Literary Magazine Reviews
Posted November 17, 2009
Asia Literary Review
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Published in Hong Kong, Asia Literary Review may be difficult to find in US bookstores. I’d never seen it until NewPages’s amazing (heroic, really) team sent it to me. I am sad to think of what I may have missed in the past, delighted to have discovered this sensational magazine, and hopeful that other readers may be able to subscribe to and/or find it in US markets. The cover alone is worth many times the modest price of $11.99 (prices on the back cover are listed for Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Australia, UK, India, Canada, and the US, which gives an idea of the journal’s markets).
The cover is a photo by Jesse Chun, a photographer who lives in Korea, from a series called “Kindred Spirits.” Several other photos from the series are featured in the issue, all as exquisite as the portrait of the boy on the cover. These photos, like all of the work in this issue, capture with astounding sensitive and artfulness the essence of a moment, an experience, a culture, a reality, a mood, a life at its most essential and particular. Chun’s brief note describes the sense of being a nomad herself (“bouncing from country to country”) and hence her interest in photographing nomadic peoples. She manages to fix these images in time as she maintains their sense of mobility, homelessness, wandering, and a kind of wistful, but centered existence.
There is so much to center us here, so much that is, like these photos, yearning, yet solid and sturdy. This is wonderful work. Authentic. Original. Well crafted. Intelligent. Worldly, but like the cover photo, intensely personal. Justine Hardy’s story, “The Recruit,” for example, which begins: “We have lost the language of poetry that we used to speak here.” Kim Cheng Boey’s lovely and nostalgic memoir essay, “Elgar and the Watch My Father Gave Me.” Uma Anyar’s fiction, “Angry Ghosts,” which begins, “I did not steal for personal gain.” Xanhui Yang’s essay, “Woman From Shanghai,” translated by Wen Huang: “I heard this story from a former Rightist Named Wi Wenhan.” Personal and worldly.
The issue features fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, photographs, essays, and politically astute, direct, and illuminating editor’s notes that do not summarize the work in the issue, thankfully, but which offer up commentary about current political realities. The work is fascinating on so many levels. Here, for example, is the opening line of “Shadow Eros,” Maxine Syjuco’s poem: “And we never spoke, but your commas molested me.” And here are the opening lines of a poem by Marjorie Evasco titled “It is Time to Come Home”:
He has just paddled the banca out of Postan Gamay,
where the branches of the mangrove arch above the water
a temple of dark green silence.
And I loved an essay by Julian Baggini, “Food for Thought – Kimchi and Cabbage,” on the 22nd World Congress of Philosophy.
Contributor’s notes, complete with authors’
photographs, indicate that many of the contributors are like
photographer Chun’s nomads, “bouncing” around: born in Vietnam,
living in the US (Andrew Lam); raised in India, having lived in
Hong Kong and England (Kavita Jindal); raised in the US, living
in Bali (Renne Melchert Thorpe); born in Singapore, now an
Australian citizen (Kim Chen Boey). The journal anchors us,
happily, to some amazing writers whose work reminds us, in the
very best sense, that the more something succeeds in its
specific and local singularity, the more it succeeds in its
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
“There’s nothing I won’t do for love,” writes Frank Giampreto in his poem “Self-Portrait in Mirror with Sinus Headache.” But, you’ll surprised at what comes next:
or for those little cookies half chocolate, half biscuit.
Where do I work?
Let’s just say many times each day the lead breaks free
from my mechanical pencil,
in the morning my cream of wheat thickens just so
and my newspaper slips easily from its body bag.
Cimarron Review is replete with poems like Giampreto’s, what I think of as “talking my life out poems,” or “my life out loud” poems. Sometimes such poems can seem ordinary, but I’m happy to say that, for the most part, these poems and stories in this issue, like Giampreto’s self-portrait, are surprising and pleasing. Those little cookies! Those little cookies linked to work!
Poems like these, with language that does not imagine itself to be poetic, does not deliberately reach for something beyond recognizable expression, must reach for something beyond images as familiar as the language if they are going to work. And many here do, including work by Elizabeth Langemak, Maya Jewell Zeller, Judith Sornberger, Melina Draper, Judith H. Montgomery, Lon Young, and Paul Bone, among others.
