Innovation and Heartbreak
The photo on the cover warns of irredeemable heartbreak. A forsaken armchair junked precariously on a deserted suburban sidewalk, in the grey light of fall towards winter, evokes a life lived and ended without witness. Did grandpa die in a basement, alone? Should I wait for a better day to read the stories that lie ahead, undoubtedly despondent, like the winter?
Yet the volume has the comforting physicality of a short novel. It feels doable. I open it at random toward the end and let the pages fall slowly from under my thumb – poems, poems, prose… – until a blurb nestled in a large brace jumps at me and I stop: “I fall in love too quickly. I know that, and I try to be careful. But it seemed safe to fall in love with Mrs. Jimson.”
Ah, a classic plot, I tell myself –boy falls in love with married middle-aged woman and triggers unexpected drama for both – as I race to the beginning of Jonathan Penner’s “Belize”. But no. Mrs. Jimson is an old lady living in a nursing home where Miranda, our teenage protagonist and lover, works as a waitress. After being kicked out by her parents for dropping out of school, Miranda goes to live with her boyfriend on a mattress in a basement, and subsists on “crackers and bananas and warm soda.” The couple's plan to kidnap Mrs. Jimson’s dog for ransom and travel to Belize doesn’t go so well. The story, told in the first person by Miranda, is a wonderful collection of understated, close-up portraits; and the matter-of-fact tone is pitch-perfect for the devastation that lies beneath.
In Joan Leegant’s “Beautiful Souls”, two American girls get in trouble when they wander unattended into an Arab café in Jerusalem. The danger is palpable, as the men prey on them mercilessly and the girls lack the courage and the wisdom to walk away. While the writing here is strong, the ending felt less than satisfying. The preaching of the Israeli soldier struck me as self-righteous and incongruous with the rest of the story. Still, the perceptive sketches of the girls’ parents – caricatures of Massachusetts liberal, egalitarian, atheist folk who suddenly decide to explore their Jewish roots – are humorous and enjoyable.
The rich themes intersecting in Tracy Pearce’s “The Polish Bride” – sibling rivalry, immigrant isolation, authority figure exploiting a young girl – give birth to a mostly quiet, linear story. Ania, a fresh high school graduate, is infatuated with Mr. Hopkins, her creepy, but young chemistry teacher. They go through the motions of forming a relationship – he takes her out on dates under the pretext of tutoring her, he visits her parents and she his – until, toward the end, their marriage seems impending. Tired of being the plain sister, the neglected child, the bullied immigrant, Ania chooses to hang on to her fantasy life with Mr. Hopkins and ignore the off-putting details that emerge during their encounters. The story ends on an ambiguous note: should we understand that there was hardly any other choice for Ania and that she was destined to end up with an outcast like herself? Or are we being told that she could choose, like her sister, to work harder and go to college, but she’s just giving up too quickly? A modern question: just how much choice do we really have?
The fourth and last piece of fiction, Emily Sinclair’s “Then, We Knew Everything”, reveals the insecurities of suburban stay-at-home mothers. In it, a collective and impersonal “we” – the stay-at-home mothers who sacrificed their dreams, careers and bodies for their children – is pitched against Lydia Collins, a woman who manages to stay thin and stylish and who prefers to dream of Paris and New York, rather than of her own children.
As a reader, I had trouble finding an entry point into this story. Lydia is aloof and reckless to abandon her children; yet the other mothers seem to wallow in self-pity (“We have married men who are successful. We buy organic. (…) Two kids in, we are exhausted. The thyroid things and uninvolved husband things and the early childhood neurodevelopment things are a lot of work.”) Lydia goes on to divorce, remarry a rich man and dance the ballet, while her children grow “thin and strange”; the other women stay behind to build mansions (“our husbands have made partner”) and feel vindicated in their choice to sacrifice for their children. Overall, it is difficult to relate to these characters, given that they are all so well off. The implication that there is no life after children, unless one is irresponsible, also seems problematic.
Both pieces of non-fiction are memoirs of sadness. Michelle Hoover explores the tragedy of death witnessed at an early age (“I have heard that children absorb melancholy in the womb.”) Her lyrical mosaic of grief – one has the impression that the prose is not premeditated, but thrown on the page straight from the gut, like paint in an abstract expressionistic painting– gains a charged coherence at the end. The second essay explores the persistent and unanswerable question of any human beset by misfortune: why? Jeneva Stone tells the story of her son’s sudden descent into disability at thirteen months. Snow is the metaphor that holds it all together – memories of snowstorms, thoughts of avalanches, snowflakes on her wedding day.
The poetry section features twenty poets of incredibly diverse sensibilities. Stephen Ratcliffe’s fragments from “Temporality” are verbal paintings: if Monet painted the same picture several times, only in different light, Ratcliffe wrote the same poem (here, five times), watching the sun set and rise over a channel. The technique is innovative; the effect works like a time-release capsule: it takes time.
By contrast, Adam Giannelli’s imagery in “Orchids, Avenues” is immediate: “I never found that one place that waited, like a bell untolling.” There are several poems with references to the worst of our current troubles – the economic crisis (the future falls apart at a suburban ranch), the terrorism scares (meditations on suicide bombers).
And then there are some poems that are innovative and difficult. G. C. Waldrep’s crisscrossing of the scarred body of Ireland in “Quincunx” takes hard work. There aren’t enough parts to the brain to process this elliptic, kaleidoscopic macrocosm of time, space and torment (“wedded herbivore, prophetic: / out of orbit: or, parhelic, bright / inhuman ornament: earthdark: / tranche: investment: assize:”).
The dizzying journey through the world of verse continues with Keith Waldrop’s “Marginalia”, which traverses dream world (“And, ‘I am lost,’ says / the dreamer.”) and constructed world (“A notion of me, from what’s on my shelves.”) to hint at reality, if any such thing exists (“to guess the truth // to despise Rubens, to inter- / rupt succession, let temporalities / overlap // long road, lapse / of time.”).
Nearly all contributors to this issue are fairly established writers, with several volumes under their belt. I spotted only one first-timer. Many hold teaching positions. There is something for everyone in this issue, particularly in the poetry section. And yes, the photo on the cover is adequate: there is sadness and grief here, but there is comfort as well.
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