Foreword | October 22, 2015

Out of this World

Magic and literature are sibling arts. Both deal with the unexpected connectedness of things, transformation from one state to another, and with the human urge to defy the odds and break out of confinement or control. Both create their own rules while at the same time reminding us of compliance with physical law and the threat of failure. The magician dramatizes fragility and vulnerability, hinting that this may be the time he fails to pull it off. In literature, even Shakespeare’s master magician Prospero, who controls both the spirits and human visitors on the Isle of Ilyria, knows that he rules a world of “baseless fabric, cloud-capped towers” from which in the end he chooses to be released.

The best literature can be magical, disruptive and transporting in theme as well as its effect on the reader. Fictive realms where old orders break down remind us that the real world is temporary and that change can finally be a positive force, whether our urge is to encourage or resist it. Obvious or not, it is one of the primal subjects of literature. In comedy, change is threatening to some but finally constructive and wonderful. In serious fiction and tragedy, the character that disrupts or threatens the way things are done ends up either sobered, reduced, or cut down. Yet for reasons that may be more complicated than Aristotle’s notion of catharsis, the full experience of a tragic character can be enlightening and meaningful beyond his fate—even that of a Hamlet or Gatsby, or Lear with his clamorous, raving demise.

In this issue of TMR, Regina Diperna’s poems speak of the enigmatic connectedness between the body and the self. While the body is depicted as a site of wondrous working and simultaneous dissolution, the self takes a defiant stand against any form of containment. It strives for an almost magical autonomy, sometimes choosing to be “blind” to our mortality and deaf to “the fortune our bodies told.” Noah Warren’s poems follow the motion of a milkweed stalk caught in a storm, a boat drifting over roofs during a biblical flood and fireflies gathering above a river path. Blending observation with metaphysical inquiry, Warren contemplates the self’s place in a natural world that can be at once magnificent, mysterious and menacing. Jenny Molberg examines the “unseen” in her poems. Whether triggered by a photo of the speaker with her father at a state fair, a chrysalis exhibition, the memory of a storm or images from a fairy tale, she traces the time-obscured trajectory of the self’s evolution. Like the “two wing-buds” hidden inside a caterpillar, the future can also be seen as held inside ourselves—if we choose to believe it.

“Oonark” by Elizabeth Altomonte is an intriguing framed story set in Canada. A shocking tragedy in a middle-aged mother’s life sparks her memory of an event many years earlier when she was assigned to escort an Inuit textile artist being honored at the Canadian National Gallery. She is reminded of the artist’s interest in a particular Rubens painting and what she said about the ever-changing world. “Snow melts and becomes part of the air, and part of everything, so it is not possible to find meanings and explanations in experiences. Everything is connected, everything melts and becomes part of the air, and these unseen forces govern every aspect of our lives, from birth to death, from death to birth . . . real art is in the writing of her name upon the snow”—observations which only now, in the face of the tragedy in her own life, does the mother somehow understand.

“The Noise of His Tabernacle” by Zach Dayhuff is a story set in a small west-Texas town where the main industry is the local slaughterhouse. Arlene, the narrator, is a big, awkward young woman with “hands like grapefruits from an Evangelical family. Because she’s strong and can do the work, she takes a job as a knocker, killing cattle. She becomes romantically involved in secret with an older man from somewhere else, not Texas, who works in the slaughterhouse and creates strange drawings of an alternative world on Mars. Dayhuff’s story brings together animal slaughter and animal rights, religion and sex in a fresh and brilliantly real gothic piece.

In “The Witch” by Anthony Wallace, Fallon, an English grad student, is caught between two women, a fellow grad student who teases him along and an undergraduate who looks up to him, whom he exploits for sex without much interest. It’s a sharply written, sly piece about moral accountability, with a supernatural overtone. Is Fallon’s sudden bout of bad behavior and ill fortune entirely his own fault, or does one of the young women have powers beyond the allure she’s always had for him?

Meron Hadero’s story “The Suitcase” describes Saba, an Ethiopian-American preparing to leave for America after a visit to Africa. As the family assembles to say good-bye, she has to negotiate with the various members of her extended clan, who all want to send something back family in America. They offer far more than her suitcase will allow, unless she is able to perform some kind of magic. It’s a convincingly detailed comic story about cultural differences and cultural expectations. In “A Quiet Pilgrimage to Every Last Ruined Saint” Gabrielle Hovendon’s two teenaged characters yearn to leave the unnamed Eastern European country where they share oppressive home lives. The narrator is Sasho, who at age thirteen befriends schoolmate Zhivka, a talented girl who is the more rebellious girl of the two. Sasho is beaten down by a father who sees everything through the lens of repressive religion. It’s a wonderfully wrought story about the very real efforts of two young people to escape from a painful and confining world through the alchemy of art.

“French Kissing” by M. R. Branwen is a vivid memoir of an exchange student trip taken during Branwen’s high school years. She ends up in Dordogne in rural France. Partly because of the family she’s living with, the place at first seems to be torpid oblivion. She doesn’t really speak French, and the lycée where she goes doesn’t have any way to help her, leaving her mostly alone, reading books but bored and discontented. Then, through what seems at once like a small and oddly brave choice, she finds herself magically transported from purgatory to paradise.

Deborah Thompson’s “As She Kissed the Cow” is a sequel to her Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize winning essay “What’s the Matter with Houdini?” It chronicles the decline of a frustrating but very lovable pet cocker spaniel. The entire experience with Houdini was a strange trip, with the dog’s habit of eating anything he could consume, whether it was food or not. Houdini was with Thompson through the terminal illness and loss of her life partner, but now Houdini has a barely functioning heart valve and is dying. Thompson agrees to allow the veterinary school to use Houdini in their research on a new technique that might someday be used in humans. The essay explores the lengths that people will go to protect and save their pets.

This issue’s “Curio Cabinet” is a snapshot of the Cobra art movement, a group of Western European artists who after the horrors and deprivation of World War II announced in their manifesto that art had to untie itself from the past. Guided by the odd amalgam of Carl Jung and radically democratic beliefs, they believed that artists should be freed from the drudgery of extended training. By uncovering one’s own dreams and urges in creative play, an artist could find his voice. In Kristine Somerville’s visual feature “Street Disorder,” urban installation artists take some of the Cobra group’s ideas to heart. These artists use the streets as their open-air galleries for work that is ephemeral, spontaneous and often delightful in its assumptions. Doris Salcedo’s alley full of spindly wooden chairs, Florentijn Hofman’s giant rabbit made of rubber flip-flops or Isaac Cordal’s miniature businessmen figurines navigating hostile city environments suggest the breadth of this emerging genre. Contemporary installation artists, like the artists of the Cobra group, believe in functioning outside the established channels of art and finding not threat but magic in disruption and impermanence.

Speer Morgan


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