One of my favorite pieces in this issue is David Romtevdt’s essay “Wyoming’s Ambassador to Cuba.” As he notes with grace and wit, Romtevdt is not an official anything to Cuba, but he is his state’s poet laureate, and he took trips to Cuba in 2005 and 2008 as seriously as if that were a “real job.” I wish there more writing like this or that more of it were published, frankly, a blend of political and social commentary and insight, personal story, and strong, appealing prose in a voice that is credible, natural, and intelligent.
I’ll close with a note about a poem by Ecuadorian poet Sonia Manzano, ably translated by Alexis Levitin. I can’t remember the last time I saw a poem by a writer from Ecuador, if I ever have seen one in an English language journal, so I am happy to find this one here. Manzano’s poem is desperately important and urgent in a way that I find hard to describe, in a way that somehow brings the rest of the work in the issue into sharper focus for me, and reminds me why I read (and write), and why I should care about what other people have to say (and say for themselves). She concludes:
All this happened
just as I tell it
a woman’s word
a sacred word
a word utterly consecrated
to always being woman
without ceasing to be word
Just quoting these final lines does not do the poem justice,
of course (in fact, it’s almost criminal not to include the
whole piece here.) But, don’t just take my word for it. Do seek
out Manzano’s work. Levitin’s translations of Ecuadorian poetry,
Tapestry of the Sun, is due out any day (if has not
already been published) from Coimbra Editions.
Columbia Poetry Review
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Poet Rachel Zucker quotes poet Matt Rohrer in a poem about poems titled “Poem,” which is the first poem in the latest issue of the Columbia Poetry Review:
The other day Matt Rohrer said,
the next time you feel yourself going dark
in a poem, just don’t, and see what happens.
What happens, it seems, is fucking. Beginning with Buck Downs in “my secret job”:
I’d rather start
than a fight
And ending (literally, it’s the last poem) with Timothy Liu in “The Famous Poet”:
at my party eyes
the shelves to see if his books
are there. Apparently
not. Stares. Wondering what
the fuck he’s doing there.
Okay. That’s not really a poem about fucking, but fucking as an exclamatory remark about poems. I rest my case. This issue of the journal is about fucking poems.
Here is Maureen Seaton in “Proclivities 2”: “Therefore, poems with cocks in them make me / cease to wax”; and Brandi Homan in “Things Have Been Said: Vol. 1”: “I’ve met women like you before / You’re fucking cool…for a girl”; and Laura Glenum in “from Maximum Gaga. Pelvis Impersonator”:
Esteemed Colleagues –
Females who are promiscuous tend to evolve high sperm counts & large testes. They live in caves, lose their eyes & their color.
And Dolly Lemke in “I Never Went to that Movie at 12:45”: “I wasn’t honest with most of my boyfriends. / I just wanted to have as much sex as possible.” And Emilie B. Lindeman in “Panty#VSO7” from “Panty Poems”: “The woman behind the counter straightened her suit jacket and said the free panty must be pink and pliable, plain also.” And Maureen C. Ewing in “With Her Voice in My Head”:
Who says, I know her? or That no children come from me to love. Who does the asking? Does it matter? Give me the lotus that grows in the house you built in your stomach.
I taught her how to talk about sex. She taught me now to like it.
And there’s also something fucking beautiful, a poem by Bruce
Weigl, “Meditation after Prayer,” no less colloquial, but a
reminder, nonetheless, that the world is fucking mysterious and
that poetry can be fucking amazing: "I am far away sometimes, although not entirely by choice.
