Pieces that Pique

Of the hundreds of literary journals publishing traditional and revolutionary poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, I subscribe to (and purchase at the bookstore or read online) but a handful.  Even so, I treasure the bits I find . . .

8/12/2107. “Election Day” by Natalie Eilbert in Tinderbox 4.3.  As one might imagine, these are fertile times for political poems, but it takes a strong sensibility to move past and through the easy, low-hanging fruit of insult and outrage.  In “Election Day,” Natalie Eilbert demonstrates that strong sensibility through her use of irony, ambiguity, and allusion.  First, she situates her speaker as never having been a wife or mother, which immediately establishes an assumed gender but does so through lack or absence (what she isn’t) rather than any sort of affirmative statement (what she is), and then alludes to our current president’s relationship with that gender via the phrase “Grab her by the machine.”  What a beautiful, strange line that the speaker establishes by explaining how “machine” was once slang for “vagina” but also introduces a subtext of mechanized, industrial capital that continues through the poem’s final line: “When I elect to speak a /
plot falls from my mouth.”  This is a gorgeous poem that also features shifting tone, registers, and syntax that defamiliarizes not only the notion of “nationalism” (as the poem explicitly indicates) but also the notion of communication and identity.  Eilbert’s poem immediately jumped out to me from this issue of Tinderbox, but there were other fantastic works here, and I’ll be coming back to this online poetry journal that is publishing some of our best current poets and poems.

8/5/2017. “Happiness and Other Diversions” by Kaveh Akbar in Washington Square Review 39 (Spring 2017).  I was helping my sister pack and move from Fresno to Rocklin, and after a long day of packing, we stopped at the local corporate bookstore, where I checked out their selection of literary journals.  I had never read Washington Square Review before, and they had a poem by Ladan Osman (a poet who is, frankly, awesome), so I grabbed a copy along with an iced coffee (summers in California’s central valley are brutal, hellish experiences).  The journal itself was cover-to-cover great; if every issue is as good as this, it’s going to make a spot on my subscription list.  This was also my first time reading poetry by Kaveh Akbar (I’ve since gone on to buy his chapbook, pre-order his first book, read his interviews on Divedapper, and follow his impressive twitter feed).  The journal features two of his poems, the second of which –“Kiarostami”– is an ode (or an ekphrastic response) to the work of the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami.  I have been writing my own series of ekphrastic poems, so this one immediately jumped out, as did the Akbar’s choices to eliminate punctuation, which forces the reader into a more active position and opens the syntax to additional avenues of interpretation, which seems truer to the experience we have when viewing visual art in that our experience is not mediated by punctuation, and thoughts and impulses and reactions bleed into one another and both connect and divide. This is similar to the literary device of parataxis, which Akbar uses wonderfully throughout the poem but especially in the closing lines: “here’s / the wedding ring in a fish’s / belly     here’s / the entire olive grove.”  A Brilliant juxtaposition of myth and personal totem, they seem separate, distinct, and jarring, but they’re really two points on the same wavelength, which is a feature of any effective metaphor.  I’ll be buying the next issue of Washington Square Review, and if it has work as strong as Akbar’s poem, they’ll have a new (and loyal) subscriber.

2/18/2017. “Looking Up We See More Than Is There” by Jeff Ewing in Willow Springs 79 (Spring 2017).  I picked up the latest Willow Springs at our local corporate bookstore (the only place in town that carries even one literary journal) and was so impressed upon finishing the issue that I immediately subscribed.  What an amazing read; from cover to cover it was just one hit after another.  If I had to pick one work in particular, I would select Jeff Ewing poem in which his “daughter teaches [him] the names/of the clouds”; the poem itself is a meditation on imagination, meaning, and mortality.  The poem makes assertion after assertion about clouds until the last two lines that absolutely floored me: “When she outgrows me I turn into / a zebra and scatter myself against a hill.”  My god.  That’s a way to go. Before the final stanza, I did not foresee the poem’s turn towards death (which is either effective misdirection by the poet or my own failures as a reader), and these last lines leave me staggered even upon multiple readings.

