Literary Magazine Reviews

Posted March 17, 2014
Able Muse :: Boulevard :: The Chattahoochee Review :: Chinese Literature Today ::  Crazyhorse :: december :: Fiction International :: Hayden's Ferry Review :: The Kenyon Review :: The Ledge Magazine :: The Louisville Review :: The Michigan Quarterly Review :: Natural Bridge :: New Madrid :: The Normal School :: Room :: Salmagundi :: Stone Voices :: Sugar House Review

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Able Muse CoverAble Muse

Number 16

Winter 2013


Review by Brian McKenna

While poetry and short story collections provide more in-depth exposure to the vision of a single writer, they don’t offer the same opportunity to unexpectedly stumble onto your next obsession like a good journal can. Able Muse, with its eclectic blend of fiction, essays, book reviews, art portfolios, artist interviews, as well as its focus on metrical poetry, provides readers with a bevy of opportunities to do just that. In fact, Able Muse even manages to offer a bit of an extended look at the work and processes of a featured writer and artist in each edition. This issue features poet Jehanne Dubrow and photographer Peter Svensson.

What initially attracted me to Able Muse was the chance to read the work of contemporary poets writing in metrical forms. Unexpectedly, I ended up enjoying the essays and fiction more than the poetry. I particularly enjoyed Philip Morre’s enlightening and good-humored essay “Reading Edward Thomas’s ‘It Rains’ and Other Rain Poems.” Although anyone who has read a biography of Robert Frost is probably familiar with the name, Morre sets out to show why Frost’s friend Edward Thomas was more than just “some kind of pilot fish swimming alongside” one of the greats. Far from being a simple fan letter, Morre’s essay investigates Thomas’s status as a war poet, the autobiographical nature of his poetry, as well as the brevity of his poetic career, a brevity Morre describes as making “Rimbaud look like a careerist.” Using three of Thomas’s rain poems to chart the steep trajectory of his development and display the magnitude of his poetic gifts, Morre’s essay eloquently underscores the tragedy of a brilliant career cut far too short.

Engaging pieces of fiction include Charles Wilkinson’s “Is There Anybody There?” and Cheryl Diane Kidder’s “How the West Was Won.” Wilkinson’s story of an elderly woman forced to reconsider her own legacy when a biographer inquires about a relationship she’d had with a moderately well-known poet offers a unique meditation on the need to leave behind a record of one’s experiences. Kidder’s “How the West Was Won” is notable for the innovative chronological device she uses to order the vignettes of her story. Arranged around a traumatic sexual experience but also reflecting on formative experiences from the narrator’s childhood, each vignette in Kidder’s story is tagged with its own vague time signature: after, much earlier, a little earlier, just before, etc. This technique manages to make the story both visceral and enigmatic, forcing the reader to judge what the ultimate effect of this brutal experience will be for the narrator’s psyche.

While technically accomplished, I felt that much of the poetry in the issue lacked the freshness of language needed to enliven and add complexity to the voice of the poems’ speakers. As it stands, many of the poems remain in a single mode throughout, either serious or light. Rather than pushing the writer to break habitual patterns of syntax and diction, the strictures of form often seemed to produce slightly modified versions of the familiar without the benefit of the familiar’s authenticity. This is just to say I felt there was a lack of surprise and genuine emotion in the poetry. One of the notable exceptions to this was featured writer Jehanne Dubrow’s “Ghazal for the Lost Operas,” which was an arresting marriage of form and content.

If the upside of eclecticism is that it assures the reader will find something of interest to them, the downside is that a clean layout for the issue becomes even more important as a unifying factor. While the production values of Able Muse are top notch, the layout and typography of the issue is a bit chaotic. For example, much of the issue consists of the finalists and winners of Able Muse’s poetry and fiction contests, which is a laudable thing. However, the winning pieces are all labeled throughout the issue with their prize ranking, which detracted from the initial impact of the works and seemed a bit redundant, especially since this information was already covered in the table of contents and on a separate page of congratulations. The typography of the issue is consistent; it’s just not easy on the eyes.

Despite these minor reservations, there’s some really compelling work in the new issue of Able Muse. Whether it’s an essay compelling you to buy the book of an under-appreciated poet, or the innovative structure of a short story causing you to rethink the role of structure in your own work, Able Muse’s latest trove will definitely give you something to treasure.

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Boulevard CoverBoulevard

Volume 29 Numbers 1 & 2

Fall 2013


Review by Mary Florio

Occasionally the predominant voice of a journal can be found within a single statement embedded indirectly in a piece within. For this issue of Boulevard, one turns to Robert Zaller’s essay on Robinson Jeffers. Zaller writes that Jeffers defines “the task of culture as the pursuit of truth.” The essay is about the poet not the publication, but it speaks in microcosm what the journal does throughout. Boulevard does not seek to categorize the journal as something as amorphous as “the pursuit of truth,” but I think it presents at least twenty clips of veracity from aperture to aperture, until we barely recognize the camera against the disciplines of truth themselves.

Each story is true to its subgenre; that is, the voices are very different from each other, but within the framework, the expectations of form are realized and the reader will have a chance to explore restraint and mastery of a story perfectly crafted. Take Colin Fleming’s “The Cape Path,” for example. Once you reach the telling phrase “gung ho” a few pages into the story, you realize you are being inducted into a world of Trivial Pursuit nights, the Baseball Hall of Fame, and a romanticized take on Boston’s North End. It begins to feel as though you’ve fallen into a Tom Perrotta short story, where entertainment is somewhat accessible and the benefits of genre fiction cast a little bit of glitter against literary craft.

George Williams’s “The Valley of Happiness” follows. The conversation between main characters, which commands much of the intellectual movement in the piece, is not punctuated and reflects a kind of fluidity for the two. Williams’s prose is unforgiving, telling a larger truth in the guise of else-directed exposition: “though they had no destination [they] felt they’d gotten lost and then found their way south again.” He navigates this terrain a few times without repetition: we know that one can travel “wherever the car takes me” and that there is question as to where the pair are going. We note the treacheries on multiple levels—regarding a physical path, we read “Maybe they’re not supposed to cross the bridge,” which also could be referencing a metaphorical bridge. The style is clipped and arranged as austerely as Minimalism might allow, but Williams manages to have every object serve two ends with the efficiency of a Fellini film.

One of the most compelling stories in the journal is Patrick Nathan’s “To Francine Mavencamp of Tallahassee, FL,” which describes the difficulty of parenting a wayward child and the parallel of grieving in loss and the loss of love in a splintered family. The story’s plot, characterization, and dialogue move the story briskly, but Nathan did not neglect a particular technique that serves to stop time effectively. Here are a few sentences: “You forget about it, the sun,” and “It was nothing like that, fatherhood,” and “You had to shape him, Cameron.” It was a musical arrangement, perhaps a deliberate haunting by a character who collected water-logged pianos. Or, less directly, the clarification of the (sentence) subject’s specific entity—elegiac or an afterthought or a defensive spat out of a broken thought. It certainly reflects a desire for specificity, of something you can hold.

Moreover, the story’s value proposition is compelling—the teen Cameron, reunited with his biological father after the estranged wife’s death, sends letters describing child abuse by a parent when there is none. Why would a child detail lies in letters to people he’s never met? Why the letters, and how were the recipients selected? The child’s hate is exceptional. How does the father resolve his responsibility in raising a child with a severe ____? Is it ____ or a personality disorder or a medical condition? Letters and language a suture against loss of love, death, the power of the dead? The ending is perfect for this maelstrom and engages a brave conclusion.

Janet McNally’s “Salome” invokes the spirit of Pam Houston in a funny, wise meditation on feminism, family, and conquering the frailty that one might learn as a “paper doll in training, working on being two-dimensional.” The mastery of the voice and the political insight (and humor) distinguish the narrative from any other story that might irreverently begin “Once, I taught ballet to a class of teenage drug addicts.” McNally’s narrator Kate is not bound by anything otherwise sacred—she drinks, she teaches, she cuts to the chase. Unlike other young survivors whose mystic voices are slow and ancient, Kate is curt, with staccato jokes and a verve that one might associate with a New York editor, which she is. The reader learns that she has nearly died for her commitment to ballet, and this is not mystical to her at all, just one of those key facts that make her resilience especially precious.

A welcome analysis about the state of literary affairs was Boulevard’s symposium on magazines. I especially enjoyed Chris Cefalu’s essay on Cometbus magazine, and in Cefalu’s treatment of the “fold-and-stapled Xeroxed job” which was of course about something larger—about the Punk movement and about coming-of-age for a generation of Americans immersed in this movement. It was about the perfect idea for the topic of favorite magazines as he concludes so aptly: “Within that space he has, over the course of 30+ years, become his own kind of writer—no one else’s. That is far, far more than most of us will ever do.”

Cefalu’s essay is a perfect punctuation of the pages of not just a journal, but a literary moment at its very best.

