Reviews of the Ephemeral

Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

The Dead Beat by Cody James

In Novella on January 20, 2011 at 1:36 pm

-Reviewed by Lucy Ayrton

The Dead Beat is a haunting, dreamy account of a group of four young men – Adam, our narrator, and his three flatmates – losing control of their lives. The Hale-Bopp comet hanging over their home serves as a metaphor for the lives of the inhabitants – they look like they’re moving really fast, but really they’re just hanging there in space. This is an endearing and compelling novella, which is slightly spoilt by leaning on its key themes a little too much for them to be fully effective.

I was initially a little irritated with The Dead Beat. The beginning, especially, is under edited and over written, and there are wobbles with the voice. The book is also very light on action, especially for such a short novella, and what there is is very downplayed, with the most dramatic events being given a scant paragraph, but pages given to boring arguments between flatmates. This is annoying, but also clever, because it is annoying in exactly the same way that the protagonist is annoying to those around him – the fact that the first person narrative is so irritating at times is actually a sign of the quality of the writing.

After a shaky start the voice of the protagonist is spot on and the writing is evocative and immediate, with plenty of crackly, well observed dialogue. Cody James has some lovely turns of phrase; I especially enjoyed the idea of writer’s block as ‘sitting there on my chest like some ex girlfriend’s unpacked suitcase.’

There is a lot of reference to the Beat Generation, which I feel would have been more interesting if played with a slightly lighter hand; we don’t really need Adam to tell us that his favourite authors are Kerouac, Ginsberg and Whalen to get the reference, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that only a passing reference was really relevant, and that the point was hammered home in an attempt to lend an air of cool to characters that neither needed nor deserved it. In contrast, the commentary on the nature of addiction and hope felt entirely accurate and genuine. The moment when the protagonist recalls his mother telling him about nervous laughter was really quite moving, and a skilful handling of revealing more to an audience in a first person narrative than the narrator knows about himself. Or at least, it was the first time that device was used. By the third repeat, it had lost its kick a bit.

Overall, this is a novella with more charm than flaws. I didn’t really enjoy reading it – the characters are all unpleasant, the world it is set in is filthy and ugly and nothing really happens – but by the end I was totally gripped anyway. The thing about The Dead Beat is, the flaws in it – the too many adverbs, the labouring of points, the circular arguments, the gloss over importance and focus on minutiae – maybe none of these are Cody’s fault. Maybe they are Adam’s, and she is a genius. Or maybe this is just another pretentious fetishisation of California junkie/slacker culture. I genuinely don’t know, you’ll have to read it to find out.

Advertisements

Pop Fiction

In anthology on January 19, 2011 at 9:02 pm

-Reviewed by Helen Weldon-

Pop Fiction is an adventurous experiment made up of contributions from some of the new writers on www.YouWriteOn.com. The concept is simple, each writer has to produce two short stories inspired by songs, one must be based on the pre-assigned ‘Heroes’ by David Bowie, the other can be from any pop song that takes their fancy. The outcome is an assortment of narratives exploring all the possibilities and restrictions such a brief creates.

Throughout Pop Fiction the amateur level of the writing is often apparent but there are definitely a few examples of writers to watch. Some of the standout moments of the collection come from Daniel Lewis, Carole Pitt and Lee Williams, three who seem the most comfortable with their writing voices and creating appealing plot lines and characters. Lewis’ macabre recollection of a blood soaked tragedy at Disney Land inspired by The Fall’s ‘Disney’s Dream Debased’, shows a truly fresh idea mixed with perverse humour. Pitt brings us effortless yet engaging accounts of two women under very different kinds of pressure and Williams keeps things short and sweet but still manages to draw the reader in while making sure you think twice before heading back to the gym.

Here and there a few writing clichés get exorcised, as found in Marc Nash’s tale of over dramatic teen angst and pointless star crossed lovers’ suicide. Many of the voices are a little self conscious as they find their feet or over reach with characters and situations that are sadly a bit too alien to them. In other places natural talent for characterisation shines through with the likes of Karen Snape-Williams’ ‘Cut And Run’ articulating the dying prayer of an unrepentant man inspired by Bob Marley and the Wailers’ ‘I Shot The Sheriff’.

