Reviews of the Ephemeral

Archive for November, 2010|Monthly archive page

BLIP, Fall 2010

In online magazine on November 27, 2010 at 12:23 pm

-Reviewed by Claire Trevien

You could say that BLIP has an identity crisis problem since you might know it under a different name, as or the, but the various transfers have not dented this quarterly’s reputation. Indeed, Flavor Wire rated it No2 in its top ten literary magazine list. Each issue is guest edited with a theme, and the fall issue (on accommodations) was taken care of by Sara Lippmann & Gary Percesepe. Let’s hope they stick with the name for a while, it’s a good one.

With such a build up, some disappointment is of course inevitable as anyone who’s ever been told to see the ‘film of the year’ can attest. The disappointment though, is part of the feelings that many of these tales try to generate: tales of compromises, of blighted ambitions, of narrow lives. Two stories in particular, Julie Innis’ ‘Big Angel’ and Jennifer Pashley’s ‘And One Blue Pussy’ follow the interval in a person’s life where an alternative is glimpsed, possibilities explored only for routine to return at the end. Others, such as Kim Chinquee’s ‘Physics’ offer no hope from beginning to end. As the editors say, this is what their theme wanted to display: ‘how lives are worn, the fall out’. Not the most uplifting topic in already bleak times perhaps, but as Sue Monk Kid said: ‘Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.’ So bring it on.

The quality varies with several promising works stopping short of their full potential such as Mary Gaitskill’s ‘Lockwood’s Lawn’. This is a well-written narrative led by an unlikable character, but marred by too many typos and frustratingly oblique at times. In the poetry camp, Andrea Sharp’s poem ‘The School’ is a sprawling study of ‘fish’ in different school subjects. It’s an ambitious and intriguing idea with beautiful moments of clarity but lacks rigour with its arbitrary line breaks and unsupported colloquial style. Both these pieces feel as if they could have benefited from a firmer editorial hand.

The standout story in this issue is Jonas Moody’s ‘Neither Odd Nor Even’, a subtle tale of relationships and foreignness. The story revolves around Celia, a fourth-grade teacher and her trip to Iceland to visit her gay best friend’s wedding to a ‘Viking’. The seven years in which they have not seen each other, and the displacement felt by Celia at his not being part of ‘her America’ anymore is expressed through a seamless collage of memories, present action and thoughtful recaps. The mixture of love and regret she has for him is spelled out beautifully:

‘Her love for him is not complicated. But when she forces herself to explain, it stupefies her and she suddenly knows nothing. The same way her students shy away when she asks them if zero is odd or if it’s even. They look at her and smile coyly and they cannot say.’

Celia recalls a time when she had to pretend to be his girlfriend for his father, and the way this ‘reverberated in that uncharted place in her mind’. Moody carefully speaks of the ghosts of wifehood and motherhood haunting Celia’s friendship and the story works as the painful exorcism of these half-formed hopes. Moody’s story may be specific, but it works too as a painful and striking study of dislocation, avoiding on its way the pitfalls of preaching.

Whether BLIP is on my personal top ten online magazines list is not certain: the poetry is under-represented and lacks discipline, the quality of the prose is variable, and easily rectifiable typos undermine the façade. Having said that, the issue is laudably unified in spite of the multiplicity of voices, I admire the bravery of having the pieces stand alone (with biographical information on a separate page) and there are a number of stand-out pieces. If future guest editors can take care to fine tune this promising instrument, then we’re on to a winner.


Earthspeak #4, Summer 2010

In online magazine on November 25, 2010 at 8:22 am

-Reviewed by Juliet Wilson

EarthSpeak is a new online literary journal that explores the ‘relationship between humanity and its home’. As Seth Jani, says in his ‘Letter from the Editor’:

‘Since time immemorial it has been the role of the storyteller, the poet, the shaman, the bard, to bring to light a vision of man and his environment that will rain down order upon the chaotic circumstances of the external world. It is these visionaries who mold from their experience creative works that somehow transcend the merely human and effectively relate man in a new and more nourishing way to the cosmos……. This is why I have created this humble little journal, for it’s time to let the storytellers play their part.’

Each issue of EarthSpeaks is compact, containing a small number of poems along with a short story or a couple of essays. Issue 4 contains work from 7 poets and one short story. Each issue is available on the website or as a downloadable e-book that is available at a small price. All issues are archived on the website.

