Mini reviews of current issues of online literary magazines
Reviews by Kirsten McIlvenna
Posted November 4, 2013
Psychopomp Magazine, a new online fiction quarterly, aims to publish work that “defies genre and isn’t afraid to go beyond the confines of traditional form.” Their first issue is a testament to that.
The issue opens with John Colburn’s “The Two Daughters,” which is reminiscent of traditional folk tales and legends, but not quite. Within the frame of the story, the father tells his daughters a legend of how a witch turned two sons into bears to do her bidding; he does this to convince them to stop running away at night to the woods. But instead, it inspires them to go in again and kill one of the bears:
“We’ll cut up our new boyfriend,” said the oldest, “and remake the world.”
“We’ll bury him in sacrifice to our virginity,” said the youngest.
The oldest looked slyly away.
They were going to put the bear’s heart beneath the sink; it would be our clock.
“And one paw at each corner of the yard,” I said, joining them. My daughters were as powerful as any witch. Or they were witches. They were going to enchant us, make a dream pass through our house one body at a time.
If it is a folk tale, I’m not sure I know the lesson. It doesn’t step outside the boundaries too far, but just enough to keep it interesting.
James Penha’s “Axes” is actually adapted from a Burmese folktale, though it doesn’t indicate which. In Penha’s version, it is a story of manhood. To retrieve his father’s original axe (which he needs for his livelihood) after his father denies a nymph’s offer of the gold and diamond axes, the son must take it from between the nymph of the lagoon’s thighs. After a seemingly sexual encounter, he brings it to his father who says it is now the son’s. While on its own, it is interesting to read, I can’t help but wonder which it’s been adapted from. After some research, all I found was the Aesop’s fable of “The Golden Axe” in which a man also refuses a golden axe in preference to his own.
My favorite piece is by Joel Hahns, which is broken into small chunks, delineated by the number of days left until the moon has fully floated away. A “she” is upset, as she only sees her lover when the low tide reveals him, and without the moon there will be no tide. It’s written in a dream-like tone with words that slip and feel smooth on the tongue and long, flowing sentences. On day 12:
At night, the moon already looks less luminescent. But the tides are still there, the morning’s high and the late evening’s low. After the astronomers have left, she spreads her body across the pier, her chest over the water, hair draped, salt-stained silver. She searches the sand for conch shells, holds them up to her lips and casts prayers into their infinite spirals, casts them out to sea.
Also in this issue is a selection from Brian Oliu’s writings about pop songs, information about “common human viruses” by Anne Valente, and a story of two trees, one of which is dying from the salted roads (by Kelly Lynn Thomas).
Fiction Fall 2013
Reviewing Sixfold is an entirely different game due to the way submissions are selected. Instead of being voted on by a judge or editors of the magazine, submissions are voted on by other writers that submit, working their way up the ranks until the top 3 are selected for prizes and others are selected for inclusion into the issue.
The top ranked piece, Slater Welte’s “What Made Us Leave,” is set in an uptight suburban community where the narrator’s family doesn’t seem to fit in, yet the mother attempts to make them appear normal as possible. Unfortunately for her, when her husband, the narrator, finds a person’s severed hand while gardening, they are quickly exposed as anything but normal. As readers, we don’t get to see where the overly large hand came from or why it’s there. But this isn’t the compelling part to me. The way it is written off as just something strange makes me compelled to get into the mind of the narrator. If I found a hand in my garden, I would scream and run. But this doesn’t seem to be any of the characters’ reactions; the narrator, in fact, seems more concerned about how it affects his garden than disturbed by the severed hand.
Heather Frese’s “The Coffee Table Book of Funeral Etiquette” (ranked second) is one of the best funeral stories I’ve read in a while. Although it has the typical elements (narrator doesn’t know what to do, points out how people just don’t understand, contemplates sex as a cure to feel normal), this story feels fresh as it is structured around the narrator’s idea to create a coffee table book, full of pictures and instructions, about how to act at a funeral. Take, for example, these rules she creates:
It is unwise to mix alcohol and grief when another set of calling hours await. Save your imbibing for the wake. Remember, too, that consumption of alcohol may induce false memories of closeness with the deceased.
It gives advice with a sting of the truth. But ultimately, the narrator, upon comforting her son in the middle of the night, decides that when it comes to funerals, “there are no rules, except that sometimes there are.”
And although these two strong pieces made it to the top, I would have voted for Bronwyn Berg’s “Try to be Normal” (ranked fourth). Written as diary entries from a young girl who has decided to stop speaking and close herself off, this piece perfectly gives tiny details to the reader to find out what is going on, even though the narrator doesn’t seem to understand. Images and lines from the characters are juxtaposed next to each other to reveal deeper meaning, connection, and symbolism. Take this excerpt, for example:
My mother also tells me that I had a strange first word. It wasn’t Mama or Dada like other kids it was “Help.” She also said that I called Dad “not Mother” and I called my sister Bridget “Not me.” Eventually I learned their names, of course. I’m not a retard. Which is not a nice word. I know this, because I’ve been called it. Sometimes when Bridget and I walk home from school the kids sing “Extra, extra read all about it, Birdie’s retarded, no doubt about it!” Bridget hates it when they sing that. . . . I asked Mother if I was a retard and she said I wasn’t. She said I was just different. I asked Bridget what it means to be different and she said “Not normal.”
Berg’s bio says that this is her debut fiction piece, and I was shocked. She should keep writing, and you should really go enjoy this piece for yourself.
And while I’ve mentioned only three pieces, there is a ton more in the issue to read, well over 200 pages’ worth. Because readers and voters can, and I assume will, constantly change, the selection process and feel of the magazine will, too, making it a very flexible and dynamic publication, varying as the readers do.
