Intimidating At First; a Journal That Wins You Over
A hardcover lit mag? How rare! In these days when a slim paperback costs $14.95, two hardcover volumes per year at $22 total is a fantastic bargain. How can a literary journal afford, not only a stitched cover (with a gold minaret stamped on the front bearing on its tower either a crescent moon or a wrench), but a lovely dustcover as well? Perhaps that aura of excess wealth made me approach the journal squinty-eyed: is this actually good or did it merely drive up in a golden carriage?
Let’s ignore Tampa Review’s established reputation and see for ourselves. The dust jacket tells me, “These are stories about thinking of leaving.” Oops. I hardly ever like stories about thinking. But I do like stories about leaving. I turn to the Contributors’ Notes and am crestfallen. Hardly anyone in volume 42 isn’t the founder of something or the editor of something, publisher of many books and winner of many prizes. So rich and so famous. I am definitely in a mood not to like them.
I peruse the first story, Heather Sappenfield’s “Indian Prayer,” finely observed and painstakingly crafted in a way that reminds me of Thomas McGuane’s “A Prairie Girl” which recently appeared in the New Yorker—only I like “Indian Prayer” better. Every element has been fitted in a way that rewards even an unpracticed eye turned to the hidden stitchery of fiction. Although I feel ambivalent about parallels between the horrific ordeal of the Trail of Tears and a middle-class family’s divorce, I have to acknowledge that a child’s mind does make those connections, does dwell in myth. It’s a great piece of fiction.
In my view, every story in this journal was worth reading, and some were stunningly good. My favorites dealt with the question, “Who am I, really?” Mark Krieger’s “Dead End” read like sickening, tragic truth. Debra Brenegan’s “The Hand Whore” easily eclipsed a thousand feminist tracts. Thank goodness those wrenching tales were balanced by Kathy Flann’s “Karaoke Night at the Corazon Disco Lounge” whose likeable protagonist suffers twelve years of sexless marriage and mentions it without resentment, but seems likely at the end to make up for lost time.
I should add: I can’t appreciate horror, though millions love it. I direct them to Ann Scott Knight’s “The Jogging,” a scary, disturbing tale about a woman alone on a wooded path, and Frank Giampietro’s “After One of My Daughter’s Terrible Dreams,” a perfectly fine poem that I hated (through no fault of its own).
It’s very hard to tell fiction from nonfiction here. Eric Barnes’ “Anything More” vividly creates (and seems to recreate) the days of thirteen-year-old boys in dinghies on the Puget Sound, bumping against larger worlds of resented Indians, lost jobs, and dads killed in car accidents.
There were so many good poems that one can’t do justice to them all, or in fact, any of them, but I enjoyed the inclusion of both individual poems and sets from one poet. Robert Leach’s “Making the Connection: The Traveler” offered beguiling rhythms, hilarious quotations, and a satisfying final stanza of repeated “I am”s; his next, “Milarepa and His Man on the Climb to Lamayurru” satisfied curiosity with its narrative and evoked eternity in a grain of sand as well.
Diane Wakoski explored the Persephone myth in several ponder-worthy poems. We get our knuckles rapped metaphorically if we ask artists to explain their works, but I like thoughtful explanations even if there’s always more to say and always something missed. Thus, I appreciated the lengthy and poignant note Wakoski provided on “Persephone’s Soliloquy: I Watched You Sleeping, Blue Flowers…”.
David Keplinger’s “Palermo Umbrella” and “Venice” connected cultural touchstones to personal experience in a fresh way. Frank X. Gaspar’s “Saint Francis Blesses the Creatures” is indescribably tangible and big in spirit, as is “Sycamore”. Usually, a fat block of text with no stanzas greatly tempts me to skip it; I’m glad I didn’t succumb. Finally, Todd James Pierce’s “Tiller” and “The Scar” were extremely dear father-daughter poems, the kind one wants to reread and share with others.
A hard cover suggests permanence; these acid-free pages will last a long time. Do they merit shelf space? My personal tests are: is this a world that speaks to me, that I regret leaving? And can I use it for teaching? With a few minor exceptions, the answer to both is yes.