Archive for the ‘Why We Like It’ Category

Schiff Awards Follow-Up!

Monday, October 5th, 2015
Thanks to everyone who entered our seventh annual summer contest. You sent us essays: There was that beautiful meditation on the altered state of motherhood, for example, as well as that investigative, yearning search for a family past erased by slavery. You sent us pitch-perfect comic stories: We got one featuring a computer coder with a suicidal grandma and a girlfriend obsessed with an Amish reality show. (You thought you had problems!) You sent us sharp and lyrical realist stories: We received several heartbreaking and disorienting tales about what it’s like to live with dementia. You sent us imaginative fabulism and odd magical realism: We got many stories that explored gender, including one in which a woman wakes up with a man’s (ahem) hardware. And you sent poems. One of you imagined the sex life of zombies. One of you imagined the sex life of Gollum. Several of you reimagined that original sex scandal in the mythical garden of yore.  You sent us secrets and heartbreaks, childhoods and dreamscapes. You sent lists and villanelles and rondeaux, and a record-breaking number of prose poems. You sent us (vicariously) to the boulevards of Paris, the villas of Italy, the research labs of Antarctica, and the backyards of post-apocalyptic America. We had an embarrassment of riches, and we’re embarrassed we could only pick one winner.

Don Bogen on the winning poem: Jaime Brunton’s “Chase” is the first prose poem to win the Schiff Award and a great example of the genre at its best. Here are some things I especially admire about it.  First, it’s definitely a poem. Neither narrative-driven nor expository, “Chase” can’t be mistaken for flash fiction or a paragraph in an essay. It uses sentences the way a good poem in free verse uses the line: with grace, variety, and special attention to sound. “Chase” revitalizes phrasing, so that the most impersonal, empty constructions—“There is,” “There are”—come to support subtle emotional exploration. What the poem has to say about time, loss, and our hopes for a clear arc in the lives of those we love is marked by discovery and insight. “Chase” is sharp, sensitive, and brilliantly rendered, a standout among prose poems and poems in general.

Michael Griffith on the winning story: Robert Long Foreman’s “Awe” features a documentarian who, adrift after a project gone tragically wrong, has quit his profession and is seeking . . .  well, is seeking renewed access to the sublime, to awe. His bizarre stratagem is to arrange through Craigslist to watch a woman give birth. In Foreman’s nimble hands, Bill’s alternately comic and poignant (mis)adventures with the couple who agree to allow this make for a delightfully askew, surprisingly emotional story.

Check the blog tomorrow for our distinguished list of HONORABLE MENTIONS. (Sorry, meant to announce them today, but there have been logistical . . . complications, and we don’t want to leave anyone out!)


Why We Like It: “Abeyance” by Amanda Lee Kallis

Monday, September 14th, 2015

kodi-the-peekapoo-31125-1414709407-8Rochelle Hurt: Hybridity is a topic of much discussion of late: hybrid cars, hybrid crops, hybrid dogs (the Goldador, the Peekapoo, the Schnoodle). It’s always exciting to encounter something that inhabits two seemingly separate worlds at once. What I love most about hybrid dogs is the way their breed labels carve out entirely new spaces for these creatures. The Goldador is not a Labrador that looks sort of like a Golden Retriever, nor is it a Golden Retriever that barks sort of like a Labrador. It’s something else entirely; it’s a Goldador.

Amanda Lee Kallis’s “Abeyance” in issue 12.1 also inhabits (at least) two worlds at once, making use of literary conventions associated with two different genres. Viewed from one angle, “Abeyance” is a long prose poem sequence (which is how it’s categorized in our issue), but from another angle, it’s a segmented lyric essay. The best way to read it, in my opinion, is from a vantage between these two. Let’s call it an essem or a poessay—or better yet, let’s not worry about its particular genre and instead just revel in its strange beauty.