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The Chattahoochee Review CoverThe Chattahoochee Review

Volume 33 Numbers 2 & 3

Fall/Winter 2013


Review by Mary Florio

The theme of this issue of The Chattahoochee Review is animals, broadly interpreted enough to span war, destiny, and the romantic capitalization of road kill. Reading the journal straight through may change the way you perceive animals, art and even the construction of modern plot conventions.

David Bajo approaches the task as though trying to hunt down a type of pit viper; well, his characters do. The prose is electric, the images fantastic. Yet Bajo does not employ the rich stylistic past as a crutch—this is not your grandma’s magic realism. In his compelling short story “Snake Life,” he tempers the fantastic of the genre with a more reliable Catholic mysticism, just enough to build on what had come before. Some might suggest that strict adherence to classic surrealism is, to a certain extent, imitative, a cop-out, but the manner in which Bajo overrides that kind of objection is perfect. The pacing and compact storytelling create a kind of powerful entity (or engine) in itself; the hybrid of the imaginative and the real, without any kind of perceptible sleight. Here is an example:

The last image Aaron saw was Alejandro swinging the snake in a long and powerful arc swiping the summer sky. The centrifugal force stretched the viper to its full length. The gray, green, and black stripes looked like a breach in the sky, the tattooed knuckles of something great trying to push through. Aaron’s vision went black with the thud of the snake’s body slamming onto the summer hardpan.

You are desperate for Aaron’s safety, racing through the pages for any kind of answer—and this desperation in a reader is a tribute to the writer who created such love.

Morris Collins’s story of DIY taxidermy project using a carcass of an abandoned bobcat and the unfortunate decapitation of a thirty pound Maine Coon is the apex of comic writing, in a completely original voice. His word choice and cadence heighten the humor; this is not your grandma’s Borscht Belt wisecracking. His phraseology and approach are radically idiosyncratic and a delight to read.

If you, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, prefer to emulate the best of your competitors, The Chattahoochee Review is worth every page; the journal is rife with strikingly well-constructed models. You will not recognize any set up or subterfuge because you will be too preoccupied with caring about the characters.

Take Phong Nguyen’s short story “Hush, Please,” where the missionary Abel Hanson risks his life to spread the Gospel during ramifications of the Cambodian Genocide. The language is finely hewn, sparkling, while the dramatic tension escalates. The structure is powerful and ricochets between past and present, the philosophy of evangelism and the passion of parenthood, and while the story reverberates with elsewhere (elsewhere in time, place, and perception) each paragraph contains the ideas and deep humanity that connect life across belief systems. Take the climactic section where Hanson faces his death. A child soldier with a gun guides him to a shed.

[T]he boy pushes the door of the shed open all the way and gestures for us to go inside . . . our eyes adjust to the darkness, we see an empty room with an even younger child, whose feet are raw and bleeding. His skinny legs stretched in front of him, his bloated feet pointing out at a slight angle and look like a pair of hastily painted croquet mallets.
The older boy gestures with his gun at our Red Cross backpacks, which are filled with nothing but Bibles.

The consistent wisdom, the enlisted Scripture, the larvae’s yearning for light amid the obsidian void between the ministered and the ministry is suspect, of course. The reader is unsure of the narrator, and of Sen, the child who, in his capacity (or derived capacity) of a Khmer Rouge prison guard, first sought to shoot Hanson unless he could heal his brother’s diseased feet.

The story—like Bajo’s—concludes with many questions outstanding, as if you have walked into a room with the breeze carrying the shears into the open windows and boiling back out over the rainy streets, the sheets on the bed torrentially scattered. It is a beautiful room, but the players left no forwarding address, and in the theater of those fixtures, you are looking at the curtains billow, and wonder who has been here, and where have they gone?

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Chinese Literature TodayChinese Literature Today

Volume 3 Numbers 1 & 2



Review by Sherra Wong

A literary magazine succeeds when it induces its reader to go beyond the magazine, and look for more of the work written by the same writers or, in the case of a magazine heavier on commentary than fiction or poetry like Chinese Literature Today, to encounter a writer or a work for the first time. The very readable essays, stories, and excerpts written by and about two of the most celebrated Chinese-language writers today—Mo Yan, recipient of the 2012 Nobel Prize and Su Tong, whose novel The Boat to Redemption won the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize—that anchor this double issue of Chinese Literature Today do just that. And personally, while I have read Mo Yan and loved Su Tong in the original, the quality of the translations here has caused me rethink my habitual rejection of English translations of Chinese literature (why go for the “substitute” when I can have the “authentic” experience?): as Mo Yan says in his interview, translations are almost originals in themselves.

The sections on Mo Yan and Su Tong both present essays, interviews, or speeches about their work before the works themselves. In his Nobel lecture, Mo Yan tells stories (what else?) about his urge to tell stories that blossomed early in his life. In “Mo Yan in Translation,” Howard Goldblatt, Mo Yan’s American translator, suggests that there are as many Mo Yans as there are translations of his work. He recalls an answer that Mo Yan once gave to his question about a translation: “Do what you want. I can’t read what you’ve written. It’s your book.” But perhaps, as Su Tong recognizes in his lecture “Where Do We Encounter Reality?” there are multiple realities in literature even without the process of translation.

The chapter of Mo Yan’s Sandalwood Death presented in the issue describes a man adopting a historical myth as his reality. He captures the minds of his fellow villagers, too, so that they believe that he has come back as the Song Dynasty general Yue Fei who will defeat the foreigners besieging China in the late nineteenth century. The spirit and the confidence they show at the end of the scene add to the sense of tragedy. The intonations of the main character’s operatic speech are translated with perfect pitch: “Charging into the dragon’s den, the tiger’s lair, looses a murderous river of blood. I, I, I am that judge from Hell, the messenger of death.”

Goldblatt’s skill is also evident in rendering meaning as well as the flavor of the original: “mother and father officials” and a “bowl-sized scar,” for example, are both literal translations and are not phrases used in English, but the English-speaking reader has no problem understanding them. In fact, they convey more than what an English original may have approximated: the language of fiction, after all, carries the time and place of the story, as well as the historical and cultural heritage enfolded into the characters’ emotion and diction.

In “Why Our House Has No Electric Lights,” Su Tong makes an interesting choice in perspective: that of Old Kuang, the head of the North Side Power Supply Bureau, responsible for installing electric lights in every house in town. One of the houses gets no electricity because it is a “nail house,” whose family refuses to move and let their house be razed for government development. Old Kuang is in an ambiguous moral position. He is not portrayed as a vindictive person or an ambitious or fervently loyal official, but just someone trying to get through the day. The head of the household, a woman, is kept at a distance in the story, and we only see her children reacting to the injustice in oblique ways.

The issue also includes sections on Chinese cinema, the scholar and poet Wai-lim Yip, translations of poetry and poems in English written by Chinese-speaking poets and poems in Chinese written by English-speaking poets. The incorporation of Chinese legends and classical poems is at first jarring, but perhaps that simply reflects the experience of translation and translocation. As Qiu Xiaolong’s “The Lunar Lumberjack” says:

I know I exist, wielding
my ax against the absurd,
belonging to a legend
that does not belong to me.

It’s not as new a process as it seems. People come to a language as foreigners, subvert it, discover new possibilities, and make it their own: Nabokov, Rilke, Hopkins. Only the associations and the specific language combinations are new.

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Crazyhorse CoverCrazyhorse

Number 84

Fall 2013


Review by Chip Livingston

The latest issue of Crazyhorse has everything we expect from the best literary magazines, from familiar authors’ names—then those same authors delivering in expected and surprising ways—to previously unknown writers delighting with the same energy as those more widely known. I even learned a few things, seeing new ways to break and enjamb poetic lines, and new ways to use space and silence and sequence in verse and prose.

I’m always grateful to come across a new Hadara Bar-Nadav poem and finding this issue opening with her work was a faithful sign that this Crazyhorse would be a stunner. I look forward to Bar-Nadav’s poems because I have an expectation I know will be met: that they’re going to entertain me in a voice, subject, or approach I could never have predicted. The energy and delight of her poem ”Thumb,” which won the journal’s Lynda Hull Memorial Poetry Prize, kicks Crazyhorse open, and that energy continues for 160 more pages.

This being the prize issue, readers also will be moved by the winners in prose: nonfiction prizewinner Jesse Donaldson’s “Notes from a Congregant,” a thoughtful examination of fandom, following the author’s obsession with the San Francisco Giants, and fiction prizewinner Jill Rosenberg’s gorgeous story “The Logic of Imaginary Friends,” in which a single mother sends her 11-year-old daughter to sleepaway camp and, on the first night, the mother’s imaginary friend from childhood returns to see her through the loneliness.

The prose field returns to sports in the tender short story of brotherhood found in John Matthew Fox’s “Down on the Pitch,” in which two brothers on a religious rugby team get the spirits beat out of them along a missionary tournament tour of Australia.

