Riding the crest of literature can be done with literary journals
by Rob Neufeld
Last week, I wrote about “Asheville Poetry Review,” a new issue of which has just come out. This week, I take up another literary journal, “The Southern Review,” published at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
By the way, buying someone a subscription to a literary journal this holiday season is not a bad idea. (See list below.)
Reading a literary journal is like going to a club rather than a concert for the music scene. There are advantages to the grass roots approach. For its part, the new “Southern Review” delivers many surprise hits.
Rash in pond land
The most impressive hit, for a few reasons, is Ron Rash’s short story, “The Woman at the Pond.” It is a beautiful thing that the “Southern Review,” salvaging a creative flowering from its region’s drowning, has found Rash of Western North Carolina, the American author who most represents pooling water.
In the story, a man watches a pond being drained. He recalls his times, as a youth, out alone on the pond.
He’d untie his fellow townsman’s boat, get in with his gear, “paddle to the pond’s center, and fish until it was neither day nor night, but balanced between. It was then,” the narrator relates, “that I paused in my casting, let myself become part of the stillness.”
Rash then focuses on a theme that has special power for him—the wish to save people from drowning. The connection with New Orleans becomes that much more poignant.
Gifts of the anglers
The story is vintage Ron Rash. You can’t be a Rash reader without reading this story. One of the things that Rash brings to literature is the world view of a mountain fisherman—along with glimpses of the loss of his people’s ways; and a story tradition that includes horror.
The narrator snags his fishing line in a pond at which he’d met a tragic woman. “That night,” he says, “I dreamed that I’d let my hand follow the line until my fingers were tangled in hair.”
For much of the story, he’s sitting by the pond, letting its archaeology of litter and life trigger memories. The process is not unlike the efforts of “”The Southern Review,” which, to illustrate its region’s archaeology, puts historical nautical charts of the Gulf of Mexico on its cover and in an insert.
“Many of the bays, inlets, and islands no longer exist,” the editor, Jeanne M. Leiby notes, adding, “It is all too easy to read these charts as elegies.”
“Tin House,” published in Portland, Oregon, is one of the great literary journals, and has published some of our region’s best authors.
Its most recent “Winter Reading” issue presents some of our country’s master writers trying out new things.
Adrienne Rich, a poetry star at age 22 in 1951, and winner of the National Book Award for “Diving into the Wreck” in 1974, presents yet another incarnation of her talent in the poem, “Turbulence.”
“There’ll be turbulence. You’ll drop,” the first line goes in her lurching message about a plane crash. She has matched her thought patterns and manner of speech to the type of event, and has come up with a form that represents modern consciousness.
At times, concepts tumble; and at other times, the poem’s voice comes across as reassuringly calm. “Breathe normally,” the poem ends.
As I am grateful for Rash’s story in “The Southern Review,” I am grateful for Kevin Brockmeier’s story, “Ryan Shifrin” in “Tin House.”
Brockmeier, age 38, author of six books, including two novels—highly acclaimed but not yet a household word—has nailed an ambitious type of tale; and I feel as if I am riding the crest of American fiction-making having read it.
“Ryan Shifrin” starts out in a somber way. A forty-year old, parentless bachelor is taking care of his sister during her last hours. He carries on her life’s work, distributing “Good News” leaflets to households. You feel like you are in an Anne Tyler novel, accepting and in some way celebrating the ordinary.
Then the story begins to launch into Biblical heights.
Ryan witnesses “The Illumination,” which also happens to be the title of Brockmeier’s upcoming novel. With a single turn toward fantasy, the story’s inhabitants exhibit and see people’s wounds and hurts lighting up. Ryan is shocked by one inexplicable occurrence, the lighting up of a woman’s entire skeleton. He has two more encounters with her before moving on.
The “Illumination” becomes a fact of life, taken for granted, and does not change human behavior. Ryan, stopping in various American cities for his mission work, contemplates a “taxonomy of wounds.” The story is very modern—with its crime scene catalog of evidence and its post-traumatic hero.
Then, Ryan experiences hope—the making of new friends in Burkina Faso, where he is sent to translate the Bible into colloquial English for African Christians. The disasters that follow earn him the tag, “the surviving American,” and at the end of his life, with past and present mixing in his mind, he considers various explanations of God’s existence.
The illuminations—the sufferings—are filled with God’s light, and are what God finds beautiful, he imagines. Or, “God had merely gone to sleep for a while…and the suffering of humankind was like the sunlight that gradually suffused the sky in the morning…Maybe they hadn’t yet suffered enough to rouse Him from his bed.”
Brockmeier has written a kind of Book of Job and Book of Revelation that stem neither from a wealthy believer’s travails nor from an exiled apostle’s vision , but from a church mouse’s accidental tourism.
Hot off the literary griddle: literary journals