Alaska Quarterly Review has done it again. The current issue (Volume 27, No. 3 & 4, Fall and Winter 2010) includes a wide variety of some of the best contemporary writing readers will find anywhere. And, again, it includes what has become one of its trademarks -- a "special feature."
This time, that feature is a 42-page essay by Don Lago, a writer of science, history, and the history of science. Very few literary journals publish lengthy single works, opting instead for more short pieces by more writers, and it's much to AQR's credit that it provides such a service -- to the writers of exemplary longer works and to those who get to read, and linger in, such substantive work. Writers (and readers) interested in the "braided essay" form will appreciate Lago's "Storm Pattern," which weaves together multiple narratives to explore the idea of the beginning of the universe. One storyline tells of the astronomer Edwin Hubbell visiting the Grand Canyon in 1928 to check out the site for an observatory; because little is known of this visit Lago creatively recreates it. Another thread tells of the Navajo "storm pattern" rug design, which is said to represent the Navajo creation story. A third part of the weave is Lago's own story of visiting the same places, researching the origin of the rug design and eventually purchasing one of the rugs.
Not particularly interested in astronomy or Navajo rugs? I guarantee you will be after reading this essay -- or that you will at least experience your mind expanding outward, like the universe, when you follow Lago's exploration into ways of thinking about the beginning of the world -- and to connecting principles and images across time and cultures. "The universe's long quest for patterns became brains searching for patterns in events, patterns on the earth, patterns in the sky. The master weaving that began with the creation of the universe became the weaving of a rug symbolizing the creation of the universe." (p. 40)
There are six more nonfiction works in this issue, all very different, all very accomplished. "Proof of Identity," by K. C. Eib, is an extraordinary piece about sexual (and more) identity. Notably, this is a first publication in a national literary magazine for Eib, who happens to be an Alaskan. (Although AQR's editors hold Alaska writers to the same high standards as any other writers, they do keep a sharp eye out for Alaska's best as well as taking pride in publishing first-time writers and bringing those new voices to a national stage.)
Two other very strong pieces in this section are also about identity. Judy Copeland's "Louisville, 1953," a segmented essay organized around the stages of culture shock and adaptation, brings to life her transition as a child from life in Japan to life in America. Holly Welker's "Leap Year" is a memoir about her Mormon upbringing and revising the story of her life. But perhaps my favorite among the nonfiction is Ben Miller's "Twigmas," a crashingly intense immersion into the life of the unconventional Miller family; think David Sedaris times four. All these writers -- in fact all but one of the prose writers in this volume -- are new to me. It's a pleasure to make their acquaintance and, now, to watch for more of their work.
There's much more to love in this latest from AQR, including eight short stories (three by Native Americans) and the work of 30 poets. Former Alaskan Elizabeth Bradfield gives us three poems, all of them representing her connection to the sea, and Susanna Mishler, of Anchorage, makes the familiar new in "Afterlife: Without Apples." But my favorite among the poems may be Donald Platt's "Man on the Dump," a longish meditation on a photo of a dead Iraqi man.
There's nothing provincial about this or any other issue of AQR; it brings us the world in variations of experience, thought, and form -- which is, perhaps, what's most Alaskan about it: an openness to the new, the fresh, the experimental, the risky, the oddball surprise. Alaska is a place for invention and reinvention. (Just look at our politics.) It makes sense that our collective literary aesthetic embraces the same possibilities and questions of creation and identity, regardless of the origins of writers or the particulars of their stories.
Look for the new AQR at bookstores, or order a copy (or better yet, a subscription!).
Nancy Lord is the Alaska State Writer Laureate and most recently the author of Rock, Water, Wild. This review originally appeared on Oct. 12, 2010, on 49 Writers, an online forum of collaborative reflections and book news by and about Alaskan authors, and is republished here with permission.