Lit Mag is Home for Best of What's Happening in Literature Today

Review of Kenyon Review, Spring 2016 by Rashi Rohatgi


That the March/April issue of The Kenyon Review is full of beautiful writing by important people should surprise no one: the magazine, prominent since the mid-20th century, has on its current advisory board Amitav Ghosh, Joyce Carol Oates, Ann Patchett, and other writers of the same caliber. In his Editor’s Notes, David H. Lynn makes much of the blossoming overlapped content between the current print and online issues, but, as ever, the real treat is in the small assemblages – particularly, here, Transylvanian poetry, an early Tennessee Williams play with commentary, and a new Amit Majumdar story – punctuated by less overtly curated selections. An unofficial theme, memory, seems to run quietly through each piece.

The opening short story, Ron Carlson’s "Don’t Let Your Bicycle Get Taken By a Thief," is a sad old writer man story with some beautiful lines: “I am a man who doesn’t need to see a fight,” the narrator explains, as he trapped in front of one due of his fear of leaving his bicycle out of his field of vision. He wasn’t so trapped once, though: “We were new friends,” he says of an erstwhile writing and bicycle thieving accomplice, “and admired each other’s work, and we weren’t young then but we felt young and lit by all of the extras in our scene.”

The story "Visitation" by Corinna Vallianatos is nostalgic, too, and these two evocations of the past whet the palate for Kevin Young’s powerful Homage to Phillis Wheatley. In this set of seven poems, Young traces the life of the “Latinate black girl,” falling in and out of first person, negotiating with the points of connection and the necessarily, haunting distance poets today have from Wheatley: “Freedom for me means rising up/early, to sweep and clean the chamber/pots of strangers,” begins Young’s "Emancipation." From his first poem, imagining the ship and the auction, Young falls in and out of direct address, tracing the decorum of her person and the lasting strength of her voice, closing with her early death.

David Baker, whose own poems are so often rooted in the American Midwest, introduces the collection of Transylvanian poetry, gathered at a recent new festival, by noting the heteroglossia of central Romanian society and hoping that readers “hear the echo of each language with its distinct idiom, manner, and rhetoric.” That is perhaps too heavy a burden for these poems, not otherwise alike, not otherwise in conversation, and it’s not necessary. They are interesting on their own, particularly Gökçenur C.’s "Rules of Making Love," which begins with an image about remembrance that is at once new and completely resonant: “When you were here/,” C. writes, “days used to pass over us/without touching,/like a herd of bees.”

Williams’ "The Taj Mahal with Ink-Wells" is a deliciously sour one-act, and John S. Bak’s commentary provides the background for Williams’ specific frustrations with the commercial considerations of the theatre. Written either in 1944 or 1945 – coming to us from an undated archive – it is still fresh, its central image perhaps even more trenchant today: its two (non-Asian) primary characters dressed up in orientalist fantasy Indian costumes for a séance which is interrupted by the arrival of a script at which they chip away. Cultural appropriation as shorthand for commercial banality: the play, and its commentary, remind us that no matter how glossy a polish we put on the post-War period, writers have always been able to show us the flip side. Majumdar, in his "Secret Lives of the Detainees," brings us back to the present day’s specific orientalism, his main characters each Guantanamo detainees, coming (separately) to terms with their own periods of detention. Each of them grapples with the absurdity ripped straight from the headlines, recalling not the perhaps more easily glorifiable pre-9/11 days, but a time when an arrested brown man at an airport thought he could afford to attempt to clear up a misunderstanding “with thespian flair.”

Katherine Karlin’s story of a friendship ruptured by emigration, "Not Everyone Reads the Bulletin," leads the way into Eleanor Stanford’s clever travel piece, "Grammar for an Unwritten Language," about Cape Verde. After Young’s Wheatley set, additional translated poems, this time from the Slovenian, follow, alongside longer poems by Sasha Steensen and Michael Ryan, whose "The Mercy Home," tells of the tender and terrifying recollection, after a parent’s death, of the day they were put into a nursing home. Lines like “your hand was any hand, a human tether” cut deep and warrant rereading. Jeffrey Meyers’ reviews of two books on first World War poets’ and writers’ introduces us to Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff, of an age with Sassoon and Graves, who turned to translating Proust after the end of the war.

The Kenyon Review does not attempt to wow, it seems, but rather to set out the best of what is happening in literature today – and thus it’s perhaps not ideal that, apart from Young’s poetry, the most exciting voice was that of Tennessee Williams. Leaving time and the pressures of legacy behind, though, this was a straightforward reading pleasure, and those thinking of submitting will, if accepted, find themselves in worthwhile company. The magazine has an autumn open submissions policy for previous unpublished work, free via Submittable, and pays its authors – equally, as of this issue, for work featured in print or online. Though there is no official restriction to those who have published books or book-length collections, the March/April contributors list indicates that prospective contributors might view this as a rule of thumb.