Latest Alaska Quarterly Review showcases outstanding prose and poetry that speaks to our time

Alaska Quarterly Review, Vol. 38, No. 1 & 2, Summer and Fall 2021. Edited by Ron Spatz. 272 pages. $12

Alaska Quarterly Review, one of the most highly regarded literary journals in the nation, continues with the latest issue, delayed by supply chain difficulties, to publish prose and poetry of remarkable skill and meaning. The new volume includes a novella, short stories, essays and a collection of poems by 20 poets. Many of the selections involve experimental or unusual forms.

While the work is remarkably diverse, a reader might feel the influence of our pandemic year and the introspection and loss that’s arisen from it. If much of the work addresses trauma and other difficult subjects, it also draws upon a shared sense of resilience and the human capacity to beat back darkness.

Alaska Quarterly Review

AQR is nearly unique among journals for publishing long prose pieces, and the first selection in the volume, Kristopher Jansma’s “Like a Bomb Went Off” is a novella of some length and complexity, told in a series of segments that begin with a house exploding. It then passes back and forth in time as the main character, Harriet, a frustrated artist, considers her life in the context of “blowing up.”

The seven short stories that follow range in location from a fantasy world to the Old West to Africa and Vietnam. They involve identity quests and reexaminations of our shared history. Matt Greene’s “Trapped in a Cave” accompanies two young men and the ghost of a third friend as they drive around the country and instigate an elevator malfunction in a tourist cave. While the situation, described that way, may not seem all that fascinating, the character development and the unusual structure of the story leave a reader with both heartbreak and hope.

The narrative essays are largely memoiristic but vary from a straightforward examination of prison culture by Alex Chertok, in “The Narratives We Give and Take,” to an exploration of a father-daughter relationship in terms of moon phases by Kirsten Reneau, in “To Outline the Moon.” “Ambivalent Things” by Jehanne Dubrow uses a split-page format to question the meaning of religious objects she owns.

Among the strongest nonfiction narratives are powerful memoirs by Dawn Davies, “Sinkhole,” and Sara Eliza Johnson, “Unspeakable.” The first examines the difficulties of parenting a child with “problems in the structure and function in his brain” while dealing with the writer’s own chronic health issues. The second, by relating to the horror movie “Rosemary’s Baby,” tracks the writer’s history of sexual violence and fear of pregnancy. Both are remarkably honest and insightful in presenting lives too often hidden from view, lives that fuel compassion and that ultimately inspire.

AQR seeks the best, most innovative and imaginative writing from anywhere, and it’s always a pleasure to find Alaskans in the mix. Sara Eliza Johnson, author of “Unspeakable” mentioned above and a prize-winning poet with two poems in the last AQR issue, teaches in the MFA program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The poetry section includes works by Alaskans Peggy Shumaker, Marie Tozier, Anne Coray and Olena Kalytiak Davis.

Shumaker, a former Alaska writer laureate, is represented by two poems. The first, “Come a Sickness,” seems at first that it might be speaking of an earlier pandemic but gradually opens to our current one. “Left bereft/we masked ourselves.” It moves from the literal sickness to “sickness of mind,/scams, lies,/the constant deliberate/epidemic of lies” and finally to images of breath as a blessing and a prayer. Coray’s two poems artfully address the climate crisis with references to Pandora’s box of evils and roots of the word “holocaust.”

A poem of longish lines and overall length, Craig van Rooyen’s “Steelhead,” asks a friend to remember a shared experience — ”the flooded cornfield of 1975 where stranded steelhead/thrash themselves down the harvested rows to nowhere.” As the narrator looks down from his tinted office window at traffic and a woman smoking, he fingers an old scar on his knee “trying to believe us back into the world.” The imagery of the end will, as Emily Dickinson suggested the best poetry does, take the top of a reader’s head right off.

The final poem in the volume, Dorianne Laux’s “The Thermopolium,” begins with an epigraph about a 2,000-year-old food-and-drink shop being uncovered in Pompeii and imagines the living scene among the “soups and stews,/skewered meats, stacks of flatbread/honey cakes and candy made with figs.” Laux goes on to envision people sprawling on steps or sitting by an open door, someone playing a lyre, barefoot children playing, “just like/New York before the pandemic,/before the many retreated and retired/to their living rooms to watch the news/on a loop. …” In the end, she revises what she used to think about the people of Pompeii “frozen in time.”

Altogether, this volume of AQR challenges and delights. Most of all, it asks readers to love language and to think about our world and how we live in it.

As always, AQR’s cover features an arresting image representing Alaska. This time it’s a photograph of wild rhubarb by Fairbanks-based Kate Wool.

Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."