Though an interesting experiment in some places the brief seems to be more of a hindrance, constricting the writers’ ideas, characters and developments. The choice to make ‘Heroes’ a repeated song offers an easy method of technical comparison however they do start to feel a bit repetitive and it might have been nice to see a greater variety in song choices as the Bowie free stories tend to be the more creative and feel less confined.

Overall this is a great opportunity for new writers to get their work published for the first time and though there is room for improvement from both the contributors and the briefing this is the kind of publication that we should be seeing more of, a valuable stepping stone to help raise the confidence of creative minds just starting out.

Initial proceeds from Pop Fiction will be donated to the Blue Lamp Foundation.

Goblin Fruit- Winter 2011

In online magazine on January 19, 2011 at 8:50 pm

 

-Reviewed by Ruth Jenkins-

Goblin Fruit is a webzine of fantastical poetry published quarterly. It’s interested in mythic, surreal, and folkloric themes in poetry that uses evocative language and rhythm, in the magical and the forbidden. Rather than being numbered, each issue quietly draws its name and tone from the passing season. This time it is winter- ‘the lean times, the hungry times, when there is more salt and bone to the world than flesh.’ The issue itself is sparse, pared down – nine poems, weaving together, the editor writes, ‘snow, stars, and diamonds,’ ‘fairy tales and shadows, and cold to paint your breath against the night’. This is true, but makes it sound prettier and tidier than it really is. These are also poems of endurance, of loss, of blood, of strange light.

 

The artwork sets the mood from the outset. A swollen toad-like shape sits on/attacks a slowly melting girl. She feels like a wayfarer, a guide. Come with me, to wolves and skulls and snail-capped figures in muted colours. This feels like a beautiful, self-contained object the way the best print zines are.

 

We begin with ‘Nightfall on Orkney: A Glosa’ by Neile Graham, and the onset of winter:

 

‘Don’t be scared of this dark: it’s only

winter tumbling down again like night does,’

 

This poem shows words, dance, songs, ‘tales mundane of lamp and hearth’ as means of victory against the winter, which is presented essentially as something outside the space of community and home, something to be fought against:

 

‘But yet they outsang the darkness, outskirled the blustering

wind in the eaves, outspoke the words storm tossed

against the windows, describing in the oldest beats or rhyme,’

 

This is an evocative piece, made more interesting by the distinction between winter/home being blurred somewhat in the final lines.

 

‘So within these stone walls listen hard:

is it wind or voices, words of storm or men rumbling deep?

The children tumbled gently into sleep.’

 

The next poem ‘Strong as Salt’ by Rose Lemberg, builds on this by exploring the relationship between body and winter: the writer’s skin is ‘a cloak of storms’, and heart is ‘slivered salt/ a mirror made of purest salt’, a ‘mottled heart’ that

 

‘endures between the ribs

of sycamores — stillborn, their faithless limbs

in foliage of frozen salt beneath

the furs of snow’

 

There’s some arresting imagery here.  The poem consists of five parts, and there’s a unity between them, but also a sense of disorientation, of struggling to make sense of whose voice is talking, something which reflects the poet’s own engagement with the idea of voice and silence. The final stanza introduces the idea of parts of the human body being transformed into animals; the heart ‘speaks with tongues of chickadees’.

 

The relationship between the human body and animals runs through a few of the poems. In the idea of a woman turning into a bear in ‘Callisto at the Corner Coffee Shop’ by Michelle Muenzler, in ‘Snow Melt,’ a chain poem by Mari Ness where

 

‘needle pricks your skin.

You tuck leaves into a tattered bodice,

wrap yourself warmly in bloodied deerskin.’

 

This idea of animal’s bodies as clothing, as skin, is continued in ‘Three Bone Masks’, another poem by Rose Lemberg, the title referring to three animal shamans, a walrus, a lemming and a white owl,

 

‘The lemming gave me

her pelt that makes the needle sing of her in hungry season

grandmother stitched me

with remnants of her skin,’

 

After this, we have an ambiguous narrator in ‘Snow Bees’ by Jeannine Hall Gailey, a poem I enjoyed but felt lacked the folkloric/fairy tale knowledge to fully get, ‘Diamonds and Toads’ by Christopher W. Clark, ‘Little Songs,’ a Petrarchan sonnet by Leah Bonnet, and, finally, ‘Drawn Like Silk’ by Loreen Heneghan. The issue opened with the onset of winter, and ends with something that feels like the beginning of a strange spring, a falling back to the beginning.

