this issue of Prairie Schooner greets the reader with an impressionist autumn scene painted by Faridun Zoda. The inviting image is appropriate; the editors have chosen work that compels the reader to take a step back and enjoy a moment of quiet contemplation.
Christopher Citro’s poem “Creation Myth” includes a number of powerful images. The narrator begins by describing a rural scene: “Overgrown weeds had hidden the car until / the brushfire revealed it. Once the doors cooled, / neighborhood kids came to investigate . . .” The car is occupied by a man and woman in formalwear. Those children receive a potent lesson in a few different kinds of “creation.” Citro’s poem distinguishes itself with the strength of the imagery and the interesting way in which Citro allows the reader to slide into the perspective of Timmy, one of the children whose understanding of the world is being changed by what he sees.
Zdravka Evtimova offers us an odd kind of biography in her short story, “Laura.” The title character buys and sells brandy, dealing with a wide range of people along the way. Laura knows that both men and brandy can vary wildly in quality. Yani? Laura gives him “the best of her amber treasure,” the finest liquor in her inventory. Laura, in her world but not of it, begins and ends this story in the same manner. She gives people what they need and makes a healthy profit. Evtimova, a Bulgarian writer, fills her story with enjoyable sentences reflected through an Eastern European prism. Laura, we are reminded, is the “other,” but is very much a woman at heart.
Essayist Barry Lopez informs his reader about the “Six Thousand Lessons” he learned during his many world travels. At the age of three, he left Mamaroneck, New York and has been nearly everywhere from Bankok to Nairobi and Perth and “into the country beyond” the cities. Lopez’s anecdotes add up to the overall truth the author had in mind: ”diversity is not, as I had once thought, a characteristic of life. It is, instead, a condition necessary for life. To eliminate diversity would be like eliminating carbon and expecting life to go on.” Mr. Lopez’s essay may be too abstract to be of use to human resources personnel, but it cuts to deeper and more meaningful truths.
I’m a sucker for poetry about historical figures and situations. Margaret Randall definitely got my attention with her poem, “About Little Charlie Lindbergh.” That case is an interesting one; the American media had developed it to the point that the Lindbergh’s pain could be shared by the entire country. Randall ties that public pain to a private one:
A year before I was born, Mother
gave birth to her first daughter,
and dead within hours.
I too am Margaret.
Randall puts her finger on the lesson many of us never learned from the Lindbergh kidnapping, the O.J. Simpson trial, or from Mommie Dearest: celebrity families are like every other, warts and all.
As always, this issue of Prairie Schooner—a publication created in Lincoln, Nebraska—offers a glimpse into the lives of people from across the globe. The journal glorifies what may be the most important truth of humanity: literature eliminates all of the barriers between us.
Review by Mary Florio
Brian Nellist’s essay “People Don’t Read Scott Any More,” originally published in the Spring 1997 issue of The Reader, may have summed up a movement with an essential added value of literature: “the answer is experto crede, not ‘Trust the professional’, heaven forbid, but ‘have faith in the man who’s tried it.’” The idea represents a logical extension of trust in precedent—that we can look to literature as a forerunner to lives we haven’t lived and perhaps never will. We are all witnesses, but in a limited sense. Reading is the addenda to our lives. He adds at the end of the excerpt something else of vital importance to the enterprise of reading:
The German psychologist Theodor Lipps thought that our pleasure in any object primarily offered to our senses lay in our identification with it, in its reconstitution in our own experience so that instead of two identities there is a single passionate blending . . . in English called ‘empathy.’
Nellist isn’t selling literature in any raw or blanket method; he is contemplating the enterprise of reading through the lens of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.
The Reader, published in the U.K., which published out the article in its entirety in 1997 but revisited it for the special issue, is celebrating a 50th anniversary. It carefully includes historic pieces along with new efforts in a celebration of this kind of continuum. In reading it, we watch new ideas sparkle under the crystalline canon—contributors invoke Tolstoy, Wordsworth, Lessing, Milton, Augustine, Gaskill, Coleridge, Carver, and on and on to the sea that separates us. The ideas cross the ocean with a stunning virtuosity; it is a prized volume to be read again and again.
As an American outsider, I was, at times, lost without the benefit of certain contextual cues. For example, David Constantine’s memoir “Where I’m From” produces such magnificent ideas as a recollection of the trees of his childhood as: “[The trees] are to me, because of their blackness and when I think of their roots, like entrances to the underworld.” But the first sentence of the memoir slowed me down; I was lost on five references (two saints, two places, and a history) and had to go with the reader’s instinct that the light would be forthcoming. And it was. But the faith inspired me to want to know more about the publication’s origins.
The Reader Organisation, based in Liverpool, is an inventive approach to connect people and books. They call it “bringing about a reading revolution,” and the journal is a voice for that intent. The “reading revolution” offers research, writing, and community building through various applications of literature, ranging from potentially improving cognitive effects for individuals suffering from dementia to group readings. I won’t restate the website because I encourage you to visit it yourself, and I think that each well-designed and well-written page is worth careful consideration.