Kallis blends scientific terminology and philosophy (from Descartes, Horace, W. E. B. Du Bois, and others) with lyrical descriptions in a fragmented meditation on mind and body. In the first section, Precursor, she writes: “Negligible or non-senescence is observed in the hydra, a water creature. . . . The price of biological immortality: pearly simplicity and some nettling tentacles about the mouth.” Through a fusion of the discursive essay voice and poetic metaphor, she creates a fresh mode for discussion of the body. Her movement through the piece is largely associative, following rhythmic echoes of phrases and images. Take, for example, this passage from section 11, Scale: “So much talk before speech. You have to snake the clog. My insides are pitched. Immortality is a snaking thing. Immortality is a dog chasing its tail.”

“Abeyance” uses formal hybridity, not simply as a means of innovation, but rather as a reflection of its content. In this piece, the acts of aging, seeing, reading, writing, and understanding, are often hybrid processes. In section 8, Monsieur C, Kallis writes: “A stroke, of course. A shattering deep somewhere. A visible silence. The most significant finding for our purposes is that, in all of that circuitry, the seat of writing is not that of reading and yet we can talk, you and I, in an uneven silence.” The use of synesthesia in the phrase “visible silence” reveals the body as a natural hybrid. We process information through a series of almost imperceptibly distinct mechanisms (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste) that become one through the very act of perception. In this way, “Abeyance” is also a piece of meta-writing that provides a guided tour through our own process of reading it.

Dear Committee Members reviewed

Friday, September 4th, 2015


Here at UC, we and the rest of the English Department are anticipating the October visit of Julie Schumacher, who’ll read in the Elliston Poetry Room at 4 p.m. on the 26th of that spooky month. Staffer and fan Don Peteroy reviews her latest—Dear Committee Members—below.

Don Peteroy: In Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, Jason Fitger has had enough. He’s a former novelist, has had several divorces, and works as a burnt-out creative writing teacher at Payne University, where literary arts are becoming obsolete. His students—usually international finance or software engineering majors—are either apathetic or apt to write stories that celebrate excessive gore. The university is remodeling the floor above the English department, where the financially privileged economics department resides, and Fitger must deal with the constant noise of jackhammers and toxic plumes coming through the ventilation.

Taking place over the course of an academic year, the novel is told in epistolary form. The majority of Fitger’s correspondence involves requests for letters of recommendations from adjuncts, current students applying to other programs or universities, English majors from years ago applying for catering jobs, and, in one specific instance, a student who’d received a C- in Fitger’s writing class who seeks employment at Avengers Paintball, Inc. Fitger explains to Avengers Paintball that the student’s “autobiographical essay on the topic of his own rageful impulses” makes him a perfect candidate for the job. Other letters involve departmental politics, and Fitger’s persistent, but unanswered, requests for the university to take notice of the increasingly hazardous state of his work environment, due to the renovations.

Early in the novel, we realize that Fitger has blown his cork. He uses his letters as a medium to rant about the IT department’s incompetence, redundant documentation, and his failed relationships and literary career. His tirades are hysterical not only because they’re unprofessional and, at times, completely random, but because they’re honest. For instance, he writes, “Alex Ruefle has prevailed upon me to support his teaching application to your department, which I gather is hiring adjunct faculty members exclusively, bypassing the tenure track with its attendant health benefits, job security, and salaries on which a human being might reasonably live. Perhaps your institution should cut to the chase and put its entire curriculum online, thereby sparing Ruefle the need to move. You could prop him up in a broom closet in his apartment, poke him with the butt end of a mop when you need him to cough up a lecture on Caribbean fiction or the passive voice, and then charge your students a thousand dollars each to correct the essays their classmates have downloaded from a website. Such is the future of education.”

Dear Committee Members is not simply a collection of witty letters, though. There is a narrative arc, and a central conflict through which the novel achieves greater sophistication. Beneath the humor, a tragedy concerning one of Fitger’s students, Darren Browles, brews steadily. Fitger cares deeply about Browles, but as the student’s plight worsens throughout the year, Fitger finds himself powerless to help him. Browles becomes the victim of a culture that privileges certain individuals over others, institutional oversight, and administrative bloating. While Fitger’s letters written on behalf of Browles ridicule institutional ethics (and are therefore funny), they also highlight how deeply serious and horrible Browles’s situation is becoming.