What happens /
after prayer is a question in the form of heat that tingles my
just to the edge of pain, where we like it. I can’t say it any
Volume 36 Number 4
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
“That tug toward the low-or-lower-tech,” in other words . . . Luddite. This issue’s theme. Not anti-technology, editor Sylvia Legris explains, but rather a celebration of “that desire to make art or writing using methods and materials that are slower, messier, less reliable.” Despite the fact that I find many high-tech tools (my cell phone and my PC to name just two) to be among the most unreliable of objects and resources and often far messier than non-technological things, I appreciate what Legris means – a deliberate distancing from “hypervelocity,” and I love the work she’s chosen. Categorized under the headings “machine,” “paper,” “fixture,” “mortar,” and “terminal,” Grain Luddite focuses on our relationship with the stuff of life (from our flesh and bones to the bones of our homes) with which we interact, without its being, in the technological sense, interactive.
Jeanne Rudolph contributes an essay about Heidegger and the typewriter, a consideration of thinking in a former era about the manual vs. the mechanical. Rudolph also contributes a brief and entertaining prose musing in the special section on Salisbury House, a restaurant chain considered “a Winnipeg institution.” This special “Fixture” section is the first installment of what is planned as a regular feature of the magazine, responses by artists and writers to a landmark or fixture specific to an area or city. “Anything goes,” Legris tells us. It’s a wonderful idea and has inspired some delightful writing and graphics here, including short memoir style pieces, prose musings, and poems.
The issue’s “paper” section features translations by Jeramy Dodds of Old Norse poems from the Poetic Edda from the 13th century. Written on vellum text, the size of a “fat paperback,” did Luddite critics in 1270 lament the transition from aural to written transmission, I wonder? These are heroic and mythological poems about the god Thor, and they begin, ironically and aptly enough, with a tool!
Thor woke in a rage when he felt
his hammer, Mjonir, missing.
Beard bristling, back hair hackled
Earth’s number-one-son groped
about his crow-feather cot before belting
out, “Loki! Let your ear hear this, no
earthling or Valhallian knows my woes
My God-given tools’ been taken!”
The translation is nothing short of brilliant and even someone who may have thought she has no interest in early Norse poetry (me, for example) will be captivated by what Dodds has achieved here.
I was no less impressed with Joel Katelnikoff’s “Nine Fragments of a Pipe Bomb,” lengthy sections of couplets that recount a family story merging the best of poetry with the best of storytelling: unexpected twists of language, surprising insights, compelling narrative, authentic voices, and a sense that the world is only as large – and as small – as an individual can imagine it.
Finally, I must not conclude this review without at least a
brief mention of Betsy Warland’s hybrid piece (part poem, part
prose poem, part poetry theory), “The Line.” Could there be any
“object” more suited to a consideration of what constitutes
Luddite or not-Luddite? “All lines require years of effort,” she
begins. I’d line up to follow her anywhere after an opening like
that. And she need not say more, really, but I’m glad she does.
What makes the line, as an object in the world, not-Luddite, is
that it is, she writes, both emotional and tactile. And,
truthfully, that’s what makes this whole exemplary issue of
Grain truly a one-of-a-kind reading experience.
Review by Henry F. Tonn
This literary magazine overwhelms the senses with information. Their home page is chock full of fiction, nonfiction, interviews, poetry, book, music, and film reviews, art, and a social justice blog. They have a sizable list of staff members and they are looking for more. One gets the impression that there is much to read and learn here, and maintaining this website must be a formidable task.
I tried the fiction first and was enthralled by “Life of the Mind” by Ryan Mazer, who relates he has only recently graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in film production. His maturity, however, is evident in this Kafka-ish, ironic farce in which the world appears to be turned upside down.
James Warner contributes a regular blog to this website. His October 1 offering concerns “the twilight of the short story as a commercial form” since 1959. He brings James Joyce and Anthony Burgess into the mix, pointing out that literary short stories are now largely subsidized by universities and grants. He believes a cross pollination between the literary and commercial short stories might help matters in the future.
In the nonfiction section, Aisha Sloan, a bi-racial female, writes a rambling essay with interconnecting stories about her family, growing up black, relationships, and the jazz musician Thelonious Monk. Periodically, she throws in sentences that are deliciously symbolic of so much more: “Los Angeles glints because of the way sunlight illuminates the smog that hangs in the polluted air. Blonde hair also glints. Brown, curly hair, for the most part, absorbs things.” Good stuff.
