Literary Magazine Reviews
Posted June 15, 2009
Alaska Quarterly Review - American Poetry Review - American Short Fiction - Black Warrior Review - Freight Stories - Georgia Review - Hawk & Handsaw - Jabberwock Review - The MacGuffin - Michigan Quarterly Review - Ploughshares - Poet Lore - Sentence - Sewanee Review - South Loop Review - West Branch - World Literature Today - ZZYZYVA
Alaska Quarterly Review
Volume 26 Numbers 1 & 2
Spring & Summer 2009
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
“Late morning, and my sister and I have arrived,” begins Nancy Lord’s essay, “About a Moment,” the first line in the journal, an inviting opening, and a promise of not only what is to come in Lord’s piece – beautiful writing about a difficult subject, a visit to parents in a nursing home – but a great start to an issue that is replete with great starts (and great finishes). The other three essays in the issue begin with equally original and inviting leads (work by Timothy Irish Watt, John Gamel, and Kim van Alkemade).
The “Special Feature,” sixteen poems by Robert Davis Hoffman, begins, too, with a “dazzle” that lives up to its promise: “He dazzles you right out of the water, / right out of the moon, the sun and fire” from “Saginaw Bay: I Keep Going Back.” Hoffman is a Tlingit Indian from Southeast Alaska, a poet and carver who describes his artistic motivation as a desire to “connect to my past to my present . . . my art contains my ‘thought-conversations.’” Thirteen of the poems in this feature are published here for the first time. They are evocative poems, personal, but not confessional; intimate, yet also larger than self:
The living destroy the dead,
as the dead claim the living,
like going off in the distance,
growing smaller and vanishing,
like rituals without origins,
like this island that never was and always will be.
There are thirteen fine and sturdy stories in the issue, as well, also with strong, enticing leads. Stories with youthful characters predominate, though there are some hardboiled adult tales (Michal Czyzniejewski’s “Nectarine Pie,” for example). I liked best Katherine Karlin’s “Seven Reasons”: Rage, Opportunity, Futility, Fear, Fatigue, Humiliation, Regret. Her voice is smart and casual in a way that is both cautious, but carefully controlled, and these seven emotions/reasons are quietly overwhelming.
I was startled to find Laurence Klavan’s one-act play, “Simprov,”
which follows the special poetry feature. A second special
feature, to my mind. Klavan is an award-winning playwright of
short plays whose “Simprov” is a play about life as a play. “I
want to watch you being happy,” says Marjorie, a character
“seeking escape and engagement in a realm beyond life.” Read
this issue of AQR and then take a look in the mirror.
You’ll see someone being happy.
The American Poetry Review
Volume 38 Number 3
Review by Rachel S. King
Whenever I pick up an issue of The American Poetry Review, I inadvertently stop whatever else I’m doing and am drawn into other worlds, and the current issue is no exception. These poems are beautiful but concrete, challenging yet not esoteric.
In Joanne Dominique Dwyer’s opening seven poems, she uses well-known cultural beings or phrases, like the Loch Ness monster, “Scantily clad,” “The Irish are the Mexicans of the British,” Winnie-the-Pooh, and Helen Keller to draw the reader into her poems about love. “We have all held up crosses, / cowering like the crawling man / in Dali’s The Temptation of St. Antonius,” she writes in the final poem, “Alchemy,” “But not all of us have been gifted / with the erotica of answers.”
Placed back to back are Benjamin Alire Saenz’s “Arriving at the Heart of Tragedy” and Aaron Balkan’s “Verbatim.” Saenz’s poem begins, “There are certain things that cannot be / Undone,” and Balkan’s poem begins, “A woman is dying and the view / Doesn’t change,” and they both make the reader think, and maybe cry, at the unjustness in this world. Also poignant, is Fred Marchant’s “Conscientious Objector Discharge,” a poem Marchant wrote based on his discharge from the Vietnam War, encouraging some hesitant soldier who wanted to take the same step out of Iraq: “Knock on the doorframe and step out. Your feet as they hit the gravel / will make it chatter. / You should listen to it – listen hard to this path you are on. / It will sound as if you are walking on water.”
Len Roberts’ elegant essay, “Rooms Within Rooms,” could be a footnote on Kafka’s quote about writing: “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” Roberts describes the room in which he writes, the objects in the room in which he writes, and the stories and poems within the objects in the room in which he writes. Some objects have been used as an impetus for poems, others have not; some which have been used once may be used again. The beautiful cadence and images almost make this essay an elongated prose poem.
Also in this issue are poems by W.D. Snodgrass, Jordan Davis,
and Ed Skoog, among others. Unlike most journals – which I buy
haphazardly or read only at bookstores – I intend to subscribe
to American Poetry Review. It’s just that good.
American Short Fiction
Volume 12 Issue 43
Review by Kenneth Nichols
Editor Stacey Swann opens this issue of American Short Fiction with a concise, impassioned defense of the short story, relishing its unique power. The modern short story, Swann says, “contains multitudes…multiple faces, multiple forms – so many, it seems constraining to define it as a single object.” The stories chosen for this issue seem to bear out this assessment. The three lengthy stories are interspersed with brief, somewhat experimental pieces that add a great deal of spice.
“The Heart Sutra,” by Joyce Carol Oates, confronts the reader with Serena Dayinka’s dilemma. She is a poet of some renown, married to Andre Gatteau, a slightly older poet of much more renown. While she cares for their child and worries about their broken relationship, Serena fights the silence with “the terrible thought If I can’t make this man love me I will make this man hate me, I will pierce his stony heart.”
