Category Archives: A&L Reviews
West Branch is published tri-annually by Bucknell University’s Stadler Center for Poetry & Literary Arts. The cover of their Winter 2020 issue features a piece titled Reckoning, by Cate White. In the foreground of the piece is a husky man dressed in cowboy apparel, accompanied by a sketchy pink horse. In the background, divided into four quadrants, are four distinct rural landscapes. The piece is colorful and striking and aesthetically complex. It reminds me of one of my favorite folk artists, S.L. Jones of West Virginia, who drew very primitive portraits of rural farmers and their animals. White’s work, however, is more refined and aptly hints at the eclectic nature of this issue. West Branch publishes poetry, fiction, nonfiction, translations, and book reviews. Here I will highlight pieces in three of those genres: poems by Anaïs Duplan; Leslie Jenkie’s essay “The Positioning Field,” and Hugh Sheehy’s short story “Uses of Enchantment.”
The untitled poems of Anaïs Duplan are some of the most striking things I’ve read in recent memory, at least in terms of poetry. Though they are clouded in ambiguity and anguish, there is an immediacy about them that never feels forced or phony, as exemplified by these opening lines: “A bougainvillea is another kind of flower. A snow / leopard an animal. A destroyed people / a historical occurrence. A boundary a matter / to work with…” I mean, how can you not finish reading a poem that opens this way? Duplan’s biggest strength, I think, is his refined, restrained language, tempered by the complexity and magnitude of his ideas. Read his poetry. You will connect more deeply with the mysteries of this world, and the mysteries within yourself.
In her lyric essay “The Positioning Field,” Leslie Jenkie takes the phrase thought-provoking to a new, elevated level. This meditative piece lives at the intersection of several subjects — pregnancy, the creative process, the cosmically dwarfing idea of infiniteness, and oh yes, the symbolic import of coyotes — the essay would be disorienting if Jenkie wasn’t such a passionate and keen observer. She is able to make sense from the chaos she presents to us, and her writing, similar to the output of her artist-subjects Yayoi Kusama and Joseph Beuys, is inventive and continually challenges the conventions of creative nonfiction. At one point, she reflects on a selfie she took while viewing Kusama’s renowned Infinity Mirrors exhibit: “It’s just like the thousands of selfies taken in the Infinity Dots Mirrored Room and posted to the internet. I will always be out there, somewhere, looking at myself in the phone, reflected by the mirrors, sneaking into strangers’ search engines, edging my way into newer territory just because someone, unknowingly, left the proverbial door open for me.” These lines will continue to stick with me long after this review is published, for their unadulterated insight into the limitless possibilities and forms of human life in our modern times.
Hugh Sheehy’s short story “Uses of Enchantment” follows a restaurant manager named Leon as he comes face to face with a family with whom he shares a complicated past. This serves as the impetus for Leon to reexamine his past experiences (namely, a car accident that killed a girlfriend and a stint spent at a place called the Center) and how they influenced his relationship with Iona, a daughter. Sheehy’s prose is precise and haunting and exquisitely handles tragedy and the pain of the past. Take, for example, these lines: “He couldn’t believe he was allowed to drive. He couldn’t believe he was allowed to have a girl with him. He couldn’t believe he’d brought her to life by saying yes. The world was disordered, wild, and packed with secrets.” This passage does something all great fiction ought to do: it looks beyond one character’s struggles and ponderings and taps into a universal truth. This is what makes Sheehy’s story an enchanting and memorable read.
All told, the Winter 2020 issue of West Branch is a charming, dynamic gathering, showing the promise of a diverse cast of outstanding writers and artists. I encourage writers to submit, and readers to subscribe at https://westbranch.blogs.bucknell.edu/. As this issue illustrates, West Branch is a venue for writers of all stripes and styles.
Reviewed by Caleb Bouchard.