1/31/2017. “One Body” and “He Has an Oral Fixation” by Natalie Scenters-Zapico in Poetry 209.5 (February 2017). One benefit of reading literary journals is that a reader finds new voices and perspectives.  After reading these two poems in the latest issue of Poetry, I bought (and am in the middle of) Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s poetry collection The Verging Cities, which is also fantastic . . . but back to the two poems: I have been talking to my creative writing students about the power of repetition, which “One Body” embodies through the power of parallelism and the repetition of ambiguously-interpretable terms like “mean” and “being.”  Likewise, “He Has an Oral Fixation” uses “stop” (and “can’t stop”) in a way that evokes the chanting rhythms of ritual, religion, and magic.  There are so many great lines in this poem; I think my favorite is the brutal (and sensual) “she bit / your mouth and with a blowtorch / welded its dark-open shut.”  Ouch.

1/21/2017.  “Half Moon Island,” “Gerlache Strait,” “One Trip,” and “Sightings Log: What Came to Seem Common” by Elizabeth Bradfield in Poetry Northwest 11.2 (Winter & Spring 2017).  I recently subscribed to Poetry Northwest and received the first issue, which is filled with gorgeous poems, last week.  I was especially impressed by Elizabeth Bradfield’s four poems, which are difficult to classify as they have elements of haiku, nonfiction meditation, photography, captions as digressions (if there can be such a thing as “digression” in a poem), and nature journal.  These poems use dissonant, fragmented syntax combined with a musical attention to detail to capture beautifully both experience and reflection on experience: “Sings. Didn’t know out of the water it would. Didn’t. Gloriously failed again by study.”

12/21/2016. “Flood Control” by Rebecca Thomas in Zyzzyva 108 (Winter 2016).  Professing (not inaccurately) to describe the infrastructure created to contain the Santa Ana River in southern California, Rebecca Thomas’s work of creative nonfiction explores the limits of control, both over the external environment and the internal mechanisms of self and body.  Her essay smartly traces the currents (yes, yes, a bad pun) that flow between our pasts and present through shifting perspectives (the impersonal third, the personal first), using deft metaphors throughout; my favorite line is the exquisite “Mud sleeves me.”  What a great image.

12/14/2016. “Care and Feeding” by Bob Hicok in The Meadow 2016.  Effective literature works by combining ambiguity (mystery!) with defamiliarization (the common made strange!) and irony (the unexpected reversal!).  Bob Hicok’s poem “Care and Feeding” masters that combination to great effect.  A basic explication would be that a boy is watching a television program about mountain climbers; he is so inspired that he makeshifts his own equipment and begins scaling the walls of his apartment or home.  His mother comes home from work and, rather than responding in anger at his apparent destruction of the room, encourages his ascent.  The magic in the poem comes from how Hicok crafts this short narrative poem, starting with how the boy repurposes two forks as crampons (which also reminded me of Charles Simic’s “Fork“), a surreal reexamination of the at-hand, the random bits of the everyday that just might have remnant possibility for something more.  This generosity of possibility continues when the mother arrives home; I was expecting, as they say, a ‘scene’ of recrimination and blame; instead, she sees her son as (and this is a beautiful line) “the incarnation of her spirit / smiling at her,” and when her son “finally punched all the way through” the drywall, she provides the poem’s final line: “That’s called a foothold.”  Part of being a (good) parent is the ability to see the world through the child’s eyes, which is not one’s first impulse and which does not come naturally.  Sometimes, one has to consciously stop to ask and consider what matters; Hicok’s poem is a great example and reminder of how to parent, even if it costs one the walls . . .

