Literary Magazine Reviews
Posted Sept 25, 2003
Volume 42, Number 3
"The trouble with September is, it's nothing / you can put your finger on…" – Deborah Warren's poem "From August to Autumn," which captures brilliantly the precise season in which we find ourselves, is a peak moment in an issue of peak moments. This is a literary journal lovers' journal — satisfying reading that meets one's expectations (memorable poetry and short fiction), stimulates the intellect (solid "academic" essays), and also offers some surprises (a previously unpublished essay of Tennessee Williams and the transcript of a symposium on a new production of Medea). The poetry is particularly appealing, and, in fact, I wish there was more of it: unpredictable and original poems that don't leave me feeling I've read them or versions of them before, often, or again and again. I am particularly taken with "Chief Complaint" by Richard Solomon about an epileptic's ecstatic seizures. Garnett Kilberg Cohen's story, "Bad News," witty and sarcastic, represents a break in tone from most of what appears in this issue, and is all the more pleasing for this reason. Finally, I am always delighted to find myself compelled by writing that deals with a subject that hadn't, until this moment, interested me in the slightest, as is the case with Peter Eisinger's brief essay about brick sidewalk construction in the Netherlands. Faithful MQR readers will want to read Part Two of Geoff Eley's "Hitler's Silent Majority Conformity and Resistance Under the Third Reich," though it is not essential to have read Part One to find this long review article of value. There isn't space here to mention every entry in the issue, but readers will want to linger. [Michigan Quarterly Review, University of Michigan, 3032 Rackham Bldg., 915 E. Washington St., Ann Arbor, MI 48019-1070. E-mail: MQR@umich.edu. Single issue $7.00. www.umich.edu/~mqr/] - SR
Given the world in which we live, explains editor Christina Thompson,
it is not all that surprising to find an "undercurrent of violence"
in this issue. The obvious examples are excerpts from a new play
by poet Owen Doyle, Heraion, introduced by Robert Scanlan
as a "reenactment of the Medea material," and the "prologue"
of Don MacDonald's graphic novel, "Machiavelli" with its
depiction of a hanging witnessed by Machiavelli as a child. (In
many ways, MacDonald's brief description of how he created the comic
strip is as interesting as the strip itself and motivated me to
take a serious look at it, where I might otherwise have skipped
it.) A less obvious example is a poem by the masterful Eric Pankey, "Word
Problems": "They made of the language a sentimental monster
of bolts and bits / Clumsy and inadequate in its give body….// The
monster finds a kitten. Kills the girl. Apologizes in grunts and/nuanced
groans." And Thompson is certainly right, it seems to me: all
of these pieces seem meaningful for this moment in time in a way
they might not have even a few issues ago.
Hard as it is to believe, these two pieces represent only a small fraction of the issue, which also features essays, memoirs, three short stories, visual arts, a dozen and a half poems, and a lengthy section of terrific book reviews (by such skilled reviewers and writers as Floyd Skoot, Jonathan Liebson, and Todd Hearon). It's difficult to single out highlights amidst so much good and serious work, though, as often, what is most exciting is to discover writers one hasn't read before (which is not to say that these writers do not have solid reputations, but that I haven't encountered their writing before). In this case, that includes Dubravka Ugresic, whose essays here are excerpted from her forthcoming book, Thank You For Not Reading. Her clever, wry comments and observations about "literary culture" are not out of place in this high brow embodiment of "literary culture." I was pleased, too, to be introduced to the work of Susan Rubin Suleiman, whose essay, "A Postcard to Zircz," achieves an uncanny and intriguing balance between a somewhat casual tone and the deadly serious subject of mystery surrounding her family's experience of the Holocaust in Hungary (and there's that "undercurrent of violence" again). Another new name for me — Jean Esteve, whose "Sly Boots" offers, as promised, a sly and skillfully composed respite from the volume's weightiness. [Harvard Review, Lamont Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Single issue $13.50. - SR
The Iowa Review
Volume 33, Number 1
An exciting and exceptional issue. The Iowa Review doesn't
label its contents by genre as many do, but that's just as well
— many of the pieces here defy categorization. These include
an unusual and thoroughly enjoyable essay, ostensibly about tables,
by Pappi Thomas, and another, ostensibly about the telephone book,
by Ilan Stevens (deftly translated from the Spanish by Harry Morales),
and still another by Russell Scott Valentino, ostensibly about the
history and uses of the word "bastard at home and abroad."
