Foreword | March 01, 2010

In Fiona McFarlane’s Jeffrey E. Smith Prize-winning story “Exotic Animal Medicine,” a young Australian woman veterinarian in England undergoes a disturbing set of incidents on the day that she marries her English boyfriend and presumably starts a new life. Midway through their celebration, the wife, Sarah, is called in to the veterinary surgery to treat a friend’s sick cat, and what happens to the couple on the way is at once strange and terrifying. McFarlane’s story is edgy and understated in ways that remind one of Katherine Mansfield’s best fiction.

The young duo in Diane Simmons’s crisply written adventure “Yukon River” are like McFarlane’s couple in that they are setting off on a new life. Having bought land on the Yukon, where they plan to settle, they are forced to stay in Fairbanks until the weather warms. Living among the exploiters, prostitutes and pimps of the pipeline boom is more difficult than they expected, yet with the spunk and temerity of youth they set up a temporary household and come up with some tricks of their own.

May-lee Chai’s story “Tomorrow in Shanghai” is a harshly realistic depiction of contemporary China. A young Chinese doctor, sent to work in rural villages, has to harvest organs from a former village leader who was arrested and executed for illegally selling blood to needy rural hospitals. Chai contrasts the hard life of the provincial man-turned-criminal with the squeamish doctor, who wants only to get out of the boonies and back to his more amenable city life as quickly as possible.

“Queen Disease” by Reese Okyong Kwon is another story with a setting that is both familiar and curiously foreign. Lillian Yunyi Li, originally born in Korea, is an American graduate of Princeton temporarily working as a teacher in Seoul. The shadow in her life is an inherited gene that nearly guarantees her getting the same kind of breast cancer that killed her mother at a relatively young age. On a weekend evening she goes out with friends to an exotic nightclub in the Sinchon district, where the women sit at tables, served free food and drink, while men in adjoining rooms watch them on television monitors and have the ones who interest them “abducted” by waiters. Experiencing the oddities of a culture which is both hers and not hers, Lillian makes a step toward accepting her own and her friends’ vulnerabilities.

Tom Ireland’s essay “Famous” depicts the November 2008 attack by Pakistani militants in a Mumbai railway station and the specific case of Ajmal Amir Kasab, the lone survivor among the terrorists. Ireland tries to understand what motivates people like Kasab to become terrorists, which in this case apparently had less to do with religion or politics than with being a young man so impoverished that terrorism was his one shot at fame, glory or money. Among other things, Ireland juxtaposes the violence of current life in India with the nonviolent legacy of Gandhi.

In “What Happens to Heroes,” Jonathan Starke writes about his experiences competing as a bodybuilder and being encouraged by a friend to use steroids. “The bodybuilding wasn’t about being fit or in shape,” he says. “It was about reaching a level of hardness that went beyond flesh.” Starke’s narcissistic obsession with a sport takes him to a dangerous and finally alien place, which he eventually wisely opts to escape.

Joseph Murtagh’s Smith Prize-winning essay “A Hive of Mysterious Danger” describes his work teaching literature to prison inmates in upstate New York, where he learns to appreciate his students’ insights and individuality. While he doesn’t deny the violence of prison culture, Murtagh shows it as a “hive” of more kinds of activity, interests and accomplishment than one might expect. Like the places in many of the pieces in this issue, even prison is at once strange and known, risky but unexpectedly promising.

In Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum’s interview of Robert Wrigley, we take a look inside Wrigley’s poetry and stance on craft. Wrigley was born in East St. Louis. Once a student of Madeline DeFrees and Richard Hugo, he now directs the MFA program at Idaho. He is inclusive but exacting, easygoing on the surface but with an unwavering insistence on excellence. He also is a plainspoken critic of certain trends in our culture, for example, the fear-mongering so prevalent among certain television networks, political pundits and websites. He agrees with Robert Frost in believing that Americans are “withholding” something from the land if we don’t fearlessly “try to live up to the words, all the words,” in our founding documents.

Sarah Blackman’s poems charge forth brilliantly as notes on the constantly created self. She also both questions and embraces the essential strangeness of romance, as in “Melancholia; a Fantasy,” in which she envisions life after a husband’s death. In Kerry Hardie’s poems, houses—normally signs of shelter and security—can become places of deep anxiety, whether as a figure that exemplifies the feeling of fear, a place where someone has just died or simply a representative of an unanswerable question in a work of art.

Our Smith Prize-winning poet Christina Hutchins demonstrates that epiphany arrives in many forms, including ways that are not always simply translatable. Hutchins understands the complexity of time and the fact that we exist for ungovernable, immeasurable moments outside it. In “City Lights” we slip into meditations about the arbitrary boundaries that separate night and day, showing that it is our own participation in time that gives it its forms. In “Wednesday Afternoon” a moment at a stop sign at the top of a hill expands to include the “many suns” which come into being on the windshields of cars lined up and waiting; the view of a woman crossing the street grows in an instant to follow a fantasy of her future, and in the time it takes to accelerate, the hill extends into something different from what it would have been had it not been observed in quite this way. Hutchins’s poems show how awakening to the mystery of time opens us up to the marvelous. As she says in “Into Your Pocket”: “If we are anchored by every spent moment,/the anchors are already rusted to dust/& the chains are no heavier than light.”

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