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December 3rd, 2011 / 1:00 pm
Literary Magazine Club

{LMC}: A Marvel of Words

The most incredible thing about Beecher’s Magazine has already been commented on by many, but I will say it again: the thing is gorgeous. Each page is made of elegant, thick paper I don’t know how to classify except to say it’s the kind of paper on which you would print your resumé. The binding is exposed, with black string hanging off its sides and glued down in place. Then there is the cover: on an open expanse of white there is nothing but the letter “b,” its stem shaped like a rifle, with a small red “1” just above it. The “1” refers to the issue, which is Beecher’s first-ever. With this beautiful design, we are off to a good start.

The opening story is Alec Niedenthal’s “Sailing.” I have no idea what this story is about. What are we to make of lines like, “During the day I will make Roger play like he is me and I will play like I am Roger so that Roger, the barbarous queller of my passion, can finally and for the very first time bestow his suffering on me…”? Or, “Then I will have Ralph, I mean Roger, I will have Roger and Dog during the day to take care of, until father comes home and I am his pale sacrifice on the floor.”

I have read “Sailing” several times, and each time meaning eludes me. But here’s the thing: I don’t mind not knowing what this story is about. At fewer than 700 words, the piece is short enough not to feel overwhelmed by its obfuscation of details. The rhythm and bounce of the language is sheer pleasure, the enthusiasm of the child narrator downright irresistible. “I am growing,” he tells us, “and soon I will be ready for Gran-Momma to die!…We were those boys who, well, Gran-Momma—we felt fish tickle our toes and, well, we liked it!”

Perhaps most importantly, the writer knows what he is doing. Why do I trust the author so much? Perhaps it is the boldness of the child narrator’s assertions—“Try to stop me!” Or the humorous repetitions—“I am turning Gran-Momma against Father by invoking Momma’s dead-Momma memory.” Or simply the strength of the frequent exclamation points—“How this salutary world works its magic!” Whatever the case, my incomprehension of Niedenthal’s “Sailing” was in no way an impediment to my enjoying of it.

I might not have thought this was an acceptable response to fiction—Isn’t the first question you ask about a story always “What’s it about?”—until I came across the journal’s wonderful interview with poet Adam Robinson. Here Robinson talks about the making of his poem “I am going to have sex with these people,” as well as other works and his poetic influences. He says:

The secret is: you don’t have to understand something to react to it in an intelligent way. You don’t have to know what something means to get it. You might not be able to vocalize the mechanics of a poem, or what concepts a poem is based on, but you can still like it. I know this from E.E. Cummings, who wrote “nonsum blob a,”…Cummings is shaping an effect…but that effect isn’t meaning so much as it is a marvel of words

Again and again in Beecher’s I found myself confronted with such word marvels. Joshua Cohen’s “The Rules (Gulf Version)” and Rhoads Stevens’ “His Name in Gold” were similarly elusive in their meanings. Yet I nonetheless took pleasure in experiencing these. Occasionally I glimpsed meaning (Cohen’s becomes increasingly clear as the players move beyond the specific game and into the bar; Stevens’ story ends on movingly understated note when at last the narrator says, “The car hit me, and, yes, it was shiny.”) But mostly I enjoyed these for the language, in both cases so much closer to poetry than to everyday speech.

Of the more accessible works, Rebecca Wadlinger’s poetry was both delightfully funny and emotionally resonant. Her poem “Mrs. Mayfield and the Museum of Bodies” tells of the absurd comedy of wanting to touch art in a museum but not being allowed to. Meanwhile “In the Morning I Tell Gertrude Some things I Like, But She’s In a Serious Mood,” is a sweet love poem in which the erotic is coupled with the mundane: “Oh god, Gertrude, when you stretch breathily in the morning/ and I am weak with gratitude, thinking you so lovely to do,/ I know you are thinking true, true, true, true. I like to see/ you in the mirror when I brush my teeth.”

Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s short story “Wyoming” is also a standout. “Wyoming” takes place mostly in a café, on Surf Avenue in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach. The narrator, Zoya, is a young Russian woman who was born and raised in the neighborhood. Over the course of a lunch date with her friend Vera, it becomes increasingly clear that though Zoya wants to get out of the neighborhood and its entrapments, she doesn’t know how. A common enough scenario perhaps, yet the language and sense of setting are wholly Akhtioskaya’s own. She writes:

I was noticing things actively, as if for the first time—balconies used as storage space for junk, parrot shrieks from the third floor, blackened brick of the mafia burned-down restaurant never renovated, old men on girls’ bicycles with overstuffed plastic bags hanging from the handlebars like their castrated testicles, plastic bags in general, underfoot, in your hair, blown by Atlantic gusts into the fence where they remained on display…

Though “Wyoming” is more accessible than the other pieces in the journal, it is never mundane, never predictable, and only grows more intriguing as it moves along. I loved the emptiness of the café, the vacant lots along the avenue, the “faces we passed, the faces of a February evening in Coney Island,…faces of maximal desperation,” and the streetlights that “behaved like funhouse mirrors,” as these two friends struggle against an all-too-common kind of despair.

Overall, Beecher’s is a journal that publishes a blend of styles. The overriding element among these works is authorial confidence. No matter what I was reading in this issue—from the short, edgy, experimental pieces to the longer and more emotionally resonant narratives—I never felt I did not trust the author. I never felt that the author’s intentions were muddled or that a piece was trying to do too many different things at once. Whether I was able to grasp a story’s meaning fully, or whether meaning eluded me entirely, I was always certain the right words had been placed in the right order. The writers gathered in this issue (and the editors who gathered them) have created beautiful art, and done so with impressively sure hands.

Becky Tuch has received awards from The Somerville Arts Council, Briar Cliff Review, Byline Magazine, The Tennessee Writers Alliance and has been short-listed for The Pushcart Prize. Her stories and poetry have appeared in Blueline, Bosphorus Art Project Quarterly, Connecticut River Review, Eclipse, Folio, Night Train, and The Outsider Writers’ Collective. She is one of the founding members of the literary blog Beyond the Margins, and has also reviewed art and literature for numerous commercial and literary magazines. In 2008, she founded The Review Review, a website that reviews literary magazines, interviews journal editors, and offers publishing tips to writers.