There is a pleasing variety in the approaches that the writers take to the relationship between humans and nature.

Do Not Feed is a powerful and disturbing short story about animal experimentation, written by K R Sands, whose jobs have included being an animal lab technician. The story focuses on Erlinda, an animal technician who is having second thoughts about some of the experiments she is involved in. Ceci, the researcher on the lead poisoning experiments, takes Erlinda to visit a lead poisoned child, who can hopefully in the future be helped by the results of the experiments the two women are carrying out on the laboratory dogs. The story describes in heart-rending detail the experiments and explores the potential medical benefits that they will bring.

However, the power of the narrative is in the human elements – Erlinda’s mixed feelings, the poverty and ill health of the child and his family. The reader is drawn into the situation and forced to think about the complex moral dilemmas at the centre of this type of work. Most people will find that their sympathies are all with the animals and that they question the true medical value of much of the experimentation. The lead poisoned child is more likely to be helped if, for example, his mother stops cooking in a lead lined pot than as a direct result of the experiments.

Casey Fitzsimmons similarly offers a well balanced view of the issue of invasive plants in her poem ‘Day Without Horizon’ which talks of the ‘immigrants homesick for blue flowers’ who are blind to the future that they have forced on the land:

‘fast-growing super-seeders
tending to monoculture’

However, the publication would feel too serious if all the pieces were issue based, no matter how well balanced and written (and the two discussed above are both!) There are poems on a variety of topics including: a visit to a place of natural beauty (‘Upon Visiting The Grand Canyon’ by Christy Effinger), thunder storms and dying trees (‘Too Little Too Late’ by Joan MacLean) and glow-worms and the nature of light (‘Light: A Variation’ by donnarkevic).

My favourite poems are those by Michael Spring, who is also a natural builder, an occupation that feeds into two of his poems here. ‘The Living Roof’ starts with the striking line:

‘There is a ladder in every masterpiece’

and goes on to describe the ladder in his mud house that:

‘appears most often
when the trees are singing.’

Earthspeak is an interesting and inspiring journal that allows storytellers of all types to play their part in exploring our relationship with the environment.

Pocket Spellbook vs Coin Opera

In anthology on November 21, 2010 at 3:19 pm

-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson

Dr Fulminare is an excommunicated alchemist who gathers together poems and drawings so that they can be printed by his minions at Sidekick Books. Kirsten Irving and Jon Stone take credit as editors (minions), but in the shadow of the domineering literary persona that is Dr Fulminare. As such, Dr Fulminare seems chiefly responsible for these two micro-anthologies: Pocket Spellbook and Coin Opera.

In one, he has persuaded poets and artists to contribute work on a theme of magic. In the other, he has trapped a group of poets in the near future and released them in return for poems inspired by computer games.

I’ve decided to place the micro-anthologies in a head-to-head fight. It’s like Street Fighter, but with added elements of The Legend of Zelda.

In the red corner…Pocket Spellbook

As an alchemist interested in publishing, Dr Fulminare would naturally want to produce a spellbook. Like most fighters, Pocket Spellbook talks itself up, in this case as a collection of poems geared toward performing magic – spells and incantations, that sort of thing.

Instead of spells with practical outcomes, however, Pocket Spellbook contains poems and drawings related to magic – some more so than others – and that lack of following through may prove a weakness. For example, Rowyda Amin’s ‘Spell for Calling Out River Horses’ describes riding a river horse, rather than providing the spell used. On the opposite page, Alexandra Lazar’s drawing ‘Wave’ is obviously connected to the river horse, but also fails to land the punch and connect with the fight that Pocket Spellbook talks; it’s not the most fitting of the drawings (see instead Oliver Townsend’s work for eerie, magical illustrations).

That slight disappointment aside, Dr Fulminare’s Pocket Spellbook successfully exposes the magic to be found in everyday life, and within each of us non-magical folk. Seemingly mundane events are invested with a magical quality, like the rolling of dice in Ian McLachlan’s ‘Unpredictability Charm’. Declan Ryan’s ‘Spell for Forgetting’ is exquisite and clever, undermining its stated purpose at every opportunity, and reminding readers of how life gets in the way of any easy/magical solutions. Its description of a break-up and the attempt to move on is heartbreaking, bittersweet and beautiful:

‘Do not note the duck-egg blue

of her iris as she turns from you, tame Basilisk,

the strobes under her skin which blink ridicule

at stars.’