 

Each stanza of Heneghan’s poem begins ‘when they come’, ‘they’ referring to creatures who might be human, but might not; creatures with ‘eyes painted blue,’ eyes that are not eyes’ and skin ‘not so different from the pale cloth / they wear beneath’. There’s the ambiguity of renewal- of creatures in green coats ‘from that other place / where we remember old truth.’ Also a sense of inevitability- ‘when they come/ we must follow them’ of change, of seasons passing. With its blend of beautiful, magical and unsettling poetry I look forward to seeing what Goblin Fruit Spring 2011 brings.

 

 

Envoi #157 October 2010

In Magazine on January 19, 2011 at 5:18 pm

-Reviewed by Juliet Wilson

 

Envoi is a UK based poetry journal that has been going since 1957, under various editors, currently Jan Fortune-Wood. One of the aspects of Envoi that I particularly like is that it actually showcases poets. This issue features seven poems from Abegail Morley (shortlisted last year for best first collection in the Forward Prize) and five poems from guest poet Char March. Every other poet included is represented with at least two poems or a lengthy sequence, as opposed to the many poetry journals that often feature only single poems from individual poets. Envoi also includes a number of clearly written, in-depth reviews of poetry collections and the winners of the latest Envoi competition along with the adjudicator’s report. I always find adjudicator’s reports fascinating and insightful, though I rarely agree with the conclusions! Recently entries to the competition have declined so it will in future only be an annual event rather than the quarterly event it has been so far.

 

In this issue, there is a good selection of poems dealing with nature and set in rural areas, some of which deal with environmental issues. Among Char March’s varied poems is ‘ ‘There will only be a loss of 352’ which details the loss of oak trees during the widening of a road widening scheme in Ardnamurchan in 2008.  Martyn Halsall’s ‘Hut of the Shadows’ is also set in the Scottish Highlands and beautifully evokes the atmosphere and mystery of the unknown history of the hut in the title – ‘its legends peat smoke listing in ancient air’. Also set in a similar setting (though there is a Dun Beg in Ireland as well as one in Scotland so I don’t want to assume too much!) Peter Johnson’s sparely written poem ‘Dun Beg’ ends with the vivid lines:

 

‘The gale that burgles our breath transports

the black raven across the white sky.’

 

The same poet gives us a landscape of sheep in the aptly titled ‘Sheep’ and an exploration of the nature of the universe and the dark side in ‘Dark Matters’, hence demonstrating how Envoi’s policy of publishing a number of poems by each poet can give the reader a better feel for the poet’s range.

 

Richard Williams has two poems here. ‘21st Century Fairy Tales’ takes as its starting point the fact that the 2009 Wildlife Photographer of the Year winner was stripped of his award when it was found he had used a tame wolf in his photo. From there he muses on how we embellish our memories in the same way as a photographer uses online editing tools. His other poem is ‘Schrodinger’s Cat’ is a meditation on the uncertainty principle and the apparent meaninglessness of much of life ‘as icebergs are calving in the Barents Sea’. This is a poem I keep re-reading, it is haunting in its effect.

 

I also liked Bob Beagrie’s thoughts in The Star pub in ‘Ronin’ as:

 

‘I sip the stout and sigh, think of a picture

Of the Horse Headed Nebulae in my daughter’s

Encyclopaedia of the Universe, rearing up

With a mane of hydrogen clouds, 1.5 thousand

Light years away; let it bloom in my mind like sakura,

Watch it canter, kick up a spray of frozen satellites’

 

(sakura is the Japanese cherry blossom, perhaps a note here would have been helpful for some readers?).

 

The poetry in this issue of Envoi is varied in content and style, with a lot of very good poems from a varied selection of mostly UK based poets. Well worth a read!

 

In conversation with Roddy Lumsden

In Conversation on January 15, 2011 at 8:53 am

Having heard through his interview with Ink Sweat & Tears that poet Roddy Lumsden was selecting for Best British Poetry 2011 from magazines, journals and ezines, I just had to find out more. Below, Roddy Lumsden shares with us information on the process, his thoughts on the state of British publications as well as the location of his first publication, enjoy!