Volume XXXVIII Number 1, Spring 2018
The Chattahoochee Review, published by Perimeter College at Georgia State University, has been around since 1981 and publishes art, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, translations, and reviews. This edition also contains two Lamar York Prize-winning pieces of prose. This edition is adorned with cool, delicately woven colors, a cover designed by Vanessa Lowry, which embodies the re-awakening of nature in the spring. In the interest of brevity, I’ll take a look across three genres, three writers or artists respectively, and the caliber of work that The Chattahoochee Review accepts: Chris Drangle’s flash fiction piece “Animation,” Maja Wrońska’s painting “Flatiron, NYC,” and Laura Cesarco Eglin’s poem “Hemispheres,” translated by Catherine Jagoe and Jesse Lee Kercheval.
Chris Drangle creates a microcosm of childhood joy and then destroys it within the span of a page and a half in “Animation.” Howard Day, his protagonist, works at the Disney Store, hoping to gain “company experience” before heading whole-hog into the working world. Day seems mundane, unimpressed by the oversized, overpriced merchandise around him, though he seems to sympathize with the toys that must be discarded after becoming damaged, due, I think, to Drangle’s strong character development. He dreads destruction, and in time, finds that the short-lived release that obliteration can bring takes a lasting emotional toll on the perpetrator. The life-sized Baloo becomes a symbol for mankind, damaged, labeled useless, and sent out for disposal. Dragle’s work reminds me of a Raymond Carver quote about the art of flash fiction: “Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on.”
Though I am not learned in visual arts, I can appreciate Maja Wrońska’s vibrant depiction of the Flatiron district in “Flatiron, NYC.” Wrońska sticks to a cool color-scheme along the lower quadrants of the painting, depicting the city streets themselves as cold, almost frigid in shades of deep cerulean and navy. The upper quadrants, however, are lit with the setting sun, almost shining off of the page in oranges, yellows, pinks, and warm shades of purple. What the sun touches is given a new life, a warmth that New York doesn’t seem to embody on its own. Wrońska’s experience in architecture is apparent in her fine-tuned attention to detail.
Laura Cesarco Eglin is a Uruguayan poet. Catherine Jagoe and Jesse Lee Kercheval are both translators who often work with the Spanish language. Together, these three have presented readers with a truly haunting poem, one ruled by the chill of February “at a latitude of 34° 58’ South where / summer is counted on the fingers” with a speaker who “take[s] off [her] gloves / because February’s sea teaches / [her] how to dance.” The poem itself is almost surreal, with sand, snow, and water juxtaposed in a world just outside of the imagination. The Chattahoochee Review’s interest in publishing translated work is indicative of a drive to publish multi-cultural, diverse writing from around the world.
Overall, the spring 2018 edition of The Chattahoochee Review is riddled with longing, rebirth, and excellent work from a variety of writers, translators, and artists. The works in this journal show that the editorial staff takes great pride in their work. To submit, subscribe, or order your own copy of The Chattahoochee Review, click here.
Reviewed by Scarlett Peterson
The Pinch, Issue 37, Volume 2
MFA-run The Pinch at The University of Memphis publishes prose (fiction and creative nonfiction), poetry, and art. This, the second issue of the 37th volume, comes covered in cool tones and pinks, a cover as ornate as the works it houses. At first glance I don’t recognize the contributors’ names on the back—a treat in that I’ll get to experience new talent here, perhaps fall in love with a series of poems and make a purchase, a Twitter following at the least. The Pinch is open to experimental work, like Kathryn M. Barber’s essay “Gaslight;” like Lauren Annette Boulton’s poem “Love, Based on Actual Four and a Half Star Reviews for Socks;” like Loren Britton’s image “Won’t You Please Write? (Looking at you.).” This journal is hip.
