Mini reviews of current issues of online literary magazines
Reviews by Kirsten McIlvenna
Posted April 14, 2014
Volume 9 Number 1
Apple Valley Review is definitely a journal to watch, with excellently crafted prose and engaging verse. This particular issue boasts three fictions, one nonfiction, and thirteen poems.
Dave Patterson “A Return to Rothko” is enchanting with the innocence of a child’s (and then man’s) reaction to death, along with his mother’s idea that there is something wrong with him because of it. The brilliance is in the small details, the illustrations that further the characters. When he is a child, the narrator plays with his dead dog; at only eight years old, he’s fascinated with the idea of death and is still learning what it really means:
Prying open her mouth, I place my hand on her tongue. I’m delighted by the danger of having my fragile child’s hand inside the mouth of a beast. With my index finger, I press the jagged edge of each tooth. The gums are black and pink, and I run my finger along the smooth surface. I squeeze her rubber tongue in my hand. The roof of her mouth is ridged and gives me goose bumps when I scrape it with my fingernail.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I fear she might come back to life and bite me like she once did when I jerked her tail. This thrills me. I jerk her tail again and again now. Harder and harder. Each tug satisfies.
While I admit I don’t fully understand “Return to Bear Creek” by Louisa Howerow, it is a poem that I read over and over—certainly something every poet hopes for. The elements of spring, and egg-dying from bloodroot, were very interesting: “I left her to her stylus, / wax lines crossed on empty / eggs she then dyed red—” Then I noticed a note on the bottom that says this poem started as a free-write for Howerow about her own memories of spring.
Kelly Scarff’s prose poems “On Planning” and “On Timing” work well together: both simple, both inspired by loss, and both with imagery heavily laden with intent. And via images of a walk through one’s typical day, Abby Rosenthal’s “Whatever Happened?” shows how time so easily slips away and how we age faster than we think: “yet we can’t help noticing how dusk / comes a little earlier / than the night before.”
Vivian Wagner’s essay “How to Go Through Your Dad’s Things After He Dies” is like taking a walk through a museum of someone else’s life, but it’s short—the walk, not the life. Delineated in four steps, the essay makes me wish there was more. There’s something very poetic about going through someone’s junk: “Also read sticky notes with reminders to himself about trash pickups and medications, highlighted printouts of your Twitter feed, annotated copies of your essays, notes he took on phone conversations with your sister, and lists of numbers that you study with the care and diligence of a Torah scholar . . .”
My only qualms with the journal is the inability to bookmark individual pieces or flip back and forth with the “back” button (every page is the same URL). But otherwise it’s in a simple format and holds high quality work. The bios and inspirations from the writers at the bottom of each piece add to the overall experience—an experience that is both unique and enjoyable.
Hamilton Stone Review, like most online literary magazines (and literary magazines in general), is compiled by a small staff, but that isn’t to say that it’s a small publication, by any definition. It’s not small in size (five fiction, five nonfiction, and more than 20 poems), and it’s not small in quality. This issue of Hamilton Stone Review is bursting with crisp language, powerful tones, and lustrous imagery.
Gretchen Clark’s “Please Connect Me” tells the story of Clark’s young desire to be noticed by boys, told through three vignettes, all wrapped around the idea of calling, from phone calls to an insane asylum when she was in sixth grade to the calls of female cats in heat: “The animals cried for hours, filling the darkness with their chorus of agony, calling into the night for some random male to pay attention to them, to answer.” And while this quote is the only a tiny part of the story, its message rings true within the whole piece.
Catherine Mauk’s “Listening to the Wind” both expresses concern for her sister’s current emotional state and recalls the beauty and power of nature from a time they were together in Australia. When Mauk describes being out in the desert with her sister, I feel as if I’m there with them:
At dusk, the dingo appeared from out of nowhere. . . . He could have been a stray dog with his curled tail and ginger coat, shiny and neatly matted, but for the fire in the eyes. He fixed us in his gaze with an unnerving penetration as he moved in front of the car and continued to watch us as he crossed the road. When he reached the edge of the road he gave us a final look, then broke into a run and disappeared into the bush.
There are many poems to pick from, some which you’ll want to read after only reading the title—such as Susan J. Erickson’s “Before Her Round-the-World Flight Amelia Visits a Psychic” and Doug Draime’s “Gertrude Stein Has Been Cursed Properly.” Draime’s poem is the perfect note to end the poetry section on. According to Draime, “What We Are Left With” is “Crumbs, for example, just after. And kaleidoscopes of specks / stuck on the skin, or floating away, looming, thinning or bloating.”
There’s really more in this issue than can be discussed; lots more poetry, three more nonfiction pieces, and five fiction pieces. And that’s one of the bonuses of the online journal—as long as there is time to edit it, there is always space for more work if the quality work presents itself.
A Journal of Writing & Environment
Home to Iowa State University, Flyway aims to publish work that “that explores the many complicated facets of the word environment—at once rural, urban, and suburban—and its social and political implications.”
Honestly, it was hard to read Natalie McAllister’s “Lump Sum,” but not because it was hard to follow. What do you do when you don’t like the narrator? He’s going through grief as he holds a secret about his health—that he may not be around much longer. But this aside, he’s abusive to his dog, yells at his son, and keeps secrets from his wife. Yet, with the carefully crafted lines, how can you not read it? By the end of the story, the narrator is almost at a level where you can sympathize with him, that he has a large tumor on his chest:
That’s when it grows the fastest—in the nights. My skin stretching against the building mass of mutated cells. I feel them seeping into my blood, moving up to my heart and out to my fingertips, my lungs, my brain. I put my fingers around it and squeeze it in to keep it from growing out, but it moves down, down, down.
