Archive for August, 2011

Dispatches from Belfast

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

Poetry editor Don Bogen, who has been off fellowshipping at the Heaney Centre in Belfast for what seems (to our lonesome staff) a great age, is soon to fly back to us. Appropriate, then, that his last across-the-pond post takes, as its topic, birds.

Don Bogen: A word about birds. They seem especially noticeable here, perhaps because we’re close to the river Lagan, which opens into the Irish Sea at Belfast Lough and, in the other direction, winds some dozen miles through a nature preserve along an old canal path to the former linen-mill town of Lisburn. Gulls of various species hover over our narrow street, particularly on garbage day. Along the canal path, you see more gulls, ducks, coots, moorhens and herons. As for land-oriented birds, magpies are ubiquitous and striking in their black, white, and glinting blue plumage. They look elegant but sound like ratchets—the Spanish word for them, urracas, is onomatopoetic. The crow of Ireland is the hooded crow—not completely black but with a grayish torso and black wings and head. A sturdy, good-sized creature, it looks like a raven wearing a vest. It sounds, well, like a crow. But the real singers here are the blackbirds—too small and plain to notice much, but you do hear them. Their call is rich, lyrical, and varied, like a musical conversation.

The blackbird is the symbol of the Seamus Heaney Centre. The founding director, the  poet Ciaran Carson, came up with this idea on his way to the interview for the position. He told us that he was nervous about getting the job—there are a lot of poets and folks like him with arts administration experience in Belfast—and just as he was about to enter the building, a blackbird came out of the hedge and sang to encourage him. There’s a lovely medieval Irish poem about the bird, found in the margins of an illuminated manuscript (those monks would get tired of copying the Gospels), which Ciaran has translated this way:

the little bird
that whistled shrill
from the nib of
its yellow bill:

a note let go
o’er Belfast Lough –

a blackbird from
a yellow whin

“Whin” is the gorse that flowers in March and April.

Ciaran is prominent among a generation of Irish poets now in their late fifties and early sixties who were at Queen’s University when Seamus Heaney taught here—including his Centre colleague Medbh McGuckian, Paul Muldoon, and Frank Ormsby—but he is also a traditional Irish musician, playing various flutes and whistles. Music forms an important part of the Centre. The singer and scholar of Irish folk song Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin is also on staff; she keeps discovering Irish songs that Ciaran translates and she sets to music. Ciaran and his wife Deirdre, who plays fiddle, take part in a regular session at a local pub. The scene there is hardcore traditional: The musicians have a corner table and play basically for each other—no stage, little applause. Newcomers are welcome to watch, but there are strict protocols about who can sit in. First you just leave your instrument case out to let folks know what you play. Then, maybe after two or three weeks of listening, you might open the case. But you never pick up the instrument until you’re invited, and that would be after at least a month.

We were down at the place a while back to hear Ciaran and Deirdre. He came over during a break, and talk turned, as it often does here, to poetry. You know, he said, we poets all want to sing like nightingales—or maybe skylarks. Yeah, we all want to be skylarks. I blurted out Shelley’s skylark line, “Bird thou never wert,” and Ciaran continued, But you know what we really are? We’re fuckin’ parrots, man. That’s as eloquent a statement about music and literary tradition as I can think of this side of “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

UC’s PhD in Creative Writing: The Ranking

Monday, August 29th, 2011

Kudos to the amazing profs and students who make our grad program in writing excelente. Poets & Writers magazine has ranked UC’s PhD in creative writing #8 in the country!

“The Burn”: Why We Like It

Monday, August 22nd, 2011

Dietrik's driver's license photo.

CR staff member Dietrik Vanderhill is Dutch. Like, wore-wooden-shoes-to-hometown-parades-in-Iowa Dutch. Like, grew-up-in-a-house-his-father-built-himself Dutch. Like, every-angle-on-his-body-is-precisely-90-degrees Dutch. You could set your watch on the man’s chin were in not covered by a large, bushy beard the color of fall leaves.

