A Creature of (Many) Habit(ation)s

Review of Salamander, Summer 2008 by Holly Monacelli


A salamander is amphibious. Not only can salamanders live both on land and in water, many species are endangered. Which means the salamander is doubly unique. Salamander, then, is a fitting name for Suffolk University's journal, showcasing multi-faceted writers that offer distinct viewpoints, which may just take you out of your comfort zone into exciting new environs.

The journal was started in 1992 by Jennifer Barber, who wanted to target new authors. Barber recently told the Suffolk Scoop that it "isn't just for writers. It's for readers who understand, appreciate and enjoy good writing." I like to think I fall into both the former and the latter -- and I very much appreciated the pieces in Salamander.

Beth Balliro's abstract paintings in the center of the journal catch your eye because they're a splash of color on a higher quality page stock, but also because they are coolly beautiful, a microcosm of Salamander itself. Balliro describes her work as "the interplay between spontaneous and controlled, miniscule and vast, random and resolute."

C.D. Collins' "Sin Vergüenza," which translates to "Without Shame," demonstrates what Balliro's paintings display. The narrator, Amelia, works at a factory, where she loses herself in the rhythms of canning, saying, "The order of these workings gives me a secret pleasure." She also loses herself in cocaine with the same precision: "I'm swallowing, very slow in my movements, quite careful in my ritual." After a particularly large dose she wonders "if it is too much. I am out of control again." We find her drug-impaired ramblings at the intersection of mastery and mastered, ugly and beautiful.

We stumble into the same dual-natured area in Sue Williams' "Moth Catcher." Young Daniel likes looking at the moths when they are safely pinned under frames, yet when he accompanies Gunty to catch them, he discovers that in the net the "white wings don't look pretty but frantic and horrible and wild."

The crux of the story, however, is the balance between the elder Gunty's friendship with Daniel, and Gunty's past, which is shrouded in the suspicion of molesting children. As a reader, I can see both the truth in this suspicion and the unfairness of it. And that is why many pieces in Salamander stuck with me long after reading them -- they are human. Characters have depth, plot lines aren't neatly tied up, stories leave room for thinking.

Another example is the depressed Gerald, who swam through my mind many times after I encountered him at the pool attempting to do his daily 40 laps despite the obstacle of an overweight boy in his lane in Bill Bukovsan's "Old Women in Bathing Suits." Gerald is jealous of an elderly lady with a 37-year-old son even though she is also on her own, noting that her husband "once had been in the picture and she'd had at least one sweet moment in the darkness, at least once she'd turned beneath the sheets and felt a hand on her bare skin and gone to sleep happy." At the end of the story, despite being cold and wet and shaken up, Gerald remains unrealistically determined, telling himself that "he's fine, he's really fine, he's just got to wait, that's all, the fat boy can't keep swimming forever."

The poetry in Salamander is also full of grit. Anna Evans' "Worker" describes the life of a hard-working ant: "It works until/one day you see this is no way of living/the lives you read about--this is surviving." R.S. Armstrong's poem "From the Front" matter-of-factly describes a "bleeding woman" to whom the narrator "cannot administer substances," leaving him only to question "Is she dying?/She will not die." Jules Nyquist tells of a dad planting "marigolds around our last name," at a baby's grave in "First Born Brother." And Josiah Bancroft's "Setting the Features" puts us in a morgue, where we can practically smell the embalming fumes of "metal and bait and bad breath: a thing alluring that had rotted."

Despite not being an aficionado, I was moved by many of the poems because they are meaty like a short fiction story. And, while there were far too many compared to the fiction for my taste, editor Barber also told the Suffolk Scoop that she does want to add more fiction in the future to balance it out.

I look forward to seeing how Salamander continues to evolve—and how it can continue to thrive in those spaces that are both intimate and removed, tragic and joyous, and above all, real.