Let's Discuss! Cincinnati Review, Fall 2022, Issue 19.2
Lit Mag Reading Club discussion
Welcome to our Lit Mag Reading Club discussion!
So? What did you think of Cincinnati Review, 19.2?
I always find it interesting when journal issues don’t have explicit themes but when themes emerge nonetheless. One wonders whether the editors sought work that specifically spoke to a topic, or whether the editors’ subconscious minds geared them unwittingly toward an area of interest.
The fall 2022 issue of Cincinnati Review had a distinct Gen X thread running through it. Of course, this isn’t the only theme. There is a wealth of material in this 260-page volume, with writers from all over the world exploring a range of issues. In these pages you will find 6 short stories, 7 works of nonfiction, one play-in-progress, poetry from 21 poets, 4 craft essays and reviews, and 2 portfolios of visual art.
Less experienced writers who have their eye on this magazine as a possible home for their work should take heart. While many of the contributors here have one or more published books under their belts, some have just a handful of publishing credits. For one author, this is her first publication.
The issue opens with “Flown,” a short story by Julia Ridley Smith. Here a woman, Wendy, discovers that her daughter, Megan, has become friends with Harris, a boy who is the son of the mother’s own estranged college friend, Fiona. If this sounds confusing, I assure you it’s not. Smith’s strong voice and clear characterizations keep the reader on solid footing throughout.
At the beginning of the story, Wendy observes Megan (her daughter) hanging out with a new boy (Harris). Wendy knows Harris is the son of her estranged friend but doesn’t want to mention this to anyone, for fear of chasing away both the boy and the possibility of reconnection. She never did understand why her friend (Fiona) ghosted her so many years ago.
Wendy’s secret can only be kept for so long. Eventually Fiona appears and due to a curious turn of events, the two former friends must get into a car together and look for their children, who have gone missing. There, the real truth about their friendship and Fiona’s disappearance come to light.
The story is a deft interweaving of various threads, among them midlife angst, marital dissatisfaction, the ways that adult relationships can pale in comparison to the intense bonds of our younger years (or the rose-colored memories of those younger years, at any rate). Also wonderfully woven into the story is a whole other thread: a true crime saga that has captured all the characters’ attentions. Here a fictitious woman named Cora Goodnight is on trial, “for killing (probably) her three husbands and her pastor.”
The voice of this narrator won me over instantly. By way of explaining the backstory to Wendy’s friendship with Harris’s mother, Smith writes:
Sophomore year, UNC Greensboro: 1991: Wendy’s smoking out front of McIver after Renaissance Poetry when this lanky girl with dyed black hair borrows her lighter. As cleaner-cut students cross the sun-dappled campus paths, the girl tells Wendy the filthiest joke she’s ever heard another girl tell. Delighted, Wendy asks her name. Fiona. Delighted again.
The “Fiona. Delighted again,” is is presumably a reference to Fiona Apple. Other details give weight to the Gen-X-y-ness here, such as the “thrift shop dresses and steel-toed boots” worn by Wendy and Fiona in their younger years as well as the husband “always losing jobs because he was too hungover to go to work the morning after a Green Day concert.”
But it isn’t only these generational references that shine. Wendy’s observations are astute, specific and often hilarious. Her pining for her lost friend and her resigned acceptance of her imperfect marriage make her deeply sympathetic. She’s down-to-earth, self-deprecating, and the moment when Fiona finally reappears in Wendy’s life is expertly handled for both dramatic and comic effect.
It’s the ending of this story where some questions were raised for me. The ending has Wendy reckoning with aspects of her personality that she has not yet faced. Her teenage daughter explodes on her, telling her she’s “a total ass-kisser who just begs for attention from literally anybody…”.
Fiona, meanwhile, explains the real reason for her disappearance: Wendy’s attempt at a good deed turns out to have been a terrible error. Fiona tells Wendy, “‘You might as well have put a gun in my hand.’” Then later: “‘You couldn’t just let me have it, my sadness…Because it wasn’t about you.’”
