Literary Magazine Reviews

Posted October 19, 2009

Alligator Juniper - The Ampersand - The Battered Suitcase - The Black Boot - Calyx - Colorado Review - Consequences - The Fiddlehead - Free Lunch - Plain Spoke - Puerto del Sol - roger - Spoon River Poetry Review - Thuglit - Versal - Weave - Westchester Review

 

Alligator Juniper coverAlligator Juniper

Issue 14

2009

Annual

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

I have seen a lot of photographs of birds – who hasn’t? But, I have never seen one quite as striking as Ashley Sniezek’s “Sanctuary.” Both the photo and the impeccable reproduction are so sharply focused I feel as if the slender bird’s beak might reach out and peck me if I try to turn the page. But I must turn the page, because this photo is followed by an equally marvelous one, “In the Tomb of Ramose, Luxor, Egypt,” by Sue Lezon. Twelve photographers’ work is featured in this issue, including photos from national award winner Don Fike and student award winner K. Angeline Pittinger. These are some of the finest black and white photos I have encountered in a magazine, reproduced with such clarity they appear almost surreal.

Sharp vision, clarity, and finely etched details are the hallmark of the creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry in this annual as well. Here is Allan Peterson, for example, “the way a house breaks into little potted plants on the deck and window sills” (from his poem, “Giving Us Ideas”); and Zach Savich: “Hybrids: a cross / between a boy and dusk.” (from his poem “Snowmelt”); and Natasha Kessler: “Once, she gave me a soup recipe / written on onion skins. Her fingers were bones / smelling of fish oil and hairspray” (from her poem “Penumbra of Strays”); and Tony Hoagland (the only “poetry star” this issue): “Everything must be bottled / in 1950s light” (from his poem “1950s Light”).

Particularly affecting in the prose is Emily Borgmann’s personal essay “Breaking.” “On the morning of September 11, 2001, I woke at noon,” she begins, so simply, yet already having complicated the situation by telling us she’s slept through the terrible moments that changed everything forever for so many of us. In the same way, I have seen so many photos of birds, I have also read countless essays about illness. Yet Borgmann’s essay, like Sniezek’s photo, is unlike any other I have encountered.

Paula Belnap’s “National Award”-winning story “The Road to Chimayo” is an appealing contribution to “road trip narratives” and a fine example of how a writer can create characters whose questionable attitudes and unsettling prejudices make them sympathetic on some level, rather than purely unlikeable. Richard K. Weems, judge of the “Student Award,” writes that the stories he most appreciated were those that “enticed me into its world without ever allowing me to forget my own.” I think he has captured this issue’s strengths perfectly.
[www.prescott.edu/alligator_juniper/]

 

The Ampersand coverThe Ampersand

Volume Three

2009

Quarterly

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

The editors of The Ampersand take a firm editorial stance from the get-go: “Give us God, give us god, give us the gritty, oily humanity, & make us laugh. If you can make us cry, do so. If you want to lament the loss of pets or parents, do not.” On the chance you need someone to draw you a picture, they follow this up with a chart, “The Ampersand Flow.” The flow chart reminds writers they must be “good enough” to be included in the journal and warns if you write about puppies, your work is sure to be rejected.

The editors’ selections for this issue conform to their editorial preferences. Fiction writer Richard Radford provides the oily humanity in “And By Thy Sword Shalt Thou Live,” which begins: "Jake and Esau Grunke had been drinking malt liquor in the Laundromat all afternoon before they spotted the large diamond earring by the trashcan.” Caroline Swicegood’s short story “Blood on the Carpet” contributes the gritty:

On a Tuesday night, a CEO killed himself in his corner office on the 29th floor. He watched the windows of the other skyscrapers darken one by one, then put the acuminate edge of his pocket knife against the pulse in his throat, pressed firmly, dragged it across the vulnerable skin to the other side, and sat down in a lotus position with his shoes tucked neatly under the couch before toppling to one side.

Jim Walke provides laughter with his story “Dropping in on Paradise,” which begins: “Madge looked out over scum-green Strom Thurmond Lake to the Gated Community across the way, where her husband of thirty-nine years had shacked up with that widow harlot.” Strom Thurmond Lake! That widow harlot!

Rebecca Webb gives us god: “Some mornings I wake up / And my body feels like Palestine- / Internal, endless war, but every cell / Remembering I was once Holy.” Poet James Jason Dye gives us God in “The Dramatic Tragic Epic Comic Poetic of All Time”: “In the beginning with God. / Here before anyone could read.” in “The Phenomenon of Perception” he also gives us anti-God (or is it anti-gods?):

The retired old farts of theology go back to
the old mold. Highly religious locusts
funded en masse by basilicas and pompous
pew-pew-pews, stealthy wealthy onliest souls
who deem figurative investigation disposable.

J. Bradley’s “Another Poem about China” makes me cry: “When I finally go to China, / I will pollute the Yangtze / with the ghosts of my / unborn children.” I think Curt Eriksen’s “Such a Nice Night (of the Impossible Point of Tangency) might count for oily humanity as well:

Will she ever remember
sprawling upon that rug
and licking her lips,
embarrassed by the incurious stares
of the star eyes,
not realizing that they
have seen it all
before and before and before

There is a lot of shit here, too – literally: “I was never one to write about sunsets or birds, / to be honest that shit bores me to distraction” (Steven Marty Grant in “Urbanality”); “It takes a lot of bullshit / to grow a rose” (the first lines of Rebecca Webb’s “Ancient Heat,” the opening poem in the journal’s poetry section).