Barber’s essay, styled after Sherman Alexie, is comprised of five vignettes titled after classic movies. Each vignette is itself an extended metaphor combining the movie in question with the concept of gaslighting as a form of abuse. Each film reference leads to a deeper understanding of Barber’s relationship with a former partner, and in the end the films themselves are pivotal to understanding her narrator’s development. Barber successfully melds experimental form with well-known narratives to craft a brief essay that encompasses the necessary elements to move this reader forward, helping me to invest in and understand her emotions.
Boulton’s poem is experimental in both form and delivery. Each stanza, a sock review turned review of love as an item, is preceded by a set of four and a half bright yellow stars. The content of this poem is enhanced by its clear title, which is key to understanding and, at times, chuckling at the poem. Whether you choose to laugh at lines like “I will say this: beware using love on slippery floors,” or read them as a lover’s admonition, it’s clear that Boulton has written a delightful poem.
Britton’s image, a photo of a mixed-media project, presents a viewer with questions about what it means to be a creative. One brick is unwrapped, hiding nothing from the viewer, while another is covered in fabric with a mouthless expression. I could go as far as to infer that the expressive brick describes the creative, hidden and looking for love, or at least the written expression of feeling. Regardless of how you interpret this piece, it does engender discussion alongside multiple experimental pieces of writing. Do we write for love? Is writing our way to share our voice, mouthless as we might feel? That’s for the reader (and writers) to decide.
This edition of The Pinch is full of both traditional and experimental work, though I would argue that it’s The Pinch’s flair for the experimental that sets it apart from others. To submit, subscribe, or order your own copy of The Pinch 37.2, click here. *
Reviewed by Scarlett Peterson
Indiana Review, Volume 39, Issue 1
Since I’m a Michigan girl in central Georgia, of course I’d want to review something that feels a bit like home. I was also drawn to the 2016 Half K Prize judge, Aimee Nezhukumatatil, whose name has been floating around my literary social circles a lot in the last few years. Nezhukumatatil’s work has granted her an NEA Fellowship and a Pushcart Prize, among other honors. While her list of accomplishments is intimidating, her poetry is not; she’s often acclaimed for the simplicity and accessibility of her poems.
This issue is bisected by the METALLIC GRIT Special Folio, glossy pages highlighting prose and fiction that defines what “grit” means to the editors. Here you can read a Half K Prize finalist, “Adoration of the J Girls,” by Rochelle Hunt; a poem by Oliver de la Paz titled “Autism Screening Questionnaire: Social Interaction Difficulties”; and “Understory” by Ethan Feuer, a mixed media piece with a guide to show readers points of connection between his numbered sections of poetic line.
Outside of the Metallic Grit Folio, I was intrigued by Neel N. Patel’s story “The Taj Mahal.” The story revolves around an unreliable first-person narrator named Sabrina, who has recently lost her parents and her job as an OB/GYN. After returning to her empty childhood home, Sabrina goes to an old friend’s Christmas party to reconnect. While going out to smoke a cigarette, the old friend’s boyfriend decides to smoke with her. In an alcohol-inspired decision, the unlikely pair go back to visit Sabrina’s childhood home. The story, full of unlikely turns, is soft and believable. It asked me to take notice of unresolved grief and how it embodies itself. While an incredibly funny story, it is also terribly human, inviting readers inside a world completely like and unlike our world.
Other noteworthy poets and writers in this journal include sam sax, whose debut poetry collection, Madness, was published by Penguin Random House in September. In his poem “Mass Hysteria” sax challenges how we see what we see. Each line speaks to a binary that dwells inside all of us: a binary where we are good or bad, where we run or we fight. sax takes many different worlds and weaves them together so we see both shame and beauty in ourselves; he plays with this binary and breaks the expectations of it all at once. Alongside are poems by Ash Goedker, whose work explores humanity, childhood, and Babe the Blue Ox.
