Breathe the Fresh Air

Review of Georgia Review, Fall 2008 by Vince Corvaia


The Fall 2008 issue of The Georgia Review contains five essays, two short stories, ten poems (including the latest by Albert Goldbarth), reviews by three contributors, artwork by Judy Pfaff, and excerpts from a new book featuring the correspondence between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop.

In an introductory note, editor Stephen Corey cites the high pedigree of some of the contributors (Pulitzers for Stephen Dunn and Edward J. Larson, for instance) and their equal stance in the issue with relative unknowns. To Corey's credit and that of his staff, you could read this issue never having heard of any of the writers and not know who is the more experienced and/or acclaimed. The quality is that uniformly good, as readers of The Georgia Review have come to expect.

"Looking down," essayist Rebecca Emlinger Roberts writes, "is an art." In "The Art of Looking Down," Roberts describes living forty years with rheumatoid, "which has shaped my view of the world--not to mention the contours of my body." Because of the constant danger of falling, she has had to adapt to always looking down when she walks. At first she is resistant: "The ground. Where's the dream in it?" But she comes to understand art as "a form of exorcism, the exorcism of fear, helping me to see the ground for what it is: a riot of surfaces, a collection of color," and she learns to see "art down there, humming along." Roberts tells us that poet Seamus Heaney, in "The Place of Writing," refers to the word focus as coming "from the Latin for hearth. How fitting!" she exclaims. "If the ground is where I must look, I need to feel at home there." And gradually, she does. Roberts explores the necessary relationship between art and life with delicacy and skill. There is art at work in "The Art of Looking Down," humming along.

The essay "Forms and Structures" continues the theme of art as poet Stephen Dunn tells us that "Art gives us a vantage point, a way of seeing." This is an excellent essay for all beginning poets and even experienced poets who might need a wake-up call regarding the dangers of mediocrity. "Beginning poets [. . .] take note: the artisan never believes that how he feels is more important than how he executes." He illustrates this concretely by stating that "the carpenter who poorly frames a door doesn't go around saying how well it shuts." And he further shows us the dangers of sloppiness by presenting first Frost's poem "Stopping Albert Goldbarth's lovely and most assuredly musical "October" begins, "Another poem struck into being by seeing / a vee of geese overhead," then meditates on the parts becoming the whole ("an argument (of isolation versus community)") and what that implies. The speaker, he suspects, is "not / the only one who's stood here with the groceries leaking / out of the paper bag," entranced by the transient beauty of nature (or perhaps the transient nature of beauty). The poem comes full circle by evoking a civilization split apart, one element watching the other recede not merely through space but "into the future without them." What Goldbarth does is take a simple and universal act, watching birds in flight, and alters the reader's perception of it indelibly.

Jacob White's elegiac short story, "The Days Down Here," presents the last year of a family.The wife and mother, Jean, is riddled with cancer following yet another unsuccessful round of chemo. Her husband Hammond moves them and their nineteen-year-old son Zach to a lake where she had spent a lovely summer as a child, "because she was dying and I'd never done anything grand or foolish for her," says Hammond, or "Ham." The house she had stayed in is already occupied, but they move in across the street and get to know their neighbors, Ted and Barb. The story concerns Jean and Ham's efforts to improve their dilapidated property, whose tangled back yard happens to look out on the eighteenth hole of a golf course, and Zach's attempts to adjust to a strange environment. It's a subtly layered, richly textured story, with one tense moment when, while swimming in the lake, Jean feels her ankle become entangled in something and discovers that she is swimming in a Christmas tree dumping ground. Though she is alive at the end of the story, the sad shadow of death hangs over it, already changing all of their lives forever.

Frannie Lindsay's poem, "Elegy for My Father," is a delicate observance. Through a minimum of words and with finely observed detail, here is a complicated relationship that has reached its end. "At last you are small as a boy's / woolen cap in your blue-wrapped box / in the earth." The speaker is thankful for various things, including "your cirrus hair I never wanted / to touch," but finally touching, "so like the stone-scented fur of an animal / I am afraid of no longer." Finally she is thankful for "all the prayers / for nothing; for nothing now / is kind or cruel."

In "'It Is a Marvelous Book': Correspondence," the letters between Robert Lowell (1917-1977) and Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) serve as a reminder that the epistolary art is sadly giving way to the distinctly unliterary modes of email and text messages. In these relaxed and intelligent exchanges, excerpted from the new book Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton and published in October of this year and not 2009, as cited in a footnote), the two acclaimed poets reveal the depth of their friendship and the breadth of their knowledge and opinions.

How delightful to listen in on their opinions of other writers, others' books, and the times they lived in. Bishop on Dr. Zhivago: "I'm sure it's not a good novel, or it's in fragments, or unfinished--but it is a marvelous book." Bishop on Lowell's own Life Studies (in a jacket blurb he has requested): "Somehow or other, by fair meals or foul, and in the middle of our own worst century so far, we have produced a magnificent poet." And Bishop on Allen Ginsberg: "I find him rather admirable, except for his writing!" She is warm, self-assured, and completely candid with her friend.

Lowell has his own opinions, yet his most unforgettable lines are more introspective or have to do with the immediate world around him. "The things that cannot be done twice! I think of my parents, the I who lived then. Ah courage!" His impressions of the riots outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago are powerful: "[Our] staff headquarters were raided by about twenty policemen [. . .] One boy had twenty stitches, another six. It was horrible and looked like the old Gestapo movies."

These brief excerpts from the voluminous collection of Bishop/Lowell letters, like this entire issue of The Georgia Review, are a welcome breath of fresh, literate air.

The Georgia Review is published quarterly by the University of Georgia in Athens.