Last Monday, Dietrik came into our office in a state of severe agitation. He was struggling to come up with a way to describe why, exactly, Craig Davidson’s “The Burn” (from our current issue) was so compelling a story. Then Dietrik started plucking individual hairs from his beard and shaping them into letters, which he then glued to scrap paper. The following is a transcription of his wiry red missive.

Dietrik Vanderhill: For this post, I’m tempted to write a recommendation for “The Current State of the Universe,” winner of the Robert and Adele Schiff Award in Prose (in the latest issue of CR). This romping story by Theodore Wheeler follows one employee of a company called Make Things Right, Inc., a sort of karmic revenge business. The whole story is framed as a lecture by James Dandrow (the narrator) to a new recruit:

It’s simple. You cut someone off in traffic, flip him the bird, and in the morning the gate is open and your dog has run away. It isn’t a coincidence. It’s us. We’re the Furies of the modern world—the vengeance of a god gone corporate. . . .  A big part of this job is having faith that the world is better because of us, that we must sometimes act against humanity in order to preserve a state of equilibrium. But occasionally a case goes so obviously wrong that it calls the whole system into question.

But a story with passages like this—along with such a provocative concept—can easily sell itself. It provides a direct, satisfying approach to “fixing” the world’s ills, albeit on a small scale. Yet while James Dandrow discovers that pumping more malice into the system isn’t the answer all of the time (only most of the time), another story in this Cincinnati Review issue probes a bit deeper into similar territory.

Why are we attracted to destruction? “The Burn” by Craig Davidson tries to answer that. The story finds our narrator, a 23-year-old soldier discharged from the Marines after being deployed in Iraq, trying to readjust to civilian life while driving a school bus in Niagara Falls. Sections jump among three story lines: the narrator’s time in Iraq, his immediate return to the States, and his current bus-driving life. The lack of smooth transitions heightens the contrast of these juxtaposed worlds. More serious in tone than Wheeler’s, Davidson’s story gives us evils that cannot be avenged with tasteful, light vandalism. A teenage girl’s body and spirit are disfigured by cancer; an undiscovered landmine explodes a military latrine truck and dismembers its driver; a camel spider decapitates a mouse; Occidental Chemical insidiously dumps toxic waste into the Niagara. Over the course of the story, the narrator distills these miseries down to their elements (sometimes down to sentence fragments) as he, along with his bunk mate Merryweather, experience war at the microscopic level. He puzzles over why a spider is “just full of goo, like some carnivorous bath bead,” and he fights the hours of heat and tedium in the desert: “Sweat pooling in my eye sockets. Checkpoint 86K. A cement pillbox bordering a bone-white road. That was my home for eleven months.”

Do not expect this narrator to give you a contextual overview of the Middle East or offer the lens of military analysis. Instead, he conveys his world in the precise, palpable details that inspire both surprise and dread. The characters’ motivations reveal themselves piecemeal as the narrator seeks out a complex friendship with one of the students riding his bus, Bree (the daughter of a Gulf War vet, Cedric), because he recognizes that Bree chases the “burn” of a life with cancer in the same way that Merryweather was “chasing the burn,” or the inevitability of destruction, in Iraq.

So why are these soldiers (and by extension, the rest of us) drawn to destruction? “The Burn” asks us to think harder before driving toward it, especially when it seems like the only direction to go.

“Not Even Lions and Tigers”: Why We Like It

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

CR volunteer Brian Trapp is haunted. If you see him from a distance, you might think the noxious-looking cloud wafting behind him is indicative of a Pigpen-like stench, but really Brian smells okay (a bit like cashews, actually). The emanations trailing him like a comet’s gaseous tail are, in fact, [booming voice here] HIS DEMONS. Because he leads a cursed existence, we feel sorry for the guy, which is why we overlook it when Brian mutters darkly over his shoulder, burns the hair off his arm with his lighter, or drinks so much at parties that he loses skin tone.