In “The Woodcarver’s Daughter,” Paul Yoon illuminates an aspect of World War II that is sometimes overlooked. Yoon tells the story of an American soldier who has gone AWOL in Japan during the American occupation of the country. The piece makes interesting and sparing use of dialogue, allowing the interiority of the characters to move things along.
The journal-keeping character in Amelia Gray’s selections
from AM/PM, a larger work, addresses a character I never
expected to read about. Among other observations the narrator
shares: “If we mated, John Mayer Concert T, our children would
have jersey-knit skin.”
Black Warrior Review
Volume 35 Number 2
Review by Tony Bonds
Rarely can a literary magazine balance innovative and mainstream material so effortlessly. The Spring/Summer edition of the always innovative Black Warrior Review adroitly incorporates not only short stories, poetry, and art, but a veritable activity book for the literary-minded but child-at-heart brand of reader.
Think of this installment as two-in-one. The first half showcases what one might expect from a first-rate literary magazine: well crafted, carefully told short stories and poetry. Among the gems here is Vauhini Vara's “A Girl is Turning Ten,” a short story told in clipped, childlike sentences, from the point of view of a girl who is visiting her father and meeting, for the first time, his Brazilian wife. Also included here are the winners of the Fourth-Ever Fiction and Poetry Contests. Jamey Bradbury, a second-year MFA student, took home the prize in fiction with her phenomenal, “We All Go Through It,” a haunting tale told from the collective point of view of a class of children. In it a boy disappears, the children don't know what happened, the adults won't talk about it. Fear of the unknown builds tension and culminates in an unsettling, but finely crafted climax, illustrating the cruelties of which even children are capable.
On the poetry side, it's no surprise that Jennifer Perrine's, “Portrait of My Daughter as Pink Flamingo,” won the contest, as it marries succulent language to borderline-surreal imagery:
Your Tongue, too, will be a delicacy
in certain lands: this way of opening
to the world, upside-down, sifting single
cells from the silt and swallowing their names
Smack in the middle of this magazine is a series of stunning, full color drawings by artist and sometimes illustrator, Deth P. Sun. What's notable here is the glossy pages, which help to keep the crisp strokes and nuances of the art intact, but also illustrate Black Warrior Review's commitment to showcasing their art in a quality medium rather than an exploiting it page-filler.
The second half of the magazine is called “The DIY Feature” and begins with a letter from the editors that begins with the instructions “Please Circle One,” and continues: “Dear (Reader / Writer / Partner In Crime.” In stark contrast to the first half of the book, this is a workbook of tongue-in-cheek activities such as Mad Libs directly lifted from Italo Calvino's “If on a winter night a traveler”; a comic strip where the reader must turn the book to help the character through a tunnel; and a couple of somber, Tim Burton-esque “Mump” paper cut-out puppets complete with such mundane props as a shovel, a lamp, and a bottle of booze. But it's not all camp in this latter half. “Cum Hoc Ergo Proper Hoc,” by Mika Taylor, explores the agony of a sibling who struggles with alcohol and drug addiction. The story is printed on playing cards, four to a page, with these instructions: “Cards should be shuffled and read, then shuffled and reread.”
As always, this Black Warrior Review also includes a chapbook by nationally-known poet, Cynthia Lowen. Every poem in this collection, “The Self Casts a Shadow,” takes on J. Robert Oppenheimer and the nuclear warfare from a number of angles, with disarmingly touching insight.
The Black Warrior Review, run by the University of
Alabama, touts having published Pulitzer Prize winning authors
and National Book Award winners, among other honors. With all
the looks of a top-notch professional magazine, and the swagger
of an indie, experimental rag, everyone is sure to find
something of great value between these covers.
Review by Henry F. Tonn
This literary journal is celebrating one year of publishing stories and modestly advertises itself as “The best new fiction on the web. Or anywhere else, for that matter.” The winter issue presents eight stories and an editor’s note giving a synopsis of their accomplishments to date. Certainly they have something to brag about when they state: “We’re developing something of a reputation around these parts. The word’s out that Freight Stories authors have published over 50 books, including finalists for the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize and bestsellers.” They are also proud of the fact that they have brought the reader the work of first time and emerging writers, “just like we planned.”
All of the selections in this issue are well-constructed and worthy of attention. Perhaps my favorite was Jim Tomlinson’s “Angel, His Rabbit, and Kyle McKell,” a raw, in-your-face story about young female, her obnoxious boyfriend, a pet rabbit she does not want in the house, and a veteran of the Iraq war who shows up to re-connect their friendship and ends up showing her the grave wounds he received in service of his country. Another tough, no-holds-barred story is “Custody Bus” by Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, about a young woman from a broken home who sleeps with her ex-husband periodically and ruminates about her past as a measure of maintaining some feeling of stability and normalcy in a life that has left her all too vulnerable.
Also worthy of mention is “The Good Ex-Wife,” by Shasta Grant, a grim (Freight Stories is not inclined to levity or lightness, at least in this issue) portrayal of a divorced woman whose ex-husband shows up to take the children for his weekend visitation. She is angry and bitter about his philandering when they were married, leading to the ultimate dissolution of the marriage, and now she must face the loneliness of a weekend alone.
