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Review of Ploughshares, Winter 20152016 by Timston Johnston
I signed up to be a part of The Review Review back in late January of this year. My first assignment arrived in a very comforting yellow envelope, my name handwritten—I was happy; I had been waiting for my first literary journal to arrive and the suspense of which one I’d receive incubated an anticipation I hadn’t felt since I was a kid waiting for magazines and letters to make it my way. I let the package sit on my desk and allowed it to coagulate some of the gravity in the room until I couldn’t resist any longer. When opened, I sighed in defeat. I recognized the symbol of the uppercase P, the 1/5th of the top cover dedicated to the title blocks, its proud etching: AT EMERSON COLLEGE. Ploughshares. This is the worst thing that could have happened to me.
You know Ploughshares’ reputation. You didn’t click on this review because you’ve never heard of them. You clicked on this because you didn’t know a new one was out and you’ve been waiting, or you’re in this issue, or you know somebody who’s in this issue, or you received a rejection for this issue and are checking out who got in, or you read for this issue, or you’re an editor who created this issue and wondering if it’s held up in the minds of complete strangers like me, or, the least likely option, you know me and my rarely footless mouth and are wondering just how quickly I can end up on the up on the bad side of one of the best literary journals in the country. Perhaps I should say, alternatively, that none of you are here because you’re hoping this will be the deciding factor on whether it’s time to subscribe. If you are, this is your sign: do it already. Trust me. It’s time. There’s a reason BuzzFeed Books listed Ploughshares as #15 of “29 Amazing Literary Magazines You Need to Be Reading,” for reasons other than the “annual issues are guest-edited by different, notable writers.”
This Winter 2015/2016 staff-edited issue is exuberant in the traditional prose style. All of these stories are written with clear, authoritative narrators who guide the reader to unexpected places, all individual and personable in both setting and voice. You’re not reading stories, you’re reading people. You can assign them voices, nervous ticks, a lisp, a cold, a desolate sigh you can try to convince yourself didn’t come from you. I highlight briefly the included illustrations for Lawrence-Minh Bui Davis’ “Helicopters & Gypsy Moths,” the piece told from the point of view of a scientific, Vietnam refugee reflecting on his mid-teens while working with his uncle and co. in a lab. The illustrations, a helicopter, a moth and larva, a boat, help add to the wonderment of curious youth, helpful breaks in the narration as though you were reading lab notes, the narrator beside you, sharing secrets.
Though I assume it must be unintentional, there seem to be several themes in this issue, the heaviest of which is phantoms: characters haunted by history, by foregone love, phantom limb syndrome, towns, communities haunted by burden, poems that ask, as the best poems do, what does it mean to grieve?
Most narrators in this issue are educated, often scientists, characters who are working on a thesis, or had once completed a thesis and now are returned to that kind of community, such as Joan Murray’s very unexpected piece, “Collectors” where everybody has a shaded role to play to keep the authenticity of a contemporary artist. Megan Peak’s poem, “Titration” on the surface studies the different focus levels of boys and the growth of girls in a science class when fire is present. Sandra Simonds’ “Lake Eden,” debates herself as a professional poet and asks, “What is a professional?”
What I appreciate most throughout these pieces is how often the authors contribute to a timely and necessary conversation. Though we’re not offered with Syrian refugees, we are offered, as stated by Davis’s fiction, the life of a refugee separated from his parents; though this takes place in 1995, is relatable today for those searching for perspective. Donald Trump could take a moment and read the only nonfiction (outside of the emerging writers’ contest) of the quarter, the wonderfully paced and narrated “Bajadas” by Francisco Cantu, a piece about his time as a Border Patrol Agent, a piece on the same caliber as Tim O’Brien’s "The Things They Carried.” Here we see both sides, the people burdened with the job, and the people wanting a better life, the representation of the peoples’ motivation: “…I just want to know if there is something I can do while I wait, something to help. I can take out the trash or clean out the cells. I want to show you that I’m here to work, that I’m not a bad person, that I’m not here to bring in drugs, I’m not here to do anything illegal. I want to work.”
The poetry as well, contributes to conversations needed: Matthew Lippman’s “Something about Ecology” says “and even still / the white people and black people can’t figure it out.” Kien Lam’s “At a Pool Hall” references a conversation about Michael Brown, uses the cue and 8-ball as metaphor. I found myself spending more time with the poetry than the prose, rereading and trying to take it all in. All are complex, and they all have something to say, and it is my fault as the reader that I cannot help articulate more the importance of their words.
The only blunder of the issue is its unbalanced representation of men and women. The issue does a tremendous job with diversity—readers have a fantastic opportunity to read a varied selection of equally strong voices unparalleled to each other, and the high mark for me is that I love reading voices that are not in-tune with my own. However, the gap in gender numbers in this particular issue is too wide to go unnoticed; past issues I have read have not had this big of a gap, including last year’s Winter issue showing about 47 percent female, for the bulk and the poetry. For this issue, however, the bulk shows about 36 percent female, and the poetry isolated shows 26 percent female.
That’s the only low point for me, however, and the highest point is reading all three of the emerging writers contest winners, Emily Strasser’s Essay, “Homeplace,” Lucy Tan’s fiction, “Safety of Numbers,” and Emily Jungmin Yoon’s poems both titled “An Ordinary Misfortune.” All three writers show enormous strengths in image and rhythm, and I will be waiting to see their books come into the world. For those starting out to publish, look to these three young, talented women as guides on what it takes to make it into these pages.
Otherwise, take a look at the bios before starting. You will not find a person here who isn’t highly educated or widely published. Who publishes here are editors of wonderful institutions, authors of multiple books, winners of fellowships and grants. These are the best of the best, and if you think you’ve got what it takes, read what they’re publishing, and go revise again. These are some of the most thought-out, well-polished pieces to come out in contemporary literature, and to make it in, prepare to put in the hours. Sweat until it appears effortless.