I always love to see characters forced to reckon with their own behavior and confront features of themselves they’ve denied, particularly if it involves having hurt someone else. However, when this story took that turn, I wasn’t sure whether I felt satisfied or slightly led astray.
I suspect, in part, this has to do with my real fondness for Wendy as a character. Up until these moments of revelation from her daughter and Fiona, Wendy hadn’t struck me as a particularly self-absorbed person. Her observations were wry, her longings funny, sad and relatable.
In turn I wonder, is my response to the ending part of the point here—that Wendy has told the story in her own way, as we all tend to do, placing herself as a maligned victim or charming hero, while in truth, in the eyes of other people, she is neither? And does this relate to the trial of Cora Goodnight, who is either a victim or a murderer, depending on how one tells or understands her story?
Was there, in fact, a thread of delusion underlying Wendy’s ideas of herself all along? In the final moment of the story, she reflects on birds painted by naturalist James Audobon, noting that they were “[p]ainted with such cruel precision…killed purposely to make it easier for the artist to render them.”
There is something Wendy sees here, it would seem, as whatever delusions she may have harbored about herself finally fall away. The question is, where does that leave you, a reader, who trusted her and delighted in her company all along?
Sylvia Chan’s personal essay also describes a 1990’s-era childhood. Though the subject matter and tone of this piece, “If It’s My Time,” are completely different. Here Chan tells of growing up as a foster child and finding love and family with a boy named Evan Isaiah. “I met the boy I call my brother, Evan Isaiah, in 1998, when we were wards of the state in California. As foster youth, we often played near the train tracks behind Mickey D’s and Dairy Queen, running around the wooden crossties.”
The essay moves back in forth in time between the current day, where Chan is mastering piano playing, the long-ago past with Evan Isaiah, and the recent past where she visits him in prison, where he is being held for murder, up until the time of his death. The scenes between brother and sister are powerful, including one particularly poignant moment in which Evan Isaiah gives Chan direct and honest feedback on her writing— “Syl, the secret to writing not just poetry but poetic prose…is to use poetry devices for following the lives of the people you love. That’s how you draw out devotion.”
Chan draws out her devotion to her brother meticulously throughout the essay. She writes,
In the string quartet, Beethoven asks, “Can we alter fate?” How do we know what we can and cannot change? It’s this resistance to our fosterhood, to the conventions of loving someone who is not my real brother, that makes me love Evan Isaiah, the boy who will kneel in front of me until my tears—from parents or bullies—stop running. He’ll push back my hair, braiding it into threads, creating a beautiful crown. Then he’ll wipe my face and tell me to get over it: he’s still there.
The essay that follows, “Through,” written by Shara Lessley and Danielle Cadena Deulen also explores various ideas of connection. Here, the narrator describes the women in her town as “women who, in the 1990s, were still those girls in babydoll dresses and knockoff Docs,” sounding not unlike the wardrobe of the characters in Smith’s short story.
The subject matter, though, has more in common with Chan’s essay than with Smith’s story, as it grasps for definitions of home and attempts to understand feelings of displacement and “the rhythm of uprooting.” The narrator is writing from the United Arab Emirates, where she has moved eighteen months ago for her husband’s job. “With each post,” she observes, “the act of starting over feels increasingly absurd: and endless parade of hellos and goodbyes as I march past moving trucks and crates…Sometimes I wonder if home is simply a syllable, a single note, an out-breath—say it’s so, and it is.”
The authors use the film Return to Oz — “the ‘80s fantasy-bordering-on-horror that revisits Dorothy at an asylum where she nearly undergoes electroshock therapy,” as a means to explore the essay’s themes. What does “home” mean when one is constantly moving? What did “home” mean for Dorothy, who claimed there was no place like it, yet who had just experienced Oz, Emerald City and various friends in those places?