There are no parents or puppies. There is, however, a 1976 Datsun 280Z (in Eric David Lough’s “El Negro Albino”). And I thought I was the only one who remembered that car. But don’t worry, there’s no sloppy sentimentality here:

his name was Reggie
el negro albino
prince of the waxing moon
Wild Irish Rose
Mad Dog 20/20
the surveyor of Bazetta road
and the craziest
S.O.B
east of Mosquito Lake

[www.ampersandreview.com]

 

The Battered Suitcase coverThe Battered Suitcase

Volume 2 Issue 2

Autumn 2009

Online Quarterly

Review by Henry F. Tonn

This literary journal welcomes all genres: “We hope to provide a safe space for writers who’ve gone unappreciated because the industry has led them to believe they don’t fit some arbitrary format.” This latest issue is no exception, providing short stories, art, nonfiction, interviews, lyrics, poetry, a letter from the editor, a memorial – a little bit of everything.

One of the more entertaining stories I have read in months is “The House on Gray Street” by C. Rommial Butler, who describes himself as a blue collar worker and a full-time father. He manages to produce a detective-horror murder mystery that packs plenty of intrigue in a few pages, with engaging characters, gripping atmosphere, and suspenseful plot. This guy ought to write a novel. Another interesting read is “Best Friend” by Michael Dennis McDermott, about the man who wouldn’t die. I won’t say anything else except that the story could use some editorial cutting. Lastly, “Francesca’s Story” by D. E. Fredd is a humorous, ironic story about an Italian woman’s life and trials from her birth in 1918 until her death in 1987 on the tiny island of Gozo, part of Malta.

The poetry here varies greatly, some of it being quite raw. My favorite is “iLarkin” by iDrew from across the pond:

when yer mum
picks yer up from school
with pink spikey hair
zips and leather bondage trousers
and yer dad gets busted
on parents’ evening
caught smoking a spliff
in the sixth form toilets
tongues wag
fingers point
the other kids
call yer a freak

The three nonfiction pieces all concern themselves with the minor crises found in adolescence and young adulthood. “My Scars and My Lovers” by Ashlie Crabtree, is an extremely revealing piece about an operation she had which produced a distinctive scar – a constant source of fascination to the various men who roll through her life, and bed.

The writing in this lit mag is uneven, and the focus of the content seems more for the younger set. But it is likely they have accomplished their goal of providing a space for writers who otherwise would go unappreciated, and it is a good place to browse for literary works that are not necessarily mainstream.
[www.vagabondagepress.com/]

 

The Black Boot coverThe Black Boot

Issue 6

Winter 2009

Review by Micah Zevin

The poems at the center of Black Boot are often sweeping, elegiac narratives, told from the point of view of an apparently omniscient character or narrator who usually speaks in the first person or like they are writing sophisticated, honest diary entries. When you enter the bright lights of this journal, you will meet an amalgam of characters who, whether melancholy, happy or otherwise, are reflecting on something or someone integral to their past identities.

“Things to Do” by Steve Abee is a comprehensive grocery list of profound and simple tasks that one should complete while trying to live. Here, the author mixes serious goals with the satirical to great effect: “Get up in the morning and then go back to sleep, pull her close to me, / fall down into the warm sea of her breath. It’s true, / it is that deep.” This piece is a tribute to the ability to be simultaneously positive and self-deprecating about life’s truths.

In the fragmented confines of Deja Gworek’s “Shadow,” we are given a sobering account of life as a foster child: "eruptions of fire from a dragon’s mouth. ducking, running, hiding, lying. broken limbs, broken / dreams, broken hearts, broken homes. some dumb ass from my last school told me, 'better / broken than none at all.'” This quote addresses the hurtful and ambiguous realities of a being a foster child with dexterity and power as well as the dramatic memories associated with it.

Often, the poems in this issue take on the contradictions of our self-referential culture. In “I’m in a band called ‘My Name’s Joe,’” by John Maurer, the subject matter is both serious and satirical in its take on the world at large. “Fuck all your notions / about other people’s emotions / you can’t even understand yourself. Get out of my way, / my name is Joe; / I’m never confused for somebody else. / quoting the latest / in today’s pop psychology, / you’ll lecture me on life; / like pulling a rabbit / out of your hat.” This seems to comment on the self-help woe-is-me culture often associated with America, and consequently addresses the warped sense of often irrational self determination that goes along with these stereotypes.

Lastly, in the hilariously titled “One Mile Per Hour Faster Than The Speed of Light (Or Suck it Einstein)” by Mindy Nettifee, the narrator refutes Einstein’s theories about the speed of light, offering up her own conclusions: “I don’t care what the geniuses say. / I know about chance. // I believe there must be one ambitious photon who made it, at least one particle of light / that remembered the secret to charming barriers.” Here, possibility comes into question, that no one has an exclusive patent on the truth or that other ‘truths' can also be viewed as probabilities.

In Black Boot’s contours, its quirky brand of everyman honesty tangles you in a web of self-affirmation and refutation, poems and prose that tackle the contradictions and truths of its subject matter or narrators with equal aplomb. You will try on these boots and you will feel cool for a while, like a badass cowboy in a Clint Eastwood movie; the only difference being, that despite the honesty of your words, your words will be like monologues or soliloquies delivered with an urgency so genuine and relatable, you will keep reading and listening until it is finished.
[www.theblackboot.com/]

 

Calyx coverCalyx

A Journal of Art and Literature by Women

Volume 25 Number 2

Summer 2009

Triannual

Review by Terri Denton

This issue of Calyx is presented beautifully, and its premise has more beauty still. Composed, as they tell you, of women’s art and literature alone, it breathes a carefully balanced delicacy. Perhaps it is because I am a woman, but I found every piece within Calyx’s covers to be somehow special.