Practically every other page of Dear Committee Members made me laugh. In each letter, Schumacher reestablishes and reinvents the terms of her humor, so the novel stays fresh, with surprises all the way until the end. At the same time, I found the tragic element so heartbreaking that, upon closing the book, I couldn’t do anything but remain seated and staring ahead for long minutes.

Julie Schumacher grew up in Wilmington, Delaware and graduated from Oberlin College and from Cornell University.  Her first published story, “Reunion,” written to fulfill an undergraduate writing assignment (“tell a family tale”), was selected by Anne Tyler for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 1983. Subsequent stories and essays have been published in The Atlantic, The New York TimesMs., and Prize Stories The O.Henry Awards: 1990 and 1996.  Her first novel, The Body Is Water, was an ALA Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her other books include a short story collection, An Explanation for Chaos, five novels for younger readers, and, most recently, Dear Committee Members, a national best seller and winner of the midwest independent bookseller award.  She is a professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota.



CR Sampler

Wednesday, August 19th, 2015

samplerHey, everybody. The term starts next week, the winter issue is with the typesetter, and we’re already back to considering and reading submissions for our upcoming spring 2016 number. Actually we never stopped. It has taken us all summer to . . . almost . . . catch up. (Only thirty more to go from last term!)

For those unfamiliar with the journal, we urge you to give us a read before submitting. Sample back issues are seven bucks. There’s no fee to submit to CR, but our system prevents you from submitting another piece (or packet) before you’ve heard from us on the last one you sent. With a response time of (usually) three or four months, that means you’ll only get a couple of shots at it in a given reading period. In other words, choose carefully. In other, other words, send us your best stuff.

For a few samples of material that has been published in our pages—and commented upon by our staff and contributors—check out our blog:


The latter story, a marvelous piece by Tom Paine, is included in his new collection, A Boy’s Book of Nervous Breakdowns, just reviewed by Publisher’s Weekly.

Special Fiction Feature: Tom Paine’s “It Was Just Swimming”

Monday, April 13th, 2015

covsketch_final (2)We’re doing something unusual with this feature—running a piece from our pages (in this case a story in our current issue, “It Was Just Swimming” by Tom Paine) in its entirety on our blog. We hope to present you with more such content in the future, and we are grateful to LSU Press for allowing us to reprint the story, which will appear in Tom Paine’s collection, A Boy’s Book of Nervous Breakdowns, this October. Below we offer commentary from volunteers and staff members Katie Knoll, A’Dora Phillips, and Nicola Mason, as well as remarks by the writer on his work. To read “It Was Just Swimming,” click here.

From A Boy’s Book of Nervous Breakdowns:  Stories by Tom Paine, Copyright © 2015.  Reprinted by permission of LSU Press,  All rights reserved.

Katie Knoll: Tom Paine’s “It was Just Swimming” is the perfect example of a story going where you’re convinced it won’t, where it can’t—where, in its first lines, it has already promised to go. “They asked the clerk at the Best Western if the water was safe. . . . of course it was safe!” Reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Paine lets disaster lurk in every line, capturing the strangeness and danger of a day on the Florida beaches. The story’s roving gaze makes each image unexpected, each action as surreal as the next. “People up and down the beach baked under a sherbet of umbrellas. The American flag was snapping. The sky was plutonium blue. He was going to ask his girl to marry him tonight.” The piece has this delightful willingness to just experience itself—the world it creates—and the mind of the man who takes it all in. This willingness to just see lends a wild energy in the piece, which races from grandmothers giving tongue-kisses to asphyxiating boys to car-chase scenes, all while maintaining the kind of heart-stopping line-writing like “when the sunset murdered the sky.” “It Was Just Swimming” left me reeling; eager to stay in Paine’s world, a little scared to get out of it.


