A Disparity in Experience
At one point while reading the Spring 2012 issue of The Southampton Review, I tore back to the Contributors section. I had to know: who the hell is Martha Cooley? Her short story, “My Suicides” – in which a severely depressed narrator in search of “accompaniment” recounts a series of suicides tangentially related to her life – had forced me to a dead stop. Before I could read another title, I had to learn the author’s self-divulged biography-ette. So I flipped to the contributors’ notes, alphabetically arranged for my convenience, and I began to thumb past the Bs and backtrack from the Ds. Cooley, as if my admiration of her story hadn’t already displaced me enough, couldn’t be found. I checked three times. I read the names of every contributor in case her name had been accidentally reshuffled. I checked again, just now, while writing this paragraph. Martha Cooley and her biography were – and are – not there. And so for a moment (before resorting to Google) I had the wonderful experience of reading blindly – and rereading blindly – a work of art. Which, for me, doesn’t happen very often.
It turns out Martha Cooley is what’s commonly referred to as an “established” author, my earlier ignorance of her novels and stories notwithstanding. And although her notable success didn’t tarnish my love for “My Suicides,” I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been hoping she was an Unknown. My reason is the overwhelming trend in the Spring 2012 issue of The Southampton Review: the good stuff (and there is plenty of it) is almost exclusively by the established writers. The emerging writers (almost all of whom are pursuing an MFA) seem to have been squeezed into the journal to fulfill some promise of alongsidedness. I was hoping Martha Cooley would buck the trend.
That’s not to say there aren’t impressive aspects of the newcomers’ essays, poems, one-act plays, and stories (Jennifer Greenstein’s novel excerpt, “Scrambled Eggs,” for example, is narrated by a wife and mother relapsing from her online poker addiction). But overwhelmingly the work of the emerging writers seems a bit undercooked, especially alongside the work of such distinguished authors in these pages as Billy Collins, Robert Wrigley, Carl Phillips, and Janet Kaplan (poetry); Rachel Pastan and Martha Cooley (fiction); and Bob Morris and J. Malcolm Garcia (nonfiction).
As an emerging writer myself, I hope it’s understood I’m not complaining about the inclusion of undiscovered voices (discovering those voices, as it turns out, is one of the reasons literary magazines exist in the first place). I’m only saying the work of the emerging writers in this issue seems largely unrevised. Take, for instance, a sentence from one of the MFA students at Stony Brook Southampton (the university at which the journal is published): “That night they made love, sweetly but sharply, the tenderness tinged by tensions.” The sentence is a bit meaningless, but the real offense is the combination of cliché and alliteration. Compare that with another sex scene in the issue, from the poem “Socialists” by Robert Wrigley: “Which was how it came to be we came to be / naked in the crawl space of a seedy complex / of subsidized housing some shyster city father / was paying us to plumb on the cheap. The freckles / on her chest ended where the sun never shined, / but I counted every one like a vote.” The disparity isn’t merely in the craft; there is a gulf between the two writers, new and established, of imagination. Unfortunately the disparity recurs throughout the 235 pages of the journal, and one can only sympathize with the notion that half of the pages ought not to have been included, or at least could have gone through a few more edits before making the final cut.
Pages to be grateful for, however, include an array of visual artwork. Especially exciting is the Oarsman series of drawings, “What Shores, What Seas,” by the artist Barry McCallion. The series follows, picture by picture, an Oarsman rowing through varying degrees of inclement seas, discovering islands, and passing other boatmen. The drawings are set beautifully on various colors of what appears to be construction paper, and the images are reproduced beautifully on the glossy pages of The Southampton Review. Here and there the Oarsman pops up throughout the issue, traveling along as the reader does, and the effect is a nice companion to the literature between his visits.
Another artist, Hector Leonardi, is spotlighted: his kaleidoscopic paintings (acrylic on canvas) are gorgeous experiments using color as the subject, and Walter Bernard’s watercolor landscapes are a welcome addition, as well.
But the protein of any literary journal is the writing, and The Southampton Review has chosen for this issue a relatively conventional collection. Although form is sometimes played with (see Cooley’s fragmented narrative, or Ashleigh Marie Smith’s chaptered poem, “Three Voices”), I wouldn’t call any of the stories, poems, or essays in this issue overtly experimental (which, for my taste, is a good thing). Also well done: There is no humor for humor’s sake in the writing (humor for humor’s sake can be found, however, in the silly comics by Michael Maslin and Jules Feiffer). Instead, the humor in the writing is there for the right reason: to augment the juxtaposed sadness of the piece, and vice-versa (as when, in Bob Morris’ fantastic personal essay about his father’s funeral, a man neither he nor his brother knows sings a song he wrote personally for their father). The Southampton Review obviously takes interest in a diverse range of subjects – J. Malcolm Garcia’s essay takes us to Kabul with a reporter; and Daniel De Simone, a rare book collector, examines an 18th century set of engraved plates “illustrating summertime amusements of society in rural and urban Tuscany.” But for the most part the writing is set in something resembling contemporary America, with its obsessions of family, self-examination, and love.
Priced at $15 an issue – or $20 for a two-issue subscription – you could do much worse than to pick up a copy of this Spring’s The Southampton Review. You’ll discover writers who, though they may not be emerging, may be new to you, and you’ll thank the editors for the introduction. But, if you’re like me, you wouldn’t mind losing about forty percent of the heft. As a character in Rachel Pastan’s short story, “Bequest,” states in a letter she’s written to convince a friend to quit painting: “Art won’t save you.”
Not all of it, anyway.