Come to the Table

by Jeanne Howe

From left, prose writer Nina Baxley Rogers and poet Jane Curran are the Spring 2016 Editor's Choice winners, selected by Guest Editor Jeanne Howe, right.

From left, prose writer Nina Baxley Rogers and poet Jane Curran are the Spring 2016 Editor's Choice winners, selected by Guest Editor Jeanne Howe, right.

What are you looking for when you open a literary magazine? Maybe the ring-a-ting of diamonds crystallizing in your ears as you come upon a perfect phrase? Or a video projected inside your skull, one that transmutes your brainwave tracings into a rhapsodic orchestral score? Possibly you hope something you read here will fill you with such light you’ll feel, like Billy Collins, that if your skin were cut you would shine instead of bleed. Or something to make you imagine, like James Wright at the pony fence, that you’re about to break out in blossoms.

Well, closer to Earth, I think you come to literature in search of affirmation that others—the writers—are, like you, thinking things over, reaching for meaning. You want from them the great, open-handed gift of putting their thoughts and explorations right out there for you and a throng of unseen others to scrutinize, for whatever benefit may accrue to countless readers the authors don’t even know. Then too, sometimes maybe you’re looking mainly for entertainment, whether or not birdsong and honeysuckle are part of the experience.

But be warned, literary reading is not without risk. You might be challenged, jolted. You might be changed. Your accustomed ways of looking at things may be confronted. Just when you expect a window with a long view out, you may find instead a mirror that gives back a top-down view of yourself and what lies behind you. Spooky or surreal writing (yes, we have that) might put a breathy nuzzle on the side of your neck that raises a moment of unwelcome self-recognition. (Poems especially can turn on you at the end—I’ve actually heard poets call that toothy last couple of lines “the turn.” Consider the cynical bite of this closing I read recently in a literary magazine: A dying drunkard’s last words to emergency room caregivers are, “Make me a stiff one.”)

But spring is here, and you’re up for new ways of seeing, and hungry for the pleasures of a creative and accomplished lot of writers to share glimpses of things as they see them. So come ahead. See what is here for you among the offerings of this issue of The Great Smokies Review.

My assignment as guest editor has been to choose one prose piece and one poem I like best—notice I didn’t say the ones that are best—and to come up with some cogent defense of my selection. So I will. I said I would, and I will.

But my primary and larger intentions are twofold. First, I am so glad for the opportunity to express my admiration and gratitude to each of the writers (and their faculty in The Great Smokies Writing Program) and to the editorial and production staff of the Review. Second, it pleases me greatly to invite and welcome you, the reader, whatever you’re looking for, to partake of this fine and varied collection those writers and staff, artists every one, have made yours for the taking.

As part of welcoming you, please let me offer an overview of this issue’s inclusions as I see them.

  • If you’ve been across the water, you’ll enjoy sitting snug and smug at home as you smile (or, like me, laugh) at Deborah Fulton Anderson’s memoir “Inbound.” Here she describes a thirty-years expat—expert navigator of foreign countries where the grocery clerks initially smirked when she didn’t know she should have weighed the bananas before checking out, didn’t know she was expected to bag her own purchases in sacks she’d brought into the store with her. It’s fun to watch this world-wise sophisticate return “home” to discover under trying but comic circumstances that she is not exactly fluent in the culture and language she grew up with.
  • Belle Crawford’s novel excerpt from Passenger Girls offers wonderful images, for openers “the small flickering light that is Barry walking across the night-dark lawn.” This story plays muted but recognizable psychological undertones about how the young female narrator learned to “tell by the way his flashlight’s beam dances how much Barry has had to drink.” Intrigue mounts as Crawford slowly discloses the relationship between the girl watching and the man watched, and the oddness of the times and setting that embed “the long night ahead of her.”
  • Chris Culbreth, in “The Hunt,” will take you to a place we all knew at one time—aspirational adolescence—in her coming-of-age misadventure about the struggle to balance idealistic goals of achievement against the relief of reconciling to less than had been wished for. The images her story gave me were indeed gifts, as was her character’s reminding me of the comic philosopher Ashleigh Brilliant’s almost-Buddhist quip about feeling better because of giving up hope.
  • John Falter’s short piece, “Monday,” shows us what I dearly hope is only an imaginary dip into religious ritual. I compliment Falter for his courage to set aside “nice” in his writing. At the very least, he does his part to support the Keep Asheville Weird movement.