Under the column entitled “Social Justice” there is an article about workplace violations with refugees. It cites a study released by the Institute for Social and Economic Development which found that the lowest wage earners in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago are routinely discriminated against by being denied overtime pay, paid less than minimum wage, and not given workers’ compensation when a serious injury occurs.
There is much, much more in this well stocked website. Poetry is distributed throughout, including some classics. I highly recommend this journal, and feel you can’t go wrong with a reproduction of their reproduction of Emily Dickinson’s “The Mystery of Pain”:
Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.
It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
In an unusual and enlightening “conversation,” visual artist Bruce Herman and his patron (patron!) Walter Hansen discuss a three-year project that “involved producing a cycle of images on the life of the Virgin Mary in two large altarpieces that have been exhibited in the United States and are now installed semi-permanently in Monastery San Pedro, a thirteenth-century Benedictine convent in Orvieto, Italy.” They discuss the commissioning, making, and exhibiting of contemporary religious art in the context of the patron’s active participation. If this is a highly unusual situation, and a highly unusual “find” in a magazine, Herman’s approach to his art is, instead, what we might expect – and even hope for – when it comes to art making: “the losing and the finding is the whole point – both in the making process, and in the symbolism – which is why I’m always feeling that the meaning of the work is a fluid thing, not something I control or micromanage.”
The same might said of the editors’ approach to the magazine’s content, a fluid relationship to the journal’s purpose, announced as “art, faith, mystery,” managed with a deft, but light touch (not “micromanaged”). The prose is particularly appealing in this issue with intelligent, beautifully written essays by Anne Sullivan and Jeffrey Overstreet. Sullivan, a professional piano tuner, considers the work of composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704) and manages to merge an explanation of music, instruments, spiritual connection, and a family story seamlessly. Overstreet analyzes Asian cinema and, like Sullivan, knows how to tell a story that is about himself, something larger than himself, and again about himself. He is smart and thoughtful and has an appealing and credible voice. A “conversation” with pastor Eugene Peterson on his concept of “spiritual theology” is an intelligent exploration of the intersections between theology, poetry, and narrative. An overview of the paintings of Canadian artist Gerald Folkerts by Calvin Seerveld is a fine introduction to an artist many American readers may not know, and the reproductions of Folkert’s work presented here are simply marvelous.
I was pleased, but not surprised, to find two poems by Eric
Pankey, as he is one of the most overtly religious of poets, by
which I mean his work is forever honestly and boldly seeking
spiritual resolution of some sort. “Meanwhile” and “Prayer,”
like all of Pankey’s work, are gorgeous, yearning poems, as
finely crafted as any poetry one will ever encounter. When I
read Pankey, I always feel that I have found salvation. Is that
Volume 4 Number 2
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
“You . . . realise that many poems are well-enough written to be publishable – and yet they don’t excite. They do not cause the hair on the back of the neck to stand up. The editorial heart doesn’t stop, nor breath shorten. The language is inert, the subjects are boring. Poets can often seem to be working a narrow little seam of private experience.” I wish this weren’t the case on this side of the Atlantic, as well, but what Peter Sirr laments here of the state of poetry in Ireland is all too often true in the US, as well. But, thank goodness for this excerpt “This is Not an Editorial,” from Sirr’s essay in the bi-monthly newsletter, Poetry Ireland, and for the other marvelous excerpts of speeches and exquisite essays and poems in Irish Pages. The work here does excite, does take away one’s breath and renew one’s confidence in the state of the written word in English (and in Irish). This issue’s theme is “The Sea,” though the journal is not dogged in its approach to the theme.
The journal, published twice yearly in Belfast, is handsomely produced (such fine and sturdy paper!) and thoughtfully edited. Regular features include an editorial commenting on cultural or political issues in Ireland or overseas; an extract of writing from a non-contemporary Irish writer; a selection of translated work from a particular country (Serbian and Croatian writing in this issue); and a commissioned piece that takes a critical look at some aspect of the literary world in Ireland, Britain, or the US. Poems, for the most part, exhibit attention to language and a certain subdued, but determined elegance. Prose is sophisticated, expertly crafted, and worldly. There wasn’t a single piece I didn’t find engaging or worth reading.