For example, in Sara Dailey’s poem “Biological Galaxies,” she asks that the reader “Consider our bodies, precise systems of tubes and / glands, more miracle than machine.” Her words then glide in and out of time and space as she writes, “Your every cell is a galaxy, with its own ellipses and / orbits, your nuclei like miniature suns lighting up your / insides.” Next, at once, she is on more terrestrial footing, and speaking to someone with whom she shares intimacy, a lover or a child, perhaps – she does not specify. But when she writes, “So it is no mistake when I tell you your movements are / tidal, or that when I want you so close it is because gravity is like / that, or that when I hold you I am holding the world,” the reader grasps the very gravity of Dailey’s words.

There is an intimacy to many of the pieces in this issue of Calyx, and Mary Kolada Scott’s is no exception. In her poem “Bounty,” she explores a mother’s tenuous hold on her adult son. “No Christmas gifts. Never flowers on Mother’s Day,” says Scott. But these words are not what they appear – no lamenting here. “For no occasion at all, my son brings me . . . rickety wine boxes riddled with splinters, / a Christmas card posted from jail, / lottery tickets on my birthday / that didn’t win but I prize anyway.” Scott’s final words will touch your heart, for she keeps these gifts, as she writes, “nestled in an aquamarine Tiffany box / I rescued from a wastebasket / and that held nothing / this valuable before.”

There is ingenuity here, too. Patricia Cumming’s utterly unique “Two poems for a Mirrored Room”; rendered on the page as if among mirrors, one side of her poem echoes the other. To be specific about the poem would be to spoil its fun, so I will say only that the left side of her poem works as beautifully by itself as when combined with the right side.

A standout among the short fiction is “Living Waters” by Leslie What. Two Jewish women, one devout, one not, make a trip to what are said to be the healing and cleansing waters of a lake. Bekah, friend to this story’s narrator, is the observant Jew upon whose pilgrimage they make their way. The narrator explains her non-observant life in this rather succinct and creatively wicked way: “I don’t aspire to a life without grudges.”

There is both art and photography to be found on these pages, and they, too, are unique. Nancy Ryan Keeling’s observation of her photo, “Father’s Day” wraps up, I believe, the entire issue of this edition of Calyx. In the picture, a man stands behind his teenage daughter, twisting her delicate hair into cornrows. Keely says of the image: “And every once in a while, as in Father’s Day, an act of intimacy is captured.”
[www.calyxpress.org]

 

Colorado Review coverColorado Review

Volume 36 Number 2

Summer 2009

Triannual

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

This issue of Colorado Review includes many writers whose names are, deservedly, quite familiar, among them: Hadara Bar-Nadav, Peter Gizzi, Donald Morrill, Cole Swensen, There are many who have published widely and may soon be as well known as the others I’ve mentioned, among them: Andrew Joron, Stacy Kidd, Wayne Miller, Jacqueline Lyons, Ange Mlinko. And there are others with new books or books about to be published that I am eager to read, based on their contributions to this issue, among them: Robin Black,Ellen Wehle, Jennifer Moxley, Andrew Zawacki. What these writers share is an original eye and an original ear, which is to say, that in many ways, they are as different from each other as they could be.

I was stunned (not unhappily so) by the juxtaposition of two of the most captivating pieces in the issue, Andrew Zawacki’s series of poems from Videotape, which stutter (in a wonderfully lyrical way) across the page:

To accord the places
their flinty names:
Cassadaga, Cheekto-
waga, exit
54 to East
Aurora toward West
Seneca,
the Lackawan-
na coal mine shafts, closed
as Cayuga
is cobalt & Stihl, & all

and Brendan Wolfe’s fluid and beautiful personal essay, “Stories from the Lost Nation,” which begins: “My father grew up fatherless in nearby Delmar.” Both the poem and the essay create a kind of intimacy with places and people that make them instantly familiar in a way that feels natural and close, yet without obliterating our ability to view them critically, to reflect on some larger meaning beyond the page. I appreciated Robin Black’s story, “The History of the World,” for the same reason.

Benjamin Arda Doty’s story, “Minute of Angle,” joins the growing body of twenty-first century war literature, a phrase that is both loathsome and necessary these days. This is a beautiful and convincing story that juxtaposes the concentrated moments and experience of aiming and firing a gun with the moments of non-combat life in Iraq. The prose is lovingly and expertly crafted and the story’s pace seems just right:

My heartbeat knocks on the door of the last chakra. A gate opens at which no judgment will pass. I become the red dot, which is because it isn’t the space around it, existing because of what it isn’t – this war, a dream to be home and in love, dead kittens and children, the confidence of a friend, the sweating. I find the minute of angle, or, rather, it finds me. Precision makes everything of nothing. There’s the silence, a calm as vast as an ocean without waves. I squeeze the trigger.

The journal’s generous editorial vision and eclectic approach include poems as wildly different as Chris Pusateri’s “From ‘Common Time’” (“There would be a pistol loaded with our dreams. We would enact a massacre by shooting people with those dreams, and like heroes in the movies, our revolver would never run out of bullets.”) and Pam Rehm’s “Winter Psalm” (“You have stood / winter evenings // You would think / I could pray // and I seem to/have a yearning feeling // and uncertain intervals / Here, // geese flying over).

Wayne Miller’s poem, “The Dead Moor Speaks,” may best sum up the journal at its most appealing and satisfying: “The throngs slowed down to look at me. / The boys stood still, filling with world.”
[www.coloradoreview.colostate.edu]

 

Consequence coverConsequence

Volume 1

January 2009

Annual

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

Consequence is a new literary magazine focusing on the culture of war in the twenty-first century,” writes editor George Kovach. While this first issue includes some previously published work, future issues will feature new writing by “witnesses and survivors, soldiers, scholars and writers compelled to speak the truth about war.” The inaugural issue includes the work of fifteen poets, an essay, two interviews (one with poet Brian Turner and one with “an Army wife and mother”), a memoir, and three visual artists, one of whom, Viet Le, also contributes several poems.