Another tough and touching story of conflicting masculinities is Dana Fitz Gale’s “Jester.” While both of these stories burst with gritty competition, Gale sets the battle in a carnival between a jester barking insults from a dunking booth and a softball-throwing young veteran on an awkward outing with his children. “It’s harder than it looks to hit that bullseye,” a character states, but Gale she keeps the story right on target.

“Biography is tyranny,” Richard Terrill writes in his lyric essay “Who Was Bill Evans?” but he proves that memoir can be anything but boring. Beginning with a list that reads “START here,” that is broken at item 17, the essay is a sequenced synopsis of jazz, poetry, confession, interview, rumor, and conjecture in sections that bounce around like the subject’s music and journey only to return to the list, picking up with items 18-30 fourteen pages later. Terrill’s essay combines the best attributes of the lyric essay: journalism and poetry.

I mentioned the issue begins with Bar-Nadav’s poem “Thumb,” in which she positions us holding “a chopstick / in the language of still-twitching fish” and shows us “what it is to be human.” Isn’t that what we hope to be shown in all poetry, what it is to be human?

This issue of Crazyhorse is thick with that poetic illustration. We’re privy to a poignant dialog during “First Contact” by Jon Davis, in which an interview subject’s responses reveal a wider wisdom, wit, and understanding of the interviewer’s questions, exampled by “What is the name of the language you speak? / Only the enemies know, and long ago we made a pact not to speak of it.”

Matthew Hittinger, another poet of whom I was previously a fan, also surprised me with his poems—two of which, “Caliper Owl Thistle Fork” and “The Sphinx * The Asterisk,” challenged my conceptions of line breaks and phrasal breath, spacing, “asterism,” and taught me new things about poetry while, at the same time, entertaining me.

But it was “Marriage An Animal Language” by Gabriella R. Tallmadge that had me typing out the poem to email to friends I knew would love it as much as I did. It’s one of those poems I’d like to share here in its entirety, but I’d rather tease you with its first stanza, hoping you’ll investigate and find the rest on your own:

When we touch it’s animals.
We live in dens, snouts and ends
in the dirt. We frog-eared,
we lick the black off plums.

This journal has such luscious metaphor and more. But explore all the profound poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in this Crazyhorse prize issue; it’s one of those rare cases where everyone’s a winner.

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December Coverdecember

Volume 24 Issue 1

Winter 2013


Review by Brian McKenna

After a brief, thirty-two-year interlude between this volume and its last, december is back with its latest anthology-format release. And while many Decembers have passed since the last december, Gianna Jacobson, who takes over editorial and publishing duties from the late Curt Johnson, has made certain that the poetry, prose, and art portfolios in the latest issue possess those timeless qualities which the original editors laid out for the magazine more than a half century ago when they described themselves as “humanists . . . far more concerned with people than we are with dogmatic critical or aesthetic attitudes.” With its unpretentiously elegant layout and the urgency of its content, december’s revival issue feels like a confident extension of this long-standing tradition.

Originally founded in 1958 at the University of Iowa’s famed Writers’ Workshop, december quickly developed a reputation for its keen editorial eye, publishing early work by such luminaries as Raymond Carver, Donald Barthelme, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Levine, and many others. While the revival issue serves as an acknowledgement of the magazine’s storied past, with more than half of its contributors being past contributors, december’s tradition for discovering new talent lives on.

One such discovery is Abby Ryder-Huth, who makes a strong impression in her publishing debut with her short story “Half of Pleasure.” Her first-person narrative introduces readers to Marcus, a young man with an unspecified developmental disorder, for whom the simple task of getting a flu shot at the pharmacy is an epic struggle with the siren song of distraction. Ryder-Huth shows a great ability to convey her narrator’s fevered and complex mental life with just a few, plainspoken, properly-sequenced sentences:

My hand felt like it had just surfaced from a pond. I didn’t know when it had become this way, because when I was sitting and thinking about the Great Train Robbery I felt very composed, hopeful even that I was imagining the robbers correctly. When I touched the doctor’s hand it was like smooth wood lying in the sun.

As much as I enjoyed the pent-up energy and understatement of Ryder-Huth’s story, there are times as a reader when you just want a villain to hiss at. The black hat at the heart of Marge Piercy’s appalling short story “The Shrine” certainly fits the bill. Centered on a successful poet’s relationship, or lack thereof, with her dying mother, “The Shrine” is a story about delayed gratification of a rather sinister bent. Written in crystal-clear prose, Piercy’s story is a slow-burner that gracefully offers up its telling details: “She would not rise to the bait. She was a clever trout, a rainbow trout, facing into the current, keeping safe by a big rock.”

Playing it safe isn’t an option in Albert Goldbarth’s monumentally disturbing poem “His Creatures,” in which the narrator examines the legacy that pain, suffering, and death leave with those forced to bear witness. The poem is unapologetically dark, capturing the feeling of violation and uncleanliness that surrounds actual suffering and death. In the poem, the experience of seeing a loved one deteriorate from cancer is contrasted with a Tuvan method for killing sheep and also with the dreadful enjoyment a very Dahmer-like figure takes in his cruelty toward animals:

as those twitches seem to fill the table with extra,
desperate life, and down the table legs onto the floor,
and from there to the bare walls, like gourmet electricity
that made this room the most ecstatically
quivering cell on the planet. . . .

Special credit must also be given to art editor, Buzz Spector, who was tasked with selecting artwork to compliment the far-reaching scope of the issue. While the art reproductions found in literary journals often show only a tenuous connection to the magazine surrounding them, the artist portfolios included in december show a definite concern for language and storytelling in a visual medium. I particularly enjoyed Frank Magnotta’s intricate, graphite drawings which blend his incredible wit and vision with hints of de Chirico and Philip Guston.

This revival issue was a pleasure to read, offering more than two hundred pages of dynamic and vital work. Now that december is fully revived, I’m anxious to see what the next issue will hold when it hits shelves in May. How will december move forward after this reverential nod to its illustrious past? I’m not sure, but I’m certain there will be a lot of readers waiting to find out.

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Fiction International CoverFiction International

Volume 46



Review by Mary Florio

The journal Fiction International provokes fantastic response in its “Real Time / Virtual” edition. On the one hand, the crime fantasy of Michael Hemmingson’s “Tranquility” evokes Kafka in an astute commentary of family law in American jurisprudence: it presents content (the nature of freedom) and framework (idea of cyber-cognitive implementation of punishment). On the other hand, Robert Hamburger’s “The Michelangelo Massacre” is too convincing to be of the fantasy genre, but it is fantastic in the second sense of the word—superlative. The journal is uniformly excellent in its focus and quality of execution and exemplifies its mission to marry formal innovation and social activism.

Tyrone Nagai’s “Apps & Tags” is the first story in the volume and represents a “treated” version of a review of telephone applications. It’s a great way to open because it captures so many of the essential elements of the journal that was, after all, founded in the 1970s to help promote social justice. The story is succinct, specific, and somehow still experimental. Nagai notes “I dedicate this to the C.E.O. with a law degree and an MBA who laid off my friends and outsourced their jobs to India, the Philippines, and China. You know who you are.” Forward on, Mr. Nagai, with copies to the press.

J.S. Kierland’s “ROBOTS” is a systematic approach to a similar problem—the powerlessness of a soldier (or in Nagai’s case, a corporate soldier) against authority. But what’s brilliant about Kierland’s piece is how the protagonist tries to sever levels of authority to achieve redemption. The Major answers to God and Country and is an essentially moral man. And yet, as such, he remains a nation divided. The moral crux is clear, the military description and reality expertly captured, and the Catholic winter that comes from knowing the Gospel and having to subvert it is portrayed precisely. Kierland demonstrates a mastery of the experience of the military aviator but takes reality further—it is so exceptionally real that one wonders if Kierland is merely acknowledging a reality already in place. (Per an ASME SmartBrief dated 1/7/2013, the Pentagon predicts a “largely robotic military future.”)

Ryan Francis Kelly’s short story “face time” is easier to follow in condensed minimalism (and is more interesting) than reading the love story as it happens in a live story. He uses a framework that is similar to following a social media thread, which achieves two aims: 1) preserves a crucial new medium, and 2) documents a less traveled road in a suitable format.

The stories that are highly experimental in a manner of textual organization are balanced with the more conventionally organized narratives that tend to experiment in the tradition of 1960s science fiction and the fabulists. If fiction is to evolve, it must mutate like any other bio-organism. Compare Paul Forristal’s “What Happens” with John Edward Lawson’s “Playing the Long Game,” for example. Lawson’s story is framed as an interrogation of a former president, but functions as a political commentary in a surreal format where a machine approximates God in omniscience, omnipotence, and essential judgment. Conversely, Forristal’s story employs graphics, fonts, and pacing in close simulation of an interface and riffs off of a variety of forms and structures to spell out his narrative. Both create a feeling of experiencing the future and transform time and the experience of reading. And while one might seek out the more traditional forms, the experiments in this journal are not too far from the canon.