There are lyrical and potent essays about Ireland’s geography (as it relates to the sea theme), the meaning of stories, the state of the theater, and the state of poetry. There are poems of depth, beauty, and sophistication, and a portfolio of extraordinary color photographs by 15 photographers called “Marine Micrographs,” a kind of mesmerizing hybrid art/science approach to the science of the sea and the art of sea imagery produced by photographers in Puerto Rico, Germany, England, Idaho, Brazil, Australia, Holland, England, and Ireland.
I don’t know how easy it is to find Irish Pages in the
states, but subscription forms are available online and “credit
cards are welcome.” Irish Pages is a credit specifically
to its genre (literary magazines) and more generally to
literature. If you want to find work that certainly will shorten
your breath and cause the hair on the back of your neck to stand
up, get out your Visa Card without delay.
Poetry in Review
Volume 31 Numbers 1&2
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Always as a big as a doorstop, and often heart-stopping-ly good, Parnassus is a monumental-sized read. This year, I find especially worthwhile an essay with photos, “Seven Rhymes,” by Peter McCary; a grouping of essays and poems all dealing with music (work by Daniel Albright, John Foy, Dian Blakely, and Mathew Gurrewitsch); a memoir by Joy Ladin (who has published work previously in Parnassus as Jay Ladin; the transition from one to the other is the subject of her essay); an essay on Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay by Devin Johnston; and a translation of the poem “Dunia” from the original Spanish by its author Otto-Raul González.
David Yezzi introduces a group of poems by Tom Disch, who committed suicide last year. Talky, pained poems from a manuscript Disch had begun titled, “Joycelin Shrager: The Death Bed Poems.” It’s not clear when the poems were written, but they have not been previously published. Yezzi found the manuscript while helping to clean out Disch’s apartment after his death and approached Parnassus about publishing them. Reading Yezzi’s introduction makes the poems all the more painful – and interesting. Here is an excerpt from “I’m Tired:”
don’t know if
i’m coming or going
No, that’s the one
thing I do know
i’m going i just don’t know where because
i stopped believing in heaven & hell
way back in 6th grade even tho for 3 weeks
I went to bed without any tv
or dessert which was my fathers’ way
of showing me what hell would be like
There is also a fine essay by Anna Journey, “Lost
Vocabularies: On Contemporary Elegy,” written in a pleasing,
approachable style. No jargon or insider speak. No attempts to
show off and no gimmicks, just honest and insightful analysis
with smart examples and the goal of enhancing our understanding
of contemporary poetry. A kind of critical essay that is
underrated, under-published, and monumentally important.
Volume 83 Number 3
Review by Kenneth Nichols
Guest Editor Grace Bauer was given the reins of this issue of Prairie Schooner. Influenced by the number of recent baby boomer milestones, including news reports about their first retirements and the golden anniversary of Barbie, Bauer decided to dedicate the volume to the generation. Not only have boomers produced a wide range of work, she notes, but they are, perhaps, the most-written-about generation of Americans. The choice is an apt one; baby boomers witnessed vast societal change. They are capable of writing about the times of both typewriters and computers. They bridge the gap between 45s and the ubiquitous iPod.
The bulk of the issue consists of very good pieces from boomer poets. These writers meditate on the expected topics. In “Complaint,” Marilyn Kallet contemplates her designer product-buffeted mortality when the “pimply teen” at Wendy’s offers her the senior discount.
Erin Belieu depicts an image of boomer love. In her poem, “The Poem That Answers Why I Never Write Poems in Which You Appear,” she provides a meta-account of the joys of “domestic life:” “what better life / than you, cranky and topless in your plaid / pajama pants which are, as ever, / turned inside out?”
Jesse Lee Kercheval’s “The Day Before the Day Before Thanksgiving” bears witness to a discussion she had with her English 203 class that confirms the fears of a dedicated pessimist. Not only are her students unfamiliar with the words “napalm” and “Chicano,” but they make her feel like, “a human footnote, my voice / the tiny type explaining things no one wants to know, each / word dustier than the last.”