A’Dora Phillips: Who doesn’t wonder what might be lurking in the ocean’s depths? In “It Was Just Swimming,” this ubiquitous sense of unease adds to the bewitchment in the story’s backdrop: Is the water enchanted or dangerous? The eerie slipstream mode Paine has adopted works well to create an elusive sense of what is real. The trouble, we might think, is the narrator himself, who has “gotten weird lately,” his impressions warped as his mind feverishly travels from thoughts of his pregnant girlfriend giving birth in a Jacuzzi to perceptions of the Kodachrome-brilliant beach. At the vacation hotel, the clerk seems too old to have children, yet his “twin boys” are out there, catching silver minnows. When there’s “something grainy,” some “weird alien stuff” on the protagonist as he surfaces from the waves, we don’t necessarily realize that we ought to be on alert. The kind of person who throws himself into experience, our narrator takes in stride the water tasting of Clorox, his burning eyes.
beachThough the story is securely anchored in contemporary reality, Paine is preoccupied with the “tripline of miracle” that surrounds his characters. Instead of the old fisherman and his wife, instead of the lighthouse keeper, Paine gives us the twenty-first-century seekers: the narrator, his girlfriend Catalina, and his friend Jimbo. And when the inevitable occurs and something does emerge from the water, something terrible, you wonder why more writers are not reconditioning the ancient tropes of storytelling in light in today’s real-world horrors.


Nicola Mason: “It Was Just Swimming” is a masterpiece of pitch. It hits the highest register in almost every paragraph, and though Paine never swings away from this extreme mode of expression, the tone modulates, toggles back and forth, blends, lending the pitch wildly varying shades of emotion. He’s like a virtuoso playing a one-stringed violin. What begins as jubilance (“It was 101 degrees out! Who wouldn’t charge the ocean? The ocean was liquid salvation! God’s own swimming pool!”) merges with incredulity as the narrator and his pal Jimbo encounter a strange substance in the surf (“The only way to get the waxy orange stuff off was to go at it with plastic knives from the dining room of the Best Western. Even then a couple of layers of skin were lost!”). Soon thereafter, alarm enters in (“He scooped up the kid who was clawing the air. The beach was spinning under him, but he charged with the boy to his Harley. Taking action!”), followed by outrage (“Those twin kids were just playing on Fort Walton Beach! Building a sand castle like every other American kid in summer! That’s not supposed to be playing with napalm! There was something in the water! In the water!), fear (“They zapped Jimbo’s heart with the paddles. Handlebar doctor glared up at the red numbers of the digital clock and stopped compressions. Handlebar stopped compressions!”), confusion (“It was like every pore in his body was leaking at once. But he had no temperature! You can’t sweat buckets without a spike in temp! He was coming back negative—negative negative negative—on all the tests.”), and an odd form of realization (“A lot of these guys had been his sworn enemies. Jesus! They were going to miss him!”). The story does not relent until everyone—characters and readers alike—are inhabiting the same charged consciousness, feeling the same pervasive dread, the same stunned grief. Then—in the final line—it releases us, grimly, beautifully.

sperianAnd yet as tragic as the piece becomes, there is something about its excess that reminds one of those movies titled “Outbreak,” “Contagion,” “Carriers,” “Quarantine.” It is grandly, madly tragic; even absurdly so as odd moments of humor slip in (“Jimbo had the other kid by the hand and was telling him to keep gargling Coke. Jimbo had a strange faith in the curative power of Coke”); or bits of bloviation (“No, he wanted to be more help, he did! But he was a shrimper, not a doctor”); or melodramatic medical gobbledygook (“I’ve got four autopsies already of people who went swimming today. I’ve seen dissolved esophagus, enlarged hearts, and we’ve got samples of ethylbenzene, m-xylene, hexane-2, 3-methylpentane, and isooctane. . . . This guy’s body is full of things you wouldn’t believe.”)

The story is both horrifying . . . and entertaining. It gives you that gut-sick feeling . . . and makes you snort. It is, to use an old simile of my dad’s, as serious as a wolf in the woods, yet it’s also a spoof of sorts. With “It Was Just Swimming,” Tom Paine creates a new genre: the contemporary eco-disaster black comedy.