I.Y. Hashimoto's essay, ostensibly about Seamus Heaney's hair, fits
right in, or is this actually a long prose poem or sudden fiction?
An essay by Lyall Bush, ostensibly about photography, appears to
be somewhat more conventional, but only at first glance. It is,
in fact, a marvelous and original example of the happy intersection
between personal essay and cultural commentary.
There is wonderful fiction here, in particular, stories by Chris Offutt ("Second Hand") -- heartfelt and moving without being the least bit sentimental, and by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ("New Husband"), whose forthcoming novel from Algonquin I now await most eagerly. The poetry is commendable, too; work by a number of poets who may not be as well known as these poems prove they deserve to be (Jerry Harp, James Denboer, Zona Teti). As with the fiction in this issue, there is much variety in form, style, and tone. A couple of lines from Deborah Tall's "The Thing to Watch Out For" sum up, for me, what makes most of the poetry, in fact the whole of this issue, successful: "The thing to watch out for while living / is this." [The Iowa Review, 308 EPB, Iowa City, IA 52242-1408. Single issue $7.95. www.uiowa.edu/~iareview] - SR
Spring is The Greensboro Review's contest issue and the prize winning story, "The Cornfield" by Ann Stewart Hendry, and prize winning poem, "Poem from Which Wolves Were Banished," by Jeanne Marie Beaumont, are indeed exemplary. Hendry's story of the ruin of a farm as a result of foot-and-mouth disease on a neighbor's property is beautifully written, old-fashioned in some senses (a pleasingly traditional story), much like the family farm itself. Beaumont's poem begs to be read aloud (although its form on the page is unusual and effective) for what it accomplishes rhythmically and for its attention to sound. Both the prize-winning story and poem achieve a profound tension between the sensuality in their language and images and the bleakness they portray, and both, oddly or perhaps not, are about harsh seasons in every sense. From Beaumont's poem: "I'm half-sure the creature / out in the center of the road / has something in its mouth / so the wind does the howling / for them both." There is much else here worth reading. Of particular note, poems by Matt Hart, Mark Cox, and Gary Duehr (one of several honorable mentions in the contest). In general, this issue presents work that feels fresh without being edgy, writing that is somewhat traditional or conventional, without being trite — which makes for very satisfying reading. [The Greensboro Review, English Department, 134 McIver, UNCG, PO Box 26170, Greensboro, NC 27402-6170. Single issue $5.00. www.uncg.edu/eng/mfa/review/Grhompage.htm] - SR
Posted Sept 6, 2003
Number One, $12
Brand new, all fiction (plus one interview), advertisement free and gorgeous, the Land-Grant College Review is one of best literary magazines since McSweeney's. The contributors, by and large, are the interesting mid-list authors we don’t find enough on the NYTimes bestseller list—Ron Carlson, Stephen Dixon, Aimee Bender, Robert Olmstead. The artwork by Joy Kolitsky is stunning, from the cover to the two-color title pages preceding each story. There’s an interview with Thisbe Nissen that alone is worth the issue price, even if you’ve no familiarity with her award winning collection of stories or novel or stolen recipe book.
The stories are almost entirely slightly off, or odd, just askance enough to make them unclassifiable as realist fiction. Dixon’s page-long paragraphical style from I. (McSweeney’s Press, 2002) is continued in a chapter from 2, a work-in-progress. Sara Gran’s “Best Friends” is sickly funny and indicting of anyone who’s had a friend they’ve wished would quit complaining. Aimee Bender’s usual bizarre hilarity is everywhere balanced, in the six pages of her “I Will Pick Out Your Ribs (From My Teeth)” with what seems a growing darkness in her recent stories.
