Lit Mag's War-Themed Issue Makes for a Brutally Beautiful Read
I usually consume lit mags in bites and servings: I come back for more, dip in and out as I wish or as time allows me. One of their gifts is to provide short and resonant pieces that follow me off the page, often coloring how I see things for a time. It’s rare that I will devour a lit mag greedily in one sitting, yet I couldn’t quite help myself with the latest issue of the Bellevue Literary Review (15.2), the biannual literary journal published by the NYU Langone Medical Center. Now in its fifteenth year, BLR continues to be “a unique literary magazine that examines human existence through the prism of health and healing, illness and disease.” The latest issue, “Embattled: The Ramifications of War,” expands and riffs off the journal’s stated purpose, and the result is a haunting and thought-provoking issue.
Generally, since BLR publishes many themed issues, writers interested in submitting to BLR would do well to check out the submissions page on their website. BLR currently seeks poetry and prose for a special issue on memory until February 2016; beyond then, upcoming theme and contest announcements will appear there too. In addition, potential submitters should keep in mind that BLR is edited by physicians and writers who choose work that is “broadly and creatively related to our themes of health, healing, illness, the mind, and the body.” Indeed, every piece in volume 15.2 was strongly in line with the issue’s specific theme and sometimes more metaphorically concerned with topics of health and healing.
Volume 15.2 in particular expands its reach well beyond the kinds of war stories that I grew up hearing as a child and grandchild of Veterans. A different sort of theme issue on war might focus solely on soldiering, but this issue attempts “to encompass work about a broad spectrum of people affected by war in a myriad of ways.” Here is a picture of war as it ripples outward from the physical body at war, told in explosive fiction, poetry and essays from numerous other perspectives: children, spouses and parents left behind, fighters who come home and find themselves ill at ease in peacetime or old age, munitions defusers, survivors of Iranian prisons, war reenactors, and more.
Here, too, is a world of geographies both external and internal: Israel, China, Vietnam, Germany, Ukraine; PTSD, survivor’s guilt, grief, loss, longing and terror. It sounds like a lot — and it is an ambitious collection — but underlying every piece is a thread of common humanity, a search for connection even when the force of war conspires against it. Somehow, the issue doesn’t resort to one-note cynicism, either. This is a textured collection of pieces that isn’t afraid to leave the reader with more questions than it answers, and it chooses to be provocative rather than pedantic.
Poetry selections were neither consistently formal nor experimental; my sense was that the journal can accommodate many different poetic styles. Common among the selections, though, was a very high quality and a strong expression of the issue’s theme. Frankly, the selections were so strong that it was difficult to choose favorites; each one was like a little electric shock. Terry M. Dugan’s “The Call” gives us a soldier’s story in phone calls home, ending its three concise stanzas on a chilling note: “Weeks later he called again. / Me and my buddies are getting tattooed. / Every rec period he chooses a new tat. / I’m coming home when I run out of skin.”
I also admired the beautiful and tough lyricism of Yael Hacohen’s “I Never Saw a Wild Thing Sorry For Itself”: “When your CO singles you out in Krav Maga, / you’d better throw a punch, little girl. / Make your fist sing its soft goddamn.” I loved so much of this sometimes hard, sometimes lyrical poetry, from Charlie Bondhus’s revisit to Shakespeare in “Titus Andronicus Wakes Up in a Nursing Home” to Kate Gaskin’s haunting “Aftermath” to Amanda Newell’s startling “Recommendation.” Each poem riffed off the issue’s theme in harrowing, lovely, and often surprising ways.
BLR’s fiction guidelines state that, “While we are always interested in creative explorations in style, we do lean toward classic short stories,” and this works as a fair description of this issue’s fiction selections. Short fiction pieces were structurally and narratively more conventional than I’ve seen elsewhere; the stories seemed selected in order to challenge and surprise readers in other ways. Behind the no-frills storytelling was an original and often unflinching treatment of subject.
Spencer Hyde’s “Remainder” was a personal favorite. In this story, Klaus has spent decades disarming thousands of unexploded World War II-era bombs that are, as Hyde writes, “waiting for an errant machine to set them off, for a child to kick a soccer ball into a loaded ditch and carry back a mud-covered grenade.” In the tense concentration of munitions-clearing, Klaus tries to connect with his past.
Another stunner, Shawne Steiger’s “Flat Mommy,” is told in the voice of a child whose mother, a soldier and IED victim in Iraq, lives on in a family relic of sorts: a life-sized cardboard cutout of her that was intended to be placeholder until her return.
In terms of nonfiction, BLR’s editors are clear on their site about desiring something other than a traditional “illness narrative” for their journal, and selections in this issue included a book review and three essays. Along with a gripping narrative by Leopold Szor of his escape from extermination camps in 1941, the war issue includes a remarkable short essay by Sahar Delijani about the author’s birth in one of Iran’s most infamous prisons. In another essay, a Vietnam vet searches for connection with his own past and with a stranger in a supermarket who flew Arc Light missions over Vietnam. Like the fiction selections, these sported a more traditional narrative style: little in the way of genre-bending essaying here, but excellent, honest storytelling all around.
War may very well be a force that functions acutely in the moments of conflict, then continues to exist chronically long after service is done. This is what this issue asks us to bear witness to over the course of very high quality short stories, essays, and poems. Sure, the Contributors’ Notes are populated with decorated writers of many book-length publications, but they share space with emerging voices, physicians, and medical researchers, too. BLR, to my knowledge, makes no claims about promoting new writers, yet this issue included first publication credits for at least a couple of their contributors. Certainly, it was overwhelming and at times even brutal read, but textured as well. The stories and images I found there stayed with me long after I finished my first pass, and even had me mulling over questions about the importance of art and storytelling in an often violent world. I felt grateful that the contributors were willing to put their own stories out there so I could read them. This was my first time reading BLR, but I look forward to checking out whatever they come up with next.