Dorothy Barresi ties the issue together satisfyingly with her
essay, “Baby Boom Poetry and the New Zeitgeist.” She aligns
herself with baby boomer poets, many of whom “have written as
though iconic nostalgia were [their] birthright.” In the
nineteen-page essay, Barresi covers a lot of ground, analyzing
the themes of and sometimes quoting all of the usual suspects,
including Dean Young, Tony Hoagland, Mark Halliday and Andrew
Volume 39 Number 1
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
This issue begins with Catie Rosemurgy’s poem “Things That Didn’t Work.” Delicate. Restrained. Precise: “Picture frames. Targets. The psychological / boundaries described in books. / Any shape or line whatsoever.” And, fortunately, not a predictor of what lies ahead in Seneca Review. There are certainly pieces here that might not have worked in less capable hands. But the risks have paid off and the work is strong. In particular, I appreciated what Laura Brown-Lavoie accomplishes in “Bricklaying,” an essay that merges biblical language, fragments of fairy tales, poetry, political commentary, and the poet’s lyrical diction in prose-poem like paragraphs separated by sets of empty brackets. The piece is about (if it is fair to say that it is about anything) how we create, and while I’m not always sure I follow its logic, I want to see it through to the end.
Dan Beachy-Quick’s “The Laurel Crown” is tremendously successful. A poetic essay in six parts that explores the concepts of beauty and desire in Greek mythology as they relate to the meaning and purpose of poetry: “Poetry is birthed from such awful realization . . . a fact that denies that fact of one’s own being, that says the self, even the godly self, is not self sufficient unto itself. Poetry is a form of desire devoted to the impossibility of its own fulfillment.” I doubt that I’ve ever read a truer definition of poetry.
Another successful hybrid sort of piece is “Days Like Grass,” a travel memoir/prose poem by Teddy Macker, short bursts of narrative and lyrical insight recording a journey from Baltimore, Maryland to Carpinteria, California. Macker is a wise observer, and his prose is appealing, even winsome. Less inventive, but no less satisfying is “Borne Along,” autobiographical narrative from Timothy Irish Watt, whose prose is highly unusual and tremendously engaging: “Now let me remember all the open-eyed days of my life on the road, all my wonder before the prairie, its grain, our stars, this living, a praising and a lamentation, a lull, left-off, sung up from the wince, off-sprung to be believed.”
Another highly successful effort is “REM/EMR/ANCE” by Derek Owens, a photo essay that is part personal and family story, part scientific/philosophical exploration of the concept of recovered memory, part poem on the relationship of language to memory. A piece like this might have turned into a gimmick, but Owens is patient with his own material, is not interesting in impressing me with his cleverness but in moving me with his skill and insight. And I am, indeed, moved. Work like this reminds us of the sheer power of language, the potential hybrid forms have to help us go beyond the ordinary, and the power personal stories can have when they reach beyond the narrow confines of their own emotion.
Finally, there are strong poems in this issue, too, including
work from Mrigaa Sethii and Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel. Editor
Davis Weiss tells us in an editor’s note that next up is a
double issue that will “address matters of disability and
difference.” Given the editors’ skill at selecting work that
takes risks with purpose, not simply for risk’s sake, I look
forward to the work they’ll choose on these themes.
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
This issue is guest edited by Leigh Buchanan Bienen, a senior lecturer at Northwestern University School of Law, and author of the collection of short stories The Left Handed Marriage. The issue is devoted entirely to theater-related essays and analysis, beginning with the editor’s essay, “Art, and the Art of Teaching,” which traces her own journey from literature to law to theater and back to fiction again and finally to a consideration of the teaching of art (in the largest definition of the word) in the context of the world’s dramatic – and unacceptably traumatic – realities: “If art is going to survive, people do have to stop killing one another, on the small and large scale, and beating up on one another, on the small and large scale, and learn to look at each other.” Finally, she equates the classroom and the theater, and by extension the space in which we perform our daily lives, too: “The real questions cannot be asked or answered alone, and they are asked most powerfully, when we listen knowing that others are listening with us at the same time, in a darkened space.”
