Leaps of Faith in Traditional Styles
In the Winter 2012 issue of New South, Georgia State University’s Journal of Art & Literature, we’re welcomed by a cover drawing of a man in free fall, hat left behind, necktie whipping across his shoulder. Fitting, perhaps, as this is the first printed edition of the journal put together by an entirely new editorial staff.
The first lines of Gregg Murray’s opening poem, “Some Translations for Arturo de Benedicto,” proclaim, “When she was done I heard her in the hallway and then, / farther, in the lot, and then, farther, in the street, and then, / farther, on the highways and in the fields and in the woods and / even as far far away as my mind’s final rooms.”
New South hopes for its work to have the same impact, no doubt. In the forward, Editor-in-Chief, Matt Sailor, even makes mention of the journal’s mission since its inception five years ago (formerly GSU Review) to build “a national reputation.” New South is certainly on its way.
But to accomplish that end, the leap for the new staff of New South isn’t as risky as you might expect. Not that that’s a bad thing. The journal’s 109 pages are dedicated evenly to poetry and fiction and include a photo essay. Barring a few exceptions, the works lean more towards the conventional in style and subject matter. Nothing overly edgy or experimental here. The issue sticks to a safe lineup – there are no first-time published writers in this one – of largely professors, published authors, and MFAs (that being said, if you plan to submit, you best bring your A-game and probably some pretty decent credits). Thematically, many of the works are actually less about taking a leap of faith and more about clinging to solid ground.
There are five fiction selections, all well-crafted and affecting, ranging in length from six to twenty-three pages. The stories are generally straight-forward, with the exception of Julie Marie Wade’s “Anointing of the Sick,” a weirdly entertaining piece referring to the Christian healing sacrament for those ill or dying. Did I understand it? Not really, not fully. But that didn’t keep me from appreciating its originality, or the way Wade played with language and form, shifting periodically from story to poem (“The Western Pennsylvania hospital shone like Helios over a vast and crowded horizon. I’m more Sisyphus than Icarus any day, I say. (Is this not the book of myths? Am I not entitled?) Let me keep rolling gladly this stone over those stodgy hills.")
Other highlights were Rebecca Makkai’s, “Our Plastic-American Brethren,” about a Vietnam Vet teaching First Aid & CPR, battling with his inability to save his fellow soldiers, his wife, and his eating-disordered daughter from the clutches of death and sickness, and Jenn Scott’s “Honor, Milady” about a young woman coming home and confronting her past after her sister’s husband – who she’d had ongoing relations with – dies. These stories have it all: wit, complexity, flawless rhythm, and vivid imagery (Makkai describes the protagonist’s daughter as having “skin that was now tissue paper” and “ribs that he was sure would crack like candy canes”; Wade paints the widowed sister as “small boned and smooth, narrow like a coffin”). They’re among the better stories I’ve read anywhere in a while. Makkai’s short fiction, in particular, is widely recognized and her debut novel, “The Borrower,” has landed high praise.
Sixteen different poets, most of whom are quite established, contribute thirty-five poems to the new issue. There’s a mix of styles, of subjects, of voices. Several poems have a no-nonsense approach and tackle age-old themes of mortality and gripping life lest it slip away. In David Salner’s poem, “A Dog By the Sea,” he closes with the lines: “How I want / for us to repeat ourselves, on and on, / you holding the leash of a silly dog, me / feeling the beat, the blood in your hand.” And from Tom C. Hunley’s “Thaw:” “I’ve felt at times / like a balloon running out of helium, a car / running out of gas, a pizza box emptied of all / but the crusts.” Other works are more obscure, more exhilarating, though there’s nothing here that will scare anyone away. Memorable pieces include Murray’s “Translations,” a series of poems by Timothy Liu (whose name, as a side note, was misspelled – one of a few editorial slip-ups I spotted), and works by Rebecca Morgan Frank and Kate Northrop.
There’s no shortage of curious and captivating lines in New South’s pages. In “Unsleeping, 5:18am,” Liu writes:
Marriage is a tapestry full of holes
Hanging in a castle with the drawbridge
Permanently up –
Its faithful servants
Unable to repair the wormage
In Rebecca Morgan Frank’s, “Night,” she begins: “You’re a ghost on fire. My fingers close / around your air and press for bones – / to love you, I’m disposed / to these vanishing acts: nightly haunts / a drawer half open, a water glass left / My hope saddles at a creak on the stairs, / a sign you’re there.”
Finally, in Kathleen Robbins’s lone photo essay, “Into the Flat,” (the new staff has reintroduced original art, not only on the cover, but in the pages too) she “explores familial obligation and our conflicted relationship with ‘home,’” after leaving the family farm in the Mississippi Delta to pursue a teaching position. Robbins writes: “This is the land that my family has inhabited for generations, and I am pulled to this place in a way that I am not able to fully articulate.” The photos are of wide-open sky and land and depict a comforting solitude. It’s unfortunate that Robbins’s photos, along with the aforementioned cover drawing by James F. Woglom, are the only artistic contributions. With New South announcing the return of art to the journal, I wondered why they didn’t make a bigger splash.
New South prints bi-annually ($5 for a single issue or $8 for a year subscription) and samplings from past issues are available on the website. Nonfiction and lyric essay submissions are invited, in addition to fiction, poetry, and art. Keep in mind, there’s a small fee for submitting.
In its Winter 2012 issue, the new editorial staff of New South has created a home for artists who have largely mastered their craft and a great resource for those intent on learning it. Cover-to-cover, it’s a solid, enjoyable read. Could they have taken more chances? Mixed in more bold works of art, published a few edgier pieces, perhaps given some lesser-known writers a platform? Could they have done more to separate New South from the litany of other journals run by creative writing program grad students? I think so, at least. And maybe they will down the road. Sailor promises “big plans for New South in the coming months.” I don’t doubt it. Then again, you can certainly argue there’s no need for any giant leap when things are already pretty darn good where they’re at.