Considering his plague-o-phantasms, it’s no surprise that when Brian picked a piece from our current issue to write on for the blog, he chose Steve Amick’s “Not Even Lions and Tigers,” a ghost story rooted in the actual and factual—with a throng of done-wrong souls that makes Brian’s own spectral assemblage seem like so many annoying uncles.

Brian Trapp: The premise of “Not Even Lions and Tigers” is the kind that I enjoy most: The seemingly fantastic is only a slight exaggeration from the absurd truth. Steve Amick’s main character and narrator, Harry Bennett, was a real-life executive of the Ford Motor Company. A former boxer, sailor, and all around street-tough, Bennett was “discovered” at a bar fight and eventually put in charge of the Ford Service Department, a clandestine and violent organization (part mob, part CIA) entrusted with busting unions and “settling” labor disputes, if you know what I mean. The man had a lot of enemies and was more than a little paranoid. He built immense fortifications dubbed “The Lodge” and “The Castle,” complete with dynamited moats, secret passageways, caches of arms and ammunition, escape routes, and, yes, lions and tigers.

Harry Bennett's Castle

While anyone can learn these things about Harry Bennett, Steve Amick takes the historical details and gives us back something even stranger and more wonderful. Told in a disarming free-indirect style, the story begins with Bennett convinced “his hunting lodge now had a full-blown infestation of haints.” He’s not sure who these ghosts are, but suspects that they’re some of the union agitators he’s snuffed out around the property. He flees from one stronghold to the other, but the haints follow. In comic escalation, Bennett squirms, going to greater lengths to disavow responsibility.

One of many moments that made me laugh out loud occurs as Bennett takes a bath to unwind. He hears one of the haints say, “Sou-oopp . . . !” Bennett thinks: “No one was turning up the boil on Harry Herbert Bennett, thank you very much. He would not be ingredients. Not today.” The story is full of moments like this. Amick renders Bennett as comic and pathetic without demeaning him, a skillful balancing act. In one poignant moment, Bennett recounts his “big break” meeting Henry Ford and teeters into self-pity, thinking of his younger self: “Before he knows it, it’s his life and maybe he’s kind of lost his way.”

With its well-crafted unreliable narrator, the story treads the line between paranoia and the paranormal, as any good ghost story should. I won’t be “that guy” who ruins the ending for everyone who hasn’t read it, but as Bennett makes his final dash, Amick ends with these fantastic lines: “He wished there wasn’t a moon tonight. Big bare bulb of a moon, looking down at him like that. Big know-it-all moon.” Bennett can’t hide, and neither can we.

Through Bennett, Amick shows how our conscience can manifest in mysterious ways. The piece is political without being overbearing or reductive, and in blending fact and fiction, it demonstrates that truth is not stranger than fiction, but equally strange.

In this spirit, after you finish reading this story, I recommend a family field trip to the outskirts of Farwell and Ann Arbor, where (clutching your Cincinnati Review) you can view both the Lodge and the Castle and re-enact Bennett’s flight from the “haints.” I’m slated to go at the end of August. Maybe I’ll see you there.

CR Featured on Cincinnati Edition

Monday, August 8th, 2011

WVXU generously interviewed our managing editor, Nicola Mason, for a segment that aired yesterday on Cincinnati Edition. For those of you who weren’t fully caffeinated and eagerly listening to public radio at 7 a.m. on a Sunday, here’s the link to WVXU’s mp3. Just scroll down to August 7 and click on The Cincinnati Review feature to hear Nicola talking about our most excellent mag without making a single throat-clearing sound! Quite a feat considering it was her first radio interview. (She does giggle inappropriately a couple of times, but we voted to cut her some slack.)

Many thanks to WVXU’s Kevin Reynolds and Mark Perzel for making it happen!

CR Featured in Soapbox Article

Saturday, August 6th, 2011

Check out this great article on Cincinnati’s literary landscape. Thank you, Soapbox!