This first issue of Land-Grant College Review is bold and fun, and the only small detraction anyone could really claim is that of the seventeen featured artists, five have an editorial affiliation with the journal. Despite being a little imbalanced, this is certainly forgivable considering all the work offered herein. [Land-Grant College Review, PO Box 1164, New York, NY, 10159. E-mail: email@example.com. Single issue $12.00. www.land-grantcollegereview.com/index.php] - WC
Number 68, Volume 19, Number 2
ZYZZYVA, officially subtitled “The last word: West coast writers and artists,” is above nearly all else a fun magazine. They fill their back cover with letters, a good sampling of the weird to funny to cringe-inducing (for writers), and the front cover, on this latest issue, is a beautiful drawing of a lone chair in front of towering shelves of books. After the “Editor’s Note” on the fifth page, and after the 24 following pages of advertisements for art galleries and MFA programs and coffee shops all along the west coast, there’s an hilarious picture of the comedian Robin Williams (page 29), immediately after which (30 pages in), the art of the magazine begins proper.
ZYZZYVA is not at all kidding about being a west coast magazine. Every artist within lives somewhere along the Pacific, or in a state that edges the ocean, and the effect, at least to a Midwestern reviewer, is totally different from anticipation. I can’t say I expected stories about surfing, but it was a glad realization that the edict about the coast had only to do with artists, nothing at all (seemingly) to do with style or subject.
The strongest selling point of ZYZZYVA may be its devotion to setting aside space (lots of space) in each issue for debuts. It’s an impressive gesture, to structurally devote a limb of the magazine to constant discovery, but it pays off, particularly in Tracy Cumming’s jaggedly beautiful story “Easy,” her first fiction in print.
The magazine handles poetry and fiction, drama and nonfiction, with equal faculty, and the result is a magazine that will nerve-rattle you (Anthony Swofford’s “Escape and Evasion”), engage your curiosity (Rebecca Tuynman’s “Memorial for the Skylight Diaspora”), and turn you on (Brian Turner’s “Kim Addonizio Eats a Strawberry”), and keep you laughing as you go. [ZYZZYVA, P.O. Box 590069, San Francisco, CA, 94159-0069. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Single issue $11.00. www.zyzzyva.org/index.htm] - WC
Volume 41, Number 3
At 56 total pages of creative work, PRISM sends a tremendous wallop of beautiful writing that, it’s made clear on both covers and often throughout, is (primarily) from Canada, although they do feature writers from the United States and declare themselves globally cosmopolitan. For those unfamiliar, there’s an organization called the Canadian Magazine Publishers Association that, through both a stamp on the back cover (“Genuine Canadian Magazine”) and an advertisement in the rear of the journal appearing just a step across the line between pride and swagger, establishes what could feel like a strange provincial sneer, if one were so inclined.
I don’t know if that matters to you or not, but even if it does, try skipping all that fuss and heading directly to page 7 for Avital Gad-Ckyman’s “Once a Month We Play,” a tremendous story, and doubly tremendous for its amazing brevity. The fiction in PRISM seems a step or two ahead of the poetry, though that may be for the breadth of the shoulders of the fiction in this issue—Avital Gad-Ckyman’s story and Seth Feldman’s “Decking the Heavy” - incredible to read together, regardless the journal. Feldman’s disjointed episodic/vignette-ish story is great, great writing: double-crosses and romance and theoretical 747’s landing on an aircraft carrier.
The poetry, compared with the simultaneously wild and deeply-felt stories, is quiet, meditatively quiet: “I want the merciful retelling: / a whisper always blood” quiet (from the first of Eve Joseph’s “Four Ghazals”). Steven Heighton’s invocatory poems—“Three Approximations,” of Catallus, Sappho and Homer—are certainly spot-on and pretty, and Adam Chiles’ “Helen,” if for nothing more than the lines “Another may have / thought it better to / slow-dance their way / down, one bottle at a time,” is worth reading three times. That said, the poetry herein still doesn’t quite match the cumulative power of the prose.
Regardless, it’s a wonderful magazine, clear and precise and economic—as much beauty as possible in as slim a package as this. [PRISM International, Creative Writing Program, UBC, Buch. E 462 – Main Mall, Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z1, Canada. E-mail: email@example.com. Single issue $7.99. http://prism.arts.ubc.ca/index.htm] - WC
Volume 31, Number 2
The Fall 2003 issue of Grain is their Short Grain Contest Winners issue, so along with a good selection of poetry and three stories, the table of contents lists winners of competitions in Postcard Stories, Prose Poems, Dramatic Monologues and Long Grain of Truth - the last category a well-named competition of creative nonfiction.
