Jean Valentine, New York State Poet for 2008-10, is the guest editor for the Ploughshares Winter 2008-09 issue. In the introduction, she says that she "asked for submissions from poets with one book or less"--novices take heart! In a profile on Valentine in the back of the journal, we learn that she finds inspiration in dreams. Not surprisingly, dreams figure in a number of the pieces in this issue.
The 180 pages devoted to contributions are pretty evenly divided between poetry and the half dozen short stories. Most of the poems are one page only. "I Would Live a Day with You" by Steven Ackerman makes an enticing introduction--a coincidence since the poems are arranged alphabetically by poet. Also delightful is "To The One Who Owed Me Money," a mock tirade against a debtor by featured poet, Keith Althus. Much of the poems in this issue deal with the writing process and Althus's is no exception. It concludes that getting a poem out is worth any price.
In addition to dealing with dreams and writing, many of the poems are musical. You could read Kaisa Miller's "Fly You Do" solely for the pleasure of the sounds. Valentine also seems particularly interested in women writers and their issues. In Megan Staffel's "Salt," 58-year-old Claudia has not met success cultivating her business or her life. During a visit from her daughter and her daughter's friend she finds hope in the harmonizing of female voices with piano and accordion. We reviewers were rooting for Claudia and pleased by the somewhat happy ending. In "The Next Thing: A Story with Chorus," by Valerie Vogin, Regina has decided to bow to the gods of arbitrariness, kneel to whim capitulate to kismet. Italicized paragraphs offer comment on her fate like a Greek chorus. The ambiguous ending is appropriate considering the path Regina is on, but might leave many readers longing for a sharper conclusion. In "Who Occupies This House" by Kathleen Hill, the young narrator and her siblings try to tease information from their mother about her mother, who died in the very house they now occupy. Headings in the story are taken from the opening lines of poems by Emily Dickenson. Though the conception is interesting, the story could have included more action and forward momentum to avoid a sense of stasis.
We were surprised by each fresh image when we read Sysko's earth-moving, fiery birth poem, "Volcano." On the other end of the tonal spectrum, Denise Dehamels's "Los Sofocos," is a good-natured, playful, unpretentious jaunt, an ironic play on the notion that women are always seeking protection. Along the theme of women's issues, Dzvinia Orlowsky 's "Size Zero" celebrates pregnancy--"her own body expand(ing) /like a choir, suddenly swelling /into a hallelujah." "A Few Questions" by Gale Hanlon speaks of ambivalent love. The speaker has left her husband after 14 years but still remembers fondly, beautiful gesture of throwing another man's fish back into the sea. Tarrfia Faizullah's "Interview with a Biragona" is a narrative poem from the point of view of a woman raped during Bagladesh's War of Independence. Amazing that such horror is recounted with such beautiful words!
Death is also a common theme in many of the poems. Hadara Bar-Nadav's Ache Becomes Embankment is provocative. The speaker's feelings on the death of her mother are of complete emptiness, the exact size of a room, in many ways evoking the something-ness John Cage's silence.
In the shortest of the stories, "y=mx+b" by Andrew Altshul, the narrator, whom we take to be an author, begins the day and the story playing with B words--badly, bleary and bloated. . .Vomit on the blanket. . . the dog Barkley. The story slides around for four pages until, in the end, the narrator/author concludes, it has gotten away from him. The conceit is enjoyable while it lasts--any longer might try a reader's patience.
In Fan Wu's "The Taste of Life" a security guard, happy in his humdrum life, comes to the aid of an inebriated high official, then joins him in a brief confessional drinking bout, thereby putting his precarious livelihood at risk. We felt this story is a good read and has a strong sense of place, the place being a town in communist China where peoples' fortunes are at the mercy of bureaucrats.