The anthology (Best British Poetry 2011, due from Salt in the spring) selects from any magazine, journal, newspaper or ezine. The British in the title refers to those publications, as opposed to the poets. It is modelled on similarly titled books which appear annually in the US, Canada, Australia and Ireland. In the past, the Forward anthology has filled the gap of not having such an anthology, but the Forward contains few poems from magazines and an increasing amount from the shortlisted books.

From next year on, I will have a different co-editor each year, so the anthology doesn’t get bogged down in my taste (which I hope is quite wide). It does mean a lot of reading for me, but there are worse tasks than an afternoon or two each month in the Poetry Library in the Royal Festival Hall.

The toughest thing will be to bring it all together for publication, as I will want to see magazines from the first quarter of 2011, then contact the poets chosen so they can offer a commentary on their poem. The book will be due soon after.

I have to say, though I’ve encountered several new magazines, none sticks out. Of the smaller magazines, Assent (formerly Poetry Nottingham) impresses me. Nathan Hamilton’s special features in the last two editions of The Rialto, focusing on younger poets offered several good pieces. I think Colette Bryce has done good things at Poetry London – I really like her taste. Pen Pusher manages to get poems from some very interesting poets. Most of the best ezines I find are specialising in innovative work.

Sadly, I’ve found little from the little-known magazines – most ‘local’ mags and the ones whose names I don’t recognize do tend to have poetry of a lesser quality. So far, about half of the poems are by poets without published books, though quite a few of those are poets well on their way to full publication, such as Heather Phillipson and Vidyan Ravinthiran.

One of my aims is to try to broaden the reading of poetry readers by offering work from across the whole range of poetry being written here. Most UK readers rarely stray beyond the well-known names offered and marketed hard by the commercial presses. Another aim is to celebrate the variety and continuing health of the literary journal, the little magazine and the increasing strength of online publications.

I decided against the inclusion of British poets’ work in foreign-based publications. Not that I would be including my own poems of course, but that would mainly rule myself out, as I now publish far more regularly in US publications than here – which mirrors the fact that the majority of my book sales are now over there. My own first acceptance also came in an American magazine, Verse, back when I was about 21. It was a short, comic poem and I don’t recall its title, but I do remember it had a Les Murray poem on the adjoining page which was encouraging!

Different Chemistry / Guage by Rupert M. Loydell

In Pamphlets on January 11, 2011 at 8:00 pm

-Reviewed by Alex Campbell-

Poetry is not visual art. They certainly share many properties, but the bare presentation of a scene, without judgement or even elucidation is not one of them. Visual art is balder, more all-at-once than poetry, which of necessity must be sequential. We watch the individual poetical brush-strokes as they happen before we can step back and examine the whole.

But what about poetry inspired by art? Ought that to emulate the content or the medium that inspired it?  Rupert M. Loydell’s Different Chemistry is described as being “after Joel-Peter Witkin”, the American photographer, and, as you would expect, it touches on many of the same subjects. Here we find “photographs of mirrors”, (“11”), “dead eyes staring upwards” (“8”) “fruit around a baby’s corpse” (“4”) and “grotesque wounds & sepia stumps” (“1”), all reminiscent, and possibly even drawn straight from Witkin’s work.

But there also appears to be an attempt in the poetry to be more photographic in itself. For example, the central line of every stanza of every poem is comprised of three (or sometimes two) italicised and disjointed words or fragments, such as “nonsense   nostalgia   numinous” (“2”) “inane   inept   indecision” (“7”) or “who says   why bother   will you” (“11”), which looks like an attempt to show, as photography does, the entirety of the image at once, rather than building on it sequentially, as written art must. Either that, or it could be reminiscent of flashbulbs going off – each word a photograph in itself.

However, poetry is not visual art, and it seems that in the attempt to emulate, something has been lost in the translation. In attempting to be more like photography, the poems actually become less. There are no sharp outlines, or clear definition. Meaning is blurred and obscured and the poetry becomes an impenetrable mess, from which it is nigh on impossible to derive any kind of sense beyond a few fragmented images. Words are splattered haphazardly across the paper, much like the ink designs opposite each poem. Reading them becomes an exercise like seeing patterns in clouds, or Rorschach ink-blots; Loydell makes the reader do all the work, rarely offering his own interpretation, or even a helpful signpost to meaning.