The narrator notes the eyes even as he tells himself not to, recognising the power they once had over him: this is spell, poem and acute observation of life. Coin Opera struggles to match it.

Luke Kennard’s heavyweight ‘Antidote to Curses #1-17, being a reinstigation of free will following its suspension’ also goes a long way to highlighting the everyday magic that people are capable of. The poem starts as a long and complicated spell, but the magic comes in the final moment of self-assertion, not in any of the pointless tasks assigned along the way. Kennard’s writing (with its dry humour and footnotes) is not unlike Susannah Clarke’s novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which also applies a quaint, almost Victorian, tone to the modern day and manages to make magic credible. Such moments allow the Pocket Spellbook to punch above its weight in this contest.

In the blue corner…Coin Opera

In style, Coin Opera follows the computer game format much more effectively than Pocket Spellbook follows the spellbook format, and has the upper hand there. The reader is welcomed with ‘Player 1 Get Ready!’ and is enticed further with other arcade game-style captions at suitable points.

Coin Opera‘s special moves are also better than Pocket Spellbook‘s: the graphic layout of some of the poems ties them in with the computer format and takes them up to a whole new level (no pun intended). Check out Julia Bird’s ‘For my Brother, Relentlessly’ for a poetic/graphic representation of arcade classic Space Invaders and a title that fully justifies a poetic use of the comma.

The reliance on computer games for content is perhaps the greatest weakness Coin Opera suffers. Some of the poems require more than a passing knowledge of gaming to be really grasped. Ross Sutherland’s Street Fighter poems make it fairly easy by quoting the game’s manual, but poems like ‘An Epic’s Chromatic Scale’ by Amy Key – though it strikes a pleasant aural tone – drop a clutch of obscure references. There’s also a distinct bias toward games of the 1980s, which the younger gamer/reader might not recognise. This renders Coin Opera light on its feet and vulnerable to a knock-out blow.

Coin Opera‘s sucker punch is packed by Sutherland’s ‘E. Honda’, based around the Street Fighter Sumo wrestler of the same name. It’s a short poem that captures the essence of the moment it describes: the ‘peace before battle’, the calm before the storm, and creates a sentimental poignancy with an internal haiku before leaving the reader with the image of the fighter heading out alone to face his opponent and the crowds.

Let’s get ready to rumble!

Although both of Dr Fulminare’s micro-anthologies are nimble little things with cute footwork, Coin Opera is a fairly hit-and-miss affair – a good technical fighter, but lacking the weight and consistency of Pocket Spellbook. On a good day, Coin Opera could take Pocket Spellbook (maybe with a special move or two), but seven times out of ten the champion’s belt is going to go to Pocket Spellbook.

Clementine #4

In online magazine on November 14, 2010 at 5:51 pm

Clementine was launched in 2008 and is a literary magazine for persona poetry and photography. By persona poetry, Clementine means poems employing an invented speaker. The ‘about’ page explains the magazine’s title, which seems unrelated: ‘Clementine refers both to a small citrus and a folk song. We appreciate twang.’

The journal’s set up is very simple: a photograph surmounts a list of poets (in non-alphabetical order, interestingly) that link to poems. The photograph is arresting enough: a family portrait with disco balls instead of heads, they’re an unusual mask hiding in turn the doll faces of the ‘family’. However, the artist’s name is not supplied and there is no further discussion of it, which seems like a wasted opportunity. For a dual-purpose magazine, one photograph to sixteen poets is quite unbalanced. Another unbalance is also obvious from the list of poets supplied: four female poets to twelve male ones.

