Tuesday, July 24, 2007

New Issue Review: West Branch no. 60 (30th anniversary issue)

"I would have to find some way out of this life to trust it entirely,
and how far can you trust the unknown even to stay unknown,..."
-from "Trust," a poem by William Olsen

"The mind can imagine, in fact must imagine in order to know, but imagination can lead to betrayal."
-from "'Darkness Visible': Five Books of American Poetry," a review by Sarah Kennedy

West Branch Celebrates the Age of the Little Magazine

This 30th anniversary issue of West Branch is yet another slim, assured collection of writing from Bucknell University, largely serious in subject matter throughout, but never slipping into morose narcissism or undeserved sentiment. Instead, the writing largely consists of fairly even-handed representations of painful, complex human landscapes.

Editor Paula Buck opens the issue with an interesting comment about us living today, "not [in] the age of the individual writer, but, in keeping with Whitman's democratic vision, the age of the literary magazine--manifestation of a rich, collective multiplicity that is racial, ethnic, aesthetic, intellectual, and political." Certainly there is much to be admired in the lit mag enterprise today and in history. Almost across the board these magazines place artistic and humanitarian motivations leaps and bounds ahead of commercial or capital ones. As Buck herself says, this therefore results in magazines more diverse than mainstream commercial glossies, and therefore perhaps also more of a creative and literary endeavor--one never of individuals talking in the dark to themselves, but instead of conversations, groups, influences, and community. Though one would never demand for every little magazine to be diverse in a politically correct sense (where diversity is forced upon them, rather than found within them), it is heartening to be able to rely on little magazines to represent a diversity of interests. And, what is perhaps most endearing of the little magazine genre and all independent artistic community productions, if a particular interest or voice (or collective interest or voice) is not available, a reader can rest assured that some university writing program or driven young publisher will somehow create extra hours in their day in order to soon make such a venue available in the lit mag world.

This issue of West Branch does not trumpet its 30 year achievement, as many magazines do by publishing old archival letters, essays from writers about the magazine's history, or other such things. It is instead a quiet, considered celebration at West Branch, consisting only of another issue, more good writing.

Beginning with the cover painting, "Jenny's Fan," by Harold Reddicliffe (pictured above), there are many fine pieces in the issue, which will give the reader pause (again, one of the qualities of little magazines: they are mostly enjoyed at a slower pace than the larger mags, every description and brush stroke savored, every photograph and poem pondered over as though foreign riddles). The most stunning is James Doyle's poem "Looking Forward to the Twentieth Century," a dryly comic musing on the future and our lemming-like reaction to its approach. Yet, one must make it to the center of the issue to find the poem (page 59, to be exact), where many of the issue's finest pieces are to be found. This brings up the question of publication order when it comes to putting together the issue--as a slow, but beautiful piece of writing by Pablo Medina and some other less captivating poems keep a reader from coming sooner to these more powerfully engaging works, to such lines as "He is an artist of loneliness," or "The sand/ a little queasy under all the tripods/ that snap impromptu farewell pictures."

But none of the issue is lacking in achievement; every piece is proficient and well-crafted. Unexpectedly perhaps, some of the best writing in this issue comes at the very back of the book, in two poetry reviews by Matthew Ladd and Sarah Kennedy. Both reviews have a common theme: poetry's response to human suffering. Ladd takes on political engagement in contemporary poetry and Kennedy looks at the serious turn American poetry seems to have taken. Each review is an insightful look into the nature of poetry and its engagement with today's violent world. Though poetry literally makes nothing happen, as Auden said, Kennedy and Ladd look at just how much poets struggle with the world's misery and their possible powerlessness to change it. But, our reviewers seem to say, poetry can still inform and move us. While discussing Aleda Shirley's book, Dark Familiar, Kennedy writes, "It is a right conclusion for this book, but readers who are faint of heart about the condition of our country and our world should enter it with caution."

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