Screen Reading

Mini reviews of current issues of online literary magazines

Reviews by Kirsten McIlvenna

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Agave Magazine :: Alimentum :: Apogee :: FictionNow :: The Monongahela Review


Posted January 06, 2014

Agave Magazine CoverAgave Magazine

Volume 1 Issue 1

Summer/Fall 2013


Although, with most magazines, I’m drawn in mostly to the prose (as a personal reading preference), Agave’s first issue held such strong poetry that I couldn’t help moving from one to the next, eager to see what the next poem had to offer.

Michael Sarnowski’s “Where Violence Comes From,” which starts, “The aisles of the grocery store are laid out like ribs / cut in two by a walkway of sternum,” perfectly illustrates the narrator’s motive and need to act out—though he does manage to suppress it. The aisles and items on the shelf help further the ideas: “This unopened can of black beans in my hand— // I want to send it through their teeth like a brick / through abandoned factory windows. We both know better.” In the end, the cans roll across the conveyor belt where they will later get “back, to use them in the ways they were intended / no matter how difficult, sometimes, that can be.”

James Valvis’s “Late Swimmer” is as chilling as the “late-autumn afternoon” in which the poem is set. As the trees have already discarded their leaves, “she stands before the pool, / long since drained of water,” and “launches herself into the frigid night, / into an emptiness cold as a new grave.”

In Danielle Gallo’s “The Market at Melchor Muzquiz,” the narrator finds that she can’t quite break the cultural barrier. In this place, the coins are plastic, and when she reaches into her pocket, “there’s no clink / no cool metallic weight . . .” There are strange voices, and broken speech, and the last image we are left with demonstrates the barrier: “He glances at me, shrugs and turns to join / the other beggars as I find a coin. / I hold my hand out, but it doesn’t reach.”

There are many more as well, and in particular, I’d recommend Judith Skillman’s “Cicada,” J.C. Longbottom’s “Defiance,” Laura Bernstein’s “Icebreaker,” Kenneth Pobo’s “Wandawoowoo Has No Heart,” and Cynthia Blank’s “The Bridge.”

But that isn’t to say that the prose, the photography, and the artwork aren’t also worth reading and pondering over. Without a whole lot of guidance on their submission guidelines, Agave Magazine surprises me with how well all the pieces work together and feel coherent. I look forward to seeing what this magazine offers with new issues.

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Apogee CoverApogee

Issue 2

Spring 2013


Apogee, only now in its second issue, looks for “the writing and writers that sit at a distance from the mainstream,” and from what I’ve read, the editors hold up their end of the bargain.

Sarah Thomas, in “Tongue-Tied (Untitled),” admits that she “like[s] black guys, and [she doesn’t] know how to talk about it.” A white girl from the south, Thomas feels foreign, as she says, “in my own town, in my own home, in my own skin.” She feels alienated and wonders, “Does the bigotry that lives in my family, in my history, just manifest itself in me differently?”:

What I’m trying to say is, I have forever felt foreign in my own state, in my own town, in my own home, in my own skin. My outside never seemed to match my inside. And having felt alienated by my own history, by my own body, is it any wonder I fled to the arms of a person who is the personification of alienation in the place where I’m from?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
I am standing before you, picking my scabs, to see if you will watch me bleed. To see if you’ll bleed a little too. Then at least I can know our insides are made of the same stuff.

Probably my favorite prose piece in this selection is Zalika Reid-Benta’s “What Happened in Hanover.” Because it is written in first-person, I’m unclear as to if it is fiction or nonfiction (no indication in the TOC), but either way, it reads with a close connection to the narrator. As a young girl, she visits her grandmother in Jamaica and is traumatized by a severed pig’s head she finds in the freezer. But the way she deals with it isn’t by showing fear; she returns home and tells all of her classmates and neighbors an elaborate lie about how she killed the pig herself. It roots itself in the narrator’s need to tell stories, and the writing is rooted in a retrospective look that still keeps close to the “current” events:

Girls in my grade brought their younger siblings to me to be frightened and amazed, and at the playground, during lunch time, boys started inviting me to play Red Ass with them, whipping me with the tennis ball as hard as they whipped each other. I did my part to maintain my position. Whenever a mouse scurried across classroom floors to a hole in the wall, I bit down on my lip and stayed still instead of jumping up on chairs and desks like other girls. If a teacher caught me in the middle of a misdeed, I didn’t deny doing anything wrong, like all of the kids around me. I puffed out my chest and claimed my misbehavior like a prize.