This is a well constructed website with archives easily found
and readily available in PDF if one is so inclined. They publish
only fiction, including novel excerpts and novellas, but no
poetry or essays. One hopes they have many years of publishing
left in their future.
Volume 63 Number 1
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
When highly regarded essayist and self proclaimed heir of Thoreau Scott Russell Sanders submitted his essay, “Simplicity and Sanity,” to The Georgia Review, the editors thought his “yet familiar, yet vital” argument was a “strong starting and focal point for some important discussion of nothing less than the fate of our country and planet.” So, they sent an invitation to a number of accomplished essayists for responses, full-fledged essays in their own right that became this issue’s special feature, “Culture and Environment – A Conversation in Five Essays.” It’s a conversation worth listening to, and many other fine contributions notwithstanding (stories by Lori Ostlund and David Huddle, poems by J. Allyn Rosser, Margaret Gibson, David Clewell, and others, and numerous book reviews), it’s the most compelling reason to read the magazine.
The editors are right that “Simplicity and Sanity” sound familiar, but it is a message we certainly need to hear again, since clearly, we’re not getting it: “let us quit using the word ‘consumer’ for a season and use instead the close synonym . . . we cannot expect to learn of experiments in simple living from the same media that promote extravagant living.” Sanders laments the proliferation of high tech toys, overgrown houses and underdeveloped gardens, the depletion of water sources, the insistence on growing, transporting, buying, and consuming foods out of season and at the expense of other animals (including human ones), the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment, and the lack of what Thoreau termed any “worthy aim” for our lives. His arguments would be almost dull, they have been so often repeated, if they weren’t so urgently necessary, and his prose so clear and sturdy, the passages from Thoreau so well chosen, and the interjection of personal stories and examples so thoughtfully integrated, the essay becomes fresh, despite its predictability.
Reg Saner, David Gessner, Lauret Edith Savoy, and Alison Hawthorne Deming counter with essays that are beautifully written, no less urgent, and all distinctly different from the Sanders essay and from each other. Saner wonders about Sanders’s appeal to readers as “reasonable creatures,” since clearly we haven’t heeded his message or followed his personal example. His prose is both entertaining and deadly serious all at once, a difficult feat to achieve, but such an exciting combination. Like Sanders, he is a master at integrating personal story with a larger social message, which makes “Sweet Reason, Global Swarming” a tremendous read.
In “Against Simplicity: A Few Words for Complexity, Sloppiness, and Joy,” David Gessner wonders about the human desire for “more,” for the “sloppy life” that also encompasses creativity and change. He describes his own “un-simple and unsettled life” as one also capable of connecting to the natural world and its unfolding. He reminds us that Thoreau was “an antisocial crank…a single antisocial crank.” So, “Pardon me if I don’t take as my role model a teetotaling, spartan, socially awkward virgin,” he says. This essay adds a marvelous voice to this conversation.
Lauret Edith Savoy’s essay, "Pieces Toward a Just Whole,” extends the conversation in an absolutely critical way, questioning the class issues inherent in and largely left out of “simplicity” arguments. “What of those Americans who don’t have the freedom, agency or economic privilege to choose,” she asks. Like the other essayists here, she pieces together a whole from critical observation, historical record, and personal story, and her essay is, in some ways, the most original and the most powerful, for it is the least familiar.
Finally, Alison Hawthorne Deming, whose work is always
lyrical and philosophical, and whose science always seems so
acutely grounded, ponders the relationship between biology and
culture. This is a beautifully structured essay with a
compelling message, “Life is its own purpose,” she insists. The
message may be simple (though I would argue it is actually
pretty sloppy, in the best Gessner-ian sense of the word), but
the essay is sophisticated and even lovely, motivated by passion
for the earth and awareness of our inability (philosophically)
to grasp and manage the simplicity necessary to preserve it.
Hawk & Handsaw
Review by Rachel S. King
Hawk & Handsaw – “The Journal of Creative Sustainability” – “was born out of a deceptively simple pair of truisms: first, reflective sustainability is crucially important to the collective health of our planet; secondly, figuring out how to be successfully sustainable requires a lot of thought and no small amount of patience and whimsy.” This first issue focuses on home – “no attempts at the grand statement, but rather, close observations of the particulars that sustain us.”
My favorite story in this issue is Bruce Pratt’s “The Dawning of the Day” which flirts with but doesn’t descend into sentimentality. It’s a story of a romance, infidelity, and a forgiveness which begins in America but is finally accepted as the couple again accepts Ireland, their returned-to homeland. My favorite piece of artwork is Emily Brown’s “Winter Maple,” a stark ink on paper black and white drawing done with almost photographic realism. And my favorite essay is Michael P. Branch’s “My Child’s First Garden,” maybe since he and his child’s adventures in the garden seem a supplement to Michael Pollan’s Second Nature, a book I’m currently reading. “Only a fool believes that anything in this broken world is foolproof,” Branch writes, “and so the proliferation of things called foolproof is proof only that the world has fools and plenty.” Pollan would agree.
Home isn’t always a haven; it can be hellish as well. In Luisa A. Igloria’s poem, “What I Want Most of All,” the narrator wishes to leave her all-consuming domestic life behind, drop casually off the face of the earth, and show up, unknown and alone, in Europe. In Jennifer A. Barton’s story, “The Monkey’s Fist,” a father and son wait, helpless, as a crew comes to dynamite near their home in West Virginia. And Bibi Wein’s essay, “The Way Home,” recounts distaste with, then eventual love for, a place in the Adirondacks.
