Journal’s contest issue presents surprising array of narrative poetry. Cover artwork for Naugatuck River Review issue 23.

Journal’s contest issue presents delightful array of narrative poetry.

Review of Naugatuck River Review, Issue 23, by Jeffrey G. Dodd.

Many fine literary magazines benefit from regular turnover in editorial staff, and sometimes editorial vision. Such is often the case with journals housed in university writing programs, where ever-new cohorts of students bring renewed energy and aesthetic interests. This often allows for new voices to make their way onto a journal’s pages. If there’s a downside to that model, other than the amount of onboarding work and potential lost institutional memory associated with regularly revolving leadership, it is that a journal’s identity can sometimes become confused.

This is not the case with Naugatuck River Review, a journal of narrative poetry edited by Lori Desrosiers. Sometimes it’s nice to know exactly what you’re going to get, and with Naugatuck River Review you are going to get a journal that serves “all who love poetry and narrative.” It’s also nice to see an editorial team that knows what they are looking for, and presents it well. Despite being a fairly thin volume, at just 48 pages including front and back matter, Naugatuck River Review is flush with engaging, lyrically diverse stories that temporarily draw readers into richly textured worlds.

Naugatuck River Review is published twice yearly, with an open Summer issue and a Winter/Spring contest issue. Issue 23, Winter/Spring 2020, presents the journal’s 11th contest winners and finalists, alongside a handful of semifinalists. Somewhat uniquely, the issue also offers a poem by the contest judge, Lauren K. Alleyne. Because this issue presents contest entries and winners, all blind-read in compliance with CLMP guidelines, it both highlights the best of the journal’s submissions and offers a good introduction to the editorial team’s aesthetic sensibilities.

Highlights are many in this small issue, but it would be unfair not to start by acknowledging the contest winner, Jane C. Miller’s “DNA Test to Identify Victim of 1944 Hartford Circus Fire” offers the plaintive voice of one of the infamous fire’s nearly 170 fatalities: “Lift from the bones I left / the day’s identity.” In this opening, we know the poem is about the victim and the setting, the roust-about tearing tickets as central as the speaker’s breath held far below the Great Wallendas’ high-wire. This is a poem of sensory delight and emotional lament, leading to a resigned moment of resolve: “Search me / for the traces I leave, / my body sky-blue as wick to flame, a slurry / like cotton candy, bubbling up & rendered.” To complement the poem, Naugatuck River Review’s website also presents an interview with Miller focusing on the poem and her work more generally.

Other poems in this issue show the “big-tent” approach Desrosiers and her team use when considering “narrative poetry.” The stylistic and thematic range presented is impressive. This issue includes an engaging and diverse mix of free verse narratives, conventional stanzaic and stichic stories, three highly evocative ekphrastic imaginings, and one intricately constructed subatomic prose poem by John Blair. Thematically, a reader also gets a range. Ken Holland’s “Summer of the Gods” invokes classic drive-in movies, Susan Gubernat’s “I Sing Of” recalls an impassioned nun sharing her passion for Virgil’s Dido, “Dirty” by Alison Carb Sussman won’t allow us to look away from the traumas of incest and pedophilia, and Liz Ahl’s “Ambush” examines the relationships between music and family memory. Beyond these, Karen Poppy remembers the Marina Safeway while contemplating what San Francisco was and is and Christopher Shipman contemplates motion and time after a cross-country move.

The issue’s structure is not very creative, starting with the contest’s top three winners, proceeding to sixteen finalists, and finishing with eight semi-finalists. This might lead some readers to be less attentive as they move beyond the “top-tier.” A bit more attention to weaving the entries according to a more nuanced structural logic might offer a more engaging reading experience. Despite that, the poems in Issue 23 of Naugatuck River Review are consistently strong.

If the narratives in issue 23 sometimes tend toward the domestic, Naugatuck River Review reminds readers that the domestic isn’t always safe, and—even when it is—surprise can be right around the corner. If you don’t believe me, find a copy and turn the page on Judy Kaber’s “Chainsaw” to find Bert C. Klotz’s “Catherine’s Sex Toy.”

This issue demonstrates that we can trust the journal’s website when it says, “[w]e are looking above all for poems that are well-crafted, have an excellent lyric quality and contain a strong emotional core. Any style of poem is considered, including prose poems.” They consider submissions twice each year. The contest period, July 1-September 1, requires a reading fee, while the open submission window, January 1-March, is free. So, narrative poets and lovers of poems that share a good story, seek out this fine, self-assured journal.