Essays in the volume – most, if not all, by important and influential members of the theatrical and literary world – include considerations of an adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore by director and acting ensemble member Frank Galati, followed by a “note” by Martha Lavey on Galati’s production; an essay by theater scholar Paul Edwards on theatrical adaptations of Madame Bovary; reflections on the creation of a theater company by Lookinglass Theater’s David Catlin; a brief essay on directing by the acclaimed director Anna D. Shapiro; and essay on meaning and purpose of theater by playwright Bruce Norris; an essay by fiction writer Stuart Dybek on the experience of collaborating on an adaptation for the stage; and a number of other essays by costume designers, playwrights, actors, scholars of the theater, and teachers. Most of the essays include wonderful personal stories and insights. All are highly readable.
One of the most exciting essays is poet Jana Harris’s piece
about adapting a social science text about immigrant life in
Chicago, published in 1924, for the stage. The play focuses on
the story of a (real life) woman whose true identity remains a
mystery and her advocacy work on behalf of immigrants. The essay
heightened my interest in the nature of historically-focused
research and writing, the role and representation of women in
social work at the turn of the last century, and in Harris’s
poetry. And isn’t that the purpose of the performing arts –
perhaps any art – to intensify our interest and engagement with
the world outside of the one(s) it reflects?
The Wallace Stevens Journal
Volume 33 Number 1
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
The less legible meanings of sounds, the little reds
Not often realized, the lighter words
In the heavy drum of speech, the inner men
Behind the outer shields, the sheets of music
In the strokes of thunder, dead candles at the window
When day comes, fire-foams in the motions of the sea
“The less legible meanings of sounds” – a phrase that embodies its meaning(s) as almost no other I can think of – is the theme of this special issue of the journal. Guest editor Natalie Gerber, a scholar on the faculty of the State University of New York at Fredonia, says the essays here “pay attention not only to sound as vocalizations by human and nonhuman speakers (e.g., the sound of words, preverbal sounds, including onomatopoeia, and the sounds of the earth itself) but also to the content and context of non-source sound(s), what one might call the ambient sounds of modernity itself.” Like Gerber’s introductory essay, the writing here is sophisticated and serious. These are scholarly essays intended for an audience of readers who love Stevens’s work (which I do) and who have the patience for critical or analytical essays (which, for me, depends on the essays). Fortunately, these essays, while “academic,” do not rely on insider jargon. They are written to be read, clearly intended to provide accessible insights into the work of Wallace Stevens, and, for the most part, not self serving.
Alan Filreis considers why, since sound was so obviously important to Stevens, there was so little critical response to the notion of sound in his work. Beverly Maeder explores, with a close analysis, the various sound strategies in Harmonium. Alison Rieke offers a close reading of “Description Without Place,” with particular attention to effects of repetition. Peter Middleton considers the poet’s theory of how poems begin or should begin. Sam Halliday, who begins with a wonderful quote from Stevens about the radio that is fascinating when considered now against the context of the Internet, considers the sounds of “contemporary life” in Stevens’s poems. Tyler Hoffman discusses the ambivalence Stevens expressed about the oral performance of poetry. Lisa Goldfarb compares the musicality of Wallace Stevens and Paul Valéry and their theories of the role of music as a kind of metaphysical architecture in their work. She concludes: “Valeryan theory helps us to imagine Stevens’ larger, more unified musical project and to understand more fully the ways he brings a poetic world to life through sound.” The issue also includes several original poems in the style of Steven or in homage, and review, also by Goldfarb, of a work of literary criticism on Stevens and Eliot.
While “lit crit” often seems to defeat its own purpose,
turning us off to the very subjects it hopes to elucidate, this
is happily not the case with The Wallace Stevens Journal.
The essays here remind me why I love Stevens, what I can learn
from scholars who have studied his work closely and
thoughtfully, and why he continues to be a poet worth studying
whose poems are worth reading – and re-reading.