Illness, Health, and Healing: A Literary Magazine for the Body and Mind
When I first heard about Bellevue Literary Review, a literary magazine based in the Department of Medicine at NYU Medical Center, I imagined a bleak parade of stories about sick and dying people. But while the Spring 2011 issue (vol. 11, no. 1) has its share of grief and loss, it also features humor, some quirky characters, and a little magic.
This issue includes the 2011 BLR prizes. Patti Horvath’s short story “But Now Am Found,” winner of the fiction prize, has an unnamed narrator, a teenaged boy, describing his first love. She's a girl with scoliosis: “The brace encased her, chin to hip, hard plastic and metal. She wore it for her spine, that snaky column, a second body to reshape the damaged one.” After the girl is sent away to Salvation Valley, a fundamentalist-Christian reform camp, the story shifts into a meditation on salvation and healing. It’s a quiet, interior story, with unexpected physical details conveying the teenage mind and first love.
Jill Caputo’s story “Winston Speaks” won honorable mention, and the editors’ note mentions that Caputo, disabled by a childhood stroke, died recently at age 30. That loss adds a sad under-layer, but this story stands on its own: Winston, a paraplegic, falls in love with his caregiver, Georgia, who seems to reciprocate but then pulls away. Told mostly in flashback, the story not only gives us a close-up of Winston’s daily humiliations and moments of delight, it also offers a snappy, fitting happy ending.
B.G. Firmani’s quirky “Happiness Advocates” tells of an unlikely friendship between a lonely 37-year-old stuttering woman and a young gay man from China. They’re freelancing for an evangelical Christian group, the Happiness Advocates – a stint that’s bound to end badly. But as the narrator details the morning when they learn they’ve lost everything, she made me laugh out loud several times. (“We were yelling; we blew our noses loudly on the napkins from Chop’t Salad that I had in my bag and then we had to look at the printing on the napkins and say Chop’t, Chop’t, how stupid is that? Chop’t Salad, Chop’t Salad, how stupid is that? And then we were back to crying again..”)
Another story mixing sadness and humor is Ruth Schemmel’s “Crazyland,” in which the narrator, June, describes her part in tricking her aging, demented father into entering a mental hospital. It’s a chatty, funny story about a fractured family that also meditates on the fine lines between mental illness and wellness, between freedom and restriction.
Two stories are set in other nations. Both Gill Schierhout’s “The Day of the Surgical Colloquium Hosted by the Far East Rand Hospital,” set in Gauteng, South Africa, and Danielle Eigner’s “Condensed Milk,” set in Haiti, feature oppressed, poor narrators. Both stories also show how helpers – doctors, aid workers – may do as much harm as good when they enter the narrators’ unfortunate worlds.
This issue’s poetry tends toward grief and intensity. Janet Tracy Landman’s brief “Sinkhole,” winner of the BLR poetry prize, seems to compare the return of a loved one’s cancer to a hidden earthquake and sinkhole; and Cynthia Neely’s “Climacteric” (honorable mention winner) meditates on aging, a late snow, and the coming of spring in a fresh way: “Even now,// as wasps stumble out of the woodwork, fumble/drunken and useless on gray stone floors, winter / begins its end, always / before you are ready…” And Floyd Skloot’s “Looking Back” is compact and conversational, but more formal in style: “That morning my wife and I felt / summer lose its grip. Nothing more/than the waning of scents that dwelt.”
More poetry: Stacy Nigliazzo’s “Family Waiting Room” describes a night waiting in the hospital and an apparent death in spare, vivid terms (“I dream of her fair/ skin bled // purple and blue like/ blackberries // in a cream pot”). Nicholas Patrick Martin’s “Odd a Sea’s Wake” (listed as fiction but more like a prose poem) uses second-person narration beautifully, massing up details, describing all the strange knowledge and the vertiginous ups and downs of caring for a dying lover.