Edited by R. T. Smith
Washington & Lee University
Published quarterly, 1 year, $22; 2 years, $40; 3 years, $54.
Speaking the Mother Tongue of Art
Literary journals in the United States seem to be going through an upheaval of sorts. Always on the fringe of the marketplace, they are supported by writers, libraries, schools, and other institutions, and largely ignored by a general reading public. This makes them largely self-sufficient, and consequently, they can be trusted as an authentic source of what our better writers are doing long before they are published in book form.
The problem is, as with many self-enclosed communities whose goals are achieved through craft, art, and investigation, many writers (and journals) are becoming aesthetically distant. Poems and poets have turned more toward the dislocation of word and object, more toward deconstruction and fragmentation. Poems appear for shock value, for their movement away from any form or meaning. Fiction writers are relying on shifts of verb-tense, surprise endings, jagged prose that cuts on a visceral level, often using madness, rage, or some other strong emotion as the driving force. Poet Robert Hedin complained of this phenomenon in a recent essay in A View from the Loft.
It is with a breath of relief, therefore, that journals like Shenandoah are rooted more in the notion that great storytelling, great poems, and a consistent format of presentation will always transcend swings in what is considered hip by moody literati. Shenandoah has published Dylan Thomas, W. H. Auden, James Merrill, Ezra Pound, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Yusef Komunyakaa, Mary Oliver, and a number of others at various points in its illustrious history. My review copy contained works by George Singleton, Allison Funk, and a translation by W.D. Snodgrass. Formed in 1950 by undergraduates of Washington and Lee University, Tom Wolfe among them, Shenandoah has become a respectable smaller literary journal (by “smaller”, I don’t mean in the sense of mom-and-pop or homespun, I mean in relation to giants such as The Paris Review or Kenyon Review.)
The stories in Shenandoah are generally very good but sometimes rely on a trick or turn of phrase. A prime example of this is Kevin Stewart’s story “Red Dog”. It begins with the lines, “It was late April, and John F. Kennedy was coming through southern West Virginia. Pax Combs toted a single-shot 16-gauge down a dirt road lined with Queen Anne’s lace, daisies and weeds that stood to his knees.” In just these two sentences we are given the month, the setting, details of the scene, and a potential for conflict, the heart of any good story. “Red Dog” unfolds with such skill that we are drawn into it as into a dream. We are there when Pax’s gun is taken away by the Secret Service, we are there when Kennedy appears, in a downpour of rain, to address a throng of voters who have just been fed and are about to be given liquor, though unofficially.
The ending, despite the story’s brilliance, is quite another matter. It relies in a shift in verb-tense (future perfect) to cast light on events that are sure to happen just after the story ends, a device that either provides an “ah-ha!” moment or not. If you don’t have this moment, as I didn’t, you are left hollow and wanting. After several times through this section I understood what was happening, but felt cheated. There was no real closure, and it fails Raymond Carver’s famous dictum, “no tricks!” Although one other story in this collection relied on a device similar to this, the stories are generally very good, and where they may fail in plot, they make up for in style. The stories are of varying lengths—from flash fiction to a story of general length—which makes for some interesting variations in style.
The poetry, though, is the real prize of this journal, and there is a nice mixture of well known poets and lesser known but talented poets. From Allan Peterson’s haunting “Shadow of the Hand” to Allison Funk’s “The Last Entry in the Escape Artist’s Diary” we are shown a wide range of styles, of thematic interest. Consistent, though, is the attention to line, the placement of words, the sheer beauty of language attempting to retrieve what can be said using no other vehicle. There is no bad poem in the bunch. There is not even a mediocre poem.
Poet Lee Ann Roripaugh uses basic terms of luminescence and bioluminescence as as extended metaphors for life and mystery in her brilliant poem “Bioluminescence”. Here is an excerpt from the section labeled “III. Lumen”:
we would all be if longing
shone through our bodies,
if our skins were translucent
lanterns flushed with yellow flame
leaping in the strange
and unpredictable winds
of our desire, like
the neon Morse code fireflies
use to brazenly flick the night.
Because I was unfamiliar with some of the terms in this poem, I did a little research. Each new discovery revealed something new, and that was a true delight. The term “luciferin” is a basic unit of bioluminescence, one type of which is found in fireflies, a recurring image in this poem. Poetry, as Li-Young Lee once said, is the mother tongue of art, as close to religion as we can get with words.
See how Mike Perrow uses trees in his poem “Trees in my Brother’s New Backyard” to get glimpses into the speaker’s familial history, whether actual or constructed:
“. . . these you have
inherited are unique, perhaps,
to this bunch of streets.
You spare them sever prunings.
They are uninspired geniuses
bearing secrets from the rise of suburbia.”
These are poems that are interesting to read the first time through and grow with weight an meaning the more you look at them.
I was less impressed with the non-fiction essays in Shenandoah than I was with the poetry and fiction. I found them to be of only average merit, and I suspect that they were included, as the book review and translations, to continue the tradition of a well rounded journal.
One thing that is really impressiveabout this journal is the price. The newstand price per issue is $8, which is significantly less than many other journals, and this is a perfect-bound journal, with a full-color cover and quality paper. A subscription will bring the single-copy price down to $5.50, a mere pittance for the quality of work Shenandoah features. I read a lot of journals—this one comes recommended, especially if you love poetry.