One of the most arresting pieces is Le’s “Succeed or Quit,” a series of photographs that combine “recognizable images” and “anamorphic images” (the image appears as a blur when encountered face forward but reveals itself when viewed on its side), preceded by the artist’s explanatory note. The photographs constituted a “search for the ghost of my mother” three decades after Le and his mother escaped by boat from Vietnam. The photos (“Beach,” “Face,” “Beach Stretched,” “Lad,” “Young American,” “Agent Orange Stretched,” “Temple,” and “Face Collage”) are mesmerizing, capturing instances that stand in stark contrast to each other and appear to narrate multiple stories. These are followed by several poems, which center on many of the same themes (“Ghosts are not what you imagine,” begins “Haunting”) I found this work to be thoughtful and thought provoking.

Another particularly fine contribution is “Sadiq,” nine short lines from Brian Turner, whose book Here, Bullet was published by Alice James Books in 2005:

It should make you shake and sweat,
nightmare you, strand you in a desert
of irrevocable desolation, the consequences
seared into the vein, no matter
what god shines down on you, no matter
what crackling pain and anger
you carry in your fists, my friend,
it should break your heart to kill.

Mark Pawlak’s “Regime Change” and Kevin Bowen’s “Red State, Blue State: Notes from a Lost Campaign” are long, ambitious poems. The former is framed by fragments of “official communications” regarding Afghanistan and Iraq, the latter is a narrative unraveling the landscape of a country and a people “on alert,” in distress, and desperately seeking their center:

At Red’s Peanut Bar.
“Only American Beer sold here,” its sign says.
The vet from the homeless shelter, pulling his felt hat
down over his eyes, singing “Secret Agent Man”
on the Karaoke.
Later, the whole bar singing together “Sweet Caroline.”

“Art that addresses the consequences of war wants to make us see what we’d rather turn away from,” Kovach says in his introduction. In the absence of decent and responsible journalism, photos of the devastation and death (civilians and soldiers), and property (not to mention ideals), and public protest (which has all but disappeared in the last year), we certainly must rely on artists to help us see.
[www.consequencemagazine.org/]

 

The Fiddlehead coverThe Fiddlehead

For Your Eyes Only

Number 240

Summer 2009

Quarterly

Review by Teri Denton

The Summer edition of The Fiddlehead was a great read. It’s filled with short stories and reviews, strictly speaking. I found myself at turns sad, scared, and empathetic. Still, I was perfectly calmed by the reading of all this pathos and dark energy. It’s almost as though I saw a bit of myself in each of these stories. In the Editor’s note, “Dark Was the Night, Bright Was the Diamond,” Mark Anthony Jarman writes that the reader will find, “stories moving through the stone lands of Ireland, France, and Spain, stories in cottage country, punk clubs, and on Napoleon’s Italian campaign,” and comments that the short story format has gotten short shrift these days, if the media are to be believed, but adds that the Pulitzer Prize for fiction went to Elizabeth Strout for her collection of said literary form. Jarman quotes, for his point, Steven Millhauser: “smallness is the realm of elegance and grace,” and Jarman adds, “the realm of perfection.”

Rebecca Rosenblum’s “ContEd” has Isobel returning to college long after her teen years, and early twenties, have passed. During the first night of a taxation class she has taken, when the teacher instructs the students to introduce themselves, Isobel comments, “It didn’t occur to me that I’d have to talk in front of everyone. I thought I could just listen, do the homework, and see how it goes.” As I near my own graduation, and after a decade of night classes, my mind has a little déjà-vu moment. And, as a woman myself, when Isobel says, of her professor, that, “He’d kiss me if I kissed him. I suddenly know it,” my heart did its own uh-huh. I definitely saw myself there, in her cramped classroom, with that guy who always has something to say, and her exasperated teacher.

And character Lindsay’s fear is something I felt upon the back of my neck as I read Jeff Park’s “Back to Disney.” When Lindsay gets involved with a marijuana growing operation, by way of the operation’s design, my very own little voice is begging him not to do it. When the shotgun appears at story’s end, my little voice only nods in resignation. I’m trying hard, even now, not to say ‘I told you so.’

Alice Petersen’s short story “Among the Trees” is another tale that needs a very large audience. Written with the same elegance and grace that Jarman spoke of, we find a widow, just as she spreads her beloved’s ashes over a cliff outside of their cottage home. We learn that she may have been widowed long before that solitary act of goodbye. She tells us that, in the beginning, her sculptor husband, Hugh, would sculpt nature so that, “A spy out before dawn might glimpse Hugh crouched close to the earth, aligning cedar fronds on the path to the dock, so that they all pointed like arrows at a newly sprung toadstool capped in neon light.” But we soon learn that Hugh would find another soul mate in the person of a male watercolor artist named Crispin, and she does try to make the best of her newly triangular life. But along the line, she finds that, “she had somewhere lost the knack for renewing her love for Hugh each day,” and “found herself acting more as she ought to, rather than desire.” I’ve been there before, too, and it’s not a comforting place.

Perhaps the calm I feel in of all this pathos and dark energy is due simply because I know that Mark Anthony Jarman is right: short stories are alive and well. All you need to do is pick up a collection like that of The Fiddlehead for confirmation.
[www.fiddlehead.ca]

 

Free Lunch coverFree Lunch

Number 41

Spring 2009

Triannual

Review by Micah Zevin

The 20th anniversary issue of Free Lunch is so chock full of delicious goodies for the main course, that dare I say there won’t be much room left for dessert, as the cover attempts so successfully to convey. To continue with the food metaphors and analogies, this journal is comparable to a three-course dinner. It is well balanced with poets of great renowned interspersed with poets of lesser acclaim, and poets somewhere in the middle who balance the plate out just right. The poems in this issue are joyful, ironic affirmations of poetry combining a great lyrical acuity with a strong sense of narrative.