Which wouldn’t be so bad, if he didn’t keep asserting that there is some sort of deeper meaning to be found here. Every poem of the collection ends with the refrain “the condition of our lives”, tantalisingly hinting at revelations about the human condition, and all that poetry at its best strives to encapsulate. But merely stating it, in amidst such a hap-hazard stream of language does not elucidate anything, does not paint a picture for the reader, or delineate shades of meaning, or even hint at a conclusion which we can draw for ourselves. This isn’t so much Pointillism as join-the-dots. Without the numbers.

Loydell also doesn’t seem to understand the concept of a ballad. While there is nothing wrong with re-imagining a form, the essential quality that makes a ballad a ballad, one would have thought, is the fact that it is a narrative poem. Different Chemistry touts itself as “Ballads of the Alone 4”, but there is nothing narrative about it. The subtitle is meaningless. He might as well have called it “Washing Machines of the Alone 4”. Different Chemistry almost has more in common with the French ballade, for, though it forgoes rhyme altogether, it does still retain a refrain as the last line of each poem. Though it seems a stretch to imagine that this is an intentional comparison that the poet has sought to create.

The second of the two collections, Guage, is, sadly, little better, and just as inexplicable. Though in this there are at least occasional flashes where Loydell demonstrates a greater facility for language and the sound of words, such as in “Tone”. The clicking of “Tacit shift/ /basic alibi/ a stiff fact” as it slaps around the palate is certainly aurally pleasing, though one wishes this skill with sound had been harnessed to a more interesting (or indeed intelligible) message.

There are also moments of either remarkable serendipity or accurate self-awareness, such as in “Hat Tree 2”. Reading the phrase “other language/ clarifies fall / /fill us in”  seems something of a supreme irony, seeing the poet articulate an exhortation the reader has probably been wishing to direct to him from the start. Wonder is not “enough/ for all to guage” (sic.) Sometimes we need something more to wonder at than “words taken out of context / the content of the work / gooseflesh garbage genuine” (Different Chemistry, “6”).

This may seem a harsh estimation of Loydell, but it’s hard to be charitable to a poet when he miss-spells the title of his own collection. Unless “Guage” is supposed to be a nonsense word, or has some deeper meaning that I am unaware of, and isn’t merely a miss-spelling of Gauge, as the quote from “Hat Tree 2” would suggest.

Poetry has for too long held a reputation of being difficult and requiring hard work to understand. Perhaps with a little deeper reading, the meaning in these poems would become apparent, but if one believes that poetry should be an accessible medium to all, then they seem unhelpful to say the least. Modern Poetry does not want to pick up the same negative and elitist connotations as are sometimes attached to Modern Art (e.g. in the public image of The Turner Prize), but with these collections Loydell is in danger of doing just that.

 

The Literary Bird Journal #1.2

In online magazine on January 6, 2011 at 7:23 pm

-Reviewed by Juliet Wilson

The LBJ is a biannual publication dedicated to  creative writing about birds. Its title comes from the acronym for “little brown job,” used by birders to describe difficult-to-identify species, such as many warblers or sparrows.

The LBJ publishes creative nonfiction, fiction, poetry, narrative scholarship, literary journalism and showcases visual art – all on themes related to birds.

I haven’t been able to get my hands on a paper copy of the LBJ, but their website offers a small selection of pieces from the publication, which I’ve used as a basis for this review.

I’ll start with ‘He Knows Me as the Blind Man Knows the Cuckoo’ a short story by Elena Passarello in the current issue of The LBJ. This is a wonderful piece of fiction, which I have shared with students in the class I teach on environmental writing. It opens:

‘It’s the first day of spring. A male Cuckoo in his prime bursts into the open fen, hollering as he sails over its weeds, scrubs, and dikes. He lands in a shady spot, firing the sound of his father and his father before him—all those males he’s never met.

I want a girl just like the girl that married dear old dad, he sings, imagining a marriage that probably took place in this same fen one spring before, with an earlier variation of his own, famous descending third: cu-koo.’

From there on it continues, an exuberant story of cuckoos, with references to popular culture and human behaviour, which presents the birds’ breeding behaviour in a way that the reader can relate to, while being accurate bird biology too. It’s brilliant and was a worthy winner of the LBJ’s Urb Bird Contest.