The contest winners—three in each category—are all fine, decent works, but more engaging is to read them as a whole: a panoramic view of four relatively obscure categories offering novel forms for the same wonderful old insights and top-of-the-head blowoffs. It speaks volumes for Grain that they’ve offered the most valuable commodity in the literary journal market—page space!—to such disparate endeavors, and that they pull it off with a coherent vision is tremendously encouraging.
The rest of the magazine, though, is heavily tilted toward poetry, and rightly so. Sue Sinclair, a poet living in Toledo with a book forthcoming this fall, has two poems that are as devastating as any I have read, with one of them simply too good not to quote entirely here with which to end this review:
Insomnia: fear of the empty boat
moored in the heart. Of the space
inside the world. Of the black
lining behind mirrors.
The moon is the stump of a tree,
no growth rings. Fear of disappearance,
your own. Fear of looking over your shoulder
at no past.
The vanity that sends us
into the world to speak our names
is the one
that keeps us up at night
listening for echoes.
If you close your eyes
the world will cease. The stars don’t
reassure you. Fear them too.
Posted Sept 2, 2003
Volume 30, Number 2
This last issue to be edited by David Milofsky ("…it's important to know when to write the conclusion…") is a study in contrasts. For the most part, the fiction is plainspoken, colloquial, and of the moment. The poetry, on the other hand, tends toward the abstract, fragmented, and difficult, with marvelous syntactical configurations in poems both long and short. Of the half-dozen solid pieces of fiction here, my favorite is "Urban Renewal" by William Henry Lewis, the emotionally satisfying story of how one woman responds to losing her son and parts of her neighborhood to racism, violence, and indifference with a private memorial of celebration and survival. In this issue, which features the work of nearly 30 poets, the opening of Brenda Hillman's poem, "On Carmerstrasse," could almost serve as a sort of summary of much of the poetry: "Beneath balustrades selected against / Your going, a breezened / Day anticipates a hope; / Then the walk into / Each word is infinite / And navigates the stumble." These are exciting and challenging poems, many with an odd, backward motion, a syntax un-doing itself, as in this poem by Sundin Richards: "Adamant is / diamond from / the first." A personal essay by David Hicks about life as a divorced dad and reviews of recent poetry releases from university and independent presses round out the issue. [Colorado Review, The Center for Literary Publishing, Department of English, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Single issue $9.50. www.colostate.edu/Depts/English/coloradoreview/review.htm] - SR
A Journal of Literature and Art
It's hard to know where to begin — there's so much here. A dense, but readable volume with something for everyone: more than three dozen poems, a dozen prose pieces, fiction and nonfiction, two thought-provoking interviews (Ruth Stone, Breyten Breytenbach) and artwork by five wildly different artists, handsomely reproduced. Big volume, big names: Billy Collins, Anne Babson, Kimiko Hahn, Ray Gonzalez, Padgett Powell, David Shields. And some newer stars, too: Mathew Zapruder, Suji Kwock Kim, Jeffrey Faas, Emily Frago. Fass is, in fact, one of three award winners in this issue (one each for fiction, nonfiction, and poetry), and his honest and disturbing essay about visiting a close friend in prison ("Five to Life") is an exceptional read. Thomas Beller's essay "The Toy Collector," with its deceptively breezy style, is another. Lots of memorable poems here, too. As always, I'm delighted to find new poets whose work I can look forward to. I'll certainly look for Beth Woodcome's name whenever I peruse a table of contents. Here is a fragment from her poem "Sweden:" "Don't touch. Not like that, or now. / You feel life scared to live itself. / You're north with failure." When I get a bit frantic trying to highlight the best and brightest in these journals or begin to wonder what gets published and why, perhaps I should turn to Ruth Stone's poem "Submission:" "The poem was hanging around in the locker room / chatting it up. / 'Five laps,' said the poem, / with a strange look around the slits in its skin." Buy this issue if you want to know what happens to the poet's submission. [Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, 415 Dodge Hall, 2960 Broadway, New York, NY 10027. E-mail: email@example.com. Single issue $15.00. www.columbia.edu~tnf12] - SR
Vol. 1 No. 1
32 Poems is a new literary journal built on the model provided by One Story magazine – every issue contains, simply, 32 poems – no reviews, no letter from the editor, no fiction. It has generated a lot of buzz in the literary community, and for once, the buzz was deserved; this modest little 5 ½ by 8 ½ saddle-stapled journal contained a dazzling array of poetry. Styles leaned mostly towards the lyric and the experimental, but there were some examples of narrative and formal verse as well. To illustrate the range, I have to quote a few lines from Kimberly Johnson’s “Sonnet” and Mary Ruefle’s“The Phantom Ball,” two of my favorites. From “Sonnet:”
No seduction in the hothouse, its aisles
of deliberate orchids only heave
benearth ceiling fans…
But when orange blossoms wave
in pneumatic arcade, I dither. I coo. I hallelu.”