Based on the good quality of writing I found, I think this
journal has a promising future. I’m interested to see what other
themes Hawk & Handsaw covers in its upcoming issues.
Volume 29 Number 2
Review by Tony Bonds
Okay, maybe it's not an issue for most, but I'm a sucker for fonts. Ever picked up a lit mag and thought, “Good content, but it looks awful on the page”? A good lit mag isn't just about content, it's about presentation. And Mississippi State's Jabberwock Review is a brilliant example of just how much quality production can do for a magazine: the cover photo is austere, the pages are nice and thick, and, yes, the font is nice.
In this case, outer appearances reflect the beauty within. Equal parts fiction and poetry, with a collection of art and a few poignant nonfiction essays for good measure, Jabberwock Review leans toward innovative writing but ultimately is rooted in the traditional.
In Lenny Levine's mystery, “Tales from the Cryptic,” a puzzle solver discovers he's been inadvertently pedaling a deadly sleeping pill, and his mind begins to unravel as those around him struggle to keep up with his cryptic clues. Another spotlight feature is “Dyads,” by Jacob M. Appel, a story about a restless woman who ferries a conservationist and his daughter to a whale nesting spot to conduct research. Told with well-observed clarity, it explores the nature of parent-child relationships in the face of both adversity and ennui.
The poetry here is uniformly short and cleanly written, two features I admire and seek out in poetry. Robert Parham's, “Lessons After Dust,” is a fine example, vibrating with sensuality and grit at the same time:
We walk upon the flinty gravel
that sparks against the night
oh we will not be firewalkers yet
as the elms bend down to kiss
where the shadows were, those feet
that begin where light leaves off
My only qualm with the overall package is that the art in the middle of the book is not full color and looks as if it was printed out by a bubble jet circa 2000. A minor detail maybe, could be I'm just anal, but what might have originally been bold visual art seems stifled by the muted tones and the slight pixilation.
All in all, Jabberwock Review holds up as top-notch
reading and is recommended for any literature-seekers with a
penchant for first-rate writing, moving stories, and a font that
Volume 25 Number 2
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Whether or not it’s deliberate or simply a happy accident, the Table of Contents is, in and of itself, simply fabulous. Listen to these titles: “The poem I’m obsessed with,” “Have you ever noticed how many bugs,” “The Simple Life Reveals its Complications,” “Marriage, it turned out, was a disappointment,” “Swee’ Dadday’s Big Sanyo,” Going to Jail Free,” “Triptych of My Aunt Linda, Poet in Her Own Right, Frightened of Bicycles,” “The Wrong Thing, the Bad Thing the Untrue Thing.” A welcome and true sign of the originality to come.
Here is Susan Thomas in her poem “Mud Season” fooling me into thinking this is a poem I’ve read a hundred times, when it isn’t: “Redbud, willow, cherry blossoms – / someone else’s spring.” Of course, I must know whose spring it isn’t. Here is B.J. Best turning what could be ordinary into something special in his “weather in paris”: “when it rains, it somehow does so / in French, smelling of boulangeries / and fancy cigarettes.” Here are Christine Rhein’s unpredictable philosophies in her poem “Orange Days”: “Truth comes down to attitude.” and “my alphabet . . . leads from one meaning to another.”
John Baum’s story, “How to Explain the World,” the story of a boy with “special needs” is poignant, realistic, and memorable. No sloppy sentiment here, though such a tale could easily lend itself to messy, uncontrolled emotion. Keith Buie’s story “Kickback” is beautifully written: “Good-bye to Mom was a freshly made bed. Good-bye to Dad was the sound of the front door shutting behind me.” Julie Marie Wade’s essay, the triptych whose title is cited above, is written as if it were what it announces, a series of paintings, and it’s a successful tactic that turned a piece that might be ordinary into one that is exceptional.
I loved, too, the cover art, a lovely watercolor by Amy
Bernays, “Kennedy Meadows Half in Winter,” and striking black and
white photographs by Colleen Collins, especially a marvelous
photo, “River in County Kilkenny, Ireland,” which will make you
long to visit the place, to have tea, perhaps, in one of the
houses along the canal that dominates the photo.
Michigan Quarterly Review
Volume 48 Number 2
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Laurence Goldstein, Michigan Quarterly Review’s editor for 32 years, is stepping down. His last issue is a doozey. But, let me back up and start at the beginning. Not with his brief and poignant farewell, but with the journal’s cover. A stunning photograph of Orson Welles in a 1947 production of Macbeth introducing the portfolio of letters and memos from the Orson Welles Collections at the University of Michigan, curated and introduced here by Catherine L. Benamou. But, let me back up even further and start “above the fold,” for the photo is the bottom half of the cover. The top half is a glorious and amusing juxtaposition of the extremes of academe: “On the Originals of American Modernist Poetry,” an essay by Frank Lentricchia and “The Dirty Little Secret of Sabbatical,” an essay by Susannah B Mintz. Okay, I might as well admit it. I went straight for Mintz’s essay. “The Adored Long Ago: Poets on their Long-Lost Loves,” by Mark Halliday (also announced on the cover) competed, but only briefly, for my attention. Mintz’s dirty secret won out.