Tom Paine: I’m a little uncomfortable with writing about a story. Commenting on one’s work means using the word “I” a lot, and maybe that’s why I moved to fiction. The anonymity. But here goes: Corexit. We sprayed Corexit, a cousin of Agent Orange, all over the Gulf after the BP oil spill. Corexit adhered to the oil and pulled it out of sight to reduce BP’s liability. But Corexit made some Floridians very, very sick. Medieval boils and pox and vomiting and death. Not to mention we left the Gulf an ecological septic tank and took a very oily shit on the sealife. So the story seems like SciFi, but is based on testimony. People really did have these horrible allergic reactions and died–not that it made the news. We live in a time when water and skin–the simplest relationship– is in question. What happens to the ancient sea-loving soul when the sea is poison?


Why We Like It: Reading Susan Wheatley’s “The Recording Angel” with Wim Wenders’s WINGS OF DESIRE

Thursday, March 26th, 2015
Rochelle---aka The Angel of---Hurt

Rochelle—aka The Angel of—Hurt

Volunteer Rochelle Hurt, who will be coming on staff next year as one of CR’s assistant editors, once went by a different name. After college, drawn by the bright lights, frenzied crowds, and—it must be said—classy costumes, she devoted herself to the glory known by professionals as the grappling arts. As the avenging Angel of Hurt, she powerbombed, chokeslammed, and moonsaulted her way to the top of her field. Yet standing upon the stacked spines of conquered opponents, she felt . . . empty. Whereupon she saw something . . . up there . . . twinkling in the distance. Yea, the ivory tower glowed even more powerfully than a klieg-lit coliseum. There was one more celestial stronghold left for her to scale. She promptly applied to grad school.

WINGS_OF_DESIRE_SE-21Rochelle Hurt:
 Reading Susan Wheatley’s “The Recording Angel” reminded me of a favorite Wim Wenders film, Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin), in which angels roam Berlin, invisible but always in close proximity to humans. Against a backdrop of graffiti and 1980s pop cultural icons (including Nick Cave and Columbo’s Peter Falk), these angels listen to and record the thoughts of humankind. Susan Wheatley’s angel plays a similar role. The poem begins: “For he observes when the posts are well sunk beneath the frost line/ And he knows when they are not, and the wooden church will fall/ For he stayed the hand of Abraham and keeps the oceans in check.” The potential for sentimentality in a list like this is undercut by the poem’s point of view: We’re not given the recording angel’s unfiltered observations, but rather an image of him in the recording process. The poem is really about the act of amassing knowledge, not the knowledge itself. There is an emphasis on lack and passivity in the angel’s process: “he knows when they are not”and “keeps the oceans in check.” This kind of knowledge-building through lack is mimicked in the poem’s rhetorical structure, which piles up information through the anaphoric repetition of “for,” suggesting that these bits of knowledge are explanations of an antecedent we never get in the poem. Its absence allows the poem’s content to accumulate indefinitely, because it avoids the closure of a complete sentence.

Both Wenders’s and Wheatley’s angels serve as artist figures, though the two have very different temperaments. While Wenders’s angels take pleasure in even the most mundane human musings, Wheatley’s can hardly bear the earthly world: “he bandages his ears so as not to hear the people pleading.” The risk of becoming emotionally overwhelmed is implicit in the angel’s struggle. In this way, speaker-as-writer and angel are compared. Likewise, in Wenders’s film (which he explained was partially inspired by Rilke’s poetry), the creative process as a result and a means of observation is examined through music, acting, writing, drawing, and performance—and this process is far from painless for Wenders’s characters. One of his angels begins to feel too much for the world he observes, falling in love with a circus performer. In doing so, he essentially assigns more value to the content of his recordings than to the art itself, sacrificing his ability to record the world for an ability to participate in it. The similarly meta-poetic quality of Wheatley’s poem (a recording of a recording) is explicitly recognized in the final stanza: “For he is scribe and intermediary/ For I am scribe and intermediary.” Angel and writer watch each other, and so they seem equal, but the poem’s final turn reveals the fallacy of this logic: “For I cannot see/ And he cannot turn aside his many eyes.” Ultimately the writer cannot see the world from the distance afforded the omniscient angel, while the angel cannot not see the world in its unbearable totality.