Starting off this issue of poetry magazine Chantarelle’s Notebook is a poem that easily reveals its insight, a trait found throughout the issue. LaMar Giles’s “Uninspired” pokes fun at current popular music, noting that “a sudden breeze / moves me more / than music nowadays.” It’s short, fun, and makes its point clear.
Joan Maro’s “Hunger,” too, is a commentary, on ballerinas. As an almost narrative poem, “Hunger” shows the narrator as she finds a “broken” ballerina huddled in the corner of a dark theatre. The speaker wonders, “is this what happens when ballerinas are hungry? / Do they break like the shell of a walnut, / when the wooden soldier closes his mouth?” Its tone is dreamlike, as if we, as readers, are transported into the fantasy world the ballerina seems to live in. And while the insight is straightforward, it is revealed in a way that is delightful to read.
Raina Masters’s “Twice a Victim” is unsettling as a being kicks from inside the speaker, but she recognizes it not as a gift but as an “infiltrator.” She is, instead, shamed:
I will peel my skin to be rid of you,
keep your existence a secret,
lock your shell in a metal box
bury you deep in the ground.
Neil Silberblatt successfully weaves in a line of Spanish (sí, por favor exhumen mis huesos: yes, please exhume my bones) to the end of each stanza as he puts himself in the shoes of poet Pablo Neruda, whose remains have been exhumed to help determine whether Pablo was killed by cancer or the orders of Chile’s military ruler, General Augusto Pinochet:
Sí, por favor exhumen mis huesos.
I cannot say what tale they will tell
dispatched like Hamlet’s father
or a more prosaic finale.
A writer never reveals his ending.
It is a voyage of discovery
upon which we will embark together.
take me outside.
I long to feel the sun on my tired bones.
The poetry of Chantarelle’s Notebook is not overly flowery or lyrical and does not contain hard to reveal meanings; it is straightforward and accessible to the reader.
Executive Editor Ben Evans writes that he hopes readers will find, in Fogged Clarity, “something resonant here, something stirring and poignant . . .” The sole fiction piece, Benjamin Roesch’s “If You’re Listening to This,” resonates with me. It is a heartfelt look into Luke’s lifelong struggle to remember his father and feel his father’s love for him. Now married to Jasper, Luke donates his sperm to his ex-wife, who is also gay and wants to have a baby in France with her wife. What seemed at first a brainless act, becoming a biological father turns out to be a bigger deal for Luke than he would have guessed. Eager to tell his new daughter that he loves her and will always be there in the way his own father couldn’t, Luke runs into conflict when her mothers tell him that they don’t plan to tell their daughter who the donor is. It’s definitely a standout piece, right from the very beginning, which is definitely an attention getter: “Luke found himself in a small room with no windows. There was porn of all persuasions. There were tissues and baby wipes. There was Jergens almond scented lotion.”
The poetry, for the most part short, offers an audio reading, at least for all but two of the poems. But, in fact, my favorite poem was not accompanied by a reading. Z. G. Tomaszewski’s “Loss” visualizes the color yellow, one generally thought to be happy, but for this speaker, it brings up memories of the death of his young daughter, who was hit by a car as she went down a hill on her bicycle (training wheels still intact). The yellow reminds him of “glittered gold streamers whirling / from handlebars” and the dress his wife was wearing. But it’s written in second person, inviting the reader to feel to feel the same loss he does:
Where does color go when it shifts
away from sight? And when
the pigment presents itself again
does it feel permanent,
as though it never left, etched
inside your eye?
Also compelling is James Grinwis’s “Fragilistics.” Reading it is like discovering truths about our world that are obvious but that we’ve never thought about:
Everyone in my country
is an ex sometime, it is the nature
of many countries and people
to cycle through pain and recovery
like a moose shedding its antlers
year by year, some of us do that
others can’t . . .
It’s a take on “the old becomes new,” but it gives new imagery and light to that same insight.
There are also poems by Andrea Potos, Stephen Siperstein, Michael T. Young, and Sean Lause as well as a musical selection, interview, and a couple of reviews.
foam:e, an Australian online poetry annual, is now in its tenth year. Because of its origin, I am lost on some of the details, references, and government issues, but overall, the issue was an enjoyable array of poetry, varying in topic, form, and tone.
Simon Patton’s “Simon to Simon” (to Simon Cheang) approaches the idea of meeting someone with the same name: “As I call you again by our personal name, / I try tactfully to undo / a subtle defensiveness in my make-up.” It’s playful (“I work doubly hard to make sure / that I’m not simply talking out loud to myself”) yet also insightful (“I hear in a ‘background’ that will never speak its mind / the buzz of our intimate no one”).
Michael Aiken’s “Wedding Spielzimmer” struck me immediately with its imagery:
grey crows perch at the fork of a branch
in a barren tree overlooking the hospital playground
mice gnaw squat hedges in the corner of the courtyard
under the unused slide
Jena Woodhouse’s “Imeros,” a poem of a kiss that never actually happened, also attracted me with its imagery:
Our cheeks rested
against each other,
butterfly to petal;
eyelash ensnared eyelash;
for an instant,
time turned blind eyes
and checked the granules
flowing through the hourglass
I spent a lot of time with Mark Young’s prose poem “Actually,” trying to uncover what each line means and refers to, assuming it refers to the recent exhumation of poet Pablo Neruda but not quite able to fit everything in. Either way, it gets the reader thinking, proof it is working.
And be sure to read some excellent shorter poems (too short to
quote here without giving it all away) by Natasha Adams and Gregory
A. Gould. The issue in entirety has plenty of poetry to linger over
as well as some reviews and an interview with poet Michael Farrell
(who orginally came up with the magazine's name).