Maybe, like me, you enjoy writing that is grounded in a place you know by name and can recollect as you run the visuals the writer sets up. My first realization of how well this craft approach works came years ago, when I read an early Gail Godwin novel that only obliquely mentioned our local skyline’s Mount Pisgah and the Rat. John Falter is one of several writers for this issue who place their stories in specific, identifiable geographic settings.

  • Stephen Goldman, in his memoir “Ethel,” brings you his bygone childhood in a flow of images and voices that set you down in the nineteen-fifties Bronx, where all the older women have the same henna hair and the apartment house elevators smell “a hundred years old . . . from the accumulation of decades of home cooking.” I admired Ethel for her compassion and empathy, and her unflagging fist in the face of her inevitable fate. And admired also the uncontrived way Goldman gets his essay to circle on itself so that the Escher stairway of its opening so naturally appears in its closing.
  • Nina Baxley Rogers’s fictional “Eula Mae,” takes us to a place most of us wouldn’t choose to visit, and made me glad I didn’t miss it. I think you’ll find the writing concise, the verbs delightfully sprightly, the velocity of the story line perfect, and the dialect musical and transporting, never distracting or overdone.

The thirteen poems in this issue’s gift pack present a gratifying range of poetic forms, geographies, and points on the life span. And moods that range from menace to laughter and right on through to serenity.

Several of the poems definitively put to death any still-naïve reader’s notion that poetry is all hearts and flowers.

  • Peg Breshnan’s “On the Outskirts of Phnom Penh” hits us with close-ups and zoom-outs of a wartime atrocity we only wish were forever shut off into history.
  • Jane Mary Curran shows a fleshy close-up of the particularities of death, too, before the raven in “Communion” finishes its work and rises above it.
  • In a back-and-forth between a painter and his primal, bloody subject matter, Alice Gregory’s “The Sound of Laughter” makes explicit the translation of language into pictures and vice versa.
  • Jo Ann Hodshon’s “In Witch Hazel Days” leaves no uncertainty about the facts of death and suffering as Hodshon makes us peek through a “crack in closed curtains” at troubling truths she perhaps mercifully leaves somewhat hidden.
  • On the sunnier side of things, Anne Maren-Hogan’s poem “In This Winter House” shows childhood on a farm (but very unlike the Kentucky farm childhood in the Culbreth short story mentioned above) and lifts our hair and our spirits with the thrill of getaway.
  • “Hopscotch,” your gift from Karen Luke Jackson, is interestingly displayed as a “shaped” or “concrete” poem that uses visual layout as well as subject matter to invite you to recall a town child’s game—and the game’s end.
  • Joady Perrett’s “Awakened,” makes perfectly marvelous use of an introductory epigraph from M. C. Richards, another potter/poet/seeker whose several forms of artistry carried themes so compatible with Perrett’s. This poem discloses to its readers a deeper dimension to the always engaging experience of watching a potter work clay on a wheel.

Three of the poets offering you their work in this issue have written villanelles. A villanelle (as everyone is born knowing but may have temporarily forgotten in the lather of presidential election politics) is a centuries-old form of five three-line stanzas and a concluding four-line stanza, with a precise rhyming pattern of aba in the five tercets and abaa in the quatrain. A major feature of villanelles is the formulaic repetition of lines. The first line is repeated, slightly modified to lend mounting significance, in the end of the second and fourth stanzas and again in the poem’s next-to-last line. And the last line of the first stanza recurs at the ends of the third and fifth stanzas and again as the poem’s closing.

As to content of a villanelle, the sky’s the limit, as our three examples show.