12/07/2016. “Positive Train Control” by Jim Shepard in Tin House 70 (18.2).   Two joys exist in regard to literary journals: finding new writers and reading what my favorite writers have written.  Jim Shepard is one of those favorite writers, and his name alone on a journal guarantees my purchase.  Shepard’s magic operates by weaving or overlaying two narratives: one personal and one historical/sociological/scientific.  “The Netherlands Lives with Water” (originally published in McSweeney’s issue 32, which holds a place of honor on my bookshelf) is one such story that combines the dissolution of a man’s marriage and family with that of climate change and an apocalyptic flood.  “Positive Train Control” features another broken sort of protagonist, a passive Bartleby-like train conductor to whom things happen.  The story combines detailed description of the (real, actual) effects of infrastructure deregulation (including past accidents) that–combined with the (imaginary, literary) characters’ laissez-faire acceptance or numbness–creates a tension that keeps building and building.  I kept trying to predict whether the tension would resolve itself or if the tension itself would be the point (as with Waiting for Godot).  I won’t spoil the ending, but I will give you one of Shepard’s beautiful sentences from the opening paragraph: “My father liked to say you got out of life what you put into it, so at night in bed I’d go over what I’d put into it and usually came up with the same thing: nothing.” I’ve been reading a collection of interviews with the poet Philip Levine who says that writing can’t help but be political when it takes note of systemic neglect, injustice, or corruption; Jim Shepard’s “Positive Train Control” is a perfect example of that idea.

11/29/2016.  “Reading Bulfinch’s Mythology” by Ilyse Kusnetz in The Normal School 9.2 (2016).  I have a weakness/fondness for the use of mythopoetics, especially when combined with the personal, which helps explain why Anne Sexton’s Transformations and Diane di Prima’s Loba are two texts I return to again and again for tone, syntactical disruption, and perspective.  Kusnetz’s short poem invokes such a mythological context, with allusions to Cronus, but changes the gender and parental relationship to that of a mother (rather than a father) eating her children out of love/hunger.  This poem has a devastating opening line –“These days I understand”–that creates ambiguity as to perspective: does the speaker understand (via empathy) what might have driven her mother (metaphorically speaking) to devour her, or does the speaker understand (via her own experience and self-knowledge) what might drive her to devour her own daughter?  Or both?  Additionally, Kusnetz uses rhyme, consonance, and assonance to great effect, especially with the echoes of death/slept and pluck/smother.  Finally, the end closes with two lines in italics that for the first time in the poem provide specific, direct, literal action: “I forced a stone […]”  As with the opening, however, we are left to wonder just who this “I” is: the same original speaker or a new speaker, that of the original’s daughter/intended victim.  Mythology might seem like it operates at a safe distance, but Kusnetz’s poem shows how it can provide a stage or outlet for our own projections of familial anxiety and dysfunction.  Sadly, the journal’s introductory notes indicate that Kusnetz passed away in September after a long battle with cancer.  Brilliant, insightful poems such as “Reading Bulfinch’s Mythology” stand as testament to a life well-lived and that though she will be missed, her words will continue to resonate.

11/28/2016. “Half of What Atlee Rouse Knows About Horses” by Bret Anthony Johnston in American Short Fiction 19.63 (Fall 2016).  In 13 pages, Johnston narrates a man’s life in all its glory and chaos while also creating a meditation on the essential symbolic and archetypal function animals (in this case horses) have upon our spirits or, if you’re of a religious bent, souls.  Rather than following a logical chronology, Johnston splits his narrative into episodes, each one functioning almost as parable or, as in the case of the one-sentence “A lost horse can follow its own tracks home,” aphorism or koan.  This is a beautiful short story whose ambiguous final thought –“a memory without beginning or middle or end”– captures well the literal senility the protagonist experiences but also is reminiscent of Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda’s film After Life in which heaven is presented as a single memory the deceased must choose to experience for eternity. Johnston’s story is heavy in that I felt a weight upon my heart when I finished reading, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to smile or cry.  Maybe I did both.