Considering the criteria, Clementine #4 is full of pop-culture references. In an (often fictional) world of celebrity gossip, characters like Amy Winehouse lend themselves easily to personification, and Kerri French does not hold back. Other examples involve video game inspired poems and Jerome Murphy’s ‘Interview with Vladimir Putin’. On the whole, these interpretations are facile, gimmicky and make little effort to go beyond stereotypes. It’s a dangerous road to speak for others, and I have to question the purpose of Jeffery Conway’s poem for instance, a fictional interview with Rena Riffel (part of a larger collection, Showgirls: The Movie in Sestinas), that vindictively attacks Riffel for her lack of non-striptease acting roles. Whilst the sestina format is laudably unobtrusive, the content doesn’t go beyond its trope to steal Riffel’s voice and use it to bully her into ridicule. Another disappointing poem is Sarah Stickney’s ‘Faust in Hollywood’which reels out the usual clichés about today’s vapid society. It’s an ambitious task she’s set for herself, and it mostly fails. However, the odd turn of phrase, of contemplating ‘the cracked fake leather afternoons’, shows that there is a poem in there wrestling to get out.

It’s not all gloom, one of the highlights of the magazine is Steve Westbrook’s‘Guide to Old Oraibi’. Old Oraibi refers to a Hopi village in Arizona that has rejected the modern world. Pictures are not allowed in its vicinity so that it is, as Westbrook says, a ‘life unmapped’ by google earth. The assured voice he takes, of a Hopi dweller, chastises us beautifully:

‘We do not want our unwed daughters’

stylized squash-blossom hair compared

to Princess Lea’s buns or Minnie

Mouse’s ears.’

Popular culture here is an unwelcome disease tainting with interpretation the Hopi culture. The internal rhyming of ‘hair’ with ‘ears’ suggests that this desire for a hermetic life is impossible: the speaker is already aware of the objects he does not want his people compared to. The only salvation is to hope that these outside influences ‘forget the route back’ to Old Oraibi.

More than any other poem in Clementine, Westbrook’s ‘Guide to Old Oraibi’ captures the concept of a persona poem. Writing as another person does not mean drowning your words with buttery topical references to disguise your lack of acting skills. In ‘Guide to Oraibi’ a sacred past that is not yours defends itself, tells you to leave your soiled future out of it, and out of that tension, something beautiful is created.

Stone Telling # 1

In online magazine on November 13, 2010 at 1:53 pm

-Reviewed by Tori Truslow

‘Those who cross boundaries live in a place between silence and speech’ begins Rose Lemberg’s introduction to this new online magazine for literary speculative poetry. It’s worth reading that again. It’s not saying boundary-crossers live in silence, nor is it saying that speech is the only alternative to silence. Like a line of poetry it flares its meaning in the spaces of the brain and lingers on. It illuminates another place, from where a voice can call but risks going un-listened-to, because it’s not what the hearers expect, not what they recognise as speech.

Lemberg asks: ‘once we cross over, how do with give our experiences voice to share it with others?’ But she doesn’t use her capacity as editor to give a neat full-stop answer to that question. The ‘silence to speech’ theme unfolds in as many directions as there are poems in this issue. The poems don’t sit politely next to each other, or flow quietly along. They are loud in their difference. Take the first four. A brand new poem by Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Elders at the Falls’ opens the issue, telling the wrenching story of the falls at Celilo, a community’s meeting-place and fishing-spot turned to a ‘flat lake of silence’ by a new dam. This is a perfect poem to start with – not just because of Le Guin’s legendary status, but because it is so full of voice and sound, repeating ‘voice’ and ‘tell’ and ‘story’ – and shows all of that being reduced to nothing:

The voice they listened to

that had spoken all their lives

and all the lives before them

telling its story, their story, that great voice


grew smaller, became less,

became quieter,

all day, until

at twilight

it was silent.

In doing so, the poem gives an almost-soft, unassuming sort of horror to the word ‘silence’, which goes with the reader even as the following poems take off in different directions. Next is Karen Neuberg’s surreal ‘Fatigue of the Marionettes’ which takes its name from a Man Ray painting, followed by Mary Alexandra Agner with the fleet, hungry ‘Owl Woman’, and then ‘Star Reservation’ by Tara Barnett, which abruptly shifts the tone to a science-fictional one, opening ‘Grandfather gave me a star for my fifth birthday’.

Stone Telling continues in this unpredictable vein, startling from one poem to the next. There’s a bewitching prose-poetry mix in Samantha Henderson’s ‘The Gabriel Hound’, and a video poem, Peer G. Dudda’s ‘Train Go Sorry’. This is performed bilingually: in English and ASL, letting the poet communicate in two languages at once – and so the moments when he only uses spoken English, but doesn’t sign, are a kind of silence, and bring home the layers and the pain of the lines ‘Your silence / Silenced me.’

