Monday, December 13, 2004

NEW! Review of Quarterly West

Quarterly West #58 (Summer 2004). $8.50.

Reviewed by Becky Rodia

Prior to receiving the Summer 2004 issue of Quarterly West for the purpose of this review, I hadn’t read an issue in about four years. I used to admire Quarterly West for taking risks while remaining accessible and enjoyable. The Summer 2004 issue, however, wanders far out into risky territory, often leaving meaning and accessibility behind, particularly in the nonfiction selected for this issue (the sloppy proofreading didn’t help matters either; the issue is peppered with typos and errors). Despite the uneven quality of the individual pieces, however, the issue is commendably cohesive in respect to the editors’ specific tastes. A reader more in tune with the editorial sensibility currently in place at Quarterly West might find more that speaks to him or her in the Summer 2004 issue than I did.

The first few pieces are deceptively solid QW fare. Stephanie Harrison’s short-shorts, “Lists” and “Bereft,” skillfully telegraph loss and emptiness. The couple in Peter LaSalle’s story “Marche aux Shadows” moves through the dreamlike, haunting scenes, struggling with the specifics of what can and cannot be known, wondering if they’re truly on the road to the “shadow” market of the title.

Shortly after these respectably risky opening pieces, I encountered Lance Larsen’s essay, “Looking for Spiral Jetty,” winner of the 2003 Writers @ Work award for nonfiction. Though the piece achieves its overarching goal of placing Robert Smithson’s earthwork into a context, getting there is a struggle. The writing is cluttered with inept neologisms (“zenned myself into tranquility”), cliches (perhaps the most egregious of which is Larsen’s use of a dictionary definition of “jetty” to serve as an entire, brief section of the essay), and tortured metaphors (Larsen describes one of Smithson’s essays as “so torqued with technical and hallucinogenic language that I felt I was inside one of those fast food salad containers that has been violently shaken until every sentence drips with too much dressing”). What Larsen’s essay lacks in style, it ultimately makes up for in meaning. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for other nonfiction pieces in the issue, most notably the inscrutable “Conjuring” by Mary Cappello, which reads like a stream-of-consciousness journal entry (Cappello’s biographical note states that she works in “experimental prose forms,” and though I was able to understand the experimental nature of the piece, I grasped little else) and Kyle Thompson’s “Biographies Toward An Unknown Author,” which indulges in cliche after cliche about the writing life (“the novelist’s wife knocks softly . . . on his office door, and then finally breaks in to find him there . . . all bones, and his books perched fat on their shelves”) and the joys of reading (“This morning, for instance, I resurrected Chekhov and Bulgakov . . . They wandered around the room bumping into each other . . . sharing news from home”).

The fiction is stronger. While I felt Harrison and LaSalle were the standouts, Janice Levy’s “Between the Rhymes” does a good job of depicting the detached shock of a woman whose husband has recently died, and Ann Pancake handles image-laden stream-of-consciousness adeptly in “Coop,” a story about rebellion at a camp for disadvantaged girls:
The girls throbbed in the doorway, four or five deep.The girls throbbing, the howl a blood-orange come-here spiral, the girls piled, arms thrown across backs, heads over shoulders, and everyone quivering against the rule. Throbbing. They never broke it.

Come morning, they found out the other coop had tried to burn their bunkhouse down.

The poetry selected for this issue is solid. Stephen Cramer’s “The Whetstone” takes the unearthly sound of a musical saw as the jumping-off point for an acutely felt, beautiful meditation on loss:“one edge can slice you / while the other keeps singing.” The wry poems of Mike Dockins and Kurt S. Olsson are as entertaining as they are thought-provoking, particularly Dockins’s “Notes Toward the Last Poem on Earth,” a list of events--or lack thereof--that would render poetry unnecessary (“No thin layer of ash covers the town,” “Glacial ice recedes at a sensible rate,” “Even the hangovers are tolerable,” etc.) and Olsson’s “Chicken Man,” an homage to characters who frequent cheap restaurants, “retail familiars” who are tolerated, even needed, “so long as there’s no cause to rummage beyond the twitch, the lisp / the change purse a blackjack of tarnished pennies, / the lost child.”

Donald Platt’s “Spring Theophanies” is a wonderfully dizzying rush of reversals. No sooner is something given than it’s taken away, as in the first five lines:
     The pear trees
put on their white see-through chemise of blossoms
          that the season will strip

from them until they stand shy, shivering with rain,
          and green . . .

The poem’s alternating litany of progress and destruction, life and death, bestowing and denying, is tempered with brief pauses: “Consider the all-night laundromats . . .” “Consider also the day lilies . . .” Everything that bursts forth in this poem inevitably subsides or is negated, leaving one with the feeling that April surely is the cruelest month.

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