“On the Poetry Line,” by Philip Dacey describes how a father views his son’s poetry: “When he called me a poetry factory, / I suddenly saw a tall brick smokestack / sticking up out of my head / and great black clouds of poetic smoke / belching forth from it across the town.” This poem utilizes the character of the father to show how anything becomes possible on the shoulders or through the support of another. In “Advice to a Young Poet” by Ron Koertge, he recommends against writing poetry that is confessional employing a dose of the expletive for emphasis:

Fuck all the gloomy insight.
Fuck the high seriousness.
And fuck those whispers in the night.
No goddamned ebbing of the light,
either. Tell me about your mattress and how it’s not quite right.
Did you break your kid’s new kite?
Good. That’s all you get to confess to.

This poem uses the pose of the anarchist to make us laugh at the status quo, the rigid stereotyped constraints that can stop the progress of the young writer of poetry.

Stephen Dunn uses his cat, Cloud, to speak about the significance of little things intruding upon the mysteries of the larger world in the poem “Cloud in Snow,” and how once he would have seen him as one of these interminable mysteries as well: “Years ago, I might have seen him / as an agent of ambiguity, / his already vanishing footprint / a little intrusion into this, / the sudden of purity / of a season’s first snow.” Ultimately, this poem is a miniature treatise about the world of the living, being animals or humans, destroying the serenity of nature’s various states.

The poems in Free Lunch also carry a somber weight in such poems as “So What (for my brother)” by Mark Perlberg: “‘He was a drunk,’ a relative snapped / when I phoned to tell her you had died, / and so unexpectedly. So what? / So what if you put down two or three martinis for dinner?” It is rare that a poem of such complexity, manages to balance humor and truth convincingly. The narrator of this poem then goes on to defend his brother and criticize his brother simultaneously without demeaning his memory, offering absurd comparisons to make his sins seem minor.

Free Lunch’s anniversary issue also offers up other poems of narrative and subtle laugh track splendor with poems by poets Cathy Song, James Reiss, and the venerable Billy Collins. When you are finished dining on these juicy, wacky, melancholy, satirical words, you won’t go away hungry. Maybe thirsty, perhaps, but by the end after stuffing the last bit of cheesecake, you will have so many sensations running through your mind and body, you will have to have a bit of chamomile tea just to come down from the experience.
[www.poetsfreelunch.org/]

 

Plain Spoke coverPlain Spoke

A Literary Speakeasy

Volume 3 Number 2

Spring 2009

Quarterly

Review by Terri Denton

This lovely little literary magazine doesn’t look like it could hold as much purely spectacular writing as it does, but don’t be fooled by its 50 pages. This speakeasy means business. Composed primarily of poems, with one short story, the editors have chosen wonderful explorations of emotions, both joyful and sorrowful, both reminiscent and forward-looking.

The first example of finery is Charles Israel Jr.’s “VFW Night.” The winner of the journal’s 2008 Flip Kelly Prize for a Single Poem, it features Israel Jr.’s escapist grandfather, whose refuge is five miles from his home. This writer’s pen framed perfect imagery in saying, “At the VFW there’s dancing and Sinatra / on the jukebox. One night a month the men / hire a lady singer. All the wars of / the last century can hide in the rose of her alto.” Seriously, I loved this poem, and I am not surprised that it’s a prize winner.

From the VFW, we skip to the sole story, Jeffrey Wallace’s “Shells,” and to narrator Jimmy’s grandmother’s grave. As Jimmy speaks to the reader, it is a moment one rarely finds in literature, a kind of transcendental experience: “I want to talk to her as I’m standing on her grave. I want to say something meaningful, like you see in movies, but it’s cold. It’s Christmas Eve, nearly thirteen months since she died, and I can’t help but feel that I’m a spectacle even though I’m by myself.”

And from elders, we skip to the young, and B.D. Feil’s “Austin Kraemer is Stealing Home.” Austin, the author writes, runs with, “steady / goodwill of an honest face / should count for something / on the basepaths and usually does.” As the parents watch from the stands and cheer on their brave son, Feil writes that they “live on the hope he generates / with his two deliberate legs.” In these five lines, the writer manages to encapsulate the combination of pride and hope with which we infuse our children. It’s a fascinating display.

As a mother, I know the exact feeling of which Michael Young writes about his son in “Stepping Out”: “that’s what I want to teach him. // the necessary pause – not hesitation, / not even patience – but simply / waiting for the eyes to adjust // before stepping out.” It’s wonderful, really.

It is for these nods to the past and the shielding of our eyes toward the horizon that Plain Spoke deserves its place amongst bigger and flashier magazines. One must remember that great things can be found in small packages.
[www.plainspoke.net/]

 

Puerto del Sol coverPuerto del Sol

Volume 44 Number 2

Summer 2009

Biannual

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

“What’s this?” Martin Riker, associate editor of Dalkey Archive Press, asks Warren Motte, Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and world renowned critic of contemporary French literature. This first question, in an interview titled “Work and Play,” is a reference to a journal Motte hands Riker when they meet for the interview. The answer (“Something I thought you might be interested in”) turns out be an article about Motte’s quarter-century obsession with mirror scenes in literature. Motte estimates he’s identified (and catalogued on index cards) between 10,000-20,000 of these. His fascination with mirror scenes is, well, fascinating.

“What’s this?” could just as easily be a reader’s response to almost any piece in this issue of Puerto del Sol, just as “work and play” could sum up the issue’s editorial approach. “Work” as in a serious endeavor intended to produce a meaningful result; and play as in a diversion from ordinary routines. Play, not in opposition to work, but as a way of working.

Take for example, the poem that directly precedes the Riker-Motte interview, “This Nude City,” by John Chávez, which begins: “This nude city is a boy’s body is a bridge is a beginning & a memory is an unpunctuated river is a bank of whitewater giggling beside the lilacs is a morning overcast & / unwanted is an alphabet of overwhelming necessity” Well, whatever this is, I like it. I can’t think of a more evocative metaphor than “an alphabet of overwhelming necessity.” Chávez has several other marvelous poems here, as well.

