Elegant Writing, Intelligently Curated
Review of Salamander, Fall/Winter 2015 by Marjorie Hakala
Salamander is a twice-annual print magazine published by Suffolk University in Boston. Issue 41, published in fall/winter 2015, has a picture of a dahlia on the cover. A brief, polite note from the editor kicks things off by informing us that Andre Dubus III judged the magazine’s 2015 short story contest, and we get his comments on the winners and a brief enumeration of the other prose works in the issue as well as the names of some of the poets. That is all the introduction anybody gets before we are off to the races.
When a magazine gives you this little information at the outset, it can be difficult to get a feel for the publication. But fortunately this issue starts with the short story contest winner, “Floating Garden,” by Mary LaChappelle. It is remarkable. Both the narrator of this story, who is separated from his family by political conflict, and his home country are unnamed throughout. Of his eventual benefactor he says, “Her name was Laura Wolf and of course I had a name, too, but we avoided using them with each other, perhaps because this diminished the boundaries between us, which were so great from the beginning.” Over time this namelessness, the lack of words for things, becomes an important thematic part of the story. The narrator learns with his hands and his senses, disregarding official names as a form of deceit or even violence. This is a story that prefers land to nations, and it expresses that point of view through attentive, character-driven portrayals of dirt, mountains, plants, and lakes.
One good story isn’t enough to carry a magazine, but this one is followed by a series of poems, by various authors, excavating ideas about homelands and war. It’s not overwhelmingly thematic, but there are enough connections here to make the reading experience cohesive and, better, thought-provoking.
This connectivity continues through the magazine, with the prose works acting like a kind of anchor for the thematic concerns of the surrounding poems. For example, Erica X Eisen's “Second Eden” is a short story about a young woman in the nineteenth century joining a Shaker community, told in snapshots of her life spaced ten years apart so that we see her grow up and grow old while the community ages out of relevance. The story has an admirable quality of quiet, evoking a life lived in devotion and carefully suggesting, without outright asking, the question of whether this dedication has been worth the reward.
I enjoyed this piece so much that the poems following it took on a kind of proximal glow, and it didn’t hurt that they made references to angels, the departed, scriptural names, and the book of Deuteronomy. And the juxtaposition draws out characteristics of the poems that I might not otherwise have seen. David Wagoner’s poem “Air” describes the consequences of humans learning that Aristotle was wrong about air, that it has substance and weight, even tons of weight. But the Biblical imagery in the surrounding work meant that I found this line especially evocative: “And yet now, /no matter how hard we try/to spit it out or keep it out of our ears/or fan it out of doors, we’re in it by the ton.” In this context, “spit it out” felt like a reference to the apple in Eden, and by extension, all the things we know and must deal with the consequences of knowing. This might be a fortunate coincidence, but I suspect an editor’s hand. Later, John McAuliffe’s poem “On Earth” defines the word “petrichor,” and the very next piece in the magazine, Nicholas Mainieri’s beautifully understated short story “Mercy,” uses “petrichor” on its last page.
While the works named above have subtle thematic and aesthetic connections, other pieces in this issue have more overt critical sensibilities. The issue’s one nonfiction piece is a look at three poets from the Levant, with some reflections on Levantine identity. It’s more of a familiar essay, made up of some thoughts on reading interspersed with travelogue, than a work of criticism, although the author does sometimes employ specialist critical vocabulary. I couldn’t make up my mind about this piece; I never quite felt like I knew how I had come to be reading about this particular subject, but the author’s voice is engaging and expert without being condescending.
Gail Mazur’s poem “On Jane Cooper’s ‘The Green Notebook’” engages with other writers too, as the name suggests. It name-drops more than it really has time for: Lorca and Marvell are here, as well as Jane Cooper, and the narrator is also “listening to late music of Haydn” while thinking the thoughts in this poem. It’s a very prose-like poem; it seems to want to run all the way to the margins, and I’m not sure why it isn’t allowed to do so:
Is there wistfulness in her voice?
I don’t think so
although a wise friend says to me it’s really about death. I feel, rather,
an appetite for, an awareness, and appreciation of,
bodily and aesthetic pleasures…
Lest this sound like boundary-policing, I hasten to add that writers are of course allowed to do whatever they want. Let’s have whole parenthetical citations in a poem, if you want them, or novels in verse! But the choice of form is a kind of context, a way of setting the reader up for how they can expect to approach the piece. My poetry-reading mind found this poem crowded with references and somewhat confusing. My prose-reading mind, which in full disclosure is the part I employ the vast majority of the time, would have liked to spend some time with these thoughts if they were given room to breathe, if we took the time, for instance, to explain who the narrator is and why we are talking about Jane Cooper’s poetry in the first place.
That is not to say that an almost prosaic tone can’t work for a poem. It works very well for some of the poems in this issue, such as Wendy Mnookin’s two poems, “In the Small Rotary” and “The 58th Street Library.” These are anecdotal and closely focused, describing interactions between the narrator and the narrator’s mother in a way that suggests a relationship full of affection and, perhaps, a slightly competitive wit.
Of all the writers in this magazine, Mnookin is the one whose books I looked up first when I was done, but she is certainly not the only writer here who has multiple books out. The contributor bios at the back indicate that this is a well-published group of writers, slightly more women than men, many of them holding advanced degrees; the only bio without a list of publication credits is that of the photographer who took the picture on the front cover. Several of the contributors are actually translators, and the magazine’s website indicates an ongoing interest in translated works.
With all those high-achieving writers around, this issue ultimately does a lot more than I can address here. At more than two hundred pages it could easily pass for a trade paperback novel, and all of the work is at least competent while a lot of it is excellent. To top it all off, at the back of the issue there are some book reviews of poetry, fiction, and essays.
Overall, the most strikingly successful parts of this magazine are those where the pieces come together almost seamlessly: where the works seem to have been assembled in a careful and purposeful order, and the reader is allowed to tease out the connections between them. I don’t know the acceptance rate for Salamander. Its roster of writers are so accomplished, and the writing is generally so elegant, that it is probably not an easy venue for emerging writers to break into, and it does not seem like the right place to submit wildly experimental work. But for a polished piece of writing in search of a home, this could be a smart place to submit, if only because the work published here is so well and intelligently curated, showing everything off to its best advantage.