  • Mike Ross’s “Poe Boy” blends an almost slapstick humor with the daunting discipline of the villanelle form. I think the silly, sandwichy sound of its title is not unintended.
  • ”Mixed Usage,” by Joyce Thornburg, goes dark, both in imagery and in its hint of menace.
  • Alida Woods, in “Promissory Note,” brings us face to face with what is perhaps the ultimate fact of life: time ticks unstoppably on.
  • In “Disconnect,” Shirley Sparr offers a humorous wink at one of the universal literary themes, humankind versus nature. Hmmm, I wonder who will win in the end.
  • “Child’s Play,” by Cecily Hamlin Wells, immediately invites you into its reminiscent setting, an invitation I find strengthened by her use of one of poetry’s major features, meter. This is a poem that “turns” on us at the closing by a jolting shift of focus from girlhood play to some women’s grown-up realities.
  • Meg Winnecour, in “The Night Before,” takes the long, intergenerational view of living and learning, of simultaneously understanding one’s parents at last and realizing that one’s children are similarly fated to have to find things out for themselves.

Now, about my selection of a favorite prose piece and a favorite poem: Here be thin ice, if not exactly dragons. I’m not one for competitions, and I truly found real merit in each of the works collected here. It’s been hard for me to say two of them are more pleasing than all the other sixteen. But—and this is not just an excuse to justify my reluctance to rank the several artists’ work—aesthetic preferences, as you know so well, are, after all, entirely subjective. You might choose a painting because it says Monet on the bottom corner, while I could (let’s hope not, though) prefer another painting instead because it goes better with my living room curtains. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as we’ve been told—and literary art preferences are in the sensory organs and brainwaves, even the abdomen of the reader, if you allow me to carry on with the tropes I started with back before I stepped onto this thin ice.

With those disclaimers, here goes.

I so enjoyed and admired the facility with which Nina Baxley Rogers’s short story “Eula Mae” lifted me out of my daily self and set me down hard in that way-down-South care facility where Eula Mae and her peers waged their troubled social life. Effective sensory cues, not least of them the vivid imagery, closed me into that suffocating setting where minds wander and ongoing petty (or are they?) hostilities fly far faster than the wheelchairs or even the cake and dentures at the food fight. Without fail, the story’s descriptions came through in beautifully paced 3-D video with surround-sound. The characters’ rivalries amused, but their longings pierced me. I was there. If this story works that way for you too, you’ll hear the piano hymns and the accompanying soprano assault ramping up and you’ll see the thick frosting on that cake close-up and smell the odor of “lemons and urine and bleach” rising from the speckled linoleum under the wheelchairs. Is it warm in here, or is it just me?

Jane Mary Curran’s poem “Communion” held special meanings and pleasures for me. And a portion of uneasiness that may take some time to resolve. This is one of those poems that, after I have read through to the end (and this is a gift more often found in poetry than in any other literary form) turns out to mean something additional, something larger, than what it initially seems to have been “about.” The poet’s claim to be the bird she writes about was for me a provocative opening and a risky business, but I admire both provocation and risk-taking in the right circumstances, and think Curran gets away with them here. Her first-person description of the roadkill dining experience helped me believe she might indeed be in some sense one with that raven. Then came the troubling breakthrough, especially after I noticed again the title of the poem. I was opened to consider, for the first time, whether there is some bleed-through of sacrament in the usual religious sense of that word into sacrifice of life not in a sacred setting but as roadkill. The obvious other word in this trinity is sacrilege. Provocative. This poem is not yet done with me.

The invitation to guest-edit this edition of The Great Smokies Review has been a considerable pleasure and privilege, for which I am grateful. I commend each writer on the work, and admire each for slogging on in the art that drives us and the craft that seduces us forward, and thank each for the pleasures and provocations of being among their readers.

These prose pieces and poems are yours now. You will discover your own favorites, perhaps your own unfinished business. I think of Edna St. Vincent Millay, with apples in her skirt, saying, “Look what I have!—And these are all for you.”

Jeanne Howe is a retired academic, a registered nurse, and a several-times student in Great Smokies Writing Program courses. Her literary work has appeared in The Great Smokies Review, North Central Review, The Village Rambler, and Common Ground Review. She lives in Asheville.