The most challenging story in this magazine, for me, was Michael Filas’s “The Lyrica Cantos XI-XIII.” We experience Ezra Pound and the advertisements of Pfizer in a merging of genres and outlooks and annotated sources. It is efficient and at times beautiful and sardonic simultaneously. It is a strong forerunner to the essay between Harold Jaffe and Gary Lain titled “Real Time/Virtual: A Dialogue.”

In the dialogue, Jaffe and Lain deconstruct “degradation of the actual (or, for our purposes, the degradation of real time) in the service of the virtual.” The dialogue is pitch-perfect—references to “social conditioning and control, ‘Twitter revolutions’ to the contrary” are examined in depth, and the portrait of the most significant external impact on my generation is carefully dissected. It is not a knell to anything, but rather a very important discussion for those of us who signal our futures with our fortunes. As Jaffe concludes with immeasurable elegance: “The paradox is that the debauched culture is a fertile feeding ground for resourceful writers and artists. But then who will read our books? Who will view our visuals?” That is your invitation, reader, and mine.

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Hayden's Ferry Review CoverHayden’s Ferry Review

Number 53

Fall/Winter 2013


Review by Chip Livingston

Printed on the back cover of this issue of Hayden’s Ferry Review appears, along with front and back cover art by Carlos Jiménez Cahua, the word “DEPARTURE” broken into three lines: DEP / ART / URE, and I noticed this one afternoon picking up the issue from the coffee table. I had already become somewhat familiar with the contents of the issue, and my brain reversed the fragments of the word, reading from the bottom up: Your Art Dep(artment).

I thought, “How appropriately mistitled. This issue is like visiting an art museum.” The more I investigated the journal, the more like a museum I found it, discovering unexpected rooms and exhibitions following each turn of the page. But I refined my initial simile: Exploring the issue is like visiting several art museums in several different countries.

For one thing, it is full of visual art, with roughly 30 pages of imagery from eight artists—primarily photography, manipulated photography, folded paper, and drawings with pen and pigment in a range of graphics. The realistic photography, however, represents the international feel of the issue, with photographs portraying couples comprising “Natives and Expats” in Thailand, Mexico, and Nicaragua; winter-wasted trailers in rural North Dakota; and a series of transit passengers by Argentine activist Soledad Manrique from “Tren de Mañana.”

The written content is as visual and often as visceral. The shape of Chelsea Biondolillo’s “Phrenology: An Attempt,” for example, combines elements of memoir, poetry, lists, and research in a page layout composed of sectioned prose, pullout boxes, and footnotes. “Phrenology” is a wonder indicative of the issue’s contents in general: defying easy classification, it’s a collage of art forms. On the first read-through, I thought it must be a visually broken, narrative poem, but with citations and memoir elements, I was relieved to read in the contributor notes later that Biondolillo writes nonfiction and journalism. Returning to the piece with the idea that it was a hybrid type of lyric essay made a lot of sense. Returning to the table of contents also confirmed its classification as nonfiction. But it challenged my perception in the ways great writing and great art do.

The Table of Contents is integral if you’re a classifier, for many other pieces also read like hybrid forms. Michael Malan’s three microfictions I first took for prose poems. They have that lyric perspective and punch we expect from poetry. “Fieldwork IV” by Leslie Morris reads like and appears as a letter written from the author—it’s signed “Sincerely, Leslie Morris”—to a Professor Keyes in Indonesia. I thought “a letter format, this must be memoir?” But according to the Contents, it’s a poem! Delightful for a contrary genre-jumper like I am. Going deeper and deeper into the issue is like opening subsequent levels to a puzzle.

In many ways, the Table of Contents is elucidating, but with a full quarter of the issue work in translation, these 50-plus pages of creative writing aren’t identified by genre, though several do appear alongside their Thai, Korean, and Arabic language originals. Other translations and contributions come from writers as disparate as their homelands, representing Ireland, Russia, Palestine, Poland, Angola, Spain, and the Americas. An editorial touch I appreciated with most of the translated material was an additional note or comment on the act of translation, as thoughtfully conveyed by Kathleen Heil’s “To Write As Though Pron Were Writing” in introduction to Patricio Pron’s translated story “Haircut,” perhaps my favorite piece in the issue.

But choosing a favorite work isn’t the point of visiting a modern art museum or, in this case, reading a literary journal. You visit for the variety. You go for the surprise exhibition and for the introduction to previously unknown artists. And with the right curators—here the astute editors of Hayden’s Ferry Review—you’ll not only walk away feeling enlightened and stimulated, but also feeling better educated, entertained, more fully formed, and well-traveled.

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The Kenyong Review CoverThe Kenyon Review

Volume 36 Number 1

Winter 2014


Review by Kenneth Nichols

Every issue of The Kenyon Review offers reason to celebrate, but this issue is particularly special, as it commemorates the journal’s seventy-fifth anniversary. Even better, the editors are taking a look back as they continue to publish cutting-edge work. The Kenyon Review’s first editor, John Crowe Ransom, published philosophical and aspirational statements composed by prominent intellectuals of the day. The tradition will continue in the coming year; sixteen writers who published in The Kenyon Review early in their careers will offer their own “contemporary credos.”

Carl Phillips kicks things off, making a case for poetry that leaves the reader “bewildered” and “not quite certain of how to see the world again.” Phillips urges writers and readers to prize “transgressive” works and poetry that flows inevitably from the writer’s pen, avoiding “self-conscious” and “systemic” composition.

It should surprise no one that the Joyce Carol Oates short story in this issue is a standout. “The Home at Craigmillnar” stars Francis, an orderly in a nursing home. Francis, we quickly learn, had the misfortune of discovering the lifeless body of Sister Mary Alphonsus, an elderly nun who spent decades in charge of the Craigmillnar Home for Children. Sister Mary Alphonsus was not a very pleasant woman, but this is appropriate: Craigmillnar was not a pleasant place. The story is a slow burn that sheds light on a number of important questions. What, for example, is the value of a human life? Which God has the correct view regarding revenge: that of the Old Testament or the New?

Timothy Liu’s two poems, “The Gift” and “Sine Qua Non,” are delightful for their visceral lyricism. Both are first-person poems whose narrators address talented men: a sculptor and a violist. Both poems employ powerful imagery. In “Sine Qua Non,” the narrator looks over a former acquaintance and/or lover:

the way one looks at a German viola
made in 1768, once snubbed for not
being Italian, now safely displayed
behind glass . . .

What do you get when you choose three brief stories out of a field of 1,876? The winner and runners-up of the 2013 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest, of course. Entries were limited to writers who have not yet published a book of fiction. Katharine Weber and the other readers bestowed the award upon Heather Monley for her “Town of Birds,” an interesting little fable about “the town where the children turned into birds.” Monley delves into the heads and hearts of those who are left behind.

Willard Spiegelman contributes a long and engrossing essay about Mark Strand and the poet’s “luminous nostalgia.” Spiegelman fulfills all of the requirements of great literary analysis. His thoughts about Strand and his work are complicated but remain within the grasp of the layperson. Instead of a dry recitation of the Pulitzer Prize winner’s work, the reader is offered relevant personal anecdotes and representative snapshots of his poetry. The essay is a wonderful entry point for those who are unfamiliar with Strand’s work and who would like to address that oversight.

Above all, this issue is accompanied by an important implied promise. After seventy-five years of near-continuous publication, we’re excited by the prospect of seventy-five more.

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The Ledge Magazine CoverThe Ledge Magazine

Number 35

Winter 2013


Review by Mary Florio

The Ledge, lyrical and relentlessly beautiful, may lead a reader safely away from any kind of cliff or precipice, despite the suggestion of its title. The connotation for this volume does ring true if one reads ‘ledge’ as an embodiment of ‘edgy,’ but not with the metaphor of a natural feature entailing the risk of falling. The work is precise and challenging and invites further consideration; I examine a few especially rich works here.

During the final years of the War in the Pacific, with his A6M Zero fighter aircraft steaming in the wing, a young aviator contemplates fulfilling the suicide mission of Tokko Tai in Takamichi Okubo’s “Dear Mother.” Kazunari has initiated the attack three times, and returned three times. His decision to fly the plane back to Japan without sacrificing himself against the Allied warships has rendered him almost a pariah. And yet, as one might expect from a man contemplating the end of his life, he is not thinking of fuel tanks and torpedoes, nationalism or just war theories. He is not thinking of the woman who gave life to him or to whom he dedicates his love at the end of it.

The story excels and exceeds expectations on a few levels. The characterization of the aviator facing a “special attack” mission is fascinating – not in an exotic sense, a strange, zebrafish kind of showcase. Instead, it is fascinating because the writer compels you to experience acute empathy with the protagonist.

