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.