Despite an eclectic array of subjects, this issue of Indiana Review is in conversation with itself—each story, memory, and poem informing the others and enriching the reading experience. In print since 1977, Indiana Review has been a sustaining force for great work in our ever-changing literary landscape. If you’d like to pick up a copy, you can find it here https://indianareview.org/the-magazine/. *
Reviewed by Danielle Johnson
The Greensboro Review, Number 98, Fall 2015
UNC-Greensboro’s Greensboro Review, I like the looks of it. Cover is nice, unfussy; a tough, no-nonsense cardboard render with contributors stenciled on the front. Reminds me of a pamphlet the Works Progress Administration might have produced. I champion the austerity of the thing. Fall 2015, Number 98 is forest green. Some good writing in here, too. The journal publishes fiction and poetry. Let’s look inside.
“Fragile Hearts on the Bay” by Tyler Sage is as good as any short story I have read all year and this is coming from someone who’s read both Best American Short Stories 2015 and The O. Henry Prize winners cover to cover (okay so I may have glossed over the fabulist entries).
Sage’s story is set in Hollywood, or rather at a bayside mansion outside of town patronized by that insane breed of the famous and the otherworldly privileged, and told from the point-of-view of a writer, a rebel, whose casual attitude suggests his best work is behind him. Still, there was that one book! —The Big River, it’s called. It’s not unusual for the narrator to encounter beautiful bookish bombshells coming up to him to inform him how his book touched them, how it cut through the bullshit, and that is what happens here. What a cast of characters. He’s there with a fabulous actress, a successful TV star, who’s dating the host: a Gatsby-esque international lawyer, who “seems to encourage a reading of himself as someone who is not quite human the way you and I are, but has instead overcome the routine tasks and difficulties of hygiene, emotion and upbringing.” The narrator uses this vacuous landscape to confront “the facade of (his) own life and false fronts” — and despite how shabby that might all sound, it’s rather affecting. A delicious conflict emerges between the writer, the actress, the lawyer, and an arms dealer, and the whole thing concludes with a tastefully rendered menage a trois and a struggle between men in the bay. It might be bold to go so far as to call it the best short story about Hollywood since Richard Yates’ “Saying Goodbye to Sally” –but there I just said it.
Other standouts are Linda Taylor, Glenn Shaheen and Alan Sincic. The speaker in Taylor’s poem, “To a Poet in Ohio: Not Tending a Fire in Oregon” sees the northwest, considers the scorched trees, and laments the birds that once inhabited them. I was particularly enamored of the rhyme scheme in the penultimate stanza: “I am not hungry for birds (ones/ in your poem), larks, black/cap and crow — that come, winter/cold, from a place I don’t know.”
In Glenn Shaheen’s “Darlin, Darlin,” an interracial fling is said to suggest “a great leap in the post-racial America,” until the white Houstonian friend of the speaker admits that the Off-Broadway star she slept with wasn’t black after all, prompting the speaker to recall how often he is mistaken for being Chinese, and the poem unfolds with feverish talk about confused identities and how complicated race is, unpunctuated and headlong and off…seemingly to infinity…superb.
Sincic’s “Sand” is a strange one, perhaps the most experimental offering, full of non sequiturs and a perverse energy. It starts with a grieving husband drying his socks in a toaster oven and only gets weirder from there. It reminded of some of Barry Hannah’s wilder moments, always welcome.
All in all, it’s a fine issue from a journal that’s been old school since 1965. To get a bead on the kind of talent the MFA program at UNC-Greensboro produces, check out an interview over at The Millions featuring two former editors, Kelly Link and Keith Joe Morris, discussing their craft and their latest books.
If Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road met television’s The Walking Dead, you’d have Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven—minus the grisly cannibalism and zombies. With the recent popularity of post-apocalyptic writing in books and on the screen, it would be hard to write that world with originality, but Mandel does so by focusing on the lives of the survivors by unravelling their connections before the disaster.
