Mini reviews of current issues of online literary magazines
Reviews by Kirsten McIlvenna
Posted May 6, 2013
January and April, 2013
Ascent has been featuring essays, fiction, and poetry since 1975. The website is updated regularly, every couple of months.
Jennifer Jordán Schaller’s essay “Doin Time” (published in January) reflects on her jealousy of her father’s new family, one that he pays attention to and takes care of. He wasn’t the best father to her growing up, and then went to prison—though she isn’t quite sure why. She struggles to accept that her father has changed, and she sometimes wishes to just stay mad at him to make him understand how much it had hurt:
Forgive and forget: what does that even mean? Is forgiveness trusting the person you know will let you down again and again? Is forgiveness not feeling anger toward the person who has hurt you again and again? Or is forgiveness acknowledging the humanity of someone who has made bad choices? Sure, my father is human. Yes, he made mistakes. But am I forgiving him when I cut him off, not to spite him but to spare myself pain?
Gary Fincke’s “The Selfishness of Bravery” (published in April) is an excellent fiction piece set back during the Cold War on the night of the young narrator’s prom. The same day he is supposed to have his special night, taking his date with his late father’s 1955 Fiat Spider though he doesn’t have a driver’s license, there is talk of Cuba arming their missiles and the U.S. bombing first: “At that particular moment I knew the meaning of ‘bittersweet,’ because I’d driven that beautiful red two-seater up and down our street . . . but now, a few weeks from getting a license, I might go up in a mushroom cloud before I ever drove that car farther than the Miller’s house . . .”
Theresa D. Smith’s “Threshold” is a beautiful poem on the subject of loss. When even others have forgotten her voice or face, “even the exact quality of her finger touching your shoulder . . . is perfectly vivid.” It is reminiscent of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which Orpheus is allowed to take Eurydice back from the underworld as long as he doesn’t look back as she follows him. The poem reads: “Don’t turn around. If you keep going, she’ll follow you. If you forget / the need to see her face. You remember it well enough already, anyway.”
But don’t have any worries about applying that same rule to this issue of Ascent. Do look back; read the pieces again and look back into the archives.
A literary journal devoted to women’s sexuality
If discussion of female genitalia makes you uncomfortable, this may not be the journal for you. But if you understand and appreciate that women’s sexuality is natural, then read on.
This issue, themed “violence,” opens with a poem by Erin Donevan titled “not the word fetus.” Written in second person, it takes you into an exam room where you “will lie down on a table with your knees bent and feet in holders called stirrups. / [you will never feel more exposed].” It’s a brief, but powerful, poem about the final moment in which a woman decides there is no going back: she is having an abortion. Yet the doctor doesn’t call it a fetus—he uses the word “baby.”
Sarah Forbes’s poem “Vanilla Hex” is chilling, especially as it nears the last lines:
How long must I stay here?
Amongst the school bus graveyard
Where the earth smells of death
That’s what I’ll commit to memory
And the bruises coursed like smoke around my ankles
And in the shadow of my insignificance
Road kill wrapped in pink cellophane
In her essay “Sex and Violins,” Ellen Keim touches on the ideas of violence in women’s sexual lives: “When you’re twelve and you’re told that blood and pain are just part of becoming a woman, that’s not exactly reassuring. You begin to wonder what else you haven’t been told about,” she writes. She explains that girls are taught to fear sex until they are married, but then are supposed to believe that it will bring them romance and closer to their partner. Additionally, she notes that “When we are told to be careful, the implication is that we shouldn’t get pregnant, not that men can use sex to hurt us.” She questions how to really classify a rape and pushes that women have the right to say no, to choose pleasure over pain, and “most of all, that [women] have the right to be safe.”
Heather Lenz’s “Owned” shows the way in which a man might dominate a woman, through violent sex. Eventually, “You’ll sink, / forget what lovemaking means”:
start walking down the street with a leash
attached. Learn new tricks.
Years later, you might fall in love with
Prozac or set your sights on daydreams,
become a Sappho with a garland of pain.
Read also Melissa Noelle Esguerra’s “Symbiosis,” Kristin Roedell’s “Field Guide,” and Laura Sterling’s “The Mominatrix.” While some journals that are themed or focus on an important issue or idea run the risk of having pieces with a good message but mediocre writing, there is nothing about Cliterature that doesn’t suggest both meaningful and well-written literature.