In one of the cleverest and most touching moments of the piece, Lessley and Cadena write,
Maybe because it’s pushing four a.m., maybe because I’m half-delirious myself, I start fantasizing about life over the rainbow…wonder how Blum’s plot would’ve shifted had Dorothy been swept away not with her beloved dog but an infant and toddler. The idea, I know, is absurd. Bottle of Formula 409 in one hand, I snicker imagining Judy Garland’s middle-aged double dragging her son and daughter down the yellow brick road, refusing the Munchkins’ lollies, stopping to change a diaper in the corn filed, coaxing her young son through the twisted shadows in the haunted wood…Perhaps the trouble is that I’m less Dorothy than Aunt Em—wringing her hands, waiting for the one she loves to come home. Or am I the Witch?…Still, if I click my heels I wonder where we’d land…
In Beth Staples’s short story “Leaf Peepers” we encounter another character who is displaced, though it’s displacement of a more psychological sort as the narrator gradually comes to terms with the possibility that the life she always wanted may be out of reach. This wacky, wry and charmingly witty short story begins, “After my cousin canceled her wedding, Dave and I still decided to go. We had invested so much in the idea of it, plus a new dress, a room reservation…, a route to peep at the changing leaves on the way in and out of the state.”
The narrator, we learn, has invested in a lot of ideas, none more wrenching than the vision of herself as a mother leading a conventional sort of life. The narrator tells us,
Dave and I owned an okay house outside of DC and had jobs where we made enough money. That was who we were, mostly like everyone else.
But actually, I wasn’t normal. I didn’t get to have what everyone else had. My 2.5 children were missing. If my life was going to be suburban banality, I deserved all of it. The whole fucking stupid picture. Didn’t I?
Why does she have this impression that she “deserve[s] all of it”? Where did this perception of her life form? Well, this hilarious exchange between the narrator and a bartender would seem to explain it all:
“You were raised in the ‘80s, am I right?” I looked down at my shoes to see if I was wearing too many pairs of socks…"I was," I said cautiously. “Did your parents tell you you could be whatever you wanted to be?” he asked. “‘80s exceptionalism. I escaped it because my parents beat the shit out of me.” “Jesus,” I said. “That was a joke,” he said, not smiling. I sat there with my mouth open, unsure how to react…
Fueled by liquor, karaoke, encounters with strangers and a kind of recklessness borne from the awareness that one’s life is about to change, the story takes various strange and extremely fun turns. My favorite moment here is this exchange, when the narrator’s husband and their new acquaintance Marta start talking about big-picture stuff. The subject of whether or not to have children comes up.
“We don’t believe in kids,” Marta said. “Oh, they definitely exist,” Dave said.
At the end of this issue, we encounter another author duo raised in this time period. In their craft essay, Emily Pérez and Nancy Reddy discuss the genesis and development of their anthology, The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood.
How did this anthology come together? What inspired it? How did its creators first meet one another? How did they ensure a range of views on the subject from a variety of poets? They write, “To us children of the mixtape-infused ‘80s, a thematic approach to the book’s organization seemed better than chronological or alphabetical ordering.”
As for other aspects of the anthology, the authors mostly figured it out as they went along. Their “working strategy involved many shared folders; thousands of emails…and a willingness to do things that scared us.” For anyone interested in putting together an anthology on any subject, this essay would surely be of interest.
Of course, not every piece in this issue deals with growing up in the eighties and nineties. Trauma is another theme. JJ Peña’s penetrating “origami into hurt” features a speaker who recounts “late-night sofa stories, when my mom & dad were getting a divorce…”; Matt Young’s clever and devastating story “Allt Detta Kan Vara Vårt” presents a young man reliving the horrors of the Iraq War while shopping for furniture with his pregnant wife at IKEA. “IKEA was terrifying. Striking and bright, people juking and bumping…I wished I had a shell. Fucking Kevlar shell—vest, helmet. Rifle. Goddammit, I wanted a rifle.” Gradually and with increasing force, the foreign IKEA words come to be stand-ins for war terminology.
