Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Gettysburg Review Online.
In literature, things rarely turn out well. Hope glimmers, but often as a speck of light in the corner of a curtain-dimmed funeral parlor. There is hope and light tucked away in the pages that make up the Winter 2015 issue, but the general tone is muted, somber. In fact, Ellen—for reasons that will become apparent here in my notes and when you read the magazine—has taken to calling it our “mice, meth, and mourning” issue. Indeed. Mice, obsession, addiction, traumatization, abandonment, death, bereavement, more mice: these topics (if mice can be said to be a topic) recur in varying configurations throughout. This wasn’t by design . . . at least not consciously at first. Something, some forlorn melody, some chance notes of despair appear to have been floating about the office and in my head while I was selecting contents this past winter and spring, making stories, poems, and essays that confront devastation, whatever its source or form, particularly resonant. For whatever reasons, I, like many of our featured writers and/or their characters, found myself ineluctably engulfed by misfortune, but in spite of the moment’s depredations, I just kept swimming…
Which is precisely what Polly Buckingham’s teenage protagonist Willa does in “Horrible Stories about Mice,” a piece I have a sentimental attachment to (though I love them all equally) since it was the first story I accepted in my new capacity as editor. (It is also Polly’s first appearance in our pages.) A gritty, rodent-infested saga, it deals very frankly and intimately with drug addiction and the difficulty of recovery, timely subjects in this period of heroin’s resurgence, though that is not Willa’s drug of choice. The narrative follows Willa and her boyfriend, James, to an isolated “recovery trailer” in rural Washington state where they bravely but foolishly attempt to shake their meth addiction unsupervised. Buckingham’s very unromantic depiction unsettles and haunts as Willa traverses the liminal topography of her withdrawal. She resorts to swimming to build her strength, reminding her of the power of buoyancy.
Keith Lesmeister (also new to the review) takes a somewhat more buoyant approach to addiction and recovery in his novel excerpt “Nothing Prettier Than This,” a first-person recounting of a recently sober man’s painfully bumbling yet humanely funny attempts to both right his life and round up a couple of dairy cows that have strayed from the farm he’s briefly tending for vacationing friends. He’s woefully out of his depth, rendering the wisdom of trusting him with such a responsibility in his fragile state suspect, but friends should always try to help their ailing compadres.
Speaking of being out of one’s depth…much has been written about Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, but in her braided essay-memoir “The Pike,” Jen Silverman (another debut author) attends with deep compassion and occasional humor to Assia Wevill, “the mysterious and powerful Other Woman” who broke up Ted and Sylvia’s marriage, precipitating Sylvia’s suicide. Little has been penned about Assia, who may have been powerful in her way, but, as Silverman reveals, Assia was ultimately outmatched by Plath, who grew more powerful in death, becoming Assia’s singular obsession and undoing. Paralleling this narrative is the story of Silverman’s somewhat unwitting involvement in a love triangle of her own, one that serves as a seriocomic analogue to that formed by Assia, Plath, and Hughes. Thankfully, Silverman’s affair ended without a fatality.
Shara Lessley (yet another writer new to the review), in her harrowing memoir “Point Blank,” returns to a near fatal moment of childhood trauma that she miraculously survived. I don’t want to give anything away, lest you happen to be one of those for whom surprises can be spoiled, so I’ll refrain from offering too many details, but it involves unsupervised kids and a loaded gun. Nested within this moment is a blunt, disquieting, heartbreaking portrait of her childish, ever-misbehaving father and his powerful death instinct, which, Lessley notes, runs deeply in the men of her family, causing her no small amount of worry for her three-year-old son.
Examination of the oft problematic legacy of our biological and literary fathers and mothers continues in essays by Derek Mong and Char Gardner. Mong (also making his debut) takes a more scholarly approach as he ponders the poetic trope “the dead,” assessing its use and meaning in work from a diversity of poets—David Rivard, Edgar Lee Masters, Mina Loy, Susan Mitchell, Walt Whitman, Edwin Honig, and William Matthews, to name a few—but also thinking about the posthumous, otherworldly nature of most poetic (and literary) utterance. In “Roots, Rocks, Wax, and Sinew,” Gardner (a GR veteran) attempts to reclaim her past, to find something salvageable beyond her broken relationship with her mother, an embittered alcoholic and failed artist who, jealous of her daughter’s artistic aspirations, alienated Gardner. Through much serendipity and the benevolence of friends, she travels to Norway to learn about her great-great-grandmother, who was, interestingly, a healer. Both of these works verify that hope can be found in the Winter 2015 issue, that story, poetry, and art can be balm as well as blight.
Still, as I said, a wistful pall drifts throughout the Winter 2015 issue, arriving just in time for the return to standard time, the early onset of night, seasonal affective disorder, and the holidays with their attendant drama. For some relief, look to the poets, who run the emotional gamut, though they too are often wandering about the gloaming, harvesting bittersweet lyrical fruits. To prepare you for the impending kickoff of the holiday season, I offer a sip of veteran GR alum Jon Loomis’s funny, slightly jaundiced “Thanksgiving,” which sums up nicely the cocktail of sanguinity and despair this time of year always seems to stir in me: “I’m grateful for this, too—the mercy / of doomed tribes, of blind hope. How we still sit down / to a good meal, disaster’s white sails just past the horizon.” Whether that ship is bound for you or coursing away (and I dearly hope it is the latter), just keep swimming…
Digital Edition: In case you didn’t get the memo, the Gettysburg Review is now available digitally in three formats: ePDF, which replicates the print version, ePub, and Mobipocket. The latter two are “reflowable” formats for use on e-readers and Kindle devices. You can purchase single copies and digital subscriptions at our Online Shop, but you can also find copies at 0s&1s and ShelfWise. Please, check it out and spread the word. And to those of you who are print loyal, don’t worry: we will continue to be primarily a print publication.
Pushcart Prize: Two essays and a short story from volume twenty-six have been reprinted in The Pushcart Prize XL: Best of the Small Presses. Join us in congratulating Sarah Vallance (“Constance Bailey in the Year of Monica Lewinsky,” Winter 2014), Catherine Jagoe, (“A Ring of Bells,” Summer 2014), and Edward McPherson (“Telref,” Spring 2014) for being so richly and justly honored. Honoratble mentions went out to Jill Storey, whose essay “A Clutch of Eggs” appeared in the Autumn 2014 issue, and Melissa Kwasny, whose poem “Counting the Senses” graced the Spring issue.
That’s it for now. We always like to hear from our readers, so please let us know what you think of the latest issue. If you are a user of social media, say hello and like us on Facebook. As always, thanks for your support, and keep reading.
Aviya Kushner’s first book, The Grammar of God: A Journey Into the Words and Worlds of the Bible, is out now from Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House.
Richly deserved congratulations to longtime Gettysburg Review contributor Leslie Pietrzyk, who has won the very prestigious 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize for her collection of short stories This Angel on My Chest, which will be published in the fall of 2015 by the University of Pittsburgh Press.