From “The Phantom Ball:”
I was a tea cozy and a tripod
I cut off my hands so he would have shoes…
I became a woman who fingers her necklace
I cannot remember our song
I very much look forward to reading more issues of this journal. I can only tell readers to subscribe so that it sticks around. [32 Poems, P.O. Box 5824, Hyattsville, MD 20782. Single issue $6.00. www.32poems.com] - JHG
Literary Arts Journal
The theme of this issue of Urban Spaghetti, an “intermittently”-published, progressive journal out of Ohio, is “The Women!” The journal features mostly poetry, including poems by big shots like Marge Piercy and Virgil Suarez, but also photography (mainly of women of diverse races and ages) and two interesting interviews, one with children’s book author Angela Johnson and another with poet and artist Cheryl “Cat” Townsend. The poetry is generally narrative and street-smart, contemporary, as opposed to traditional, but, in a fresh act, they have separated the “sauce” section (more experimental work, work by newcomers) from the “pasta” (established writers, more traditional or narrative work). Also included with the journal is a multimedia CD, which had a .pdf version of the issue, audio files of poets reading poems from the issue, and image files of the art and photography. As you might expect in an issue called “The Women!” the theme of much of the work is women’s actions, ideas, and activities, but there are a balance of male and female writers. A lot to like here - I hope there is another issue to look forward to soon. [Urban Spaghetti, P.O. Box 5186, Mansfield, OH 44901-5186. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Single issue $10.00. http://www.urban-spaghetti.com] – JHG
This zine comes out only once a year, and while it isn’t much to look at (watch for typos – I ran across five in my first reading) looking like it was photocopied in someone’s basement, it is actually produced by the English Department of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and boasts some surprisingly sophisticated content. This issue focused mainly on translations of Italian, Croatian, and Slovene poetry. From a translation of Sandro Penna by Jacob Blakesley:
Cemetery lights, don’t tell me
that the summer evening isn’t beautiful.
And the drivers are beautiful in
the faraway taverns.
They move like ancient
friezes under the sky
The featured poet was the prominent and award-winning Dara Wier, and there were also lively interviews with Bob Hicok and Iztok Osojnik. Another journal we have to hope survives so we can see more of this ambitious sort of work. [Poetry Miscellany, English Department, UT Chattanooga, TN, 37403. E-mail: email@example.com. Single issue $7.00. www.utc.edu/~engldept/pm/pmhp.html] - JHG
Slipstream 23 presents work with an urban, contemporary edge. This issue was mostly poetry that has a “spoken-word” vibe but also included three pieces of short fiction and artwork and photography. I liked Johnny Cordova’s prosy but gritty poem, “A Kind of Dance” with these lines:
Then, as if sensing my disinterest,
he pointed the gun at my face and said,
I don’t give a shit about that crap,
I’ll shoot anyone, anytime, for any reason.
Even you, he said.
I laughed and said, You wouldn’t shoot me.
And he pushed the barrel against my forehead
cocked the trigger and said Oh, Yes, I would.