10 a year
If I can say one thing about The Drum it’s this: don’t read it. No, you read that correctly. It’s just a corny joke to say that you can’t read this literary magazine; you listen to it. Your resource for “Literature out Loud,” The Drum publishes fiction, essays, novel excerpts, and interviews in audio form, often in the author’s own voice. Even if you don’t think you’d enjoy audio literature, go to the website, at least to check it out.
The site is extremely user friendly, allowing you to listen online or download individual pieces for free that you can then upload to your phone or music device and share with up to five friends. And the “Story Badges” make each piece easily identifiable with its theme (comedy, crisis, family, relationships), its form (essay, novel excerpt, short fiction), and its length (under 40, 30, 20, or 10 minutes).
The current issue contains a piece by Joshua Malbin called “The Mating Behavior of Tits.” This story is about a bird named Peter and his first season of mating. At first, he struggles, especially as only half of his chicks survive, but he matures and finds his place in the world.
Aine Greany’s “Sanctuary,” written in second person, starts with a reflection of her mother’s death as a result of cancer. Greany is in New England while her homeland is Ireland. She illustrates differences between her life and the one her mother had, using the Protestant church she lives next to as a grounding point. And while she doesn’t find God in the church, she does find her own kind of sanctuary and comfort.
Also included in this issue are an essay from Rob MacLean and Judith McCormack’s “Creation Stories.” The reading of McCormack’s work is part of a collaboration The Drum does with print magazines. Her piece is published in the current issue (Number 43) of the Harvard Review.
Fiddleblack, an online magazine now on its tenth issue, seeks to find and publish pieces that “eloquently capture what it means to know the finite bounds of self and place.” The editors go on to say that they are “interested in works of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction that make purposeful commitments to figuring out whom one is meant to be, and how it is that one should exist in the space enclosed around him.” And certainly the characters included in this issue are searching through these problems.
Gillian Morrison’s “Sparks” is an excellently written fiction piece that weaves a young girl’s memories of her encounters (both sexual and otherwise) with Chase. These memories are woven in with a memory of when the narrator and Chase no longer see each other, or look at each other. They are at a school trip at an amusement park, and while waiting in line for a ride, one of their classmates falls from a rollercoaster, lands hard on the cement, and instantly dies—right in front of the narrator’s eyes.
Eric Van Hoose’s “Remember the Bridge” has excellent descriptions, such as this one: “He drank a beer and got warm, feeling a calm rocking like a washing machine starting in his stomach. He got in the rhythm and ordered another and another, seeing black, letting the rage waft from his hot skin up into the dead ceiling fan, smoke curling around its blades.”
Elias Marsten’s “In the Wink of a Young Girl’s Eye” is an eerie tale of a man who stalks young girls. But not just any young girls: “Finds were on the tail of freshness, only beginning to take scholarships in New York and Tennessee and the Carolinas. Spoiled Finds who’d done more than a semester were not worth the fortitude that a Catch required.” And this is all a hunt for him, taking days to watch his newest prey’s habits from afar. These moments in the story are interwoven with his job stocking stores with Pepsi and his life at home where he lives with three female roommates (who, by the way, are too old to be targets). I was captivated as I read, wondering how he’d make the final Catch. And what he did with her when he caught her? I was surprised.
Find also in this issue Kim Slama’s “Pig Bitch” and Ross McMeekin’s “The Keeper of Strays.”
The feel and writing of Literal Latte, a magazine that has been “serving up a stimulating brew since 1994,” are authentic. All of the work is quality and well worth the read. And what’s even better is that this issue features contest winners—the best of the best.
Mary Heather Noble takes second prize for the 2012 Literal Latte Essay Award with “Luffing.” Using her memories of sailing and rich language, Noble illustrates her family’s dynamics. All her father wants to do is sail, but her mother doesn’t want to have anything to do with it. Noble goes often with her father, but eventually grows out of it, choosing sports in high school instead. But even as she gets closer with her mother—seeing her father in new eyes—she continues to sail when her father asks her to: “When we come back, it’s always late, sometimes even long past our dinner. My mother asks me how it went. I shrug, wary of what she’ll say when I like it, fearful of what my father will think when I don’t.” Although an excellent essay already, I think it would have been better if she used less memories, as some of them seemed to make the same illustration.