And, “what’s this?” I think on reading the opening line of Blake Butler’s story, “Choir(s)” which begins:

We’d had exploded.
I’d had.
Jon.
Dad.
All our bodies burst to meat.
All of Texas, Rico, Tammy.

Whatever this is, I want to read it. This story with its poetic tendencies (anaphora, the rhythmic impulses, the lyrical energy), its narrative urgency, and its heartbreaking conclusion: “Our names all spoke in one long word.”

And, “what’s this?” I wonder about Mónica de la Torre’s “Lines to Undo Linearity” (“After Gego ‘A line as object to play with’”). Play with! Is this a prose poem, poetry prose, or poetry theory? (“A fishing line should be visible to whoever fishes and invisible to fish: it should be tensile, sensitive, and prone to sink. For it to be effective it should have low spool memory and a refractive index similar to water’s. Limp fishing lines should be avoided.”) Whatever this is, I am interested in all of de la Torre’s lines.

And, “what’s this?” I ask on reading the first line of Dan Beachy Quick’s essay “Of Verdant Themes: Toward One Sentence in Proust”: “A tourist to its own intricacy, thinking looks at itself.” Later in this quirky essay, part literary criticism/part philosophical musing, Beachy Quick tells me: “To think is to attempt to draw conclusion from resemblance.” In other words, “what’s this?” is precisely the right question, after all. Whatever this is, if you like serious work and serious play, don’t miss this issue of Puerto del Sol.
[puertodelsol.org/]

 

roger coverroger

Volume 3

Spring 2008

Annual

Review by Terri Denton

This edition of roger is amazing for its depth, its breadth, and its… fabulousness. I smiled through every page, and was truly sad when I was done, though I know that I will go back to it again and again, and it will be as old novels, dog-eared pages indicating that it has been loved.

roger starts the parade right from the get-go with Gabriel Spera’s “Grubbing” front and center. This poem compares a jay as it forages for food. Writes Spera, “The jay’s up early and attacks the lawn / with something of that fervor and despair / of one whose keys are not where they always are.” Such delightful metaphors fill the mind with fancy, and the author doesn’t stop there. His jay is also a metaphor for hard-working parents who never can seem to catch up. For example, he talks of his bird and muses that, “He must get something for his selfless work.” Of this frustration, I think I can safely say that we’ve all been where this bird finds himself now. And, as Spera ends his delightful poem with, “Unless, of course, he’s just a bird, with beaks – / too many beaks – to fill, in no way possessed / of traits of demons humans might devise, / his dark not filled with could-have-beens and whys.”

Spera’s talent doesn’t stop at aviary poems. He likes bees, too. This collection showcases another of his poems called “The Hive.” After the narrator of this poem has pest-control visit the hive, he observes several hangers-on. These, the flying wounded, will “go down stinging, as I / surely would, settling the score with a world / too weak in soul to let them be.” This too, is a gem, as Mr. Spera’s talent springs from every word.

And, with a very short-short story, Aaron Hellem showcases a talent all his own with “The Circumference of Chicago.” Of his girlfriend, presumably, he writes: “She dreams in Italian that she can sing in any language, sing the songs of birds well enough to perch in trees.” The narrator’s love for this woman shimmers on every line. Says Hellem, “[She] Will sing to the Spanish boys as she descends from the fourth-story window and circles over their heads. She will tell them when they grab their crotches they haven’t the life or dreams big enough to follow through with their threats.”

Further, I would be remiss as a reviewer if I didn’t include Carolyn Petri’s translation of Pablo Neruda’s “Poem 15.” Neruda’s native Spanish merges wonderfully with Petri’s interpretation: “And leave me to speak to you with your silence / clear as a lamplight, simple as a ring. / You are like night, quiet and constellated. / Your silence is of a star, as remote and austere.” This offering from Neruda is of the sort that confirms my belief in the power of the written word.

More treasures can be found in the short story, “Villain,” by S. Craig Renfroe, Jr., and Maura Stanton’s “Class Assignment: Thirteen Ways of Looking for a Poem.” The latter I loved for its literary tech-speak, the former for its subtle humor that brilliantly leaves you feeling just a bit uneasy.
[www.rwu.edu/roger]

 

The Spoon river Poetry Review coverThe Spoon River Poetry Review

Volume 34 Number 1

Winter/Spring 2009

Biannual

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

I wonder what Abraham Lincoln (yes, that Abraham Lincoln), whose poems with their broad metaphoric strokes and plain, but competent rhymes conclude this issue (“And here’s an object more of dread, / Than ought the grave contains – / A human-form, with reason fled, / While wretched life remains.”), would make of Martha Carlson-Bradley’s objects: “Locked in the past, insistent, / someone knocks on the door/midmorning – // as metal trays in the freezer / trap their half-formed ice / and sanitary napkins hide, / wrapped like mummies / in the trash.”

What interested me most in this issue of The Spoon River Poetry Review were precisely the many surprising juxtapositions, unexpected relationships, and odd intersections: the references in Meighan L. Sharp’s “Naming Grace,” with its description of modern-day Gettysburg (“and the diner, marked by a silhouette / of Lincoln’s head”), followed by Lincoln’s verse; The appearance and re-appearance of the subject of fairy tales, first in “The Talker’s Eulogy for the Human Wart,” one of series of poems by the late poet Graham Lewis (1962-2008), and then again just a few pages later Shannon Ballam’s “Red Riding Hood’s Basket”; The repeated images of home as a room or a memory of a room; the sheer number of languages that appear in the first few pages of the journal (French, Latin, Polish, Czech, Italian); the metaphorical as dream (“All afternoon the bed dreamed it was a door”) and the metaphorical as parody (“367 pound / aint much / as fat ladies go” from “Baby by Graham Lewis”); the lyrical (“Listen to the rain outside, / how it tells us what is missing of the earth.” from “Looking for Bulgaria” by Akex Dimitrov); and the, well, less than lyrical (“Look at the moon fucking with us.” from “Details” by Elizabeth Tibbetts).