Why We Like It: “Drawn In” by Martha Collins

Thursday, February 26th, 2015

Like most of the students in our eclectic PhD program, CR volunteer James Ellenberger has a “life-I-left-behind” story. Some of these pre-ivory-tower tales involve spotlit stages and mosh pits, the shark-eat-bull world of high finance, the loss of a productive copper mine in a crap hand of five-card draw, and a new identity courtesy of the witness protection program. Thus we were not surprised that night at Arlin’s a few months back, when we were swilling RyePA in celebration of a staffer completing her exams, to learn of James’s shocking past, his secret gift, his hidden passion: high-end shoe repair. He was waxing rhapsodic over the intricacies involved in reattaching a platinum-plated zipper to a $3000 Louboutin python stiletto boot when managing editor Nicola Mason interrupted: “Wait. You were . . . a cobbler?” Not only that—as you’ll discover below—but also a proponent of good dental hygiene who can pull off a Harry Potter metaphor.

James Ellenberger: Martha Collins’s “Drawn In” follows something like the artifice of an advent calendar: Instead of tooth decay in the name of our Lord, however, there’s a six-line poem tucked behind each flap. I’m fondest of the structural integrity of these vignettes—and how Collins, in evoking Dante at points throughout the poem, asks her readership to consider the continuous movement from section to section as a kind of terza rima. Beyond that, the poems themselves resemble the staircases at Hogwarts, constantly shifting, never really losing momentum. Take, for instance, the transition between sections two—“held by the walls// of this now for my small city”—and three—“City where Catherine/ and Jesus traded hearts”. The repetition of “city” manages to hammer into colloquialism the high religious ethos and rhetoric surrounding the referenced locale (Siena, Italy). These shifts between high and low diction might be suspect if it weren’t for the smart scaffolding that these poems are built into. Structure aside, the poem’s just damn beautiful. Excerpting here, due to the integrative and fluidity of the form, doesn’t do the poem justice, but what follows is a handful of my favorite lines:

                where Dante, knowing
nothing of crust or core, made his own
       layers down, where he had

                 to go, on his way, down

Why We Like It: “The Radical” by Brock Clarke

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

Our new assistant editor, Don Peteroy, has some definite ideas about fiction. Author of Wally (Burrow Press, 2012), an epistolary travel novella about an unstable protagonist who drives from Cincinnati to Inuvik, Northwest Territories, to settle a score with Santa Claus, Don keeps a photocopied image of L. Ron Hubbard taped to his office wall. This morning, he was talking with one of our volunteers about how uncanny certain trends in contemporary American fiction have become. “It’s like a collective unconscious thing,” Don joked: “If a character’s blonde, he’s evil. If he has green eyes, he’s going to seduce someone. And, strangest of all, if a story opens with a couple painting a bedroom wall, you know a sudden death’s about to occur.” Read on to discover why Don admires Brock Clarke’s short story “The Radical” (11.2), which not only manages to avoid these tropes but successfully negotiates another theme that has become common to both fiction and nonfiction: the contemporary cancer narrative.

Don Peteroy: A writing professor of mine once advised, “If you can predict what your next move is going to be, do the opposite.” Brock Clarke’s “The Radical” seems to make best use of that technique: Inevitability is turned inside out; surprises escalate, one-upping each other; rules are established and immediately broken. Though it sounds like I’m describing a story by Steven Milhauser or Robert Coover, the experiments in Clarke’s piece are subtle; barely detectable. The protagonist finds out he’s got cancer. On the night of his diagnosis, he writes a letter to his wife, Therese. She never actually sees the letter, but hears about it years later, and this belated discovery marks the beginning of a slow-moving deterioration that will affect their relationship and that of their close friends.

I admire how much of the dramatic effect of this story hinges on dislocated time. Though the moment of narration is years later, we’re not aware of any retrospective distance until about halfway through the story. Up until that point, it’s strictly present tense—but then we must recalibrate. This isn’t a gimmick or trick: The shift evokes in us the kind of temporal and causal dislocation that the protagonist experiences. Furthermore, we get the sense that the protagonist admonishes the advancement of time—it brings about decay and dissolution. He attempts to forestall the inevitable. Structurally—even down to the sentence level—the story embodies the protagonist’s penchant for evasion. Soon, however, we’re thrown back into linear time, where there are consequences. This is evident in the last full paragraph, which builds tension by delaying closure, but cannot indefinitely forestall the inevitable, discomforting resolution. The effect is profound. Because the story is narrated from some point in the future, we’d expect the narrator to have come to terms with (or to have mastered) his interpretation of past events. Not quite. “The Radical” is both a story about loss, and a story about the drama of telling such a story.

