“Alaska Quarterly Review,” Vol. 39 No. 1 & 2, Winter and Spring 2023, edited by Ronald Spatz. 271 pages. $12 for single issue or $20 for a one-year subscription.
The “Alaska Quarterly Review,” known as “AQR,” continues to be among the best-regarded literary journals in the country, twice a year publishing outstanding fiction, essays and creative nonfiction, poetry and plays. The new issue, the 77th and edited by Ronald Spatz, who started the journal with UAA professor James Liszka in 1980, continues its run of excellence.
The sampling feast this time includes nine short stories, five narrative essays, two long poems and a robust selection of shorter poems by 32 poets. Contributions are from throughout the country and world, and involve various locations, time periods and approaches. Many are longer than most journals will publish; “AQR” is known for allowing the space necessary for a fully realized work of art to unfold. While there’s no overall theme, all the pieces here, even those that are humorous or experimental, deal seriously with the “heart” in human experience.
“AQR” is not a regional publication, and Alaskans need to compete with the best for inclusion. It speaks well for our poets that three Alaskans are represented here. Mar Ka, author of the collection “Be-hooved,” references in “From Where I Flew” leaving a Chicago neighborhood, with its ghosts from Eastern Europe and Catholicism, for another life. Allison Akootchook Warden, known primarily for her performance art, reaches through time in “portal traveler” to admire “how they (glowing Elders) kept the earth steady under their feet.” The final entry in the volume is a newly published poem by the late Eva Saulitis. In “Love Is What This Is” a woman watches flocks of storm petrels lift off the ocean, then looks to the man wanting to share in what she sees. Love suffuses the entire poem — the scene, the birds and all they suggest, the woman and the man.
Among the short stories, the long “song of the burning woman” by ire’ne lara silva delivers more of that love. The main character, Emma Elisa, is an artist giving a Day of the Dead party, with altars, marigolds, food and friendship filling her yard somewhere near the Mexican border. Each section introduces a guest, with his, her or their story; it emerges that this community is made up largely of gay and trans people who live rich lives complicated by family and religious expectations and overseen by “The Lady,” Emma’s large joyful statue. Here is “The Lady” herself speaking near the end: “So I came. And I calmed the winds. And I calmed the border blood. I came here, to her home, modest material and human but concentrated with power as if lightning slept in it.”
Other stories involve an American merchant marine and a “bar girl” in the Philippines, a young girl whose friend lives in a violent home, an addicted woman trying to be a good mother, brothers learning to swim, a boy on a 1920s ranch trying to learn to be a man, a family facing one member’s disability, a woman caring for the last living elephant, and a teenage girl falling in love with opera and into confusion about other forms of love. It’s unfair to reduce such deeply meaningful stories to such superficial phrases, but such a summary perhaps points out the range that these writers have traveled to show us the lives of others. Across a century, an ocean, a lifetime — we recognize our brothers and sisters, our essential sameness.
Among the essays, a real stunner is “The Cave” by Debbie Urbanski. This tremendously creative work steps over the boundary between nonfiction and fiction as the narrator/writer keeps questioning herself about how to tell the story — what to leave in, take out, interpret one way or another, even fabricate. On the surface, the story is about a family that visits a cave, and the theft of a backpack they leave outside the entrance. The circumstances, though, fall to the side as the piece becomes more of a thought piece or meditation about race — and not in the way one might expect. The surprises here come with intense drama, humor, and the complicated feelings of a woman who’s not sure she should even tell the story, and who doesn’t even admit to being part of the story — the writer herself — until several pages in. Later, she writes, “I am not supposed to Google things when writing to maintain my focus but, in light of the recent protests, I allow myself to Google how a White author can write about race.” After considering her options, she writes, ��Excuse me while I return to the beginning of this story and label the race of every one of my characters.”
One of the two long poems, “Field Studies,” is by Alison Hawthorne Deming, well known for poetry and essays that frequently relate to science and nature. Here, in eight parts, Deming explores some of what she learned at the Bowdoin College Scientific Station on Kent Island, New Brunswick, Canada. As she says in an end note, “this sequence of poems is something of a collaboration with a community of scientists who have devoted their working lives to learning what one remote little island in the Bay of Fundy had to teach us.” One tells the story of a rare albatross killed in the area, which led to the establishment of the scientific station. The rest tell of bird and bee research done at the station, with the last “Fog Heaven” placing Deming in a cabin formerly used by a cloud physicist. “But the stars/kept waking me/or was it/the ghost asleep/in the corner/wrapped in tin foil/and lush night/upon me like/moss on a forest log.”
The other long poem, “Dove of the Morning News” by Bruce Bond, begins with an examination of the Jesuit priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his theory of the noosphere, a hypothetical “layer of thinking” that some say presaged the internet. The stanzas that follow trace the narrator’s own history of thought — regarding science, technology, love, mortality, the questions of our interconnected age.
This latest “AQR” is one to spend time with, reading and rereading, absorbing the many voices, the beautiful language, the ways of seeing and appreciating our world.