Many of the poems are accompanied by audio versions, like Shweta Narayan’s ‘Nagapadam’, which allows the sibilants in the poem to be drawn out and compliment the snaking shape it takes on the page. But the reading also – in dripping with sound and imagery and seeming to flow smoothly between words from different languages, while talking of split tongues – destabilises the idea of speech. The bitterness in its ending –

I echo
your bleached facets
knot my tongue, and you


I speak.

– again brings the reader to a place that isn’t silence or speech but in between, and is a breath-knocking note to end the issue’s poetry on.

These poems are followed by several non-fiction columns, which are all fascinating and worth reading, though I’m focusing on the poetry in this review. The final piece, entitled ‘Stone Telling Roundtable: Diversity’, provides further context to some of the poems and articles (but is well-placed at the end, so the pieces discussed still stand for themselves), and shows a questioning, searching spirit which promises good things to come from future issues. The multiplicity of voices throughout make the reading/watching/listening a noisy experience, which feels like the only thing it could be. None of the poems feel like they’re being held up as examples of what diverse speculative poetry ‘is’, but together they present a flurry of suggestions as to what it might be – strong in their own right, they’re also a many-tongued crowd engaging in a robust exploration of voice, difference, and going beyond the known. Which is the heart of the speculative, after all.

Albatross Poetry Journal #21

In Magazine, online magazine on November 10, 2010 at 1:41 pm

-Reviewed by Juliet Wilson

Albatross is a poetry journal published since 1985 by the Anabiosis Press. These days it is available both online and in print format. According to the publisher’s blog:

‘the journal’s title is drawn from Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and is intended to invoke the allegorical implications of that poem. As such, the albatross becomes a metaphor for an environment that is threatened by the arrogance of humankind.’

This makes Albatross sound heavy and worthy, even to a committed environmentalist such as myself. However the contents belie that impression and take a refreshingly wide variety of approaches to the journal’s overall theme.

Issue 21, the latest issue of Albatross, came out in March 2010. It includes poems that explore the human relationship with nature through gardening (‘In the Garden’ by Ruth Webber Evans and ‘Fall Chores’ by Adam Penna) while Temple Cone draws parallels between the current rising sea temperatures with the Biblical Flood in ‘The World Before Adam Named It’ and Catherine MacGuire ponders the amazing history of the earth and the enjoyment of a childhood fossil hunt in ‘Peterson Butte Fossil Beds’.

In ‘My Mother the Cook’, Ronnie Hess explores his family’s reactions to eating fresh caught fish and wild mushrooms:

‘My father the city boy was convinced they would kill us.

He turned pale and sweaty as we sautéed them in butter.

My mother the country girl swore they were edible.

I was hungry. Terrified. I raised my fork.’

Reading this homely anecdote some readers may be prompted to consider their relationship with the food they eat and by extension how comfortable they feel in the natural landscapes around them. Or they may just give a wry smile at the family dynamics on display.

In ‘The Dark Stains of Yellow Veins’, Stephen Berry looks to Tu Fu (a great Chinese poet of the T’ang dynasty) to inspire him to pay closer attention to nature:

‘saying— just watch—

for a moment— a bird

kicking around in a pile of leaves’

Another poem here that prompts us to pay closer attention to nature is Chris Powici’s ‘Montrose Basin Sea Eagle’. I recently visited Montrose Basin, a wonderful site for wetland birds on the east coast of Scotland. I also recognise the disappointment of missing the rare bird you hoped to find:

‘and so the eye makes do with a cormorant

swooping south across the lagoon —

if the raw beautiful shock of seeing

something so shimmeringly black and quick

and downright miraculous as a cormorant

glide through the waning coastal light

can be described as making do.’

If we really look at all the wildlife around us then we’ll appreciate how wonderful it is and not be obsessed with just finding rarities. If we appreciate nature then we will be more likely to want to protect it, which is a large part of the point of a journal like Albatross. Having said that and knowing that I’m biased as a naturalist and environmentalist, it strikes me that Albatross is well worth reading by anyone who enjoys poetry. If in addition, it helps people to think anew about their relationship with nature and the environment then that’s a bonus.