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New York and Other Diverse Countries: Brooklyn Lit Mag is Home for High-Quality Prose and Art Criticism

Review of Brooklyn Rail, Spring 2016 by Max Gray


The Brooklyn Rail’s dogged pursuit of good art and art criticism is one trait that’s helped it thrive for so long; the journal has published smart, largely accessible art criticism, essays, fiction, and poetry since its founding in 2000 by a cohort of artists including the painter Phong Bui, who remains its Publisher today. But the Rail’s adherence to high editorial standards mark it as a truly special journal, one that Bui calls a “social sculpture” or “work of art.” In an age when your average media consumer won’t view a work of art unless he is fooled into doing it, The Brooklyn Rail is something of an anomaly.

Its success as a purveyor and proponent of art – in every medium – is more impressive when one tallies the like-minded periodicals that winked out of existence during the economic downturn or were forced to make editorial concessions to less open-minded readers. Take, for example, its venerable neighbor across the East River, the Village Voice – once the gold standard for liberal opinions, New York muckraking, and art criticism, the Voice lost some luster in recent years due to a corporate takeover by the bottom line-oriented New Times. The erstwhile home of legendary critics Jane Jacobs, Nat Hentoff, and Robert Christgau now resembles a ghost of its former self (notwithstanding occasional investigative features). Then again, I don’t know how any paper, “alt-weekly” or otherwise, could survive five new editors and numerous axed writers in just a few years. The Brooklyn Rail, thankfully, has not had to deal with such strife, and signs suggest it won’t have to anytime soon.

In fact, evidence abounds to the contrary. Today, the Rail even boasts an editorially-independent affiliate based out of Minneapolis called The Third Rail which persists in publishing the sort of art criticism with which Brooklyn readers are already accustomed. Its table of contents ranges from short poems to recipes for Iranian stew to a career retrospective of the French counterculture writer Pierre Guyotat. Meanwhile, the original Rail in the Big Apple persists in leading the charge. Every issue is free, and has been since its inception more than fifteen years ago.

Innovation seems to be the central tenet in the Rail. Not only are the stories in the March 2016 fiction section innovative, but they seem concerned about being concerned about innovation. In a few cases, such as Cara Benson’s brief “Modern Bodies,” the urge to experiment ends up obfuscating, rather than clarifying. Benson toys with pronouns, bending literary conventions along with our tolerance for confusion: “Either way, and often it is the, is the you, but at any moment the notepad could call in a superior.” Taking this tidbit out of context might be unfair, but the point is that no journal is faultless. By and large, fiction in the Rail succeeds in challenging expectations and keeping its audience guessing. This is not casual beach reading. Open-minded readers will be rewarded if they are willing to immerse themselves in the strange.

Take Glendaliz Camacho’s magical realist tale, “Pigeons,” in which a beleaguered professor discovers a way to turn bird droppings into Miracle Grow for tropical flowers and gets caught up in a local politician’s beautification campaign. “In days,” Camacho writes, “pink begonias, pentagonal ipomoeas, and violet bougainvillea blanketed the city center. Mayor Correa, with a purple orchid pinned to his lapel… awarded the professor the city’s Medal of Merit.” A few pages later, “The Golem,” by Maria Rapoport, offers a surrealist vision of monstrous, “soulless men” that take over the home of the collective narrator, even though they are “felt,” rather than seen. Rapoport’s nimble pacing and mastery of the dream-like image could give Salvador Dali shivers: “On the floor, someone had drawn outlines of men that were filling now, slowly, with red – red meat rising like a soufflé, red muscles thickening and rising.”

The experimental train keeps on rolling, picking up speed in the poetry section, where daring New York-based poets Michael Kelleher and Alan M. Jalon rub shoulders with the Venezuelan Francisco Perez Perdomo, whose piece “Regarding Ghosts” is translated deftly by Guillermo Parra. “Ghosts are excessively sensitive people,” writes Perdomo via Parra. “Any question they’re asked becomes intolerable / because of the effort it implies / to open a mouth closed for so long.” Meanwhile, Ruth Lepson, longtime poet-in-residence at the New England Conservatory of Music, emphasizes the singular strangeness of this fare with a funny Rorschach test of a poem:

I wanted the meter maid to like me

So she wouldn’t give me a ticket

Which is like totally insane

Standing by the water fountain I said to myself

I’ll always remember this so I can

Remember what fourth grade feels like

A quick scan of authors’ bios reveals that many hail from the New York metro area. However, a distinctly international character suffuses the Rail with cosmopolitan dignity. A story on the journal’s website stands out, written by the exile Faleeha Hassan, otherwise known as the ‘Maya Angelou of Iraq.’ Hassan’s harrowing story, translated by William M. Hutchins, describes the disorienting and stressful experience of a woman who loses her children in a sandstorm. The violent storm, a force of nature that scores and blinds everything in its path, alludes allegorically to the obliterating force of war.

Among the Rail’s interviews with artists – and there are many – a hodgepodge of nationalities, cultures, and art forms vie for attention. In the March 2016 issue, Miami-based installation artist Nicolas Lobos appears alongside interviews with the photography and videography collective House of Ladosha, radical shipbuilder Marie Lorenz, and the Japanese-American artist Hiroshi Sugimoto, all accompanied by hand-drawn portraits, courtesy of the Publisher himself. Several scholarly essays occupy the heart of the issue, clustered under the title “Special Report: South Africa.” Inside, voices from the region speak out about recent labor protests on college campuses including the University of Cape Town and others.

If the Rail had an OK Cupid profile, its screen name might be “New York and Other Diverse Countries.” Any curious writer hoping to win a byline from this reputable journal will encounter an uphill climb if their address contains, let’s say, a Tennessee, an Ohio, or any zip code that doesn’t start with an 11 or a 10. On the other hand – and this leads us to an important, though frustrating point – you won’t have to worry about any of this anyway, because the Brooklyn Rail maintains a firm moratorium on unsolicited submissions. This will rightfully disappoint many aspirants. But before passing judgment, consider the Rail’s high editorial standards; its no-nonsense attitude towards art and its dissemination; its unique status as a high-quality journal that endows each of its sections with near-complete autonomy, each editor the master of his or her own domain; and its ability to adhere to an artistic credo and regional identity. The Brooklyn Rail thrives not in spite of these qualities, but because of them.

Until their policy changes and Fiction Editor Donald Breckenridge or Poetry Editor Anselm Berrigan open the floodgates to unsolicited submissions, the Rail will remain a reliable barometer of taste for experimental literature that continually tests our norms and boundaries. Since they publish free issues ten times a year, there will be plenty of experimentation to marvel at and absorb.