Classic immersion aside, the story of the friendship of this young man as a boy and his stepmother is heart-wrenching. It complicates whatever automatic reaction we might have to the Tokko Tai because this is no longer a war story, it is a love story. And although you may consider yourself a bulwark against such a story for your political convictions, as I did, you will also have felt the breath of a coerced and conscripted man against your eyelids, and know that behind the airplane glittering glass sits a man who, up to the present, is not capable of hatred, but rather is capable of the most decent, elemental love.

The subject matter of family plays a key role in other stories in the collection. Take Sean Padraic McCarthy’s short story “The Den.” It’s a brilliant weave of humor and tease and politics, kind of like what you’d expect from David Sedaris if he were writing fiction or at least making a go of it in the third person:

Jack had four sisters . . . Their mother had made a roast, and she poured the roast juice into a cup for Jack’s younger brother, Connor, who liked to drink it. Connor was three, and his mother told him the juice would make him strong, but Jack’s sisters thought the practice was disgusting and made their opinions known every time, getting their father in a bad mood, and Jack didn’t want to make it worse. Christopher had already given his piece of meat to the dog, and that, too, made their father crazy. Crazy for their father usually just meant snapping a little, and then going off to bed.

The story balances exposition, dialogue, and judicious description in perfect pacing, cumulating with a kind of literal and metaphorical darkness, and all of the ways that innocence can be cheapened, if not packed up and sent far away for good.

The Ledge is a readable collection. A particularly good example is Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s “Chinese Vermilion.” Within three paragraphs, the reader knows who the key characters are and what some of the plot complications could be. The reason the clip is so functional is because the story is ultimately much deeper—we segue backwards to a different world by page three, and from there the author excels at balancing the past and present until she neatly lets her nut graph complete the recollection:

Later, over a second beer, I picked up the newspaper and read an article about a neuroscientist studying grief. In brain scans, a specific site lights up, activated by mourning; new loss starts all the old hurts throbbing . . .
But, finally, the disaster was in us, not out there . . . Now I wanted it back; I wanted everything back.

Writers get away with a lot of telling when they approximate a memoir or an essay, but sometimes philosophical context is welcome as it is in Campbell’s piece. Not every rainy day is a prescription for Finnegan’s Wake, and sometimes the innovation of today is sufficient to pass the trembling afternoons of the future.

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The Louisville Review CoverThe Louisville Review

Volume 74

Fall 2013


Review by Justin Brouckaert

I’ve admitted on several different occasions, perhaps even during previous reviews, that I absolutely judge books by their covers. Sure, maybe this is partially because of laziness, but also I believe a journal’s aesthetic comes through not just in its material, but also in its design. It’s not a strategy I swear by, but very often a journal’s look can be telling of the type of material inside.

I had never heard of The Louisville Review and I only vaguely knew of the Spalding University MFA program, so when I first got my hands on my review copy, my initial judgments were based by the cover. It’s nice enough: warm colors, a pleasant font, a framed photograph of water falling from a fountain in autumn. But it’s certainly no indication of the bold and occasionally risky writing inside.

The Louisville Review features poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and drama, as well as a section titled “The Children’s Corner,” which consists of poetry and prose by writers ranging in age from middle schoolers to college freshmen.

The writing I found most bold in this issue is a piece of fiction, Rick DeMarinis’s “Uncle Gamiel.” The story wastes no time in presenting a conflict. In the very first sentence, a male sibling declares Nikki, his fifteen-year-old sister, “the athlete in the family” with “a quick temper,” and it only takes a few paragraphs to see that Uncle Gamiel is the worst kind of uncle—a man who thinks himself “devilishly charming” but is, quite frankly, a bit of a creep. It is implied that Uncle Gamiel has made inappropriately sexual remarks and actions toward his niece in the past.

Uncle Gamiel dives between Nikki’s legs in the pool repeatedly, making what is clearly unwanted physical contact with his niece in his attempt to tease her. After repeatedly warning him to stop, Nikki takes action by locking her uncle’s neck between her thighs “like a nut in a vise.” In any other story, Nikki would have stopped when her uncle began pleading for mercy. A lesson would have been learned, a family dynamic complicated. But instead, the high school water polo and soccer player only tightens her grip until the man stops struggling. Even more shocking, Nikki never faces consequences for her murder: the policeman who comes to the house senses a bit of the family dynamic at play and decides not to investigate the matter any further. The final consensus seems to be that the dirty old man got what he deserved. This unabashed declaration, along with many other elements, makes the story extremely risky, but somehow DeMarinis pulls it off.

The other prose piece that caught my interest was Diane Aprile’s “The Water-Bearer,” a creative nonfiction that is also driven by the implication of sexual abuse. In her essay, Aprile tells the story of her aunt, filtered through segments with titles like “What they told me about her” and “What I notice about her” and “What I heard happened.” The woman is characterized by many neuroses spurring not only from the suggested incident of sexual abuse at a young age, but also by a series of accidents, tragedies, and medical complications, including a lobotomy.

It’s a compelling story well told, but perhaps my favorite part of the piece is when Aprile acknowledges how important it was for her to tell the story in the medium of creative nonfiction as opposed to fiction. Aprile calls the narrative “[t]oo full of grace and amazement to pass for truth in fiction,” and indeed, the story does seem almost too rich for fiction. It’s a strength of the piece that it’s so well suited to its form.

There is, of course, strong work in all genres in this issue. Of particular interest to me was Kristie Kachler’s “sing a happy citizen,” a poem so joyful that it should be sickening, but is instead infectious and sweet. The speaker unabashedly gushes, “whatever i do i do it dotingly / i sit and love to sit / i walk and love to walk,” developing in simple and efficient language the joys of everyday life.

There is plenty of work in The Louisville Review that is quiet and traditional and refined, an aesthetic befitting its overall look, but my fellow cover-judgers should beware: the material inside is anything but predictable.

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The Michigan Quarterly Review CoverThe Michigan Quarterly Review

Volume 52 Number 4

Fall 2013


Review by Justin Brouckaert

Published at the University of Michigan, The Michigan Quarterly Review is an attractive journal. At roughly 150 pages, it is fairly slim, with a vibrant glossy cover. More importantly, what’s inside is also interesting: an attractive mix of the creative and academic essays alongside fiction and poetry.

The work in The Michigan Quarterly Review covers no small distance. The nonfiction in this issue ranges from researched essays on the current political and economic state of Greece and its role in European affairs to the ever-present poetic influence of Ranier Maria Rilke. The fiction ranges from realist stories of thwarted young ice skating careers to alternate realities where humans are built with two hearts instead of one. One thing is consistent throughout the journal, though, and it becomes clear very early: The Michigan Quarterly Review features incredibly intelligent writing, work that is as smart as it is polished.

I enjoy realist fiction every bit as much as work that pushes outside that realm, but when there is one odd piece in a journal of mostly realist work, I will almost always be drawn to the strange. My favorite story in this issue is George Choundas’s “Troth,” the only story that doesn’t take place in the world that we know. Choundas begins his story, in fact, by imploring his reader to imagine a world “exactly like ours, with three differences.” The first is that “when two people crossed paths, the taller gave the right of way”; the second is that the people have two hearts; and the third is the use of the word “troth,” which means “both,” but for three things instead of two.

The set-up seems simple, but it is the way Choundas expounds on these differences and their myriad effects that gives the piece intelligence and depth. The speaker describes the efficiency on the path-crossing system, the exceptions to the rule, the benefits that this sense of order brings for society. The speaker also speaks to the mysteries surrounding the roles of the “low heart” and the “high heart” as well as the way the word “troth” complicates everyday meaning and opens up avenues for greater expression and understanding. Choundas masterfully weaves all of this together with a more structured plot arc, the story of a declining relationship between and a man and a woman living in this world.

Other fiction standouts include Tony Tulathimutte’s “Soft Landing,” which looks into the lives of teenage female figure skaters with secrets to hide, and Jill Logan’s “Hello, Hello, How Low,” a story about how a teenage girl deals with the loss of her best friend to cancer, a disease that her best friend’s parents, for religious reasons, won’t allow doctors to treat.

On the poetry side, Rachel Richardson’s “Whale Study (1)” delivers exactly what the title suggests, except somehow the piece ends up soft, delicate, and welcoming instead of cold and scientific. The poem marvels at the way whales “go down hunters, blind.” It’s a poem that leaves me not only with a lingering image of whales diving, but with a feeling, too: one of reverence and curiosity.

The nonfiction in this issue is smart, but none smarter than Natalie Bakopoulos’s “Europe, Notice Your Poet,” a well-research and well-framed essay that begins by asking the question, “What makes you Greek?” and then launches into a discussion of Greek perception, politics, identity, and memory that is incredibly illuminating, especially for those who haven’t kept up with the country’s recent developments.

Michigan Quarterly Review is a fairly compact journal, but the material inside will occupy much more of your time than size would indicate. There is certainly humor in the journal, but rarely is there play for the sake of play. It’s an intelligent read, one that’s worth sitting down and cracking open.