Moving on to poetry, we haveFor the Birds (1900 – 2009)’ by Camille T. Dungy, a heartbreaking list poem of bird species that are known or believed to be extinct, some of the names are poetry in themselves – Nuko Hiuo monarch, short-toed nuthatch vaga, red-moustached fruit-dove. The fact that most of them are species the average reader won’t have heard of only makes it all the more poignant.

Linnea Ogdens ‘I and the Starling’ is a sestina (a poetic form that relies on repeated words rather than rhyme) illustrated with words arranged to look like flocking starlings. It’s a beautiful, swirling piece of poetry, full of wonderful observations. I read it over and over, and it inspired me to experiment with writing sestinas, which previously I have found dull and tiresome to write.

I have to admit, I’m not sure how much appeal The LBJ would have to anyone not already a keen birdwatcher. The work seems to assume a certain level of familiarity with bird biology and a good variety of bird species (and it seems to be biased toward North America too, so even the keen British birder may be at a disadvantage). My other criticism is that some of the pieces seem to be overwritten. If you like your prose ornate and flowery then fine, but it doesn’t always work for me. It did in ‘He Knows Me as the Blind Man Knows the Cuckoo’ (see earlier) but in other pieces I found it irritating. An example is the editor’s introduction, which in the current issue is a moving and interesting story about a family of peregrines, that I couldn’t help thinking might have benefited from tighter language and fewer adjectives.

However, judging from the selection on the website, The LBJ is an excellent publication for anyone interested in birds and literature.

 

End of the Year Round-Up: Michael Hulse

In Seasonal/End of year on January 3, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Michael Hulse is a poet, critic, academic and translator of more than sixty books from  German. He has edited the Könemann Literature Classics series and co-edited the Bloodaxe anthology The New Poetry. He currently teaches short fiction and poetry at the University of Warwick, where he also edits The Warwick Review. His latest publications are The Secret History (poems, Arc) and The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (translation of Rilke’s novel, Penguin Classics)

Has 2010 brought to your attention any outstanding literary magazines (be they online or in print), if so, which?

I’m not sure I want to single out particular literary magazines, but I always read Agni or The Harvard Review with great pleasure, and, for sustained seriousness of attention to the values a culture claims to live by, nothing beats the London Review of Books.

What event sticks out in your mind as the literary event of 2010 (it can be a personal accomplishment)?

For me, the literary event of 2010 was the award of the Nobel Prize to Mario Vargas Llosa, an award that was long overdue and deeply deserved. Vargas Llosa ended his acceptance speech by asserting that dreaming, reading and writing are the most effective way we’ve found to defeat the corrosion of time. He knows that’s untrue – nothing defeats the corrosion of time – but it’s characteristic of his irony that he allows the half-truth to stand despite the knowledge. The self-deceptions we live by are crucial to our existences, after all.

What was your favourite literary discovery of the year (it can be a single poem, a novel, a pamphlet, a press, …)?

The recent literary discoveries that have meant most to me are Portuguese novelist José Luίs Peixoto and Chinese novelist Yu Hua. Peixoto has a Faulkneresque way with carried-over, carried-on syntax that is intoxicating, and his rootedness in the bare facts of life is compelling. So is Yu Hua’s, in his epic novel Brothers, which traces the Chinese experience from the horrors of the Cultural Revolution to the boom era summed up in the one name Shanghai – the novel is bawdy, brawling and Rabelaisian one moment, the next it slow-motions through heart-rending violence in a manner that outdoes the Capote of In Cold Blood. I particularly want to say that I owe my “discovery” of Peixoto to my student Phil Jourdan, who’s himself rapidly becoming a writer whose worth will be of interest to more than his tutors and peers.

Speed Dating Two Literary Magazines: A Cappella Zoo #5 & Willow Springs #66

In Magazine, online magazine on January 3, 2011 at 1:43 pm

-Reviewed by Claire Trevien

You might remember the Sabotage review ‘Speed Dating Four Poetry Pamphlets’ – it’s now time to give two poetry and fiction magazines the same treatment! As before, I will be superficially judging the ‘candidates’ on their value for money and give you a quick trip inside their brain.

Who?

So in other words: a veteran versus a newbie. Willow Springs is a bi-yearly print journal that has been going since 1977. A Cappella Zoo is a bi-yearly web and print journal since autumn 2008.

In its 30+ years, Willow Springs has published some impressive names, such as Jorge Luis Borges, WS Merwin, Charles Bukowski, and Sabotage favourite, Mark Halliday.

