Minimalist Lit Mag Digs Into Deep Themes
Don’t be fooled by the minimalist cover of Cactus Heart - the black typeface and white backdrop may appear simple, but this collection unearths and excavates complicated themes of sadness, death, identity, loneliness and sorrow in its 58 pages of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and visual art. Each piece will push you to question and contemplate an important truth.
The cover features a poem entitled “The Hunter.” Reese Connor asks a piercing question of the hunter who identifies his target and then misses his prey, “It’s easy to aim at an unnamed thing. Or is it simply convenient?” It’s an apt introduction. Uneasiness and inconvenience pulse on the pages of this literary journal. In the opening visual art piece, “Sleep,” by Kate LaDew the reader is confronted by light and shadow. There is a subtle despondency of a woman sleeping face down in her bed. The vintage quality adds to the sadness and the presence of a phone in the corner of the room might be a comment on how all of us seek meaningful connection.
The need to seek an ultimate bond of unconditional love is portrayed in the poem by Jesse Curran, entitled “Dear Baby, Perhaps, Conceived” where a couple awaits the birth of their new baby. The line, “My dear, let me tell you how happy we are. You see, we want you” resonates on a deeper level – this feeling of claiming what’s happening and announcing it to the world. This tender image is juxtaposed with sadness and death: “My darling godfather, upstate is in comfort care. My normal advice is to breathe.” This poem places birth and death as the ultimate bookends and offers a universal context for life’s constant swinging pendulum.
The acceptance of death continues in the poem “Sonata in B Flat Major, D. 960” by Alex Sarrigeorgiou where she informs the reader, “Listen: You can only take one perfect bow.” The last line delivers an especially poignant message: “Our end can only be glory."
Cactus Heart continues with deep themes through various protagonists in its fiction. Adam Fishbein’s “Uncle Camus” highlights a narrator who questions the very reason of her existence and announces her worldview with these revealing and sad lines: “You will die. The universe will die. I closed my eyes and the floor crumbled away, the ceiling exploded, my flesh burned to dust in the heat. My heart raced. I couldn’t hold back the darkness.” The bleak outlook leads her to commit suicide because in her perspective, birth is misleading and what is meaningful is often overlooked.
Finding purpose is central to Cynthia, in the small fiction piece, “The Dragon Lady” by Lisa Beebe. This piece explores issues of identity as Cynthia inadvertently discovers she is a sleepwalking dragon superhero. When she realizes she is putting herself in danger, she makes a pact to never take sleeping pills again, but abandons this idea, knowing crime in her area is increasing. Sometimes pretending to be someone else makes you feel more necessary than living your everyday life.
Confronting terrifying truths sets the opening for Renée Thompson’s fiction piece, “Brilliance.” The reader quickly learns the context of this piece with the opening line, “She had cut her wrist with a knife and bled all over her dog.” Marcona, the main character in this story is a sophomore in high school who the narrator describes as an odd genius. The reader is mesmerized by descriptions of her, “She walked in great strides, head down, shoulders hunched, thin calves straining.” The moment there is a sense of sympathy for Marcona’s awkwardness, Thompson reminds us of the terrifying opening line. In the final moments of the essay, Marcona is holding a Chihuahua tightly to her chest. When the narrator says, “I think your dog wants down,” we watch as the tiny animal runs across the lawn covered in blood. Although Marcona, dismisses the goriness as an experiment, we are left with our mouths gaping, intrigued by her oddity and terrified by her brutality.
We observe others out of control. In “Rusty and Lulu” by Bernard Grant, the writer confronts hard truths about relationships by drawing attention to the animalistic behavior of people who aren’t equipped to know when to let go of a dysfunctional relationship. The last lines of this piece are particularly revealing - when a woman gives into her drunken suitor, Mr. Leon – “I look through the window when Mamma goes outside. She charges toward him, waving her hands. He hurries backward down the driveway and get in his car. Mamma kicks his tire before he speeds off. When she comes back into the house, she’s panting.” This ending mirrors the beginning and raises the question: Who are the animals, the humans or the puppies, Rusty and Lulu?
This literary journal features only two nonfiction pieces, but both offer impactful perspectives and cultural overtones. In Sam Tabet’s, “Ghosts of Beirut,” a young boy confronts his father’s night terrors. The father murmurs lines in Arabic which are unfamiliar and builds resentment in the son, who wishes he was taught this language “as an infant, when my brain was soft and malleable, like a big wad of bubblegum, jostling around in my cranium, hardening as time passes.” There is no resolution to this in-between feeling; only a resigned acceptance of not understanding as the son’s “eyes slowly close back into slumber.”
The second nonfiction piece, “Galilee,” by Megan Amanda Taylor unfolds with a powerful line, “The professor said, Islam has bloody borders. I wanted to say, So do people, in beautiful, bloody ways.” Taylor explores a multitude of subjects in her essay, including gender, boundaries and culture. The first part of the essay focuses on a woman’s body and parallels it to geography – “The border of a woman’s body, curved, like the boundary of India and Pakistan.” She launches into the importance of accuracy, especially when underestimating the number of casualties of women killed. She aptly states, “Rounding numbers is an act of war, leaving individuals out of the count, forgotten. Round. The numbers are too sharp for us.” The entire essay questions what we may ordinarily fail to consider – “Who makes maps and decides the Earth looks like that? Who decides that Asia is on top or on bottom or on the left or on the right?” She poignantly suggests that each interpretation is based on “where you stand. Perspective. Are you bleeding or being bled?” This is an essay worth rereading because of the insightful questions and metaphors.
This issue of Cactus Heart gravitates toward poetry. There are 15 poems in the journal and some deal with gay, lesbian and transgendered undertones. “What a Padded Camisole Said to Me” by Shawntai Genell Brown confronts the tightrope of gender confusion: “In reflection, I only see women who tried to make me out their insecurities still managing self love-.” Another line that offered quiet poignancy is “I was boxed with missing pieces, maybe. Make due with what was offered.” She accepts who she is by the conclusion of the poem. The poems “Varsity” by Baylea Jones and “Emotional Refrigerator “by Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko also delve into similar topics.
If you aren’t afraid to pick up a literary journal that pushes you to reflect on hard questions, then sit back and ponder fertile subjects with this collection. Every piece gives the reader something to think about.