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Natural Bridge CoverNatural Bridge

Number 30

Fall 2013


Review by Julie J. Nichols

The cover of this slim volume (nine poems, three short stories, one great interview) depicts an ethereal white horse splashing in, or wading through, or rising up from, blue waves of grass against a stark black background. The spine is the blue of the grass; the title is the white of the horse. The whole effect is classy and dreamlike at the same time, a little like the contents of the journal—an image you want to remember, and yet it doesn’t feel quite like home.

And isn’t that exactly what we want from a small collection of literary pieces? Case in point: taken as a whole, the poems are eclectic, no two alike in form, though again, taken as a whole, they illuminate a certain kind of strangeness inherent in being alive. Take, for example, Keith Ekiss’s prose poem “Birthmark”:

The mark that means the mother wished for wine, spilled across his cheek like the boot of Italy. The spot that says she tasted beets. Smashed apple. Stork nip, angel spit. . . . Did she crave strawberries, startle, and touch her face? . . . Demon sign, sign of fortune: on the right cheek, a happy marriage, on the left, ruin . . .

These definitions enlarge our perceptions, merging folklore, superstition, and sound patterns so that we’ll never see birthmark—literal or figurative—the same. Peter Shireson’s “Parley” summons that moment we’ve all had early in a relationship when sentences fold themselves “into a conversation shaped / like an uncomfortable origami duck.” Thank you, Shireson, for that incisive image! Ricardo Pao-Llosa’s “Empty Tomb Man” evokes an ambiguous number of ‘realities’ based on an empty tomb and a “lidless eye” pulling heaven down, while Rowan Sharp’s “The New Silence,” presents another coffin—this one an abandoned refrigerator or a gliding canoe—and Clark Chatlain’s “(the coming end)” chatters punctuationlessly about saying goodbye (“how do you know”), relinquishing everything you ever wanted (“when things slip away you will ask / you will do you answer do you”).

Lisa Zimmerman’s two poems give us a dying mare, relinquished to inevitability when a vet is an hour away (“I Had Been Thinking of Too Many Dark Things”) and this gem: “Regret tried to hang its little black satchel / on the bare shoulder of my new life / but I shook it off—.” Taken as a whole, the poetry in this issue doesn’t leave you uneasy, exactly, but neither does it leave you settled and sure. It’s a white horse in a field of blue grain, yes, something you’d like to catch before it slips away but you know life won’t be the same if you do.

Then there are the three stories. “Another Version of My Life, in Which I am Played by Meryl Streep,” by Sally Houtman, and the even more felicitously titled “Gatecrasher of Hyboria,” by Ron Austin, present first-person narrators who don’t like the place they’re in and seek to escape in not-quite-acceptable—or anyway not-quite-effective—ways. Though they’re very different, each is sympathetic, a little puzzling, a lot interesting. And “Hurricane Machine,” by Kim Bradley, will pierce the heart of anyone who knows or has been the caregiver of an autistic person, whether or not that caregiver was or is as isolated and lonely as Francis Pellicer, as committed, as desperate.

Every issue of Natural Bridge presents a three-part interview between an author, an editor, and a reader who are given the same ten questions. Amanda Coplin, author of The Orchardist, says that she values authority in writing; her editor Terry Karten believes readers value character, conflicts, and story; but reader Kris Kachirisky of Portland, Oregon, says, in answer to the same question about what is most to be valued in fiction, that “the best authors know their place—and it’s not in the story . . . a disproportionate focus on plot can destroy a story as well. [Take for example] a hollow travesty like Gone Girl—a story which puts the two main characters in a punch-drunk contest of ‘which one do you hate more?’” She goes on in this vein, her biting opinions making us rethink the relationship between our own inner author, editor, and reader, and wanting to be more authentic, better, smarter.

Natural Bridge is a journal out of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. This issue has been ably edited by prize-winning poet Shane Seely. Applause to all, including that sublime white horse!

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New Madrid CoverNew Madrid

Volume 9 Number 1

Winter 2014


Review by Julie J. Nichols

I loved learning that New Madrid (emphasis on “mad”) is named for a seismic zone in Mississippi and Kentucky where, in 1811-12, four earthquakes struck of such magnitude that they changed the course of the Mississippi River. Great power follows the name of such a place!

While this issue isn’t about earthquakes, it is about power: the human power to survive with conscience. The focus is first on another natural disaster, and then ranges thematically to its consequences and beyond: the Great Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s and the hunger that drives us past ruin and misfortune to strength and change. Two sentences in Editor Ann Neelon’s introduction explain New Madrid’s interest in the Irish calamity: “it was not the blight but the failures in response to the blight that elevated an ecological disaster to a human catastrophe,” she says, highlighting the social-justice motivation for a number of the essays, poems, and stories here. “[Indications] are,” she says, “that another ‘great hunger’ is threatening the poor in the United States today. . . . In 2012, 14.5 percent of the U.S. population qualified as food insecure, and forty-nine million Americans lived in food-insecure households . . .” Similar grim statistics pepper Virginia Konchan’s dryly stark, or starkly dry, “Food Deserts (and Oases) of the Landscape and Mind,” in which she juxtaposes Kant’s Critique of Judgment against food-related investigative exposes, literary explorations, and policy legislation, to conclude that not only food aesthetics but also “health and wellness are marked, indelibly, by class.” Failures in response to “[the] global food shortage, malnutrition, and the Western factory farm industry affliction billions of people and animals worldwide” are as reprehensible now as the British mishandling of the potato blight a hundred and fifty years ago. This issue of New Madrid makes sure we don’t forget.

Many of the pieces cast light (bitter though it is) on the Great Hunger itself. A candid interview with T. J. English, author of Paddy Whacked and other books covering Irish-American crime, looks at “traits and trappings of The Great Hunger that Irish America still carries,” the ghosts that still haunt the posterity of Irish immigrants. Catherine Kilcoyne shows that Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, isolated by his very insistence on authenticity, denounces, in his epic poem “The Great Hunger,” the twentieth-century Irish policies of “postponement and deferral” which caused “intellectual and imaginative starvation” as serious as the physical hunger of the previous century. Several poems—Michael Lally’s stark “Irish Oppression Poem,” John Macker’s “april dusk (after Patrick Kavanagh),” Renny Golden’s “My Great Aunt Sister Tomasita,” David Mohan’s “The Hungry Grass,”—illuminate essayist Eamonn Wall’s declaration that “[The] Famine is part of our language and part of how we understand the world. . . . [Starvation], rage, genocide, kindness, indifference, and so on, are grafted to our language. . . . Of the Famine, we must speak.” Take, for example, this excerpt from Mohan’s pome:

The fields round here are haunted.
You can’t stop still in a place
without some earth tremor’s transit....
Lovers beware lying down in long grass.
The patch you choose might consume
your kiss . . .

The Famine—literal or symbolic—still oppresses.

Other pieces range away from Ireland while they mine more deeply themes of hunger and economic injustice. Philip Garrison’s excellent “Aguas” describes the devastation wrought by an ICE raid in Tacoma, in a voice both gently ironic and furious. He loves the immigrants, hates the enforcers, wants them both to know it. Because he needs money, the narrator of Tim Fitts’s short story “Pigs” has to enact a slaughter that disgusts him, but then the people who hired his boss won’t pay up. Here the voice is too defeated to be furious. He’s just telling a disgusting story in the flat tone it deserves, which is sympathetic, nevertheless, because it’s authentically human.

Amelia Bird’s poetic “Acts of Wind” wanders between trees falling and fallen, trunks (and souls) damaged by rot and acts of man. It’s a beautiful piece—gets my nomination for Best American Essays. “Girl Cannibals of Salem County” by Catherine Carberry is a gruesomely fantastic story about hunger beyond the natural. BiLan Liao’s paintings and commentary represent the oppression of the “New China,” a political scourge as crushing as any famine.

Five concise book reviews round out this illuminative issue, whose final impression is the one T. J. English concludes with: that “the final triumph over the trauma and shame of the Famine [is] to be so secure and at peace with our . . . identities that [bearing, and then overcoming, oppression] becomes a point of connection and solidarity with, and compassion for, the family of man.”

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The Normal School CoverThe Normal School

Volume 6 Issue 2

Fall 2013


Review by Kenneth Nichols

One of my favorite things about The Normal School is that the editors are so willing to try something new, but they never leave the reader behind. Managing Editor Sophie Beck and her team begin a new experiment in this issue, adding recurring columns: Joe Bonomo will write about music, William Bradley will take on comics, and Phillip Lopate will submit musings about films.

Ayşe Papatya Bucak kicks off the issue in fine style with her story, “The Missing Beloved, The Gathering of Desire.” The piece centers upon an odd kind of love triangle that involves a widowed mother, a chess master known as “S.” and the Mechanical Turk, a real-life historical curiosity. (Long before the advent of the microprocessor, The Turk was presented to audiences as a machine capable of playing and beating all volunteers. The secret? The human concealed in the machine’s works.) Bucak’s story brought to mind a personal favorite: Ben Fountain’s award-winning story, “Fantasy for Eleven Fingers.” Like Fountain, Bucak is careful not to allow the history to overwhelm what is a timeless story seen through an unexpected lens. Millions of people were fooled into believing that the Mechanical Turk was real; why can’t its operator begin to believe in its sentience?

