A Slim Mag Offers Hearty Content
Editor Ron Mitchell and his genre editors Nicole Louise Reid (fiction), Tom Wilhelmus, (nonfiction), and Marcus Wicker (poetry) have assembled an impressive group of writers. Poets Andrew Hudgins, Erika Meitner, and Robert Wrigley have all had collections published by major houses, including Simon and Schuster, HarperCollins, and Penguin. A majority of contributors currently hold teaching positions in MFA programs, and, not surprisingly, their work has appeared in major journals, such as Indiana Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Tin House, Prairie Schooner, and Cream City Review. (A quick skim through the Contributor’s Notes reveals that several of them have actually been published in the same journals.) The emerging writers featured in the issue, those still working toward completion of their MFAs, have, on second thought, already emerged, judging by their resumes.
The poems in this issue do what so much of contemporary poetry seems to do—start with an object, an event, or a place, treat it with descriptive care, and then, at some point near or just past the halfway point, pivot toward the abstract, the metaphorical, the metaphysical, the philosophical. For instance, Magda Sokolowski’s “Clearing” opens with “the passing of the elk/through the high-desert sage flat.” After two stanzas rooted in the concrete experience in nature, the final two stanzas work at imbuing that experience with significance. The reader moves from the majestic elk toward an opportunity in the final lines to contemplate “not an emptiness wanting to be filled,/but a world already there,/ brimming.”
I found myself most affected by those poems that remained entirely in the moment, like Jenna Bazzell’s harrowing “Thirty-eight” about the speaker watching her suicidal mother tear off, presumably forever, in her Buick. I was instantly thrust into the tension, bewilderment, and desperation of the scene with the arresting simile spanning the first three lines: “My mother holds the thirty-eight to her head/like a transistor radio tuned to a channel/only she can hear.” In terms of deftly combining the novelty of pop culture artifacts with deeply felt pathos, few poems could top Adam Tavel’s “An Armless He-Man Action Figure Adumbrates His Shed Decade.” Tavel turns the muscled-up master of Castle Grayskull into a sensitive and sympathetic speaker in a dramatic monologue addressing his now grown-up owner.
The issue’s prose fits rather neatly under a pair of thematic umbrellas. Parent-child separations and reunions form the emotional core of the stories “Rocket Night” by Alexander Weinstein, “Riffs on My Dad” by Robert McGuill, “Undertow” by Julian Zabalbeascoa, and the essay “My Sister Mulan” by Natalie Parker-Lawrence. “Rocket Night,” the shortest of the bunch, is the most provocative as it marries a certain amount of whimsy with a 1984-esque science fiction scenario best described as something approximating the back-to-school night from hell. It is a disturbing and memorable piece of fiction. That Weinstein accomplishes this in 2 ½ pages is remarkable.
Jessica Falzoi’s “Say to Yourself,” a second person short story, and Alysha Hoffa’s “Colorless Life: An Essay in Grayscale” both address mental instability. Despite its point of view, Falzoi’s story feels like a definite throwback to all those classic Ann Beattie stories circa “The Burning House” that revolve around drinking, dinner, and conversation among a group of friends. Only here, Falzoi overlays events with her protagonist’s relentless anxiety that is spurred on, in part, by the status of a mysterious hospitalized daughter.
The only thematic outlier is Kelly Miller’s “A Few Pesos,” a fragmented essay describing the author’s visit to impoverished areas of rural Mexico en route to Cabo. When I say “fragmented,” I don’t just mean in terms of overall form, though it is a narrative presented in brief chunks of scene. Sentences fragments, for Miller, are not just devices used for special emphasis or occasional shifts in rhythm. They are her grammatical structure of choice, and at times, their presence becomes overbearing. Nevertheless, the essay ends on a lovely lyrical high note that takes the reader by surprise. Perhaps it derives its power from the late shift to a more flowing prose of “proper” sentences.
I, though, will take the opposite strategy. After spending more than 700 words minding my syntactical p’s and q’s, I will end with a pair of fragments: A slim but handsome journal from the University of Southern Indiana. Proof that big things can come in small packages.