Annita Sawyers’s piece, “The Other Chair,” is a braid essay. On one strand we see Sawyers as a young schizophrenic patient in a ward, and the other strand shows her years later, again at a ward, but this time as a psychologist. The scenes illustrate her struggle to impress and to let go of her past:
In a small, quiet space, deep within my mind, I was thinking about the young woman I’d pictured for so long as a psychiatric patient, wondering if I was ready to leave that image behind. Could I call myself a psychologist now? Had I indeed become a psychiatric doctor?
There is no doubt that this piece should have (and did) win first prize.
Judith Slater’s piece takes first in the short short section, telling the story of a cashier/sometimes-psychic. But this psychic doesn’t see into the future; she sees into the past. Through talking about seeing into the past of her customers, the narration lends itself toward some excellent thoughts about the past in general:
With a past life, everything is over — the bad choices, the missed opportunities. No more mistakes to make. There’s a comfort in that. . . .
Maybe it’s a good thing to have a past you can’t remember, instead of a past you can’t forget. . . .
How could I go back to a past life without someone I trust, someone like me, to guide me through the journey and bring me back safe and whole? It’s not something you can do alone.
I read Susan Cohen’s “Birding by Ear,” which won first place in poetry, several times. In this narrative poem, the narrator and her husband attend an adult class in which he tells the young, “slim, blonde” about his job as a kid: shooting the birds that would eat the cherry crop.
In their taxonomy, the avian kingdom
divided neatly into damned Cherry Eaters
and birds allowed to live.
A Cherry Eater chirped, and he ran to the orchard.
He plugged thousands at a nickel apiece,
bounty hunter, .22 slung
where now he hefts a spotting scope and aims
at nothing more than magnification.
Be sure also to read third prize in essays (“Kritios Boy” by Nancy Ludmerer), third prize in fiction (“Mistaken Identity” by Enid Harlow), and the rest of the poetry selection with writing from Gregory Loselle, Tracy DeBrincat, Clara Changxin Fang, and Denton Loving.
Volume 7 Issue 2
Mezzo Cammin is a journal “devoted to formal poetry by women.” The explanation of the title is explained as such:
Our journal’s title, Mezzo Cammin, derives most recognizably from the opening line of Dante’s Inferno; more immediately, however, we borrow it from “Mezzo Cammin” by Judith Moffett (who, in turn, derived her title and theme from Longfellow as well as from Dante). Moffett’s satirical, twenty-three stanza poem about reaching middle age inspires not only through her dexterity in working with rhyme and meter, but leads us to hope, as well, that controversies about how to define “form” have, at last, ripened to middle age.
The issue starts with three poems from Diana Blakely. My favorite is “Charlotte Bronte’s Gloves” in which she makes references to Jane Eyre, Bertha, and Brocklehurst. It starts:
Hands lower to touch that wedding dress
And silk-draped hat on Jane Eyre’s bed.
Beyond windows, what should be the dead
Of winter comforts us with moony pollens,
A few blossoms on mostly still-bare limbs.
Last week’s snow melts. “Reader, I married him.”
Gail White’s poem points out several favors of being a woman: “No one minds if you’re not brave. / When the ship’s about to sink, / You’re the first the crew will save.” The poem ends by saying “Pity men their lives of stress: / You’re successful with much less.”
One of Susan Spear’s contributing poems orders the priorities over the course of a day between a couple, finishing all the day’s chores and errands to finally conclude: “What’s that? You’re bored? We could make love.”
Athena Kildegaard’s “Song” speaks of her mother, memories of coming home “to find her rolling crust or grating cheese” and how she “. . . only owned one sturdy bra / at any given time . . .”:
White rubber threads
escaped the cotton shell, the shoulder straps,
in a penny-pincher’s version of lace, curled
in delicate scallops across her skin. She bowed
to settle her breasts into the cups.
The table of contents lists the authors along with a phrase from one of their contributing poems, a great way to entice the reader to click the link to read more, and to find the poem with the quote. Other contributors include Terese Coe, Enda Coyle-Greene, Erica Dawson (featured poet), Nicole Caruso Garcia, Terry Godbey, and more.