I won’t give away the secret, but it’s not revealing too much, I don’t think, to let you know that Mintz is honest and self-aware, and that she describes a period of great emotional and psychic anguish in prose that is appealing and never self indulgent. Halliday’s essay, which reads like a “little black book” of poets (including himself) is equally satisfying in a different way – an entertaining and original kind of lit crit, but not without its serious aspects. Lentricchia’s essay, which presents a new historical understanding of the modernists, is wholly serious, but readable, nonetheless. And the Welles feature really is spectacular, a great behind-the-scenes look at his work.
These attention-grabbing contributions are accompanied by
poems and short stories from contributing editor Philip Levine,
Thomas Lynch, J. Allyn Rosser, Michael Byers, Jane Gillette and
others. Lisa M. Steinman reviews five volumes of poetry from
independent and mainstream presses. And now I’ll back up to the
beginning again one final time to say good-bye to Laurence
Goldstein and thank him for 128 seasons of exciting reading,
what he aptly describes as “the vivid satisfactions of the
Volume 35 Number 1
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
I love guest editor Eleanor Wilner’s work, so it is terrific to have a chance to read her picks for the magazine. Some of her choices surprised me; almost all interested and satisfied me for they are unpredictable and wildly engaging in their use of language. Jaswinder Bolina’s poem “Make Believe” merges language that can border on the ordinary with syntax, line breaks, and images that magnify and elevate it: “We will eventually be archaeology, but now in America / I tell my young daughter the new headlights are a bluish-white / instead of the smoky yellow / of my upbringing.” and “It’s that time when I’m alone in America with my young / daughter that she startles / herself realizing the woodpile beneath the black oak is itself / formerly a tree, / and she wants to know whether these trees have feelings.”
Annie Guthrie plays a clever word game that is much more than merely folly in “*between the lines.” Here is an excerpt:
In between “host” and “glint” is
ghost. A “hint” will hiss next to “guess.”
For example also
the virtue of frost is moisture
And in icicles, glaciers
or in a body’s cooling gestures
the centuries pile up.
Kevin Clark’s “This, Then” is an original, sophisticated, and sometimes even disturbing ars poetica-travel narrative all in one with this spectacular account of the poetic process:
And so I remind myself of this, then:
Not twenty hyaline seconds
After three rattling slams
Shook Aeromexico 448, northbound for LAX,
After the hard starboard lean,
After the thousand-foot drop,
and the next,
After the screams of the mothers finger-vised to their children,
I knew I’d found the earthbound pivot of the poem. Three days back
The earthbound pivot of the poem! Stunning! Meena Alexander mines the rich potency of alliterative phrases in “Birthplace (with Buried Stones),” building on the letter “a” with subtle grace until we reach her destination:
In the absence of reliable ghosts I made aria,
Coughing into emptiness, and it came
A west wind from the plains with its arbitrary arsenal:
Torn sails from the Ganga river,
Bits of spurned silk,
Strips of jute to be fashioned into lines,
What words stake – sentence and make believe,
A lyric summoning.
There are too many marvelous poems here to cite from them all (Elaine Terranova’s “Consensual Reflex,” Terese Svoboda’s “Secret Executions of Black GIs in Occupied Japan,” which is easier to understand if you’ve read Svoboda’s memoir about her uncle’s military service, but will make you likely to want to do so if you haven’t, Alpay Ulku’s “Homestead”).
Wilner’s fiction selections (stories by Andria Nacina Cole, C.E. Poverman, Jess Row, Sasha Troyan) are similar in many ways to the poetry selections – strong, original voices, purposeful plots, stories that are unpredictable, but without working too hard to surprise or distract or unsettle.
In her introduction to the issue, Wilner begins, “I love
poets who bring us down to our proper size.” I would say that
Wilner’s choices enlarge us.
Volume 104 Number 1/2
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
“[T]he way you can feel his intelligence moving on the page in the choices and turns he makes.” This is Cornelius Eady describing the work of Gregory Pardlo, the poet whose work he has chosen for “Poets Introducing Poets,” always one of this magazine’s finest features. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a better description of that elusive and spectacular quality that makes great poetry so hard to define and so easy to love. And Eady – who praises Pardlo’s line and his ear, as well as his poetic intelligence – couldn’t be more right about Pardlo. His work is “dense, but it’s never a burden to navigate” (“Kite / strings tensing the load of a saddle- / backed wind”).
Presented here are several sections from “Marginalia,” a work that creates a portrait of a place (Brooklyn) with the sharp, nuanced eye of a master photographer, the rich, multi-layered strokes of an abstract painter, and the thoughtful musings of a confident philosopher (“Spinoza gives us / this reason not to opt off their call lists”). Eady contributes several poems to this issue, too, his lines as sharp, of course, as Pardlo’s and his ear as finely tuned as ever (“Since the horns sometimes / High-heeled the air / Like a brand new / Skirt.” from “Neighborhood Kids Play James Brown’s Xmas on their Front Porch, December 24, 2006”).
Particular attention to the integrity of the line and its potency are true, overall, of the poems in this issue. These poems exhibit an especially sensitive appreciation for the work the individual line must accomplish to “move an intelligence on the page.” Here are Kurt Steinwand: “While I can’t recall / the boy’s name, I can see / his banana-seat chopper go / flipping up and over” from “Revolver”); and Linda Pastan (“If the language of war / is victims / choose silence.” from “Silence”); and Tom Chandler (“And there is the god you do not / believe in, the one inside these words,” from “Pantheism); and Lisa Huffaker (“The snails! A whole lovely brick wall, / studded with them! You couldn’t pick them off,” from “Van Nuys”); and Gerard Grealish (“On Friday nights / my brother bought heroes” from “Boxing”).
