Loss, Tenderness, Conflict and Grace in Lit Mag's Annual Awards Issue
Death, at all times and in all places a subtext, finds its way into many of the works in Nimrod International Journal’s Fall/Winter 2016 Issue, their 38th Literary Awards Issue. Expressions of loss, tenderness, and conflict abound. Though the First and Second Prize winning poems and stories appear at the beginning of the magazine, finalists, semi-finalists, and honorable mentions are scattered haphazardly throughout the rest, along with some holdovers from last year’s successful contestants and just a few regular submissions. There is no nonfiction.
Of the eighty poems, upwards of a dozen were impressive in one way or another; several in multiple ways. Markham Johnson’s set of poems, “Greenwood Burning: Tulsa, Oklahoma 1921,” is a feat of verisimilitude in its evocation of the voices of witnesses to a now largely forgotten race riot, and a testimony to the event’s continuing ramifications.
“Fall,” by Corrinne Clegg Hales, contrasts “fluttering and drifting” leaves with the “cracking and crashing” of branches, likening the turbulence of the latter to her brother’s “chronic rage,” her father’s seizures when she was a child, and an accident involving a bicyclist. Hales finds herself both terrified and exhausted in her role as a reluctant observer of and sometime participant in others’ vulnerability: “How we hate for others to see us fall.”
In “Critical Care,” for me the issue’s most remarkable poem, William Orem, with astonishing magnanimity, recalls and mourns his difficult parents:
Here is a prayer for my father who struck me with his open hand:
at peaceful tables may he find
the staple of love’s good bread.
Here is a prayer for my mother who drank badly…
… who called me wicked child and rotten and shame,
who was my first model of love…
… may she receive in heaven’s bower
all her kind portion.
Despite both the obvious damage he’s endured and his impicit ambivalence, the depth of Orem’s connection is heartbreaking:
This is us, then,
my hated mother and me;
this is how our together ends…
… Don’t go yet…
Kate Kingston’s “I Miss God,” one of a number of works in this issue which touch on religious themes, begins almost whimsically:
I miss God with…
his triple personality…
… his attitude…
…his finger pointing at me from page one
of the catechism like a recruiting poster.
Increasingly, though, a sense of intimacy develops:
I miss his forgiveness when I lied…
… his all-knowing eye peering through
the back window of Jimmy’s Chevy.
Towards the end, Kingston’s playfulness gives way to the gravity and betokening of bereavement that the poem has been tending towards all along:
I miss God especially now in the middle
of the night when my mother is dying
and my sister has cancer.
Somewhat similarly, Rebecca Baggett’s “What’s Broken” proceeds from the less consequentially broken things, such as “the kitchen faucet, with its torturer’s steady tick…” to the captivating:
My attention, once so easily fixed,
darting now from this to that bright
… like fireflies signaling
their fitful passion, here, then there,
to the poignant heart of the poem:
my mother’s certainty of whether
she bathed this morning…
… what city she lives in, the names
of the gray-haired strangers who pretend
they are her daughters…
Other noteworthy poems include Rebecca Macijeski’s affecting “Virgil Calls the Stride” and Gloria Parker’s mystical, ontological “The Dream.”
Of several strong short stories, including Chad B. Anderson’s “Maidencane,” and Susan Finch’s “My Friends, My Sisters, My Doppelgangers,” the standouts were two whose protagonists are misfits of one sort or another. In Ruth Knafo Setton’s “Swamp Girl,” the immensely likable fourteen-year-old protagonist—later dubbed “Hiphop,”—in addition to struggling to cope with her birthmark, “a huge purple-red stain shaped like Italy drooping between my breasts,” has also been uprooted by her mother having left her philandering father, “the kind of man who’s always peering into a mirror, whether or not there’s one in front of him.” As she walks around the local county fair, we are privy to seemingly all of her thoughts - scornful, ironic, often self-involved, incisive. At the fair’s “Freak Show,” she confides to the “Rubberman,” “I’m a freak too. It’s just that no one knows it.” The connection the two make is moving, an instance of grace inside the sordid nastiness of the fair and her life. “There’s no one else like you,” the Rubberman tells her. Setton’s story suggests that there is at least the possibility of healing.
Edgier still is Daniel Hamilton’s “Dragonslayers,” a story that explores, with shocking particularity, the ins and outs, and back ins and back outs, of severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. In a disarmingly matter-of-fact style that alternates between third and second person—“People like you see the world as a system of marauding patterns”—Hamilton captures both the humor and the horror which Milton, the protagonist, experiences. With exquisite diagnostic acumen—“There are mental illnesses more devastating than obsessive-compulsive disorder… but few leave the mind so capable, so uniquely poised, even, to observe and comprehend its own disorder”—and numerous examples of both the unbearable and the unbearable being borne, “Dragonslayers” may leave the reader asking, along with one of Milton’s fellow sufferers, “Are you sure of anything about yourself?”
Almost all the writers have numerous publications to their credit; nearly as many are professors or otherwise associated with academia. Much of their work here seeks to articulate feelings of isolation, confusion, and grief. Not all are successful, but many are skilled attempts by the authors not only to make sense of the world, but also to help the reader do so as well. Tightly edited, if a little puzzlingly arranged, this issue of Nimrod consistently addresses the gaping enigma of death, and the often equally perplexing challenges and contrariness of life.