Why We Like It: “Bedside” by Andrea Cohen

Thursday, December 11th, 2014

Poet, first-year PhD student, and rock-star volunteer Matthew Pennock harbors some idiosyncratic aversions: proems that overuse anaphora, hoppy beers, zombie films that try too hard to make a point. In the office last week, as Matt entered copyedits into WordPerfect, we caught him gazing longingly at a stack of unopened boxes of back issues. When we asked what was wrong, Matt sighed: “Why can’t poetry be as creepy as Toddlers & Tiaras?” Read on to discover why Matt admires Andrea Cohen’s brief but affecting lyric “Bedside” (11.1), a poem, Matt says, that keeps him thirsting for more.

Matthew Pennock: Economy of language—that’s the name of the game in poetry. Who needs all those words, anyway? That stuff’s for dead Russian novelists, and magazines in dental-office waiting rooms. Give me a six-line poem any day. Give me a dense little word star radiating from the page. Andrea Cohen only needs twenty-five words in her poem “Bedside” to accomplish what Tolstoy might’ve taken twenty-five pages to do.

Cohen’s poem revolves around the central metaphor of water. Water is life, youth, and love, and when we lack these things we wither; we dry out. The lasting effect is a piece fraught with angst and disbelief: fear that current loneliness will become permanent; fear that age has taken its toll, and that the speaker is long since passed her prime—all of it hinging on a central image, “When did the tumbler // of water, bedside, fill / with dust?” A palpable experience for anyone who has awoken to a dry mouth and reached for last night’s water glass—the taste of one night’s dust altering the flavor of the water. I know that taste. I know that fear. Cohen’s poem makes me experience it all over again.

Why We Like It: “Vogelsong” by Leslie Parry

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

A self-proclaimed tech-geek and amateur dog-trainer, new volunteer and first-year PhD student in fiction Brenda Peynado has a talent for incorporating her disparate interests into conversations at the CR office. A discussion about the midterm elections or streamlining our contact database can lead Brenda into an analysis of the male catcall in the Dominican Republic or a consideration of myth and realism in the novels of Isabel Allende. It’s this interest in the multifariousness of human consciousness, Brenda tells us, that attracts her to Leslie Parry’s haunting story “Vogelsong” (11.1)—the idea that a single person contains multitudes, and that the many can speak as one. Read on to discover why Parry’s story continues to fascinate and even disquiet us so many months after we first encountered it.

Brenda Peynado: I’ve always loved the first-person plural. I love that it can propel the reader into dizzying relationships quickly, and then show how a whole group is haunted, how a whole group falls apart. “Vogelsong” is a beautiful example. Like a ghost story, the collective memory of the day a busload of blind schoolchildren came to the eponymous Florida attraction still lingers desperately in the staff’s imagination, spoiling the sanctuary they’d tried to build there. In turn, the collective character’s nostalgia of what they cannot keep forever chills the reader.

Nothing about “Vogelsong” is typical. The cast includes a harmonica-playing elephant, an ex-beauty queen with her face disfigured, the German immigrants who own the retreat, orphans, and a drunk performance-diver. The setting, exquisitely rendered, exploits surreal elements of the Florida landscape: a discarded fountain of youth, old walls of a slave plantation that advertise death tallies, alligators and canoes, and “a breeze carrying the smell of molasses and rust up the river.”

Parry’s offering will stay with you long after you put it down, haunting you the way only the best ghost story can. Except here, the ghosts are the exquisite moments of your own life that slip away, whole days that disintegrate, until all that is left is the recollection of how “the wheezy hee-haw music would follow us as we rounded the fountain, as two otters splashed away and darted to the shore, and just as we turned east, the sun would flame to life behind a black whoosh of birds, and then we’d think, Oh.”