A Literary Magazine Ventures Into the Surreal
For those who want it all, The Cincinnati Review is a full-service literary journal of over 200 pages. It’s published twice a year and has the University of Cincinnati as its home. The Winter 2010 issue contains 51 poems, including translations, six works of fiction and four works of non-fiction, ranging from a 26-page memoir to a 2-page reflection savoring youthful memories. It also contains reviews of two books: a novel and a book of poetry. The cover of the journal and its center showcase the work of a single visual artist, in this issue that of Tobin Sprout.
What struck me most about the poetry in this journal was the great variety of forms. There were poems with long lines that covered three pages. There was one poem of only four lines. There were poems aligned left and poems whose lines danced in the white space. There was a prose poem and there were sonnets. An unusual number of poems were arranged in couplets, but I have no idea whether that’s an unconscious editorial preference, a fluke of this particular issue, or a current fad among poets.
The editors of the journal are not squeamish about sonic fireworks in poems. Take, for example, these lines from “Cloud of the In-Between,” by Gillian Cummings:
into the realm of curvy bodies like cumulous
blossoms, unbuttoned blooms. Let your hair
billow down, locks like snakes, into light
And check out the heavy assonance in the first three lines of Kirstin Hotelling Zona’s “Threshold”:
Between the clam-packed flats / and drifts // of last year’s land-trapped leaves.
I side with The Cincinnati Review’s editors in enjoying this strong language but it doesn’t appeal to everyone.
Both the poetry and the fiction in this journal indicate a high tolerance for the surreal, if not an outright preference for it. One of the surreally dense poems is Matt Hart’s “What Thou Lovest Well Remains.” From the middle of the poems:
Then later, I rode my bike in a circle of fire,
and when hands began to clap, I tried
to sing along. Every last drop
in the oiled-up darkness. The wings
of birds to shoot me home. I am kindest
at a distance. My tentacles stretch, always
Other poems flirt with the surreal without becoming immersed in it, or they have strong surreal elements buttressed by an equally strong grounding in a real situation or object.
Among the fiction, one of the six stories is outright bizarre (living up to its title “Before I Offer Myself to the Birdmen”). Another has 29 sections, some based in this world and others either entirely dream-like or a dream-like smearing of the story’s actuality. Yet another story involves a young girl frequenting a garden where a group of women meet for seances.
The novel reviewed in the back of the journal, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender, also employs elements of the “fantastic,” a sort of telepathy through the medium of food. In each issue of The Cincinnati Review, a book is selected to undergo assessment by more than one reviewer to give readers a varied perspective. Two of the reviewers of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake refer to it as “magic realism” and one was disappointed when she felt the later part of the book explained away the magic aspect with genetics.
The reviewed book of poetry was Prairie Style by C.S. Giscombe, a collection of prose poetry. The review focused on Giscombe’s overall relationship to “dissonance,” a non-traditional form of poetry and an unusual aspect to examine.
The Cincinnati Review is not going to win any “Most Edgy” award. However, for a publication supported by a university, it definitely leans away from the strictly prim and proper and toward work with some warp and skew. Perhaps this is what the editors are referring to when they evince a desire to be surprised in the guidelines on their website.