The suspense of the “A Kind of Dance” is an illustration of what strong narrative can bring to poetry. The short-short fiction excerpts from Heather Holland-Wheaton’s “Eight Million Stories in a New York Minute” were also beguiling in their simplicity and the display of everyday life in the city. Dee Rimbaud’s drawings, scattered throughout the issue, are haunting. [Slipstream, P.O. Box 2071, Dept. W-1, Niagara Falls, New York 14301. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Single issue $7.00. www.slipstreampress.org/index.html] - JHG
The Bitter Oleander
Issue 9, Number 1
This well-regarded journal focuses on poetry and fiction that uses “the deep image,” so the work here, as you might expect, focuses less on the narrative thread and more on lyric imagery. The poetry here seems more successful than the short fiction. Take, for instance, the following lines with their trilling sound effects from Silvia Scheibli’s “Monsoon Season:”
Nude Banana Leaves
Across saltillo tiles
or these from Ray Gonzalez’ “Memorize:”
Memorize the ashes from the last century.
Brush the wind off your hair…
Sometimes you walk afraid.
Other times, there are moths fluttering in the shadows.
This issue includes an inspiring interview, as well as poetry and memoir-excerpts from Carol Dine. I also liked the translations of Eunice Odio’s work. To really appreciate the work here, I would recommend reading this beautifully-produced and generously-sized issue in small doses; otherwise, the images and language in the poetry tend to run together, and you’ll miss out on the delicate texture of the collection. [The Bitter Oleander Press, 4983 Tall Oaks Drive, Fayetteville, New York 13066-9776. Email: email@example.com. Single issue $8.00. www.bitteroleander.com/issues.html] - JHG
The contributors of this highly-regarded publication hail from all over the world, but the sensibility is very much of its place of origin, Berkeley, CA. The sense of place and identity are pervasive.
The publication mixes poetry and fiction with heavy emphasis on essays and opinion pieces. Particularly engaging are: Janna Malamud Smith’s memoir “My Father is a Book” (about her father, Bernard Malamud); Bryn Canner’s “The Extracurricular Life of Poetry”; Isabel Colgate’s reflection on her novel, “The Shooting Party Revisited”; and “A Symposium on Buddenbrooks”. The latter is a series of short pieces by different writers about Thomas Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks. They are thoughtful and intriguing enough to send me in search of this novel I’ve never read. The two articles on theatre and film (“Human Voices” by Steve Vineberg about the film The Becket Plays, and “The Fan” by Lynn Sharon Schwartz about the film Stone Reader) are on the long side if you aren’t interested in the subject matter, but wonderfully in-depth if you are. Judith Aronson's black and white portraits of writers are beautiful.
Overall, The Threepenny Review is a good journal to sit down with when you need a few hours of intellectual stimulation. [The Threepenny Review, P.O. Box 9131, Berkeley, CA 94709. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Single issue $7.00. www.threepennyreview.com] – DE
40 X 40: Forty Works by Forty Writers
Featured authors in this collection include Anton Chekov, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Creeley and Rick Moody. The works are diverse and powerful.
Among the most memorable pieces are: Robert Coover’s “Stepmother,” a brutal and bizarre twist on fairy tale conventions; Joyce Carol Oates’ “Dr. Magic, a Play in One Act,” a play that borders on the clichés of hypnosis, yet sticks in the memory; Susan Bernofsky’s interview with Angela Carter, “We’re Not Dealing with Naturalism Here: An Interview,” Anton Chekov’s “Two Stories”; Joy Williams’ “Hammer”; and Rick Moody’s wickedly funny, scary, sing-song “Schoolgirls.” Elaine Equi’s poems deserve a special mention; they are the sparkling gems of the book.
The writing is consistently strong. My only disappointment after reading the volume straight through instead of dipping in and out, is that piece after piece after piece focus on hopelessness and despair. It falls into the trap of “it has to be despondent in order to be literature.” No one moved forward or broke patterns of destruction and despair except Equi’s poems. Because I believe that we have the power to write and change our reality, I longed to see these creative, powerful, talented, magical writers create some mojo that had visions of viable solutions for the future. I’d like to see some evolution. [Conjunctions, Bard College, 21 East 10th St, New York, NY 10003. E-mail: email@example.com. Single issue $15.00. www.conjunctions.com] - DE
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