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The Autumn 2010 volume of The Southern Review celebrates the seventy-fifth anniversary of the journal and the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of Louisiana State University, its publisher. This literary quarterly is established and distinguished, and not just historically. Professors Emeritus and those occupying named Chairs at universities across the United States, though mainly from the South, far outnumber new or emergent voices. Of the handful of early-career writers who appear here, most have published at least one book or won prestigious awards (often both). While such a list of contributors may dissuade novice authors from submitting work, it makes for provocative and compelling reading.
TSR includes poetry, fiction, and essays. In addition to the usual fare, this volume also contains poems in translation, literary criticism, an essay written by a poet about a fellow poet (who also appears in the issue), and an edited selection of Robert Penn Warren’s letters. Warren founded the original series of the journal, with Cleanth Brooks, in 1935. His letters anchor this final number of an important anniversary year, while also speaking to the broad spectrum of literary pursuits the review represents.
The journal is heavily invested in poetry. Many voices and a range of approaches to the form appear: from humorous to eruditely philosophical, from prose poems and sonnets to more experimental, playfully fractured verse. By and large, the selections are very good; even poems that did not speak to me contained lines of such beauty, verve, or command that they arrested my reading, forcing me to stop and consider.
In “Alphabet of Cruelty,” Norman Lock imagines Bajza, an author whose childhood was spent in a Budapest shop where his father repaired clocks. For Bajza, “temporal progress was annulled by a mutiny of clocks observing, in their murmured incoherence, present moments dying—lento or presto—into separate pasts.” The image captures vividly the cacophony of an old shop, while also establishing the character’s existential dilemma.
Lock’s larger project, from which four prose-poem “Alphabets” were taken for TSR, is a “Book of Imaginary Colophons,” fabricated publication details for imagined authors and books. The project is, in its excerpted form, rather opaque, and yet still contains intriguing moments for the reader.
Similarly, Mark Wagenaar’s poems appeared dense with allusion, (occasionally too dense for my taste), until the speaker in “Portraits of the Artist with Montale” observes simply:
It kills me
that the word fragile survives untouched
through three languages,
not a crack or a nick or a vowel missing.
So many wonderful poems fill the volume I cannot address them all. I’ll focus instead on those that lure me back again and again to their pages and sentiments. Bob Hicok’s wry “A picture is worth eight hundred and seventy-four words” depicts a young man’s misjudgment of a potential lover and his consequent sexual humiliation. Its end, poignant and bittersweet, at last unravels the speaker’s smart-alecky bravado.