Breathe the Fresh Air
The Fall 2008 issue of The Georgia Review contains five essays, two short stories, ten poems (including the latest by Albert Goldbarth), reviews by three contributors, artwork by Judy Pfaff, and excerpts from a new book featuring the correspondence between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop.
In an introductory note, editor Stephen Corey cites the high pedigree of some of the contributors (Pulitzers for Stephen Dunn and Edward J. Larson, for instance) and their equal stance in the issue with relative unknowns. To Corey's credit and that of his staff, you could read this issue never having heard of any of the writers and not know who is the more experienced and/or acclaimed. The quality is that uniformly good, as readers of The Georgia Review have come to expect.
"Looking down," essayist Rebecca Emlinger Roberts writes, "is an art." In "The Art of Looking Down," Roberts describes living forty years with rheumatoid, "which has shaped my view of the world--not to mention the contours of my body." Because of the constant danger of falling, she has had to adapt to always looking down when she walks. At first she is resistant: "The ground. Where's the dream in it?" But she comes to understand art as "a form of exorcism, the exorcism of fear, helping me to see the ground for what it is: a riot of surfaces, a collection of color," and she learns to see "art down there, humming along." Roberts tells us that poet Seamus Heaney, in "The Place of Writing," refers to the word focus as coming "from the Latin for hearth. How fitting!" she exclaims. "If the ground is where I must look, I need to feel at home there." And gradually, she does. Roberts explores the necessary relationship between art and life with delicacy and skill. There is art at work in "The Art of Looking Down," humming along.
The essay "Forms and Structures" continues the theme of art as poet Stephen Dunn tells us that "Art gives us a vantage point, a way of seeing." This is an excellent essay for all beginning poets and even experienced poets who might need a wake-up call regarding the dangers of mediocrity. "Beginning poets [. . .] take note: the artisan never believes that how he feels is more important than how he executes." He illustrates this concretely by stating that "the carpenter who poorly frames a door doesn't go around saying how well it shuts." And he further shows us the dangers of sloppiness by presenting first Frost's poem "Stopping Albert Goldbarth's lovely and most assuredly musical "October" begins, "Another poem struck into being by seeing / a vee of geese overhead," then meditates on the parts becoming the whole ("an argument (of isolation versus community)") and what that implies. The speaker, he suspects, is "not / the only one who's stood here with the groceries leaking / out of the paper bag," entranced by the transient beauty of nature (or perhaps the transient nature of beauty). The poem comes full circle by evoking a civilization split apart, one element watching the other recede not merely through space but "into the future without them." What Goldbarth does is take a simple and universal act, watching birds in flight, and alters the reader's perception of it indelibly.
Jacob White's elegiac short story, "The Days Down Here," presents the last year of a family.The wife and mother, Jean, is riddled with cancer following yet another unsuccessful round of chemo. Her husband Hammond moves them and their nineteen-year-old son Zach to a lake where she had spent a lovely summer as a child, "because she was dying and I'd never done anything grand or foolish for her," says Hammond, or "Ham." The house she had stayed in is already occupied, but they move in across the street and get to know their neighbors, Ted and Barb. The story concerns Jean and Ham's efforts to improve their dilapidated property, whose tangled back yard happens to look out on the eighteenth hole of a golf course, and Zach's attempts to adjust to a strange environment. It's a subtly layered, richly textured story, with one tense moment when, while swimming in the lake, Jean feels her ankle become entangled in something and discovers that she is swimming in a Christmas tree dumping ground. Though she is alive at the end of the story, the sad shadow of death hangs over it, already changing all of their lives forever.