These beautifully conceived poems, and many others, are well
accompanied by Marcela Malek Sulak’s essay on “Translation and
Transgression,” a useful addition to the ever evolving
conversation about the difficulty of translating a poem’s
“culture,” not merely its words, and smart reviews of books I
would not know existed, were it not for Poet Lore.
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
You can hold Sentence in one hand. It’s fat, but also squat, and just the right size for a one-fisted read, so you can hold a cup of coffee, or a glass of wine, in one hand and hold up the journal in the other. But, wait – you won’t need the caffeine or the booze. Sentence provides its own special and particular high. I have loved it from the first issue, and this one is easy to love, too.
There’s something clearly freeing about the journal’s self-identified category: “prose poetics.” Something that motivates exceptional creativity, an expansive, generous, and inventive sense of what it means to start and end a piece, to give shape to a complete composition. This issue includes prose poems as short as one sentence and as long as two pages; short imagistic writing presented in a single paragraph; brief narratives with a conventional beginning, middle, and end, including a number of family stories; philosophical musings formulated in various shapes and sizes; small verbal portraits of people and places; short dialogues; short monologues; pieces which address readers directly and others that seem entirely disembodied; lines that sprawl across the page and narrow columns of text with the widest possible margins; language that is lyrical, musical, luxurious and also fierce and edgy, raw, raucous, from more than 70 writers in nearly 300 pages. You’ll find some writers known for clever, edgy stuff (Denise Duhamel, Jeannine Hall Gailey, B.J. Best, Amy Newman), and others, like Janet Kaplan, who have turned to prose poems after much success with less overtly inventive forms.
It’s as hard to quote meaningfully from prose poems as from any poem. The entire thing vanishes before our eyes, unless we capture it whole. But, for the sake of sampling the range of tones, voices, and styles in Sentence, let me offer a few excerpts. Here is Liz Waldner with her clever “Run of the Mill Landfill”: “Order suggests ordure. Ordure suggests odor, quite properly. Quite properly suggests ‘quite nicely’ as sung by Donovan the first, while singing Mellow Yellow.” It gets even better, but you’ll have to find out for yourself. On the other end of the clever spectrum, which is to say smart, but not playful, there are Janet Kaplan’s “Words”: “A word lurks. It looks familiar. Child on a white sheet. C in its fetal pose, a chill of faces staring down. The word is hard matter.” I love J.E Wei’s yearning paint-on-paper style. Here’s an excerpt from “In the Field:”
You ride me on the bike, like those mornings when we had shadows – don’t be sad the rice paddies are full of weed. In the field, fireflies shine with your favorite stars; they are friends saying good-bye. They call out your name: Peace Pine Peace Pine. It isn’t far and let me walk with you – cross the bridge of orchids, So Long, my pine So Long, my pine.
This issue also includes a special feature on Italian prose
poems with an introductory essay by Luigi Ballerini. The work is
tremendously exciting and beautifully translated with one
particularly interesting title – “The Poet Forgets What He Has
Written” by Leonardo Sinisgalli (“Innocence is in decline.
Whoever seeks to resurrect Abel in you is a madman”). But,
you’re not likely to forget this issue of Sentence.
The Sewanee Review
Volume 117 Number 1
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Only three writers have ever published plays in The Sewanee Review, including William Hoffman, whose drama in this issue, “The Spirit in Me,” based on a story of the same title, appeared in the Review twenty-five years ago. The play takes place in a southern West Virginia coal town (Hoffman’s father, incidentally, owned a coal mine) in the sweltering summer of 1936 and is an exploration of race and class issues which unfold inside the framework of a love story, shaped by the strong arm of the law and the church. The dialogue is fast-paced, despite the sluggish, heavy heat, and the voices clear and true and particular. It’s easy to imagine a production of this short play, with its spicy, clipped dialogue, finely etched characters, enormous imaginative opportunities for a set, and historical importance.
In fact, the drama sets the tone for the whole issue – pieces richly grounded in the particulars of place and time. “Chaos and Harmony,” a series of poems by Robert Phillips, for example, with its sharply observed “Four Seasons” (“Slow as the rhetoric of Warren G. Harding, / summer staggers to its knees, stunned / as a poleaxed steer at slaughter”); and Robert McDowell’s “Talking with the Dead” (“Morning. Ocean rain and fog. / I wake uneasy in the Gold Beach motel, / …On this day a year ago you packed / Your gentle manner and disarming clarity . . . And crossed over, leaving the phone dead”); and B.H. Fairchild’s “Nathan Gold” from “City Voices and Scenes” – “9/14/01. So, Sollie, here I am again, old man, / zeyde, now. You’re gone ten years, but it’s your birthday,” the poem begins.
A series of essays about friendship by Sam Pickering, Earl Rovit, Richard Stern, and James L. W. West III in a segment titled “Such Friends,” are equally rooted in specific times and places – a ship bound for Inchon, Korea in 1945, the Piazza San Marco in 1963, the 1960’s literary community that spawned a friendship between William Styron and Ralph Ellison – despite their larger philosophical and sociological implications. These are smart essays from accomplished elder statesmen of the form.