It is Year 20 after a pandemic has wiped out all but a few pockets of the human population, and we follow a troupe of traveling musicians and actors who perform Shakespeare for the various survivor settlements throughout the devastated United States. Mandel deftly guides us through time Before and After, and this reader was particularly enthralled by the author’s exploration of what survives: if the world would end tomorrow, does that book, that painting, that building that you’re working on really matter? That answer is, you never know, but isn’t it amazing to think that it could contribute to someone’s survival?
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014 National Book Award Finalist)
Southern Poetry Review, Volume 52, Issue 1
One of the oldest literary journals in the country, Southern Poetry Review has been publishing since 1958. There is much to be excited about in their latest issue, Volume 52, Issue 1 (2014). The 44 pages are packed with familiar poets, including Linda Pastan, R.T. Smith, Elton Glaser, and Robert Morgan. This issue is dedicated to longtime SPR contributor Starkey Flythe, Jr., who lived in Augusta, GA, not far from the journal’s home base of Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah.
The poems filling this issue of Southern Poetry Review are accessible and affecting. They talk about our lives: the passing of time, graffiti on a bridge, the dog days of summer, losing a favorite Italian jacket. They remember advice given in between plays in a baseball game, like Jeff Worley’s “Watching the Cubs on WGN with My Father”: “You go with what they give you, Dad said, popping / open another Schlitz. Put everything you have / behind it, take it as far as you can.” They imagine a night at an ancient castle, like “At the Castle,” by WIlliam Virgil Davis: “…The sentries are asleep. Beneath / the walls, through a secret sluice, a dark / boat drifts toward the ancient keep.” And they talk about the way life gets the best of us sometimes, like Mary-Sherman Willis’s poem “Self Spending”: “She’s let herself go, they’re saying / as if her self were a balloon / loosed over the street, its string fraying / or like milk in a hot room / turned to curd.”
Pushcart Prize XXXVIII
Writers are encouraged to read the literary journals and magazines, both to keep abreast of the contemporary literary scene and to find venues for submitting their work. There are so many publications that it’s hard to know where to begin. The Pushcart collection offers a starting point, not a comprehensive list, but an impressive sample of work from established magazines.
The thick tome looks a bit intimidating at first glance, but the 534 pages of fiction, essays and poetry contained within are well worth exploring, as are the lists of past winners, special mentions, and contributing presses. It’s sort of a crash course on reputable journals and the contemporary scene, with work from both familiar names and fresh voices. While most of the prose is fairly traditional in terms of structure, the characters, subjects and plots offer plenty of surprises.
Tina Louise Blevins’s story “God of Ducks,” nominated by The Gettysburg Review tells the story of an overweight, middle-aged cook who forms a friendship with a young “punk” he meets at his restaurant job. “Teen Culture,” nominated by American Short Fiction, is a first person narrative of a single mother who finds companionship with her fourteen-year-old daughter’s friends.
If there is a common thread through the fiction in this widely varied collection it is deep empathy for difficult characters. The nonfiction pieces stare down contentious issues ranging from modern technology to suicide. Charles Baxter’s “What Happens in Hell,” nominated by Ploughshares, is about both a near-death experience and the author’s own unwillingness to forgive the man who nearly killed him. Eric Fair’s “Consequence” (also from Ploughshares) tells of the outrage resulting from an article he published about his experience working as private contractor during the Gulf War, exploring both the ugliness of his actions and the cruel response they elicit with unflinching honesty.
There are even a few moments of humor, like Andrew Zolot’s “The Piece Need Not Be Built,” which originally appeared in American Circus: a cynical, satirical argument for why the coat check at the Museum of Modern Art is its best exhibit.
The poetry is both beautiful and accessible. Like Natalie Diaz’s “Cranes, Mafiosos and a Polaroid Camera,” from Spillway, which transforms a paranoid late night phone call into a meditation on nature, death, and the machine-like workings of the human body. “Just tell me what to do. You know what to do, he pleaded./ I should have known how to help my brother by now . . . Instead I told him about the sandhill cranes, the way they dance–/moving into and giving way to one another, bowing down . . .”