Prestigious University Lit Mag Makes For a Serious Read
I would like to be able to report that Issue 46 of the Harvard Review lives up to the elite status of the august institution that publishes it. There are a number of noteworthy contributors: Aliki Barnstone, Jill Bialosky, Amy Hempel, David Lehman, Ann Pancake, and Debra Spark, to name just a few. Virtually all the work is serious, often thought-provoking, never frivolous. Yet taken as a whole, the work here is more serviceable than stunning. One finishes a piece and has a "Yes, that was pretty good" reaction, finishes another and has that reaction again. When one considers the truly inspired material in the hundreds of literary magazines out there, it cannot be said that this issue reaches the heights. Formal, if not quite humorless—Lehman’s piece, “Capitalism,” here categorized as a poem though the term “flash-essay” might be more apt, is perhaps the issue’s exemplar of wit—the magazine is a quiet, sober read, whose pitch only occasionally rises to something more.
There are twenty poems, six essays, and two works of fiction, yet in terms of page count, there is roughly four times as much prose as poetry, giving the magazine an unbalanced, top-heavy feel. The two fiction pieces, by Spark and Pancake, are twenty-nine and sixty-four pages long, respectively. Both are at times rewarding, though at all times, lengthy. (Pancake, it is worth mentioning, wrote one of the finest short stories I’ve read in at least the past five years, “Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley,” which won the Water-Stone Review’s Brenda Ueland Fiction Prize and appeared in Volume 13 of that journal in 2010.)
There are a couple of recurring themes: fish and other aquatic life, in at least three of the written pieces (and in some artwork, as well); and psychoanalysis, central in two of the essays.
As for the work that does stand out, Hannah Hindley’s essay “Remembering That Life” begins slowly, with the story of the death of a pet fish. As she bluntly puts it: “I guess we’ve all seen dead fish.” But then, slowly, in a manner not unlike that of a tide, her purview widens to encompass visits to Harvard’s Ichthyology Collection, before expanding further to relate the story of a much greater loss. Throughout, her language, whether in descriptions of tiny fish “busily searching the underbelly of the surface for something I couldn’t provide…” or of an anglerfish’s lure: “I could almost see the flashes of bioluminescence scattering as it prowled through the lightless abyss… as careless, hungry little things wandered too close to that tempting filament and lost themselves in the fish’s cage of teeth…” points to something both more personal and more oceanic: “beneath our own thoughts, distant stars spun slowly in the wide currents of the night.” At its best, Hindley’s essay reaches a level which essays too infrequently attempt, let alone achieve: it becomes a meditation.
The two essays which concern psychoanalysis take divergent approaches. In “Two Entrances,” Karen E. Bender details an over-twenty-year history in therapy with the same woman, and her own evolution from O.C.D.- and then panic attack-sufferer to someone with a more mature, “ordinary” complement of anxieties and issues. Her therapist tries to persuade her that “the panic attacks, though unfortunate, were actually a step up. "'Before, you didn’t allow yourself to feel the anxiety,’ she said. ‘Now you do.’” As this ability to feel and express herself develops, her feelings for her therapist progess from curiosity to empathy to love and finally, to a fully felt grief at the loss of the relationship: “we could go anywhere. I imagine walking with her down those stairs, into the sunlight… I imagine having a chance to say good-bye.”
In “Analysand,” Eli Mandel meticulously details aspects of a much shorter term—several months—of therapy. Mandel, too, features panic attacks and O.C.D. as part of his array of complaints, and is both self-aware and self-deprecating in his descriptions. Of a previous therapist, he writes, “His rigidly cognitive-behavioral methods helped with my panic attacks, didn’t hurt with my OCD, and if anything caused further damage in the rest of my life.”
Those of you (well, those of us) with even a smattering of similar symptomatology will appreciate Mandel’s exactitude: “For the first time in my life I kept a record of what I’ve been doing and feeling… As anxious as I am, there’s something exhilarating about it: it’s as if I’m a literary text and I’m being taken apart word by word, all while I’m taking apart the taking apart.”
Both of these essays capture the power and depth of the therapeutic relationship.
The first words of Peter Morrison’s remarkable poem, “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” are “Not always.” This is a poem not about finding, but losing the encumbrance of, the self. With tongue in cheek, Morrison gives us a set of very specific, complicated directions to a spot in Arizona, where
your self will unclasp itself from itself
To embrace itself with such ardent affection
That you will find no void between what you perceive
And what you feel…
But it is when Morrison tells us of another spot, on a balcony in Rome, that we fully grasp that what he’s talking about could, in effect, occur anywhere, and in fact, “you stumbled through the open gates of Eden,/
Not through your merit but by dumb luck alone…”
Morrison posits that such lucky moments are “the way heaven must be,” and gives many suggestive examples of how this heaven is not what we think.
In contrast to such perceptions and intimations of oneness and universality, Robert Thomas, in “Marine Biology,” conveys a sense of profound alienation. Describing his halcyon childhood aspiration to be a marine biologist, Thomas ominously writes, “I had no idea." “I’m trying to explain what happened when everything began/to go wrong,” he says, before relating vivid instances of a crumbling world: “The redwoods had always been an asylum./ Now their grace only reminded me of my awkwardness.” And:
I didn’t need to work myself into a rubber suit and ride…
into the pink anemones and brittlestars of a coral reef
to feel out of place.
Thomas writes of a crippling sense of pain and shame before the world’s nakedness; of a world that is not for him.
Most of the contributors have published books; some have MFAs or teach in MFA programs; many have had work published in literary magazines, including some of the most prestigious. It’s all good; but given who’s in it and what it represents, I'd hoped it would be better.