This issue’s “The State of Letters” feature is especially
appealing, with a spry essay “Beyond Resignation” by Elizabeth
Moulton, who bemoans her age and dazzles us, nonetheless, with
her mental acuity, despite, or perhaps because of her eighty-two
years. Hilary Masters’s “The End of Something” (a title borrowed
from Hemingway) is a lovely personal essay about
memory/memories. If this issue truly represents the state of
letters in American writing, we are in darn good shape.
South Loop Review
Review by Denise Hill
South Loop Review is the creative nonfiction and art annual published by the English Department of Columbia College Chicago, and though said to “give greater emphasis to non-linear narratives and blended genres,” I would say the publication as a whole is fairly balanced in its variety. It might be more accurate to say the non-linear and blended genres are the stronger and more lasting pieces in this issue.
I had high hopes for SLR’s opening piece in graphic novel format, “Dear Livia: Syria and Turkey,” a novel excerpt designed and written by Kay Hartman with Ibrahim Parlak and Kathy Zmuda. The story is about Parlak’s imprisonment and torture by the Turkish government and his eventual release. Though Hartmann expresses concern that the format may seem to simplify or “dumb down” the message, predecessor works such as Maus and Persepolis likewise take on serious subject matter and have mass appeal. The falling short came perhaps in this portion being too condensed. The eight panel length causing the story to seem detached and exactly what Hartman feared, distilled too far down. The images left me a bit uneasy as well – a kind of South Park styling that seems oversimplified. However, I think the fairest read of this would be in its full novel form, which leaves something to be said for journals excerpting works to the extent that they may actually do a disservice to the original.
Luckily, the next work is SLR was by far the most incredible selection, and not one I would have picked as such when I started reading. “God Damned the Land but Lifted the People: or, Redemption in Three Levitations” by Joshua Foster is a neatly woven, broken narrative about farming, mice, boys and guns. It is carefully constructed layers of story, moving between Foster’s memories of growing up, shooting animals for the heck of it, his adult life in college and on the farm, and lines from such notables as Aristotle, Borges, and lesser-knowns Nicholas Collias (on the aggression in vertebrates), and J.P. Scott (his explanation of the behavioral differences between mice and rats). Believe me, I never thought I would care, and was at first a bit impatient with the back and forth style (always wondering: where is this going? is this going anywhere?) But, the weave is tight and carries the narrative through to an ending which, quite by surprise, caught me with tears in my eyes.
The linear works in SLR found me much less satisfied. While well-written on accounts of maturity of style, description, dialogue, etc., it was the end of several that left me feeling flat. I am certainly no anti-slice-of-life-stylist, but at the same time, I feel that the whole of a piece should take me somewhere, whether the author directly shows me this, as in Kelly Clink’s “A Last Winter” and Patricia Hirsch’s “Altered Mental Status Resolved,” hints at it with a clear sense of conclusion, as in Rick Kempa’s “Capable of Killing,” or lilts away in an almost poetic diminuendo, as in Michele Gazzolo’s “Hotel El Vapor” and Andrea Cumbo’s “Saving My Mother’s Head.” These were works that showed strength of narrative style overall.
SLR establishes their openness to experimental forms, including mixed genre works like Cheryl Merrill’s “Capturing the Story,” which includes two versions/perspectives of her visit to a watering hole in Africa combined with photos of elephants; Doug Rice’s “Untitled Photo Essay,” which begins, “Without any photographic evidence, it was as if Doug’s childhood never existed”; several story art panels from Guy R. Beining; and MK Czerwiec’s comic, “Steph’s Shoes,” a one-page, eight-panel story of the relationship between “Comic Nurse” Czerwiec and a patient.
With few journals devoted solely to creative nonfiction, and
even fewer including art and experimental forms of narrative,
South Loop Review is one of those publications to keep tabs
on to know what’s going on with the form and where it’s headed.
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
It’s the range – and, in some cases, the combination – of tones, voices, and diction that make this issue of West Branch exciting. Poems from Christopher Weese’s series “Marvels” will help me illustrate my point about diction. Here is an excerpt from XXII:
I was a wartime censor,
seeding letters with sudden shadows
like visual static,
a hundred possible sentences
aging the vague, contagious darkness,
Where there had been cities.
I left islands.
And here is an excerpt from XLVI:
I was a performing bear personality
specializing in blindfolded motorcycle stunts
for corporate parades
Or contingency Super Bowls.
During our first date,
I licked my own skin habitually.
The conceit in the first line (“I was a …) creates both the opening and the need for an eclectic and shifting diction. I was captivated by the idea, impressed by the precision of the images, even in cases where references to popular culture bear much of the weight making a meaning vivid, and certainly interested in reading more of the “Marvels.”
This issue really is a study in shifting tones and diction. There’s the casual, yet also lyrical verse of Harry Humes in “Look at Me Out Here At Dusk Picking” (“up a fallen nest or touching the last purple blossom / off the butterfly bush and hoping / to find one more mantis husk one more tomato / look at me sitting by the fire ring”); and also the strange and strangely successful diction and syntax of Lindsay Marianna Walker in “Josephine at Carnivale” (“Hortense and I pigeon the seaside town, / versed in trade: photos, postcards, baguettes. / The promenade gone garland with parades, / subtle mountains gray the basin, stiff as the beard / of an elder. Wasn’t it February?”). There are Ellen Wehle’s finely sculpted observations and closely etched philosophies and pronouncements in “Building the Cathedrals” (“Blue silk star-hung / When I promise / You the heavens / Close at hand, // Ascend me, love, / With great care. // Grain-deep, my /oldest fear: I / Grace the pyre.”). And William Joliff’s tall-tales sort of approach in “‘Martha Campbell’ At Ray’s Place” (“Just about all of them, Jimmy Wheeler said, / all those old Ohio fiddlers honed / a way of playing ‘Martha Campbell,’ / men like Shorty Mobley and Junior Shirk, / and, now I know, my own Great-Grandpa Tom).
