Personal Essays, Fiction, Poetry, and Singing The Body Electric
To begin: in Waxwing X, I discovered a band, Hurray for the Riff Raff, by way of Music Editor Nick Fox’s profile of the group’s remarkable singer-songwriter, Alynda Lee Segarra. Now, or sometime soon, visit the magazine’s website and listen to “The Body Electric,” which Fox calls “a virtuoso rebuke of murder ballads.” The description is perfect, and perfectly representative of Waxwing’s strong nonfiction offerings.
Prose Editor Erin Stalcup has picked four essays for Waxwing X, personal approaches to such topics as slavery in the United States, fibromyalgia, an island near Korea where women do the dangerous work of diving for seafood, and fraternal betrayal. The latter takes the form of a letter of apology--specifically, Michael Copperman’s “Letter to my Brother, the Day He Shaved His Head”--and the one about the diving women--Mark L. Keats’s succinctly and aptly titled “The Diving Women”--is threaded with the writer’s reflections on being Korean American, adopted at an early age, and unable to speak Korean.
Whereas Keats, and particularly Copperman, have established publishing records in magazines such as Oxford American, Salon, Iowa Review, and SmokeLong Quarterly, Jen Soriano is currently pursuing her MFA, making “A Brief History of Her Pain” one of her first publications. In it, she roves back and forth in time, tracing the earliest attempts to diagnose the mysterious pain that would eventually be known as fibromyalgia but was for the longest time called hysteria. She also moves between the third person, in what seem to be recreated medical records of her visits to doctors and therapists, and her first-person impressions. Her sources range from the Egyptian Kahun Papyrus, possibly the world’s earliest medical text, with authorship dated to 1800 BCE, the Roman physician Galen and the Greek Hippocrates--credited by Soriano with beginning “a millennium-long heyday of treating hysteria through sexual healing”--on through St. Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic Church, who brought that heyday to an end with a misdiagnosis of hysterical women as pawns of the Devil and a recommendation of exorcism as the cure. Onward Soriano goes, documenting superstitious Europe’s cruel misdiagnosis of this pain (not to mention its erroneous conflation with a variety of other disorders) through the 1486 CE publication of Malleus Maleficarum, the treatise which powered all the witch trials to come, with their flogging, strangling, beheading, and burning of women, and on to Freud’s own misdiagnosis of Anna O. as an hysteric instead of the epileptic she almost certainly was. A fascinating blend of history and memoir.
In “Four Presidential Essays,” Colin Rafferty offers a condensed reading of African-American history through the lens our sixth, eighth, eleventh, and forty-fourth presidents: John Adams, Martin Van Buren, James Polk, and Barack Obama. Rafferty shuffles his chronology, beginning with Van Buren and not Adams because James Madison, last of the Founding Fathers, died during Van Buren’s term in office, allowing the essay to open with this poignant observation: “Here’s where we lose the script, wander off alone in the American wilderness.” Van Buren’s and Polk’s preservation and expansion of slavery are documented in “The Fear (#8)” and “State of the Union (#11),” while Adams’s opposition to slavery, and defense of the Amistad rebels, informs “Self-Portrait with Slave Ship (#6),” and it’s here that Rafferty enters his essay via the singular personal pronoun, an “I” that will return in the final section, “What They Said About Him (#44),” with a question many of us will no doubt ask ourselves in the coming years, though in a radically different context: “Have I ever seen a president like him before?”
Elsewhere in the issue, Waxwing’s fiction displays considerable range of subject, from N. D. Rambeau’s fantastical story,“The Dust Cloud,” which reads like a collision between Baum’s Wizard of Oz and Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, to the closely observed realism of Nat Atkin’s “At Home With the Spirit,” and finally to the non-linear myth-making of Courtney Craggett’s “Astropmorphosis,” in which the Pleiades are given new histories. There are additionally reviews of a novel and a poetry collection, an interview by NEA Literature Fellowship-winner Sarah Blake with award-winning poet Collier Nogues, and a strong, varied array of poetry and poetry-in-translation.
The approach to rhythm and meter of the poetry here is predominantly of the free verse and prose poem variety, with form exclusively either continuous or stanzaic. Music is accomplished by means of slant rhyme, with end rhyme or even internal rhyme almost unknown. Jess Smith, in “Ode to Stairmaster,” reveals her talent for image and invention from the very first line--“Dear ladder to nowhere, dear Escher sketch”--which combines a sharp observation about the static futility of exercise equipment with a playful reference to both a beloved toy and a famous optical illusion.
James Hoch, in both “Cutting Grapes After Orlando” and “The News Ending with a Riff,” makes use of metaphor and imaginative play in showing the speaker’s attempt to protect his or her young son from full knowledge of the world, for a while at least. “You must make the world small enough / it can pass through the smallness of his body / without lodging in the throat,” the speaker says in “Grapes,” knowing that “the world resists staying small / Someday you will fail,” while in “News,” the speaker watches a child--possibly the same one from “Grapes”-- build an island fortress, musing that
you play along, as if he doesn’t know
the world is full of terrible things, that you are
not wasting time digging moats, stocking
a forest thick with spells.
In the translated poetry section, each translator provides a note on her work, such as when Kanya Kanchana explains the various options open to her in translating a yoga sutra from the Sanskrit or Mira Rosenthal the use of the passive voice and double negatives in Polish or Raquel Salas-Rivera her creation of an acronym in Spanish to equal IOU in English. And Mary Feeney’s note on translating Jean Follain’s prose poems about war-ravaged Normandy traces a connection back to one of Follain’s earliest translators, W. S. Merwin.
Waxwing, first published in 2013, has roots in the writing program at Warren Wilson College--four graduates are on the editorial staff, including co-founder Stalcup--and produces three issues per year, in October, February, and June. As of 2017, it reads translations year-round and poetry, fiction, and nonfiction August 1 to May 1. Though many of its contributors have MFA and/or PhD degrees, teach, and have impressive publication records, there does seem to be room for new writers, to judge by the contributor bios in this issue. Waxwing, like its namesake bird, would make a striking addition to any writer’s life list.