Reviews of the Ephemeral

Posts Tagged ‘A Cappella Zoo’

A Cappella Zoo 10 – Spring 2013

In Magazine on April 22, 2013 at 1:39 pm

-Reviewed by Rebecca Burns-

About thirty or so pages into this collection is a set of illustrations by Cheryl Gross, drawn to accompany Nicelle Davis’s three ‘In the Circus of You’ poems. Although I would never claim to be an artistic specialist, Gross’s drawings remind me of John Tenniel’s illustrations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories. This strikes me as particularly apt, for the Bestiary Special of A Cappella Zoo is a strange, eclectic wonderland of prose and poetry, drawing together the real with the imagined and fantastic.

A Capella 10

Weighing in at a hefty 345 pages, A Cappella Zoo is comprised of seven sections, with titles like ‘Crematorium’, ‘Shelter’, ‘Aquarium’. Its editor, Gina Ochsner, sets out the journal’s remit in the introduction – to provide a space where magic realism can be presented as a ‘viable and legitimate form for narrative and image-rich poetry’. In this respect, A Cappella Zoo succeeds; gruesome, zombie-like stories jostle alongside shorter pieces about oddly fragmented families. Some are disturbing, others powerful. A disinterested father disappears into sand at a children’s playground, an elderly grandfather turns into a tree, the body of great-uncle who had been severely wounded during the Second World War falls apart time and time again.

Some pieces in the collection really shine; for example, ‘When The Weather Changes You’ by Amber Sparks. The empty sadness of the great-grandmother, the story’s protagonist, is captured perfectly in the metaphor of ash – decaying inside, the great grandmother is unable to love but urgently longs for the physical heat exerted by her only lover. Sparks portrays the grandmother’s conflicted desires with sensitivity, leaving the reader sympathetic rather than frustrated with her plight. Similarly, the ghoulish intrigue of ‘Three Conrad Poems’ by Kristine Ong Muslim is equally well done. The poems juxtapose the theme of familial love and Frankenstein-esque grotesquery of a zombie family: “I squeezed his hand to make him stop. It crackled./‘Don’t worry,’ I whispered over a mouthful/Of grass, earth, and dark river water. A family recipe./‘I’ll weld the bones later […].’ Such loving grotesquery is repeated later in Randolph Schmidt’s ‘Larva’, where a father imitates his son – in order to understand him – in the eating of insects and wood.

I was also moved by the sad, respectful tone of ‘War Crumbs’ by Joe Kapitan. The great-uncle in this story ‘falls apart’; literally, his body breaking apart at the joints. The disintegration of the self is repeated elsewhere in the collection, as in ‘The Adventures of Star Fish Girl’ by Lindsay Miller. This piece has a distinctly female take on the theme and provides an interesting take on the consumptive nature of relationships – that sense of something being taken by a lover.

Another standout story is ‘Trouble in Mind’ by Julia A. Rosenthal, which portrays the loss of language and its replacement with a number-driven intelligence. It is cleverly done, with Rosenthal skewing the common experience of partners becoming unable to talk to each other. In the parallel world of ‘Trouble in Mind’, this inability to talk occurs to characters following an illness. They become infected with a condition that takes away their vocal abilities and understanding of spoken language, replacing it with a new, number-driven intelligence. The ‘infected’ characters thus communicate with each other through Byrons – machines that translate and transfer the silent speaker’s words. It is an interesting premise and Rosenthal is skilful in her representation of the loneliness created by a decaying language. The only thing that didn’t settle with me in this story was the use of word Byron. To my mind, Byron conjures a sensual, brooding poet, who used language to challenge and provoke. Perhaps calling the translation machines Lovelaces would work – Ada Lovelace was Byron’s daughter, and a pioneer in maths and forerunner of computer algorithms.

I enjoyed and was challenged by this collection. Some poems and stories took me well out of my comfort zone and I applaud the ambition. The Bestiary edition of A Cappella Zoo is a journal to revisit and re-read.

Rebecca Burns is the author of Catching the Barramundi, longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Award.


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.


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


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.