I would never forgive myself if I ended this review without
mentioning Lucy Corin’s “Four Small Apocalypses,” an amazing
piece of short fiction that begins with the most marvelous of
openings: “For half of the year, when her father was working, it
was as if she weren’t half made of him.” And Ann Panning’s essay
“Untranslatable,” which is utterly sensational – a brief
exploration of words and concepts in other languages for which
we have no equivalent in English except the raw and real
experience of the essence of the phrase’s meaning as lived. I
think it is safe to say that my response to this issue is
World Literature Today
Volume 83 Number 3
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Newspapers everywhere are disappearing. Magazines are closing shop. The New York Times is consolidating sections, no more “Escapes,” no more Sunday “City.” Yet, somehow, WLT, as gorgeous as always, manages to survive into its eighty-third year with as expansive and broad a vision as ever. The first eighty years (way back to when WLT was Books Abroad!) will soon be available online through JSTOR. So, now we have the best of both worlds.
This issue begins with some of the best reasons I can think of not to do away altogether with print – an extraordinary photograph by Shevaun Williams of 2008 Neustadt Laureate Patricia Grace. The type of close-up profile that makes you glad for the grace (pun intended) that time and age can bestow. Inside is a magnificent landscape, both in visual and verbal images, from Beppie K.’s photo of New Zealand, Grace’s native country, to the magazine’s regular features (“notebook,” “world literature in review,” and “outposts,” this time round of New Zealand).
The issue includes Grace’s Neustadt lecture, “The World Where You Are,” given last fall in Oklahoma, and a short story, “Headlights.” Grace’s description of her land and community, a place that shapes every syllable she sets down, is useful and fascinating: “It is a remnant of land of three interrelated tribal or family groups . . . it means that everyone in our community is related to me or is married to a relative of mine.” She goes on to say that writing is about everyday things: “There is something happening to us every moment of our lives.” It’s the quality of the writing that matters. The story that follows the lecture is a beautiful example.
WLT literally does contain the world. There is an interview with Jamaican author Opal Palmer Adisa; poetry from Zimbabwe and Mexico; a special section on indigenous popular culture (music, comics, cinema); a short story from Iranian writer Moniro Ravanipour, whose activism in anti-censorship movements has brought her under government scrutiny; an essay about the American cable TV show, “Monk” and the detective story paradigm by University of Oklahoma professor J. Madison Davis; and an essay about the detective novels of Chinese American writer Qui Xiaolong by Alan Velie, also a professor at UO. As always, the magazine features beautiful photographs of writers and colorful reproductions of book covers.
Patricia Grace reminds us that “something is happening to us
every moment of our lives,” and that these everyday moments are
the stuff of literature. WLT reminds us that something is
happening to someone, to everyone, every day, everywhere in the
world, and we deserve – no, we are obligated – to learn about
Volume 25 Number 1
Review by Rachel S. King
When I first read – or rather, studied – this issue of ZYZZYVA, I had no idea how to review the thing. The entire issue is in “textimage, instances in which text and image collide on the page,” and since I’ve been interested in the written word for over twenty years and visual art for only five, I ought to be excused for my quandary. On my second reading, I decided to describe what is in the journal and encourage readers pick up a copy and make their own commentary.
In one place in the issue, artists lay alphabet shapes on top of one another to form completely different shapes, another place displays artist Ann Chamberlin’s “Tremor Drawings,” scribbles and words and letters across pages, exercises she did to recover from a stroke. One section is filled with visual poetry – “VisPo” – another section combines new words with well-known images so the images take on new meanings. There are also Diagrammars, Architexture, and Grafiction – the etymology of these words gives you a sense of what types of art they conflate.
Okay, I do have a couple opinions: my favorite piece is Aimee Bender’s “Some Romans,” in which she uses different types of fonts to inspire tone and characters for her paragraph sketches. The paragraph written in Avant Garde font is about an avant-garde artist, “Lucinda was the brightest girl in her class, so bright they had to wear a dim raincoat to block the glare,” and Verdana “drinks yellow drinks and wears yellow clothes and pees lightly yellow pee. But instead her heart is blackening slowly.” It’s an idea for a fun and worthwhile writing exercise to give your students, if nothing else.
I also liked Sherman Alexie’s “The Writer’s Notebook,” which photocopies notes he made on random advertisements and questionnaires. The result is heartbreakingly hilarious, as only Alexie can be. “Did the workshops and focus groups meet your needs?” the form asks. “The Indian boys on my rez are spraying lysol on Wonder Bread and eating it,” Alexie answers. “What did you like best about the conference?” the form continues. “There were ghosts in my room but they were boring,” Alexie writes. “What could be improved?” the form asks. “and didn’t know any stories I hadn’t heard before,” Alexie continues.
So, buy and study this issue yourself. It’s definitely the
most unique issue of a journal I’ve reviewed for NewPages.