From the bird imagery (“. . . two mallard corpses, floating / towards her on the river’s surface, feathers black and filthy”) to the two lines that rhyme (“. . . wondering / how she could tell us the news. ‘Whatado? Whatado?’ / Birds asked from the trees. ‘Screwed! Screwed!’”), Brian Patrick Heston’s “Eviction Notice” is powerful. I’d also recommend reading Ej Koh’s “Yearly Service Check for your Mind.” The first line will elevate your view of yourself; the second will bring you back to Earth.

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The Monongahela Review CoverThe Monongahela Review

Issue 8

Fall 2013


Go to The Monongahela Review’s website, and you won’t find out much about the journal by just browsing. Without much information or submission guidelines, you really have to read the journal to get to know it. Download the PDF or open it in Issuu, and get cozy.

Joan Colby delves into the alphabet form in her poem “Choices” which begins:

Anomalies of weather.
Bone of a bad notion. Bitter
Cider. What does it mean to compose such
Dirges. When what you want is a quiet
Estuary, the banks sloped . . .

Derek Gromadzki experiments with pauses and sighs in his poem “Sospira,” setting the tone from the very beginning: “Come the being we call calm / from the motion that bodies tick out to measure time.” The repetitive “s” sounds sooth throughout, lulling as the lines move back and forth:

thrummed  rhythm-through  shaken  slack  into  surrender
                 and  apparitions  disbanded  in  the  seam  between  stares
               So long  a  waste  a  time  without
                                                          walked  into  through  and  through

Brenda Lynaugh’s “A Play for Tamara” tackles an unrequited love that starts in high school and has a bit of finality now that the main character has graduated college. Visiting his best friend Tamara at her university, he feels that even though she has a boyfriend, he needs to sort out his feelings: “He’d come to see her because of their history, because maintaining friendship was important, but he knew that wasn’t the whole truth.” Is he still in love with her? Or is it lust? Are the things she does actually endearing, or does he just view it that way because he likes her? There’s no resolution, but one thing is clear, relationships are messy.

And Ping, a character from Moria Moody’s “The Great Yu,” knows this sentiment all too well. Raising her son Qi in the United States while still struggling to speak English herself, she runs into conflict as the lies she tells him about his father and the way he meshes into this new culture both drive a growing fissure in their relationship: “Ping knows her son changes with every season. He is always slipping away from her, and she studies to stay close.”

So while the website may not offer much, there is plenty of poetry and prose and art to delve into once you’re inside the issue, and there is plenty to enjoy there.

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FictionNow ScreenshotFictionNow

Summer 2013


FictionNow’s Summer 2013 issue boasts the stories of three writers: Henry W. Leung, Sarah McElwain, and Richard Smolev.

Leung’s “The Sound of Just Rightness” is one that reveals the relationship between the two characters over time. From the beginning, you can tell that it is a male-female dynamic, but what you might think is a husband-wife relationship, is actually that of two siblings. The narrator and Patty are both interesting characters: the narrator is a blind man that makes money playing jazz music on the street, and Patty is a larger woman who cannot be distracted from her television shows. They bicker throughout, and it is clear that their relationship is complicated. In the final scene, he wakes to play a new song, “neither gospel nor blues, nor pop nor rock, but it’s something to dance to”:

She almost yells at me but stops, and stands there listening. We’re a dozen paces apart with nothing between us but song. I want her to sing it with me, to tell me tears are burning her eyes. I want her body to speak, to shake off her troubles like a skin.
But she makes no movement and I can’t know what she’s feeling. All I can do is keep the space filled up with music and listen, and leave it up to Patty to see if anything can change.

