Politics, Culture, Terrorism, War; A Midwestern Journal With International Reach
The Kenyon Review is a veteran member of the American literary journal scene. Founded in 1939, it published writers including T.S. Eliot, Robert Penn Warren, Robert Lowell, and Flannery O’Connor before closing its doors in 1969. Since its relaunch in 1979, it has earned a place as one of the more substantial and renowned of the nation’s journals. Its prestige, along with the fact that it pays all contributors, helps the journal to attract contributors who have established careers and (in most cases) have a book or two under their belts.
In the introduction to the Spring 2012 issue, David Lynn notes that the journal’s trustees recently gave their Award for Literary Achievement to historian and cultural critic Simon Schama, a choice that Lynn praises for rewarding “writing that aspires to achieve more than mere titillation or the conveyance of raw information, on the one hand, or the rigidly arcane mysteries of academic discourse on the other.” It’s hardly news that nonfiction can be considered literature, but the Kenyon Review seems to be laying claim to those parts of the genre that are at once scholarly and personal, expertly informed and written for an audience of interested non-experts. If you look to literary journalism for a deeply thought-out, well-crafted presentation of what is happening in our world, then the works in this journal—fiction and poetry as well as nonfiction—give us that thoughtfulness and craft in presenting what some people around the world are currently thinking about.
The contributors for this issue are a global lot: there are translations from French, Persian, and Arabic, in addition to work written in English that takes place in Cuba, Iraq, and Vietnam. In such a diverse body of writing, it’s fascinating to see how closely related the pieces are. There is work about political and ideological struggles that are still ongoing; about revolutions that have passed and left fear and stasis in their wake; about children caught in wars they don’t understand, and regimes that cover up the deaths of the young.
This issue begins with fiction, Tania James’ story “What to Do with Henry.” Henry is a chimpanzee, and the story follows him from infancy and capture in Cameroon to adoption by an American woman, through an uneasy transition to life with a family and, eventually, in a zoo. Henry is adopted alongside a little girl, named Neneh, and while the parallels between their situations are clear, James does not insist upon them, presenting a parable of movement, isolation, and aging in clear but gentle terms.
With that feeling of loneliness and motion established, we move into John Koethe’s “Watchful Waiting,” a poem of roving and repetition, where the problem of finding a place is revealed to be no easier for aging humans than young chimpanzees. Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Always a Way” hits the road in a manner that seems more upbeat, or at least differently inflected, and then Suzanne Farrell Smith picks up these materials—motion, aging, repetition—and puts them to powerful, sorrowful use in her memoir essay “Bridges and Tunnels.” Smith investigates memory ruthlessly, traveling forward and backward through her personal history and struggling against the impossibility of changing the past.
The connections between adjacent pieces continue through the journal, strong enough that one can smoothly read the entire journal from beginning to end. But you don’t have to read the journal in publication order to find connections. “My daughters cherish / cut flowers, at which / my immigrant nature rebels,” writes Adrienne Su in her poem “Backyard”: “with land at your disposal, / you undermine the strivings / of generations by buying / what’s doomed and can’t be eaten.” That fear is nearly the opposite of the protagonist’s feelings in the preceding story, Derek Palacio’s “Sugarcane.” In that story a Cuban doctor is given extra rations of sugar in exchange for agreeing to train the plantation manager’s son in medicine. The doctor uses the sugar wantonly, putting too much of it in his coffee and making sweet desserts for the women he invites into his home. (When one of these women affectionately bites his ear, he thinks “Everyone here is hungry.”) But there’s a correspondence, too, in a piece not placed next to these in the journal, Nhi Huynh and Minh Nguyen’s short story “First Confession,” in which a child from a large Vietnamese family tells us, “Bu often brings home the tough outer leaves of cabbage that people buy to feed pigs. . . . My mother can make a dozen dishes with bitter cabbage. Some are not so good. But with eleven pairs of flying chopsticks we always finish everything.”
The nonfiction selections run from memoir-essay to criticism. Linda Gregerson’s “Handedness” is perhaps the meatiest of these. It’s a lyrical and complicated meditation on difference, disjunction, asymmetry, and separation, working ideas from theater and literature into personal reflection. Tahar Ben Jelloun’s “Selections from Jean Genet,” which is translated from the French, also gives us a combination of critical and personal writing, though this author holds a particular trump card. He knew Genet personally, and he gives us a recollection of spending time with him and using that experience to form an understanding of his ideas.
The poetry in this issue, like the prose, is international, with a strong narrative quality. The narrator of Kevin Prufer’s “Elegy and Comfort” is caring for a seriously ill parent, and that situation is parlayed into a series of myths about parents, children, and sacrifice:
In those days, you could leave your child at the city’s edge for the wolves.
You could wrap your child in leaves or in rags; you could put it in a basket and set it afloat
or sew it in a deerskin and drop it from a cliff.
You could smear it with soot or with dirt and give it to gypsies or dogs,
or, to guarantee a stormless sea, strap it to the bow of one of many ships.
Jean-Paul de Dadelsen’s “Women of the Plains” and “The Last Night of the Pharmacist’s Wife” tell a story about a rural French community, while Sandra McPherson’s “Peace Sign” offers some lines that could serve as an epigraph to the whole issue: “Well, revolutionary, / we wrote and fought. We ran a station on the reading circuit.”
If there’s anything lacking in this issue, it’s experimentation. Linda Gregerson’s lyric essay on handedness is probably the most formally daring work here, but the overall tendency is toward a linear narrative or development of ideas. Somewhat quirkier work is published separately in the online edition of the magazine, KR Online, which is updated on a similar schedule to the print magazine’s issues. The current online edition includes all three genres found in the print magazine as well as a handful of book reviews. Some of the online pieces include audio recordings of the authors reading their work, which personalizes it somewhat—particularly in the case of Xu Xi’s short story “All About Skin,” which plays with ideas of mutable cultures and selves and is enriched by the author’s Hong Kong-inflected accent.
What The Kenyon Review lacks in experimentation, it makes up for in sheer accomplishment. This is a remarkably assured and mature body of work, and reading this journal is perhaps one of the best ways to see how some of today’s writers are actively engaging with and adding to our literary tradition.