Note the weave of literature past and present, truly a continuum of ideas. For instance, Rowan Williams’ poem “Tolstoy at Astapovo” opens the volume with a fine twist on literary criticism and critique. You can feel the momentum that concludes the first stanza:
Ahead of [Tolstoy] strolls Platon,
not looking back: he runs till he is breathless,
burning, but he can’t catch him. In the next-door squares
the pieces crowd, the journalists, the relatives, the hopefuls,
the starets in the ladies’ loo, the script consultants,
Newsreel men, police. Check.
It glows on the page with a kind of phosphoric rhythm. Turn the page. He opens it up and it glows even more—the poem becomes a fistful of stars, each with its own intention. That is to say that the poet provides a guide and information for further thought about interpretation and intent. The system is ideal for the organization—I am not left behind, I am inducted into the world, and I appreciate the poem in a way that I otherwise might not have. The design of adding prose reflection following the poem itself ignites the spontaneous beauty—and my reading experience is enriched and expanded.
Take it sentence by sentence. The journal is magnificently rich and does not “dumb down” literary engagement. And for all the promise of reward, it delivers.
Review by Danielle Rohac
Willow Springs is a long-standing literary magazine, publishing works by well-known and up-and-coming writers alike for the past 30 years. The first thing that struck me when I began reading it was that there was not a specific theme noted anywhere or an editor’s note. While the magazine’s goal is to “engage its audience in an ongoing discussion of art, ideas, and what it means to be human,” this is a very general goal that can go in a number of directions. While it isn’t necessary to have a theme, the individual pieces themselves work together in a way to create themes in the reader’s mind; the one that stood out to me was of the things inside us—the hidden talents we aren’t aware of; the twisted desires we will never admit; the work of art we haven’t unlocked.
The scarecrow is a prevalent character in several of the pieces in this issue including “if the scarecrow weren’t a scarecrow” by Denver Butson. In this poem, the actions of a real human being are examined through the shell of a man, the scarecrow:
if the scarecrow weren’t a scarecrow
he might be you or he might be me
or he might just be someone else
who is neither you nor me
someone perhaps who doesn’t even know
that he or she is not a scarecrow
someone who does not feel the pang
of not being who he might have been
as you and I and the scarecrow himself
feel such a pang
every time we consider
how things might have been different
Nicole Cooley’s poem, “The Pregnant Doll,” was an especially intriguing look at society’s portrayal of pregnancy and the post-pregnant body of a woman. The real-life experiences of a woman delivering a baby are held in stark contrast to the “Doll who wears high heels and a pink nightgown / over her emptiness.” There is a very raw reality exposed in this poem over what happens to the human body when giving birth, something not always beautiful or miraculous. The lines “a household for another body” and “a cut steak leaking blood onto a plate” kept me reading the poem over and over.
While there were several works of fiction in this issue, the one that stood out to me the most was “Prey” by Maxim Loskutoff. I was torn between loving and hating it simultaneously. The narrator is Derek—a loner, slightly overweight college student who works at a taco place and has a female, pet python named Voldemort. Derek is not a lovable character, but this helps the reader to better understand the low point he has reached when we come into his story:
I wake from a dream knowing that something, or someone, is in my bed. All the muscles in my arms and back are rigid. I roll over. A single, lidless eye gleams on the pillow beside me, milk chocolate brown with an elliptical pupil, swollen now in the near-dark. It’s Voldemort, smiling at me with her long, double-hinged jaws.
While I’m generally not a snake-lover, this story kept me turning the pages until the very end.
There are also two interviews that are definitely worth the time and energy, one with Steve Almond and the other with Susan Orlean. In Almond’s interview, he talks about writing moral pieces that try to cut through preconceived notions and sometimes turn political. A word he uses to describe the writing experience that I particularly liked was obsessive. Sometimes we write about things we’re obsessed with; we’re all obsessed with something, and writing is an avenue for that. However, there also needs to be an element of mystery, even to the writer. Almond says, “There should be lots of stuff you don’t know. That’s what allows you to surprise yourself and keep a preserved sense of mystery in your work.”
In Susan Orlean’s interview, she speaks to her curiosity over ordinary places and situations of life. Her nonfiction works look to explore these things, sometimes those things she fears or doesn’t even like, to develop a better understanding of it. When questioned on how much of her interviewing techniques are learned and how many are natural, Orlean again refers to this observation and curiosity writers should have. We should observe naturally to some degree, but we can learn what situations to explore or get a sense of which people will be interesting and provide the most valuable information.
While I found a theme throughout this issue, there are many more threads that can be linked in these pieces, not only in the poems and fiction but also in the interviews. See which ones you find and thread your way through Willow Springs 72.