An Ecclectic Collection

Review of Colorado Review, Fall/Winter 2007 by Ellyn Ruthstrom


The Center for Literary Publishing is a hub for both new and mature writers provided by Colorado State University. Its flagship journal is the thrice-yearly Colorado Review.Not subscribing to a particular school of literature, the pages of the fall/winter issue have a remarkably eclectic flavor to them. Editor Stephanie G'Schwind packs a lot of work into this 200-page volume.

For the first time in its four years of running, the Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction has been awarded to a male author. Thomas Grattan's "I Am A Souvenir" is an imaginative, character-driven short story that handles family dysfunction and prepubescent homoerotic tension with insightful sensitivity. After the decayed roof of a neighbor's home slides off one night, Martin and Pierre use the exposed top floor as a secret space for sexually charged dress-up opportunities. Grattan artfully plumbs the different layers of betrayal that Martin experiences with family, friends, and his own sexual awakening.

As I was reading the short fiction, I was often struck by the sense of place being very important to the texture of the pieces. In "Not Here, Not Yet" I was easily transported to the seedy San Diego Ebb Tide Motel where everyday scenes include a weeping battered girl and a pair of boys setting streams of lighter fluid on fire in the parking lot. We get inside the head of Sean, a Sea World "grounds technician"--basically, he cuts the grass--and meet the demons that could (and do) easily provoke him to become another one of the weeping girl's abusers. But the demons won't be tamed, not yet anyway, as the title indicates, and we are left with only the hope for Sean's redemption.

Matthew Vollmer's "Man-o'-War" is easily my favorite short story in the review. Though revealed in the opening sentence that the narrator is leaving a phone message, the ramble of the one long paragraph lulls you away from that and into the painful recounting of the caller's trail of loss. You know something is off-kilter, but only in the end is the crushing emptiness of his life revealed to have opened up after his freshly-wed bride is stung and killed by a man-o'-war on their honeymoon. Refusing to open wedding gifts that keep arriving at their new home, torturing his parents by telling them he's bought a man-o'-war as a pet, his anguish fuels this message--and many others, he confesses--that he continues to leave on the voicemail of his dead wife.

I was impressed with most of the fiction and found the voice of each piece distinctive. The least successful for me was an overtly masculine story, "The Wrong Hands." Readers experience the sweaty locker rooms of beefy iron-pumping guys from the perspective of Elliott, a newbie to the gym scene. After a month of vomiting after each workout, Elliott finally earns enough gym cred to get pats on the back and spotting partners when he needs to do chest presses. But when the tale suddenly turns violent it doesn't make sense to me, veering off base rather than revealing a surprising twist.

The centerpiece of the issue is a 76-page section of poetry. The selection is so wide-ranging that I find it difficult to characterize an editorial tendency. Still, it's good to see that the editors seek a variety of styles and that they often allow the poets' words to breathe within the extra white space of the page to present their voices. The review is also open to excerpts of longer works (Jane Miller's piece from "Midnights" stood out for me) and translations, such as Tomaz Salamun's three Slovenian poems in this issue.

One of my favorite poems is Richard Tayson's "New Mother" , a musing on the fear of an impending disaster, whether it's a plummeting asteroid or a leering man on a city street. And, really, which one do you fear most to have a cataclysmic affect on your life? Chad Sweeney's "Of The" excited me with its spare and concentrated images. Never again will I hear the buzz of wings against a screen without recalling Sweeney's phrase "a tryst of flies at the window."

At first read I mistook the two nonfiction prose pieces as fiction. And even when I went back to "The Falls We Take" knowing its intent, I was still caught up by the blurring of time and space (which I find fiction usually does a better job of) and Sasha Pimentel Chacon's emotive storytelling. Her nonlinear tale keeps circling back on itself, allowing the examples of three very different falls to push her metaphor into many different shapes. The epiphany Chacon reaches from her experiences of rock climbing can resonate deeply for many. "But if I fall, if I yield to the temptation of just letting go, then for a moment I can live in the space outside of myself, which must be better than the terrors I carry inside."

The other nonfiction piece is worth mentioning as well."Tightrope" is a deeply personal retelling of Ryan Van Meter's youthful struggle to make peace with his sexuality and come out as a gay man. Knowing from a young age that he is different from other boys is one thing--he's used to being called "the only word I've ever heard that I can actually feel on my skin"--but being courageous enough to claim that disparaged identity takes Van Meter years to muster. The pivotal sequence of events that he describes in "Tightrope" is just part of the long journey. There is no punchline; we already know that this teen boy is gay, but the narrator has to catch up to the reader just as Van Meter realizes in the car with Justin that "Everyone knew I was on a date but me."