McElwain’s piece has one of my favorite scenes from any story I’ve read in quite a while. Upset that her boyfriend cheated on her and in a rut at work, the narrator stumbles upon a snow bank of holiday garbage, among it “was a purple Styrofoam wig head.” She takes it with her, strapping it into her passenger seat for the next week. Then she sneaks into the old apartment she shared with the boyfriend (where he still lives):

I put [the purple Styrofoam head] in the bed. Lying on a pillow in the dark, it had a startled look that reminded me of Liza Minnelli. I covered it with the quilt then slipped out the window. I jumped down from the porch, walked to my car, then drove back to Pelham.
The phone rang around midnight.
“You crazy bitch,” he said. “You almost gave me a heart attack.”
“Surprise,” I said.
And I felt a lot better after that.

And finally, “The Prick of The Needle” by Richard Smolev tells a story through the point-of-view of an older woman who has forgotten the touch of a man. As a young man doctors up her foot, she recalls when she was lured in by a Father Braxton:

. . . I did nothing to resist. It had been years since Stewart made me feel like that. Warm in parts of my body I’d forgotten about. Even damp. And above all else, desired. Father Braxton fumbled so with my undergarments I found myself coming to his rescue. Was I a victim? I can’t say that. It would be unfair to Father Braxton. I was so willing. Submissive.

But, in the end, she asks the doctor if the pain really ever goes away.

By providing only three pieces, FictionNow puts more weight on each one, offering the reader a chance to ponder more on the writing, the stories, and their importance.

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Alimentum ScreenshotAlimentum

December 2013


Alimentum, a food journal, transitioned a little more than a year ago from a print biannual publication to an online monthly. Because it is now more frequent, it is unfortunately a bit smaller. There is one piece for each of the sections each month: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, featurettes, book reviews, recipe poems, eat and greet, art gallery, jukebox, food blog favs, and news.

The fiction piece by Lois Marie Harrod, “Garlicky Greens,” is actually about another character that writes food poetry. Michelle’s latest project is writing about Grandma Rosa and cooking. And Amy Halloran’s nonfiction piece is actually about another writer, as well, Kate Lebo—author of the hand-sewn zine, soon to be a full-length book, A Commonplace Book of Pie. The piece addresses Lebo’s work and writing with pie:

“My whole point has been, for baking and for writing, to look at pie as a practice,” [Lebo] told me. “You practice piano, yoga, or even religion. It’s something I go to over and over and over. It’s part of what keeps me sane. Part of what keeps me connected to the things that give me pleasure and the things that make me me.”

Lois Rosen’s poem “Nonpareil”, though, will start up your taste buds more than the pie: “she baked chocolate mandelbrot / and noodle kugel with cinnamon / golden raisins and sour cream.” The poem compares eating at a restaurant (“The salmon piece smaller / than my palm / . . . but left me hungry”) to visiting Aunt Henny’s where she says it is impossible to leave hungry.

Eva Szabo’s recipe poem “Strudel: The Pastry of My Dreams” will make you drool: “each layer / a flake, quite / dream-like . . .”). I perhaps wonder if the repetition due to the sestina form is quite working for the piece, but then I see that form may follow function as the sections of the poem (“lightly / layered”) mirror the layers of the strudel (“It should be crisp / and sort of / translucent like cold”).

And in the featurette section, the video quality isn’t fantastic since it is filmed during an arts festival, but you’ll definitely want to check it out. Living cultures of bacteria and yeast work to make musical composition in “Fermentophone” by Joshua Pablo Rosenstock.

And although there may not be a ton of new content each month, it’s easy enough to use the right hand column in each section to read more poetry, fiction, and nonfiction from previous issues. If you’re new to the journal, I’d suggest navigating further in, filling the belly and mind with more tastes.

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