As a newer arrival, A Cappella Zoo concentrates on magic realism and slipstream styles of writing ‘from around the world’.  It prints its issues first then gradually releases the material online.

Both magazines are based in the United States.

How Much?

A Cappella Zoo #5 boasts 15 stories, 14 poems, 2 artists and 5 countries for $4

Willow Springs #66 boasts 18 poems, 3 fiction stories, 1 non-fiction story and an interview for $10

What?

First: I must mention a subject that recurred in both magazines often enough that it bears mentioning: birds. Birds of all types, sometimes metaphorical, were a key theme; maybe avian flu was to blame? I don’t mind winged creatures but after one too many mention of flying the nest I was harking after a good canine tale.

In light of (fairly) recent complaints that not enough women are published in literary magazines I was also heartened to find this was quite the reverse in these US publications, with a majority of female writers in Willow Springs #66 and an equal split in A Cappella Zoo #5.

Willow Springs #66 Highlights:

Katie Cortese ‘International Cooking for Beginners’ gets first prize: a captivating yet frustrating tale of stigmatization, prejudices and fantasies. It is frustrating because of the non-dits that it peppers throughout the tale like brief peeks through venetian blinds. What Cortese is best at is sketching small-minded individuals encountering alien experiences, but without reducing them to buffoons.

Finding a stand-out for the poetry was a harder task as I was drawn to several poems, all very different from each other with their own defects and qualities. It seems fair to call out Kathleen Flenniken’s ‘A Great Physicist Recalls the Manhattan Project’. The poem deals with John A. Wheeler’s life, a man I know nothing about save what the poem tells me, which is quite sufficient. It is both personal and impersonal, blending tender observations with scientific matter of factness:

‘I watched my youngest climb as the sun blazed behind her golden hair

and realized that halos were not a painter’s invention

but a consequence of nature. Have you ever held plutonium in your hand?’

Another stand-out is Albert Garcia’s poem ‘Dig’. Narrated by a ten year old boy who happens on the grave of an Indian child, this moment of reckoning escapes the pitfalls of twee with its sober descriptions. The ending in particular, of the father shoveling earth back on the bones, ‘the sounds / of a straining body, of breathing’, is masterful.

There are no bad pieces as such in this magazine’s issue, but nor is there really any genius. Even the stand-outs that I’ve mentioned lack that certain oomph, that certain kick that makes you tingle all over. Willow Springs #66 plays it too safe for my liking, but at the same time, it’s satisfying to read works knowing you won’t cut yourself.

A Cappella Zoo #5:

Amongst the short stories ‘Birds Every Child Should Know’ by Kate Riedel stands out. It doesn’t suffer, like many other works in this magazine do, of the clipped-sentence syndrome, a tiresome technique used in an effort to heighten mystery. It is attempted by many but only mastered by a few. This story manages the right balance of information and wonder, and twists your heart in a knot in the process.

A poetry highlight is Lisa Grove’s ‘The Cat and the Fiddle’. Sensuous, deliciously crafted, it manages to pull together in a few lines a heavy mix of images: sex, dishwashing, car crashes, eating, a meditation on the future, under the arc of hey diddle diddle, without feeling contrived:

‘Our blood may ooze

over the plate of pavement like syrup spilling down

pancakes, without the time to even regret not licking

the sweet maple of our skin’

Other stand-outs are Anna Jaquiery’s ‘Fragmentation’, a mosaic of a poem that tries to pin the unpinnable, and Nancy Gold’s ‘Showtime’, a tale of freakshows, with a character worthy of a Victor Hugo novel, and a touch of Icarus.

A Cappella Zoo’s authors do not lack imagination, but it is the execution that lets several pieces down: underworked, under-thought, buried under too many contrivances to let their worth shine through. The poetry in particular suffers, struggling to manage that magic blend of clarity, ambiguity and storytelling it aims for.

In Conclusion

I wasn’t bowled over by either magazine, though both had their highlights. Willow Springs #66, the good looking elderly gentleman, seduced me first with its old school ways and reliably good poems. The cover and paper are of a superior quality too. However, A Cappella Zoo #5, like an eccentric sailor, has been craftily winning me over with its rich tales. The quality is more variable in A Cappella Zoo #5 but the imagination on display is intriguing enough to make the stories and poems that do work, shine brighter.