Gravity and Rhythm Found in City & Country Theme
Ecotone, out of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, carries its conceptual conceit in its name and on its inner cover, a placement emblematic of the seriousness with which the journal takes its stated focus. The inner cover contains a definition of the term ecotone which goes thusly: “a transition zone between two communities, containing the characteristic species of each; a place of danger or opportunity; a testing ground.” The editors also provide a definition from the Greek: “oik-os, house, dwelling + tone tonos, tension.” A journal with a heavy theoretical emphasis can sometimes seem weighed down, burdened by the weight of the conceptual framework. Despite my misgivings, I was delighted to discover that Ecotone’s theCountry & City (Fall/Winter 2016) issue manages to use its thematic emphasis as a frame to lend additional meaning to its contents, not unlike a well curated gallery.
My initial impulse to compare Ecotone to a gallery turns out to be more apt that I first realized. The subtitle of the issue, the Country & City, echoes the name of the well-known 1973 book The Country and the City by Raymond Williams, the English cultural critic. In that book, Williams uses the cultural associations burdening the country and the city to question and undermine those very associations. He questions the alignment of the country with the pastoral, with the old-fashioned, and the city with the urbane and up-to-date. In doing so, the book turns out to be a sort of contemplation of the complicated tangle that is Englishness. The framing of the rural vs. the urban ends up doing more to showcase similarity than difference. Not unlike the British Museum and its famous themed gallery exhibits, such as Living and Dying. Similarly, this issue of Ecotone ends up feeling like an intertextual and multimodal contemplation of what it means to live in the vast disparate spaces that make up America. The authors and visual artists in the issue feel like they are in dialogue together, a hallmark of a well-designed and edited literary journal.
For instance, the poem “A Spectacular Reformation of their Old Ways” by Miriam Bird Greenberg juxtaposes the simultaneous deprivation and decadence of living in rural Idaho, how the tolerance of eccentricity can create a culture of both benevolence and neglect. A homeless old man with rubies in his teeth who can talk to aliens also sleeps in library doorways where he, “dreamt / of sparkling cities.”
In Ecotone, a poem about rural Idaho can be followed by a graphic essay called “Kayla Sees the Low-Country” by Kayla E. It is an essay combined with a comic drawing of the writer crossing over photographs of South Carolina. The writer is a Texan living in South Carolina, who has begun a project called Kayla Sees America, where she will endeavor to write herself into the images she takes, looking always at the world through the eyes of a newcomer, an exile who will try to understand the violence and poverty of the South, and of America proper, and in so doing, “discover something beautiful in between.” Gallery-like, the images and the text enhance each other, whispering across the pages to the poem that came before, asking what beautiful thing can be found in between the pages of a library book, or in the dreams of a homeless veteran?
Gritty images of the South and wandering examinations of the American West do not preclude the fiction in the issue from being able to diverge from the inspection of contemporary Americana, and turn instead to the past. In his story “A Willow and the Moon,” Paul Yoon does just that. It is a story of a young man in New York state who, after fighting in WWII, tries to reconcile his experiences in Europe with his experiences being the child of a European mother and an American father, living at the base of a hill topped by a sanatorium. Despite (or perhaps because of) the melancholy contents of the piece, the prose feels dreamy, nearly languid. The first sentence seems like an incantation, echoing the primal story telling language of the phrase, once upon a time. Yoon’s story begins thusly: "It was once a sanatorium high up in the mountains.”
Through writing about exiles, Yoon juxtaposes Americans in Europe, and Europeans in American, a la Henry James. In doing so, it is America itself that comes into focus.Just like the themed gallery in the British Museum that showcases artifacts of early European exploration, objects from nature and from cultures all around the world, that ultimately ends up bringing nothing so much to mind as colonialism. In “A Willow and the Moon” Yoon showcases a European woman who can barely speak to her American husband across language barriers, yet who chooses to stay with him, to make a life and have a child. She appears in the memories of that child, all grown up, fighting in WWII, pulling bodies from wreckage, searching for bleeding voices that need no translation.
Much the way a well curated gallery can speak to anyone who loves to look at beautiful objects, not just art and museum connoisseurs, so too can this issue of Ecotone, through its carefully ordered pieces, be enjoyed by almost anyone who appreciates the art of language. The stories, poems, and essays have tonal and stylistic variety, given coherence and unity by the journal’s theme. None of the pieces could be called experimental, but neither does Ecotone feel like a stuffy artifact of the past, filled with refugees of the early 20th century. It feels contemporary, yet not edgily so.
While most lovers of words and writers could access Ecotone’s contents and enjoy reading it, the publication doesn’t seem to quite live up to the desire stated on its website to, “champion innovative and under-represented work.” Almost all the contributors have published one or more books, and most appear to be employed full time in academia or publishing. So, while the work is innovative enough (definitively not stodgy), and a few of the writers are people of color, most of those who appear in the pages of Ecotone are established writers. This does not appear to be a market for new writers, writers who write experimental prose, or stories that aren’t in the genre of realism. The work is uniformly excellent, so if one manages to be published in the pages of Ecotone, one would be in fine company.
Despite my caveats, I enjoyed reading Ecotone, and its level of cohesion was impressive. Ecotone’s combination of poetry, prose, and visual art drew me through the issue, pulled me forward. It had gravity and rhythm. I felt compelled to stop and stare at each piece on the metaphorical gallery wall, to study it and to think. Ultimately, Ecotone succeeds in its mission, fulfills its conceit, creating a space to dwell in the tension of American identity.