Something to Write Home About; an Impressive Journal From Hamline University
Issue 14 of Water~Stone Review is themed How Myths Begin. The issue bleeds through with alienation, but maybe that’s how myths begin. Husband at war, artist disappearing, father with AIDS, deaf man in a neighborhood thick with gangs, undocumented immigrant, four-day-old puppies in a cardboard box, boy in grade school, mother of a stillborn. Alienation of the body: color, sex, tubes sticking out in a nude parade, cancer. Executive Editor Mary François Rockcastle notes in her introduction, “Each year, when I write this opening essay, I end up writing variations on the same subject: the human condition in all its terror and beauty.”
Although much is at stake, the work is restrained and well wrought. But more – that kind of haunting, that filmy memory after some dreams. One story I can’t shake is “What It Means to Be a Man” by Ed Bok Lee. The story is about men I wouldn’t want to know who are trying to do the right thing, and there’s some humanity in that, yet doing the wrong thing just oozes out of them. This is where the box of puppies comes in. They’re fighting dogs. The pairs of men are fathers and sons, and they’re all on a collision course, a culture clash, a catastrophe with guns. And these puppies in a box. You get the feeling that something isn’t going to work out. You’re right. Here’s the opening:
We were driving down to Hastings, Jorge and me, with a trunk full of six four-day-old puppies in a cardboard grocery box. Pit bulls. The whole way down 61 you could smell and hear them, whining away through the Camry’s back seat, or more like they were singing out of tune. The day was cool and gray. Only when we hit one canyon of a pothole somewhere just past Cottage Grove did the dogs finally quiet down.
Weird social code can’t stand in for what it really means to be a man. What happens to boys when their fathers are assholes?
The Judith Kitchen Creative Nonfiction Prize – Honorable Mention “Signs of the Time” by Morgan Grayce Willow is a moving, tight chronicle of the murder of a man in Minneapolis. This is the deaf man, and when he signs a greeting, it looks like a rival gang symbol. The coincidences are unraveled and then rewoven, with a nod toward language and the ways it connects and disconnects us.
Jose Rodriguez’s “Fair Science” is a beautiful poem about the loneliness of grade school, the years-long misunderstandings, the helpless rage. The speaker in the poem has entered a drawing in the science fair at the urging of a teacher, although the drawing really was
Something to do
after the math problems, something
to shore me from the playground of ruined homes
where children shouldered an anger
then hurled it at those
who’d learned to swallow it whole
and take the place of hunger.
Most of the writers in this issue have been around the block a time or two – only a few don’t list books. The work has a surety – it’s never screaming for attention or getting all flirty. The impressive scope and style stays compelling. Even the book reviews are something to write home about. Mary Cappello takes on two biographies: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee and How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Blakewell. A biography of a disease begs the question: What is biography? And Cappello wrestles this question to the ground.
If there is one soft spot in this issue, for me it was Rigoberto González’s “Orphans in the Terrorist World.” This essay has a great skeleton – the juxtaposition of his mother’s death and 9/11, and the passing of this date in successive years. Life can be like a chain, cinched on these trackable days, the birthdays, the deathdays. But González’s emotional outpouring left me on the stairs.
This feels like a small complaint about a 300-page issue. Really, I want to tell to tell you about every piece, including the interview with writer Richard Bausch that asks such smart questions.
[Fiction editor Sheila] O’Connor: You’ve talked about ear, and certainly there’s musicality in your prose. How do you encourage students to develop an ear?
Bausch: By reading. The more you read, the better the ear. In every single instance in my life, and I can say it’s a long life now, I’ve never met a writer whom I considered better than me who wasn’t also better read. They knew more.
Water~Stone Review comes out once a year and is a teaching journal; that is, the submitted manuscripts are critiqued and selected in classes created for students at the Minneapolis College of Art & Design. Student photography is also featured in the center of the issue, and it’s a little mind-blowing to realize these skillful images aren’t from well experienced artists. The book feels good in the hand – it’s the right size with a good heft, and the clean layout pleases the eye.
My favorite piece in this issue, and this is a tough call, is the poem “Washing Boys” by Rebecca Fremo. The title parses two ways, and every word is carrying the weight of another.
The oldest sits naked
on the toilet seat,
then rises like steam
to hack at the shower curtain.
That’s because his brother is on the other side. How many of you still have a clear shower curtain? This is where myths begin. From impulse, need, play, fear, childhood.
The middle boy leaves
the bathroom door open
wide as the arms gathering
new bathroom crayons.
Stay with me,