Bradley’s piece about comic books has one major flaw: it’s too short! It seems that the primary goal of his first Normal School column was to introduce himself and establish his experience with and view of the comic book landscape. Bradley begins with a heartbreaking anecdote, informing the reader about Curt Swan, one of the titular “men of yesterday.” Like so many of the work-for-hire writers and artists whose creations have made billions for Marvel and DC, Swan received a relative pittance for his drawings. Bradley was at a comic book convention in 1994, spying Swan sitting alone at a folding table and doing a crossword puzzle in blue ballpoint pen. Understandably, teenage Bradley was most familiar with more recent artists, but he still paid good-hearted but faint homage to the man who contributed a great deal to our understanding of Superman. Bradley uses the story to point out, with a somewhat heavy heart, that comic creators must move on from the Golden and Silver Ages and must capture the imaginations of the young generation.

Kristen Radtke confronts entropy and evolution in her essay, “The City of the Century: Gary, Indiana.” Although Gary is now representative of the decay of the Rust Belt, the city was once beautiful and once thrived. Radtke describes her acts of urban archaeology and is most persuasive when describing the relics she removed from a crumbling theater: pictures taken by a young man who was killed by the train he was photographing. The most impressive move Radtke makes in the essay is to communicate the deep humanity in the stories of Gary and of the young photographer.

Charlie Clark’s poetry possesses a deceptive kind of momentum. In “Devil in the Holy Land,” he seems to be carving each line out of marble, syllable by syllable. The poem’s protagonist seems to be biding his time in a place in which

The cafés have a kind
of tea that is just
the temperature and taste
of air breathed in summer

Clark imbues the poem’s placid tone with a delightful undercurrent of impending doom.

A small town has a big problem: all of the men have “disappeared into the night” without a trace. So begins Brett Beach’s intriguing “Elderberry,” a story whose structure is as notable as its conceit. Beach unspools the narrative over the course of thirty-one questions: “What did the townswomen think had happened?” “How did the townspeople continue on?” “What change came over Elderberry?” The women of Elderberry act in expected and unexpected ways. Above all, they remind us how much people need each other, regardless of the demographic groups to which they happen to belong.

With its wide range of works of varying lengths in an attractive magazine-sized format, The Normal School possesses the qualities that make it one of my go-to journals and one I often recommend to others.

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Room CoverRoom

Volume 36 Number 4



Review by Melanie Tague

Room is Canada’s oldest literary journal that is both by and about women; each issue focuses on women and gives them a space to “speak and connect” with one another. This issue tackles the theme of “A progressive lens,” promising to bring forth and support new ideas in the form of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction along with an interview and a few book reviews.

One of the most impactful poems in this issue is Nico-Mara McKay’s “Cartographer of Strange Curves.” Cartography is the study and practice of making maps, but these maps don’t have to be in our modern day conception of maps in relation to land; they can be in relation to the mapping of anything, such as a face. McKay writes:

There are smaller things–
The freckles on your face, your hands
Unhindered by reason or regret
A thin line delicately traced
Scaled beyond human reckoning

McKay is mapping the face of another and in doing so is also defining the distance between the “I” and the “You” within the poem, thus defining the cartography of space between two entities as McKay continues:

Boarders defined, yet there remains
A field beyond argument
The distance between two souls

McKay also capitalizes the first word of each line in order to help define each part of the cartography or map; the whole poem is the map, and each line is a small, distinct part of it.

“Familiar,” a creative nonfiction piece by Nadine McCallen, tells the story of two seemingly young lovers who leave home for a couple of days, which seems like an eternity to the couple and alludes to the couple’s decision for an abortion. The work begins: “Mazzy is full of plastic skeletons, bare, bony shoulders, ancient crumbs and lint, old skin, soggy Kleenexes, grimy coffee cups, and crusty spoons.” Mazzy is the car the young couple are living out for the duration of their trip; it is described as “bare” and “grimy,” and in many ways it represents the relationship between the two people. McCallen describes the post-abortion feeling for the character:

This morning we wake up in the country by a waterfall in British Columbia; we are both like neckless caterpillars in our mummy sleeping bags, toques and big knit sweaters, sagging long johns and double layered socks. . . . You smile at me with one furry-browed eye sneaking out of hibernation. I look away now, I know it though I deny it has meaning, and you don’t ask because you already know.

Again she mentions mornings saying “The mornings are misty now, the dampness is persistent; it goes straight to the bone.” McCallen quickly turns morning into mourning while at the same time bringing the shame that comes with abortion into the picture saying, “I look away now.” The piece ends, bringing the theme of distance into the picture once again, “It is only a matter of miles, a matter of moon cycles.” As quickly as this piece begins, it ends, much like the life of the unborn that is hinted at throughout the work. “Familiar” is a quick read and definitely a work you should not skip over.

Molly Lynch’s “Acute Failure” is a fiction piece that, on the surface, is about the main character Magnolia and her desire to save her mother who has failing kidneys. As the reader digs deeper into the story, though, it becomes apparent that this story is also meant to display the ways in which women can be asked to prostitute themselves or arguably use themselves or their bodies to get something they want or need. In Magnolia’s case, she puts up with abuse and forced sex to get a kidney from her abusive boyfriend for her mother who is on dialysis. The work leaves the reader questioning, “What is female empowerment?” Is it being able to use yourself to get what you want or is it being able to say no and protecting yourself and your body?

This issue of Room also includes an enlightening interview by Lorrie Miller with Gail Anderson-Dargatz, some captivating art from Heather Benning revolving mainly around dollhouses, and several well thought-out reviews of recent books. While Room is by and about women, it does not mean that men can’t get something meaningful from this journal; men and women alike should head over to Room’s website, order a copy, and enrich their lives.

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Salmagundi CoverSalmagundi

Numbers 180 & 181

Fall 2013/Winter 2014


Review by Sherra Wong

Reading Salmagundi is like sitting in a graduate school seminar in the humanities or a panel at the 92nd Street Y. Confidence, and sophistication, big names, and the requisite originality ooze through the page. Fortunately, it never quite tips into snobbishness, and following the writers’ trains of thought was for me a demanding but enjoyable exercise. Depending on your background, though and I use the word “background” broadly to mean cultural, ethnic, class, academic, professional, or simply experience or preference as a reader—it may be hard to miss the milieu in which Salmagundi situates itself: among the cerebral, among those who do not have to or who do not worry about money, those who have already carved out a place for themselves in the world, the arrived.

I felt it most acutely in Daniel Harris’s “Blue Rock,” an allegory about a drug that induces highs when used in tandem with reading material. For once, people abandon Candy Crush in favor of literature. But use of the drug is concentrated among the poor, with “worrisome social consequences”:

The poor and uneducated, who were either unemployed or endured the mind-numbing routines of minimum-wage jobs as dish washers and garbage men, were suddenly vastly over-qualified and began to question, not only the vapidity of their responsibilities, but the appalling inequities of the workplace.

In this passage and elsewhere, the story attempts to subvert the relationship between reading and education on one hand and race and class on the other: poor black people now read, and the middle class does not. But the language reveals an assumption from a particular perspective: minimum-wage jobs are mind-numbing and vapid, and these words don’t seem to invite a satirical reading. Although the pronoun “I” never appears, the storyteller looms large.

“Privilege” has become a dirty word in many circles, and so I hesitate to use it even in a more neutral sense, without judgment; yet the word stayed with me with every story, essay, poem, and interview. Russell Banks’s “Big Dog” opens with an artist receiving the news that he’d just won a MacArthur, and later we learn that the half-million-dollar award equaled (only) five years’ salary at his college teaching job. His partner was a weaver, and the story takes place at dinner party attended by a landscape photographer who supported his novelist husband. Martin Jay’s “Mementoes Post-Mori: Thoughts on the Collector’s Mania” explores the psychology of the collector of objects. Various theorists with European-sounding names make their appearances, of which I only recognized Walter Benjamin. But even so, the essay is clear, thoughtful, and entertaining.

It is in the poems that I come a little closer to the raw. “She had a bleeding vagina but no bosom / and a man’s voice that barked, ‘Shut the fuck up.’” So begins Henri Cole’s “The Lonely Domain.” The violence softens beautifully at the end:

The kitchen smelled like a pine forest,
everyday thoughts that are my world
returned to me, sunlight was white
with misty distances, and I lived.

Resentment seems to weigh on Catherine Pond’s “Tauromaquia”: “You think that having been raised on violence / that I will respond / to violence.” The images of bullfighting intertwine with a troubled relationship. The poem seethes with a tension whose eruption is imminent, and it is the more powerful because the eruption itself is not shown. It ends this way: “This animal / is not for you, not for you / this dagger taken lying down.”

