The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence

New England Review

Stephen Donadio, Editor. Middlebury College, VT.  Vol 28.  No 3.  207pp.  2007.  $8/copy.  Subscriptions $25/year. 

NER is the glossy-covered publication of Middlebury College and contains poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.  The innocuous front-cover illustration sketch of branches and leaves by Geoffrey Detrani mirrors the socio-politically disengaged nature of the journal. 


Jay PariniThe first poem by Danielle Chapman, “In Order,” is rather simple, about grief, and mentions God.  On the other hand, Haines Eason’s “Farmgirl” is nearly incomprehensible in its linguistic snakery. 

Three night-limbed servants: a man, a woman, a cat.
            Which was me?
Other lines in the poem are far more imprecise, including “Traffic’s owling soon,/ soon its dissolution.”  The key to understanding the poem is reading it over and again.  But who has the time or desire to do that, besides C. Dale Young, Poetry Editor?  How did Eason end up writing in such purposeful nebulosity?  The next poem, “The Butterfly Effect,” by Malcolm Alexander begins as follows: 

Last week’s waver of wispy wings in Wales
is threaded to tomorrow’s tornado in Texas.
That’s the gist of it,
and though it’s meant to explain
how complications tend to multiply,
it likewise reminds us how one thing

The poem is as disengaged as it gets—poetry written as high-brow filler items for the New Yorker, uh, NER, that is.  Some of it is silly, if not demeaning, or at least ought to be, to intelligent people living in a troubled world.  Cite the first stanza of Dick Allen’s “Putting Legs on a Snake”:

We’ve been trying for hours to improve the snake,
to make him walk like us.
Why slide?  Why coil into a ball
            when he can walk like us? 

            The fourth stanza reads as follows and is in italics:

Revise your color patterns, Snake,
            your one lung and many vertebrae.
Learn to stroll down sunny avenues.
How sinuous you look today!

It is mind boggling that poets can write such drivel.  How much did Middlebury College, my alma mater, pay for that poem?  Craig Morgan Teicher’s “A Word” is a hackneyed piece, one that illustrates a particular type of self-satisfied poet dwelling in a comfortable cocoon.  Personally, it disgusts me as much as the poet.  The first stanza is as follows: 

is an item in a series.
Even a single word on a page
promises the completion
of the series of which it is part
There is no such thing

The next stanza ends the previous sentence with “as a single word.”  The poem goes on and on.  Is Teicher a Middlebury College MFA student assigned to write a poem on the “word”?  I check.  Alas, his bio only indicates he won the 2007 Colorado Prize for poetry and will be published in Boston Review, amongst others.  Why do the poets never include ideas in their bios?  Is it because they have none?  In any case, one must ask what provoked Teicher to write such trivia?  The honoraria?  Still, it is dumbfounding.  Yes, the poets in this volume are prize-winners, which is equally dumbfounding.  They are also well published. 

Molly Tamarkin’s “The American Investigation” caught my eye, but turned out to be just another exercise in wordiness.  Tamarkin, an associate dean at Duke University, would have surprised us if she’d manifested the courage to write a poem called “The Academic Inquisition”: 

thought Dean Bureaucrat, should begin
     with a balanced breakfast and assemblage
          of lies from all the obedient hacks with chevrons

Not one poem in this volume risks anything at all on the part of the poet, anything, that is, but revealing the poet as a bona fide superficial poetaster.  What is sad is that any of these poems could have appeared in any of the many other academic-based literary journals bent, it seems, on destroying poetry as an engaged, pertinent form of writing.  All of the poems in this issue, more than sufficiently banal, could have/should have appeared in Best American Poetry 2007.  Why weren’t they chosen?  Poor poet networking skills? 

As for the fiction, Peter LaSalle’s “The Saga of the Irish in America” is readable and fluid, but one feels not much of anything in it—no driving passion, no words of wisdom.  It is a piece of diversion and nothing else.  “Bump” by Glen Pourciau is at least short, only three pages, but starts out with little, if any interest at all:  “Life is hard for my husband.  He’s so quick and the world is so slow.”  Do I want to read more?  Not at all.  There’s too much out there to read with greater interest.  So, what is the bump in question?  I don’t know and don’t really care.  “Love Story” by Rachel Kadish also fails to hook my interest:  “Their father was decrepit and that was just the start.  His head was a veined dome, his ears purplish, his eyes small in a thickened face.”  Nice description, but where is it all going?  Tony Elias’ “The Animal Doctor” could very well turn out to be interesting—“The day Salim Khalef returned to Lebanon, after eight years in North America…—, but still does not grab me.  Leo Tolstoy also has a short story in this volume and it fails to grab my interest.  Since Tolstoy is canon, I force myself to read on in an effort to try to understand why this piece was chosen, but I’d much rather spend my time reading a story by Shalamov. 

What appears to be most interesting in this volume are the nonfiction pieces.  But “The Transcendentalist Commotion” by Philip F. Gura turns out to be a tedious account of historical preacher meetings and movements.  At least he could have prefaced it with a great powerful quote by Emerson or Alcott.  He mentions how Brownson could be “abrasive” and even “uncouth,” but leaves the reader empty-handed, failing to cite just one abrasive statement.  “His intellect was just as striking,” states Gura.  But let me decide.  Give me a potent word or two uttered by him.  Well, if you’re interested in religion and propagation of canon, then this rather lengthy article might be pertinent for you.  

Finally, I did not read this issue of NER, cover to cover.  To do so, somebody would have had to pay me.  Nothing in it at all has the feel of visceral passion and urgency to be expressed.  On the contrary, everything in it has the feel of polish, lack of urgency, lack of necessity, and tweed-jacket bourgeoisie.  Is that what high-brow or academic writing has come to?  Michael Heller’s “Beckman Variations” illustrates the point.  “And there we [my wife and I] were, high up, going by pubs we’ve sat in and read to others in.  So much looked sweet and pleasant in that gritty London way.”  But where was the grit in his writing?  Curiously or perhaps not, Heller and the whole of the established-order milieu must certainly consider writing like mine and others that goes against that milieu grain as a kind of “Entartete Kunst” (degenerate art), the kind he praises in his article, though from the very safe distance of time and space.  Reading Heller is like listening to a cowardly poet professor inflate the poet as a courageous mythical figure and in doing so somehow believe he too must therefore be thus.  “And isn’t it a fact that this ‘mere obedience’ exists today among many artists and poets, a function of movements and cliques, each with their dogmas and proscriptions?”  No doubt, Heller actually believes he is without movement and clique, dogma and proscription.  Blindness is rampant among artists and poets, not to mention essayists.  Franz Wright illustrates the point.  He offered to pay $25 for a cartoon I sketched depicting him as a caped super-asshole of sorts.  He could not see or comprehend it. Like most literary journals and the contributions there within, this one and they will likely end up in the garbage bucket in a year’s time at most.
—The Editor