New Lit Mag Rises From Phoenix And Offers Home for Poetry and Fiction
There is much good writing in Issue 2 of Four Chambers, a new magazine from Phoenix. However, the quality is apportioned so evenly that while most everything is pretty good, only a few pieces flirt with excellence. Clunky beginnings give rise to strong endings. Compelling plots, characters, or language give way to implausible, vague, or ill-chosen resolutions; to confusion, to banalities.
The voices tend to be youthful, telling of sexual exploits, imaginings, and missteps; relationship struggles; alcohol consumed or ejected; kids trying to find their way, trying to grow up. Here and there, though, are voices of greater range, voices looking back, sometimes with nostalgia, sometimes with terrible regret.
Nels Hanson’s poem “The Planets Then” recalls evenings from fifty-five years ago, at a park where an amateur astronomer let people look through his telescope. It was a time when:
had stepped past Earth to plant a flag, no…
… probe with uninvited
eye flashed barren pictures we hardly watched.
Hanson laments what’s been lost between then and now in “wind’s/harsh dust we recognize as prophecy.”
In Raegan Pietrucha’s poem “Sex Ed,” the memory is of something more immediate: an eighth grade sex ed class woefully unequal to the task of teaching what it purports to teach. A “pretty, stupid, lean” teacher showed slides, but “… never said what it meant if you’d already seen//more than what appeared/on the screen…” The memory intensifies, becoming more personal, and painful, as the poem’s subject, thinking of “these other bodies,” also thinks of “another’s I was forced to know with my own…”
Kelly Talbot, in his poem, “The Veteran,” tells of a man giving up the gun he has owned for forty-two years. With plain-spoken sentences and simple repetitions, Talbot captures both the depth of the man’s care of the weapon and the rhythms and parallels of how he goes about his life before and after pawning it. We come to understand who this guy is: “This is what they taught me: methodology,/but above all, pragmatism.”
While quite a few other poems succeeded on one level or another, two resonated particularly deeply. In Shevaun Brannigan’s “To the cabbie who waits for me as I unlock the door,” drunkenness and loneliness “in the 20 hour dress and its wrinkles,/in the body and its nightly defeat,” engender a quiet cry for help, which in turn lays bare a desperate life: “A little girl is going to run out/the door, chased by her father./Get her out of here.”
And in Elizabeth McNeil’s “Ms. X, Trick Baby,” innocence runs up hard against necessity, as first “rhinestones sparkle/ around your mother’s neck…” but then the mother is revealed to have been a prostitute and the addressee the result of one of her assignations. The tawdry and the matter-of-fact go hand in hand:
Crosslegged on the Motel 8 mattress,
your seventeen-year-old mother
slipped on her glasses, tucked
blonde strands behind her ears…
meant another week of bread and milk…
McNeil brings the mother’s circumstances vividly to life.
The prose—presumably all fiction though the editors make no such designation—was generally engaging, though too often tended to wobble or otherwise go astray. Good writing, in such realms as characterization, scene-setting, and story development, can be found in “Courtship,” by Sam Slaughter, Joseph Rathgeber’s “God Shammgod,” Ilana Masad’s “In the Land of Milk and Honey,” Eric Shepard’s “The Breadman,” and elsewhere.
The finest piece, the most consistently absorbing, the most affecting on a gut level, is Ed Tankersley’s From “The Distance Between Us.” (One must assume these are excerpts from a larger work, though it is not so indicated.) Tankersley puts us in the head and senses of Gordie, a young boy waiting for his mother, who is late to pick him up:
A lightning bangs really close to me… then it’s really quiet with no wind or anything. I feel the air get cold on my arms and the hairs all stick up then I hear the rain. It’s just drops on the leaves, then more on the sidewalk close to me then a kind of rush sound from the sky and it starts pouring rain.
When his mother does come, we see that what might have been a story of abandonment is actually one about love and intense connection in the face of difficulties. The story shifts to the perspective of Gordie’s mom, who’s trying to manage single motherhood, taking care of Gordie, her job, and an ex who’s delinquent with his payments, not to mention the ex’s bitter girlfriend.
“Why do you get to take our money?” asks the girlfriend.
Meredith considered whether she had the stamina for this struggle, whether anything she could say would make a difference in the face of this malice. Finally, she spoke, measuring her breath to keep her voice level. "The judge says so.”
After Meredith, who calls Gordie “Baby,” has picked Gordie up, after they’ve dried off from the rain, after they’ve eaten, Gordie considers things: “I guess she’s right I didn’t need to be scared. She never forgets me.”
We root for these two, in a big way.
The editors allow too many typos, misspellings, and grammar lapses to pass, which does take away from the overall effect, despite their obvious enthusiasm and the magazine’s appealing presentation and artwork. The contributors, whose publication credits range from the notable to the obscure, include newcomers, MFA holders and candidates, writing teachers, and others. Four Chambers is off to a good start, giving lots of interesting voices a promising outlet, though there is room for improvement.