My favorite is Daniel Swift’s “Letter From London,” a piece of reportage on the English Defense League (EDL). I like it for its poetry and clear-sightedness, but most of all for its ability to articulate ambiguity. The EDL “are a rough and popular nationalist movement, famous for their vocal opposition to what they see as the spread of Islamic law across England.” Predictably, those in Swift’s social and professional circles are “taken aback” when he tells them he’s been to an EDL march. But Swift refuses to be predictable, and opts instead for fairness, honesty, and fantastic turns of phrase. He compares the public speaking skills of EDL’s leader to those of Mark Antony, believes that Occupy Wall Street thirsts for media attention as much as the EDL, and criticizes the Guardian’s coverage of the EDL marches as well as the faulty logic of the beliefs of some EDL members. The essay shows a writer stepping out of his own world to be curious and understanding about those of others; perhaps that is why I like it best.

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Stone Voices CoverStone Voices

Issue 10

Winter 2013


Review by Travis Laurence Naught

Eleven writers and four featured artists share space in this 98 page-long issue. The glossy finish on every page, a very artistic layout, and deep thought writings make this issue of Stone Voices a perfect coffee table magazine. It carries a byline of “art-spirituality-mindfulness-creativity,” calling out for readers looking inside to invest some time rather than a distracted flip through. That is not to say the material is not entertaining.

Each of the included art portfolios were placed at regular intervals between some heavy hitting words. Trained physicist Andy Ilachinski, “Synesthetic Landscapes,” and accredited artist Ralph Hassenpflug, “Dance . . . Like a Flame,” both worked with the medium of photography. Ilachinski hopes to elicit in his audiences a melding of the senses through a series of photographs that twist light through a glass in very colorful ways. Hassenpflug presents a series of photos that he hopes represent “a connection between the world and myself, between archetypes and myself.”

I found more worth in viewing the pieces of art created by Ann J Calandro, “City of Dreams,” and Lorna Filippini-Mulliken, “Water.” The works cannot be felt in their original scope, as the stated sizes of the pieces were much larger than the magazine itself, but both artists were able to capture nuances in their respective areas of interest. Calandro presents multi-media images of cityscapes that have a very gritty, real feel to them, even when only viewed on the glossy page. It is one of her works that graces the cover of this issue. Filippini-Mulliken took me to the beach and underwater in her art. I’ve always been a sucker for the sea, and I recommend anyone who feels the same to look up her work.

Columnist Vincent Louis Carrella, “Tree People,” uses photographs of some outstanding trees to make interesting and unique connections statements about what can be learned in nature. He talks about trees’ unflappable drive to support the community that is nature, even in death, how humans could benefit by learning to be similarly supportive. One line he proffers about a tree that would be good for humans to accept reads, “I will never be anything other than what I am.” Reading this article definitely got my philosophically creative juices flowing.

Teresa Piccari’s “Smoke and Mirrors: The Camden International Film Festival” is a wonderful narrative of her experience volunteering for a small town event with big town aspirations. She guides readers through small town Maine as she picks up and drops off various festival documentation and out-of-town bigwigs whom she may have never met without getting involved.

Each of the four features in this issue deserves attention. Carla Woody (“Acts of Creation”), Rob Ziegler (“Krantzie Paints the Wrong World Right”), and Megan Steusloff (“The Masterpiece”) all wrote beautiful pieces. I applaud them and think anyone who picks up this issue will enjoy their work.

Sandell Morse’s “Hidden Messages” is an intricate look at one boy’s survival through the Holocaust in a town that still balks at dealing with the topic. Morse was especially invested in telling this particular story accurately because the young boy and she both have the same family name: Hirsch. A good portion of the writing was done about her visit to Auvillar, France, the town where the boy lived. I was struck by her presentation of the deep history against Jewish people in that area and struck even harder by the ways she was turned away from asking too many questions by so many people on her visit. She was eventually able to find many of the answers she set out in search of in a letter that she had translated and puts it in print for anyone who picks up this issue. It is a compelling read filled with historical fact, made more impactful by the pairings throughout the article of photographs showing the faces of Holocaust victims.

I will close now with a quote from Neil Carpathios’s poem “Theophany.” It is in regards to why a handkerchief would be hanging from the tail of a kite: “. . . to try and dry the tears / of the clouds up there.” For me, these words play well on the widely used sports phrase “it’s all over but the crying,” and serve well to sum up the emotionality of this issue. This issue of Stone Voices will definitely affect whomever peruses its pages.

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Sugar House Review CoverSugar House Review

Issue 9

Fall/Winter 2013


Review by Melanie Tague

Sugar House Review is an independent poetry journal based in Salt Lake City, UT. It is named after one of the oldest and most artistic neighborhoods in the city, Sugar House. The journal aims not only to be rooted in their region and to gain local recognition, but to also appeal to a larger national and international audience. This desire for a global reach ensures that each issue of Sugar House Review is filled with great poetry and thoughtful reviews. As the artwork of this issue suggests the underlying theme is of the honeybee, each poem calls upon the “spirit” of the honeybee in some form of another making issue number nine a delectable issue.

Gary Jackson’s poem “Because A Flight to D.C. Is Too Expensive When You’re Paying A Car Note and Your Husband Still Ain’t Found Work” is a poem that speaks to the pain in the repetition that can exist in interacting with a loved one suffering from dementia as well as the lingering pain of losing and having lost. Jackson creates the thread of repetition with his first line, stating, “Nearing the end of line”; this line or parts of this line are repeated in four out of six stanzas. This repetition works to create the same dizzying effect in the reader that the characters in the poem are feeling. The poem discusses that it is not only painful to witness the loved one’s health and mental capacities declining, but their forgetfulness can also often cause pain, as the main character is reminded and compared to her dead daughter: “my mother wants to see my daughter / I remind her of the dead, // tell her Gina died years ago, a thread / cut short . . .” This is a poem you can read again and again and learn something new from each time; the line breaks, the rhyme scheme, the words themselves, all interact to create a powerful impact on the reader.

Another great poem in this issue is “Your Ghost” by Hillary Gravendyk. The first thing the reader may notice with this poem is its lack of punctuation; while not completely devoid of punctuation, it is very sparse. This is a poem of memories or ghosts (for the sake of this poem they could be synonymous), the mind’s ability to change the reality of a memory regardless of how disastrous it may have been, and cause a yearning for that ghost or memory that created such disaster while at the same time knowing it would be bad to return to such a memory: “Parted from the scene of old disasters / a magnet pulling on memory in two directions.” These first two lines also speak to the “why” in the question, “Why does the author leave out punctuation in this poem?” It is two allow for the memory the reader is reading about to be “split” or read in two different ways, “directions.” As the poem nears its end, it pulls back to the present and away from the ghost and introduces punctuation:

I want to get drunk, hit rock bottom, kill something small
I want to break every heart in the room: your apparition
curled around my neck like an animal
made from clouds.

Not only does Gravendyk use punctuation to bring things into reality, but she also pulls the readers in by making them realize they are still being pulled in two directions despite the presence of her memory; a ghost is still lingering as she compares hearts to apparitions, and the readers are left to decide if love is worth the pain or not.

One final poem worth checking out is the Mark Wagenaar’s “The Stitches That Hold the World Together (The Beekeeper’s Eschatology),” which, in one way or another, brings the loose threads from the entire issue together. The topic of the piece is just as the title suggests: it is a beekeeper’s view on death. The eloquence lies in Wagenaar’s ability to make the poem flow like honey with well-placed line breaks that are impactful, yet do not disrupt the flow in the least bit:

At dawn the bees wake in bean husks while chimney tops rise
from earth, until new towns stand shipwrecked
on the ruins of old cities. And like the ruins of stingers persist,
beyond harm or plucking, a body’s absence
at both ends, the life they pierced & the life they’ve taken.

The narrator uses “dawn” as another way to describe the beginning of life for a bee or human and then allows “stingers” to be taken to literally mean “stingers” or to represent anything that may take a life, such as cancer or a stroke, because once that thing kills its host it too will die, just like a bee upon losing its stinger. The poem continues:

We ask questions because our alphabets pierce the dark
for a moment, the questions what we’ve made of a lack of answers,
What we’ve made of the dark & counted hollows of the body,
questions that allow us a glimpse into the hereafter
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
         even as the bees sleep again when the sun sinks, the sunset
a hundred veils in flames, even as you, too, sleep fast in a husk.

As quickly as Wagenaar starts the piece, he has gone through a day, a life cycle, and ends in the dark, the place where humans pull their stringers out to “pierce the dark,” poke death, play with fire, be human.

So, what are you waiting for? Skip a cup of coffee from Starbucks and pick up an issue of Sugar House Review. Not only are there tons of great poems to check out, but there are also several great book reviews that are worth a read too.

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