While I wasn’t taken with the title of Linda Davis’s “What To Expect When You’re Expecting,” I was taken with the twist and the piece itself. Written in the second person, this piece focuses on adopting a daughter from Russia—that’s right, expecting a baby to be adopted, not born. Each character in the story is referred to by a non-descriptive “Husband,” or, in the case of “your” children, Dyslexia, Autistic, and Adopted. Perhaps this is to make the story universal, but then again, how many of us are mother to a dyslexic child and an autistic child and ready to adopt? Perhaps, instead, it’s a means of distancing: “you’re stuck in your I-can’t-attach-because-I-want-to-be-prepared-for-the-worst space.” It’s most definitely worth a read.
Lia Greenwell’s poem “Fourth of July, Brooklyn” looks at the fireworks show under a different light, starting with “fireworks in the city / are red and weeping.” Instead of awe and amazement, the narrator notices the bats amidst the smoke, “a sheet / of fog / until the whiteness // lies on the sky like a bruise.” I enjoy the point of view and the short, punchy lines: “Some are big // as shoes, others / like darts shooting through.”
While environment may be a theme of the journal in general, I think it’s a pretty loose interpretation, meaning that almost any type of story could fit. But that isn’t to say that any piece of work could be accepted; the work presented here is polished, and is worth reading.
This issue of Sixth Finch begins with the line “You wish for a moon,” from Elizabeth Barnett’s “Between Two Houses,” which ends, “if sometimes / a house hurts you, // you still walk toward it / in the dark.” So tread forward into this issue; you may be wishing for a moon—beautiful turns of lines—and you’re most certainly walking in the dark, not sure what you’ll find, but I promise it won’t hurt you.
Glide into Patricia Colleen Murphy’s “Halloween in the Tank” and you won’t find ghouls or goblins, instead—hookers. “All the hookers have spectacular stretch marks. / Not one of them will finger me for free,” it starts. The hookers make the narrator think of his job, “hired to brainstorm several fun things / to do in a cornfield . . . to dress the dead / however I want.” I urge you to venture further into this poem.
Andy Stallings’s “Contact” is a longer poem, with shorter lines, many containing only four words. It begins, “We’ve been living in other cities / throughout these limitless nights / & now they’re gone.” Unpunctuated, it’s one long phrase, like the constant flowing thoughts of this narrator who has lost his wife:
I only want to sleep
beside your body
perplexed by touch
& feel the ferment of
where you are
I feel bluing in the
cadence of my veins
I am awake
not for anything just
I am here I am awake
& waiting for contact
or for a dredge or for
anyone to speak
Caroline Cabrera’s “Remember When You Didn’t Exist?” also touches on that feeling of a person missing, beginning, “I received phone calls from no one. / The light in my house was interrupted by no shadows. / No body warmed against mine while I slept.” And while most of these are typical images of a person alone, there are also creative lines that struck home to me, such as “Either I ate the raspberries or they rotted in the fridge” (especially because I’m fairly certain that are some rotting in my own fridge). But it ends on a higher note: “Warm air in the house hit me like a memory we don’t have of each other. / The phone rang. / It was you.”
I loved the art as well, particularly Joseba Elorza’s “Kiteman” and Unchalee Anantawat’s untitled piece, though I really wish there was more context to the art other than the title and artist’s name—I would have at least liked to know the medium. This issue of course features many more writers worth exploring, so start reading.
short stories & photography, unfolded
Origami Journal, which started in 2013, is a newer online quarterly that aims to publish work that captures the human experience.
In “Chasing Butterflies,” Cassie Hooker gives us a beautiful though gruesome idea of what one might imagine in those moments between when a person’s heart gives out and when she is revived. “She found herself standing on the edge of the sprawling void, utterly alone,” it begins. And as it continues, we discover this woman has scrapes all over her face, from which a delicate butterfly emerges and then returns. Its tone is very dreamlike, with a slow beat, gently carrying the reader through the piece.
Also included in the fiction section are Susan Dale’s “Before the Druids of Eld,” Lee Foust’s “Devin Wants to Make a Movie,” and Trevor O’Hara’s “God Has a Plan.” And while all are well-written and engaging, the fiction section in general seems to leave a little bit to be desired—all of the pieces seem to end without connecting to the reader in a deeper way. I was invested and interested in the worlds and characters created; I merely wanted more from them.
“Uncle Charlie’s Office” by Robbin Risley—the only nonfiction piece in this issue—demonstrates how she had to toughen up, from an early age, and it’s definitely the strongest prose piece. Her Uncle Charlie, who is in fact not her real uncle (“He had been a long time friend of my grandfather’s and used to babysit my mom when she was young. I was required to refer to him as ‘Uncle’ because, as he told me, ‘putting a handle on a name is how you show respect to your elders.’”), is a drunk and a drug-dealer, and Risley is the one ordered to make his drinks. And although she is careful to meet his demands, any screw-up and she is faced with hours of embarrassment. It is written with simple reflection, though these events that shaped her life aren’t as simple as that. I enjoyed this piece so much that I ended up reading it twice.
The issue ends with selections of photography that are certainly worth considering—especially the pieces by Julia Dunham—though I wonder how the experience would be different if they were interspersed throughout the issue rather than tacked onto the end. But certainly there is something to be said about the publication in general, which is easy-to-read in both online and PDF formats: the human experience is portrayed in the pieces.