An essay on “Assigning the Elegy” by Claudia Emerson, Arrington Distinguished Chair in Poetry at Mary Washington College, and three reviews by poet Ellen Wehle round out the issue. I appreciated Wehle’s casual and personal reviewing style (“here’s what I want when I flip open a book: for a line to grab me and not let go. ‘I can’t put it down,’ is as scientific as I get about choosing what to review.”) Editor Bruce Geurnsey tells us Wehle’s reviews will become a regular feature of the journal, and I look forward to reading more of them.
[www.litline.org/spoon/]

 

Thuglit coverThuglit

Issue 32

July/August 2009

Online Monthly

Review by Henry F. Tonn

In their submission guidelines, the editors of this crime and noir website are aggressively specific about what they are looking for: “Please have crime, violence, murder, mayhem and chaos. Or a monkey.” But they don’t like serial killer stories or tales with hitmen because both have been overused. (I didn’t know that. You learn something every day.) And they would like the writer to think outside of the box.

There are eight stories in this month’s production, and I can genuinely say I enjoyed every one of them. The top picks are close but I give a slight nod to “Red Pistachios” by Joe Clifford, who has also served as editor-in-chief of Gulf Stream magazine. This very engaging story rekindles an age-old theme of the washed up, alcoholic writer who steals an idea from one of his students and suddenly finds his career soaring into orbit once again. Predictable complications arise…

Another story rich in detail is “Skinner” by Joseph Winter. It concerns three long time friends who are heavy into buying and selling drugs, and they have developed a peculiar relationship as a result. Flashbacks provide the reader with background information as one of the trio decides to extract a little vengeance for past transgressions. “Just Once” by Robert McClure is an absolutely delightful tale about two bank robbers who promise each other they are going to do the dirty deed “just once.” There is plenty of good dialogue here, and the reader is kept on the edge of his seat waiting to see if they can pull it off with the various inevitable hurdles thrown their way.

This is a colorful website with archives that are readily available and easily found. It tends to be a bit crude, however, with the editor – Big Daddy Thug – addressing his audience in what might be described as a contentious, in-your-face manner. There is plenty of humor, but also more than a little profanity, and a tone that some readers could find offensive. The wonderful thing about the explosion of lit mags in the United States today is the great variety of presentation, style, and content. In this case, a little more professionalism might be considered.
[www.thuglit.com/]

 

Versal coverVersal

7

2009

Annual

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

Versal is true to its etymology. The word is related to the Latin vertere (to turn). This work will turn heads and turn your expectations upside down and inside out. You can turn some of the phrases over and over in your mind as you ponder their meanings. The work turns away from convention. There are surprising twists and turns. If you’re not into inventiveness or writing that is deliberately edgy and unusual (odd even), you may want to walk away. If this kind of work excites you, you’ll find something to interest you at every turn. Every time you turn the page, you encounter a unique turn of phrase.

Produced in Amsterdam, Versal’s contributors come from around the world, but write, with a few exceptions, in English. Their work embodies what editor Megan Garr refers to as translocality (a turning away from traditional notions of place or home?). It is difficult to categorize this writing because it works deliberately to defy categorization. In the poetry, this is done primarily through inventive and original syntactical arrangements, and in the prose by a combination of quirky voices and images that border on the fantastical, decidedly foreign, surreal, or intimate in a way that can feel voyeuristic.

Turning now to examples of syntactical innovation, take Lizzi Thistlethwayte’s untitled poem:

block all bad pages
silently
weep haul weep haul
through the scratch and the song thrush
lay you down yourself
a rope
tight to the sea bed

Or the conclusion of “Transcript,” a poem by Kathryn Cowles:

1. salt
2. Goat
3. White
4. Cat
what
to
say

Or these excerpts from Albane Gillé’s prose poems, translated from the French by Jennifer K. Dick: “a man doesn’t run he trips over his feet his shoes something isn’t going right down these it is not solid enough” and “with his bent body it’s been so many winters in the same year that he no longer laughs in his room locked tight on the white wall he wrote we shoot the horses.”

Or the opening lines of Rob McLennan’s “Another (Short) History of L.”:

at whatever attempts you’ve made,
the riverbed hands
the smell becomes new from small places.

And for prose examples, Joel Fishbane turns a short story into a faux theater review in “Marriage Not Worth Price of Admission”: “When we first meet the two protagonists in the appropriately titled The Marriage of the Theater Critic to His Wife, they are grunting through an orgasm on an uncomfortable mattress in a dreary studio apartment. We aren’t quite certain whose orgasm it is, but it hardly matters: this orgasm, like all the ones in their marriage, is completely fake.”

There is Lehua M. Taitano’s story “Suit,” which turns away from its opening hint at humor to reveal a deadly serious subject: “I’m the guy on the corner in a gorilla suit, holding the silly sign. It’s not what you think. I’m a Sri Lankan ex-paramilitary child soldier. Female. You do not need to know the details. It has been many years. The suit is hot.”

And there is Augstina Bazterrica’s “Roberto,” translated from the Spanish by Laura L. Chalar, a short first-person satire about sexual abuse/intimidation among school children, which begins: “I have a rabbit between my legs. It’s black. I call him Roberto.”