Many of the speakers in the issue express a pining for love, family or something unnamed. Patrick Kindig’s “as if i were something that might be hunted” takes us into the loneliness of dating and, specifically, “cruising/the trails looking/at the other men looking/at me & when there were/no men to look at I was looking/at Grindr as the leaves fell…”.
In “autobiography” O-Jeremiah Agbaakin describes one’s own name as “a noose that won’t let you be.” JJ Peña’s other two poems concern a loved one who has gone missing and a loved one’s suicide. Lindsay Stuart Hill’s “pine, n. and v.” plays on the notion of pining: “There is always/another meaning: waiting, in your language. Like longing’s bone with its marrow/sucked out.”
In Sarah E. Robinson’s story “Happiness and Abundance,” Mina longs for a man who does not reciprocate. By the end she realizes it’s actually a better life that she wants, though she’s not sure she’s ready to make the necessary sacrifices for that life to be possible. “Her future…There it was, waiting for her, all the versions, all the time. The one in which she gets her shit together…the one in which that restlessness inside her, that constant need to go go go, consumers her; and the one in which it finally stills.”
Two additional prose pieces go heavily into the world of work. In Debbie Chase’s essay “Taking Out the Trash,” Chase explores class differences through the lens of restaurant work and the symbolism laden in the idea of “trash.” As there is no backdoor in her restaurant, servers are forced to “weave through the customers, with all that trash.” The work allows Chase to find solidarity among the kitchen staff after being laid off from her office job. “I needed the grime of the kitchen, the misfits,” she writes. “My professional workplace had thrown me out, yes, I’ll say it, like trash.”
Claudia Ramirez’s short story “Bottom-Feeders” also explores class relations, this time through a close and penetrating look at the gritty work of sturgeon fishing. This is Ramirez’s first published story, and it is impressive indeed.
are thorny, large, and old, crusted with dinosaur bumps. They look as if they could tear a person to bits…They eat muck and trash. Suck it from the lake floor like a vacuum. They swim to the surface only because they are curious about the dangling Bud Light can…the musty old boot, the detached doorknobs that fishermen place strategically in the light. Curious.
Throughout the story, there is light and darkness, as the men find fragile alliances with one another, tease each other and care for one another through this dirty and dangerous work, all while “[c]ustomers funnel in and out of the doors.'“
This issue of Cincinnati Review contains much more, including a portfolio of lively and gorgeous erasure poems by Lisa Huffaker; colorful and inviting works of “intuitive painting” by Stan Kurth (also the cover artist); a play by David Greig called “Peggy,” written for a specific purpose as “a story to be ‘dropped' in’ to a dramatic history of World War II, produced by [a theater company] in Oslo.”
While there are a few pieces here that are formally experimental (Jehanne Dubrow’s essay “Seventy-Seven Steps,” written as a 77-item list; Jason B. Crawford’s “love; a burning haibun” which begins as a large block of sentences with no capitalization and moves to increasing erasure in two subsequent variations), the overall thrust of the magazine feels narrative-oriented and character-driven. This is a journal where people matter, their stories matter, and the editors invite you to enter their worlds fully in order to understand and, in many cases, laugh alongside them.
This issue is large, offering a bounty to readers. You might feel that there were a few pieces that stuck with you, for one reason or another, and whose meaning you understood instantly.
Or, perhaps you may feel like the speaker in Flower Conroy’s free-flowing and at times heartbreaking prose poem “Because Just Last Night I Was Saying When I’m Eighty Years Old—” who says, “But that being the point. I could keep as much treasure as I could clutch, only to find they slipped thru my fingers the more I tried to hold onto them.”
What did you think?
What moved you?
What made you wonder, think, laugh, question, dream, consider?
What surprised you?
How did you find the physical layout of the journal?
How did you see the works speaking to one another?
Let’s talk all about it!
We will be speaking with Editor Lisa Ampleman about this issue this Thursday, March 30th at 11:00am est. Whether you’ve read some, all or none of this issue, you are welcome to come out and join the conversation. Registration for subscribers can be found here.