Playful, Experimental, Absurd: Where Whimsy and Quality Converge
This summer’s edition of The Cincinnati Review, edited by poet/critic Don Bogen and prose writer Michael Griffith, spans roughly 200 pages in length and showcases nearly four dozen writers of poetry, fiction, memoir, and literary criticism. To top it off, Paul Denis’ spread of collages and water colors further accentuates the journal’s whimsical bent. And while remaining open to a variety of different stylistic or structural approaches, the journal nonetheless reads as a unified manuscript, organized by a particular editorial vision.
Most of the fiction pieces, ranging between 10 to 12 pages each, are peppered with distinguishing quirks in either style or dramatic action. David Yost’s opening piece, “The Carrousel Thief,” humorously recounts the story of a young man who steals (of all things) the prized horse from off of a carnival carrousel for ransom. By contrast, Elizabeth Cohen’s award-winning story, “Mollusks and Optics,” while more serious in tone, is written entirely in the 2nd person.
There is rarely a single page turned in “The Cincinnati Review” that does not tend toward the playful, experimental, or the absurd in one way or another. And this holds true not only for the fiction and poetry but also for the review’s several personal essays. For instance, Vladimir Vulović’s nonfiction piece “Why Chess?” is written in numbered bullet points, though remains solidified within its narrative—another mark of the prose pieces for this summer’s edition. Each story, however the authors may have chosen to write them at the level of style or drama, holds fast to the strength of its narration. Indeed, the voices of the narrators seems to be what lingers most after these stories have been read and the journal returned to the shelf.
The poetry coheres with the review’s editorial vision in similar respects. There seems to be no limit to the kind of poem that is featured in the summer edition. Richard Lyons’ “I Will Begin” is three pages of single-spaced lines and virtually no line breaks. By contrast, Joshua Weiner’s “Outrageous Fortune” is composed of five quatrains with a kind of “abab/cdcd” rhyme scheme. A generous amount of the poetry is in fact distinctively not free-verse, as opposed to many of the poems we see being published in journals today. If not structured by a strict rhythmic scheme, many poems are granted metrical structure through repetition of lines or of words. The repetition of the word even throughout Andrea Cohen’s “The Composer Must Have a Piano” or the word mind in Charlie Clark’s “Conviction” pushes these poems toward a more structured musical arrangement, however these are only a few examples of the ways in which many of the poems could not simply be called free-verse poems. One thing is for certain, The Cincinnati Review is not close-minded in the selection process when it comes to poetic form.
Additionally, the poems adhere to a somewhat homogeneous tonal quality. The pieces are largely conversational and anecdotal, told frequently by a Browning-esque, dramatic “I”. Densely packed with vivid language, the editors seem to have shied away from the cooler, sparser linguistic approach to poetry as one might read in Louise Glück or Susan Howe. Instead, the poems are often otherworldly in their imagery and eccentric in language, reminding readers of John Ashbery or some of Anne Sexton’s later volumes. Susan Grimm’s poem “Old Madonnas” strikes at the heart of this stylistic sentiment with full force, describing “the trash of the world thrash-sailing / over their heads like crazy ceiling fans” and other wonderfully idiosyncratic phrases and stanzas.
Writers Jessica Vozel, Michael Nye, and Jessica Anthony each have published a quick, 2-3 page review of The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht, which is the ultimate solidification of this edition’s interest in all-things-Balkan. It is true, other than Geoffry Brock’s lovely translations of poems by the 20th century Italian poet, Patricia Cavalli, this edition is somewhat lacking in cultural variety. The Obreht review, along with Vulović’s memoir about chess, however, do lay claim to the journal’s attempt at “multiculturalism” through a focus on Eastern Europe.
Additionally, Sinéad Morrissey’s essay about Irish poets serves a similar purpose. One will perhaps be hard-pressed, however, to find much in this journal that comes from outside of Europe or North America. Additionally, this summer’s volume steers clear of political writing. Other than Cohen’s “Let Me Die in Madrid,” barely a word was spoken that had the charge of political writing.
What is sacrificed in these places, however, is made up for with a conscientious editorial approach to writing—one that is extremely open to the avant-garde. Readers will be able easily to sense the pleasure and enjoyment that editors of The Cincinnati Review take in their job of compiling this exploratory journal. It is truly a fun read which reminds us of what limits can and should be breached in contemporary writing. As for me, I’ve had a wonderful time this summer reading and discovering such an interesting group of writers.