Versal, as it happens, also refers to the “single, individual, rare.” And this certainly turns out to be true.
[www.wordsinhere.com/versal.html]

 

Weave Magazine coverWeave Magazine

Issue 2

Spring/Summer 2009

Biannual

Review by Terri Denton

An unpretentious magazine like Weave might be overlooked for its small, chapbook style format, but to pass this issue by would be a mistake of literary consequence. Subtitled “Writing •Art • Diversity • Community,” the editors of Weave could not have thought of anything better than these words, for they are all to be found within the magazine’s covers.

For example, the poem, “Night Shift” by Frank DePoole is an exploration of both scary monsters in the closet, and real monsters that prey on children. The all-too-familiar echoes of childhood fears and the realities of the world in which we live is a nicely conjured combination. As he closes the story with the chilling words, “When you see him tell your parents: / a monster with long black hair, / horns below groomed ears, / his eyes absent of pigment / tried to eat me. Just know/ that’s not his real face.”

Another fine literary concoction is Davka’s short story. “The Violence of Peace on Summer Day Yesterday” touches on the vagaries of teenage life. The violence to which Davka refers could be her hints at an alcoholic mother, whose own daughter has had to clean up after her. She could be referring to the blood she finds on her dress after she has bitten her nails to the quick. But the true violence of the story comes from a locust that has jumped straight into a wall because of the wall’s sky blue coloring. The concluding words here are just as disconcerting, if only for their nightmarish imaginings: “That night I dream that I have big tinsel wings that won’t fit under my dress. People stare and I smile. I find an ugly, evil doll on a sidewalk and she’s saying bad things about me and my family. I strangle her wooden neck until she stops speaking.”

There is another story about teenage life that stands out, in particular, for its gravitas. In this story, it’s college students, yet still in their teens. As Devon Ward-Thommes’s narrator will tell you: “My peers who seemed happy all weighed less than 130 pounds; they had long, shiny, straight hair and big smiles and popular boyfriends.” The author continues with “I thought that if I could just control my frizzy curls and have one of those hard-ass stomachs, I would be well, and able to relax, and feel fully alive. At nineteen, this is what I believed.” The rest of the story is just as compelling, but ruining it for the reader is not my style, so I shall defer.

But lest you think that Weave is a teenage themed periodical, there are wonderful surprises, like J. Richard McLaughlin’s poem, titled simply “Death.” In it he writes, “He’s not as well dressed as you might expect / a little slovenly even.” McLaughlin closes the poem in deft fashion as he writes, “He’d lend you ten bucks without asking why and never / remind you about it, certain he’d get it back eventually.”

The photographs contained within Weave’s basket of a book are gorgeous, too. In particular, I enjoyed Scott Bulger’s “Anatomy of a Piano #1,” and Andrena Zawinski’s untitled picture that is beautiful and haunting at once.

My only wish for Weave is that it were bigger; to stand taller amongst the other periodicals, and to be noticed amid the throng.
[www.weavemagazine.net]

 

The Westchester Review coverThe Westchester Review

Volume 3

2009

Annual

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

“A literary journal from the Hudson to the Sound” (that’s the Hudson River and the Long Island Sound in New York, where Westchester County is located. These suburban communities make up one of the wealthiest counties in the country, bordering one of the poorest). The annual invites submissions from writers living, working, or studying in Westchester. I hadn’t heard of any of this year’s contributors, but it’s clearly my own limitation, not their lack of credentials. About half of the issue’s writers have published a great deal, including poet Llyn Clague of Hastings-on-Hudson whose fourth book is just out; Kevin Kegan of White Plains whose published five novels; David Hellerstein of Larchmont, a physician and writer whose essay collection will be published by Kent State University Press; poet Joe Landau of New Rochelle, whose third book is due out this year; Boria Sax, author of numerous volumes; poet Rachel M. Simon, whose Theory of Orange won the Transcontinental Prize from Pavement Saw Press; and Mark Wisniewski, whose fiction has appeared in such prestigious journals as Poetry, TriQuarterly Review, and Southern Review and appeared in Best American Short Stories 2008.

It wasn’t these writers’ work that most interested me, nevertheless, in this issue of the Review. I was thoroughly taken, instead, with a disturbing little graphic story, “The Substitute Lifeguard,” by Galit Seliktar and her brother, the story’s illustrator, Gilad Seliktar, translated by Ronen Altman Kaydar. Seliktar, a native Israeli, is a librarian at a synagogue in Westchester, and her writing has been published in Israel, but appears in a US publication for the first time here. The story is oddly captivating. A baby drowns (or may have drowned, the conclusion is ambiguous) while guests at a yard party eat and/or flirt, in the case of the story’s teenaged protagonist. The text is skeletal, the bare bones of a narrative. The drawings are fine lines, ominous shadows, and precise detail that render plants, water, eye movements, a comfortable household, a doctor’s distress, the family pet, and a baby floating on the bottom of a pool with uncanny realism.

Unlike the cartoonish and overblown quality of much graphic fiction, large themes squashed into small frames that read horizontally, this story is comprised of unframed illustrations that read vertically and blend into each other through a masterful manipulation of shadow and white space. The tiny, spare hand-printed text lines float, almost like afterthoughts – or like the dead baby – in this space. This is a highly unusual and original graphic story. (This may, of course, be the style and conventions of graphic stories published in Hebrew in Israel, with which I am unfamiliar.)

Another memorable contribution, by a poet with a more modest publication history than those cited above (in fact, her bio cites no publications at all), is “Take Away,” by Rosetta Brown. It might be easy to dismiss this poem for its persistently casual tone (though it is not, in that way, different from many much-loved poems, some quite fine) in these lines that equate subtraction in math with loss of life (“Some say God takes away. Felicity was taken away / last month.) But Benson surprises me with a couplet so splendid, I am grateful not to have overlooked it: “My favorite was that labyrinth of faith: geometry. / You enter knowing someone has been there before you.”

The Westchester Review is only published once a year. That’s a long time to wait for another poem of Brown’s.
[www.westchesterreview.com]

 

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