A Heartfelt Success
The theme of The Briar Cliff Review's twentieth anniversary issue is war. Not every entry is war-related, but the best of the lot, a short story by Siobhan Fallon called "Burning" that is the issue's fiction contest winner, recounts a wounded American soldier's return from Iraq and the impact his military experience has on his marriage.
Army Specialist Flip Murphy is lucky to be alive after an IED detonates beneath the humvee he and five other soldiers are riding in. He is pulled to safety and returns to his wife Helena after multiple foot surgeries leave him with the chance that he might still lose the appendage. Helena is distant when she picks him up at the airport, not herself, but in response to his painful question as they eat breakfast in a diner: "'There's no one,' she whispered. ‘That's not it.'" She simply cannot endure the life they--she--has been living. He pleads with her, vowing to get out of the service, to which she replies that he can't afford to quit until his foot is better. He knows this is true. He tells her he'll get a cushy office job stateside, but Helena's mind is made up. She's leaving him.
Everything in the story is transient, from Helena's rental car to the motel room they share after she picks him up to, significantly, the child she carried who died in the womb while Flip was overseas. There is no sense of permanence, which underscores Helena's need to return home and resume a normal life.
Empathy is Fallon's gift, and we care and hurt as much for Helena as for Flip. They are both victims of the war. But it's not a polemic. It's a human drama, and it brought rare tears to this reviewer's eyes. "Burning" is unforgettable.
Lois Marie Harrod's poem "Hurricane Ernesto Slips Through New Jersey and I Remember My Grandmother Sick with the Spanish Flu" is a tour de force of language. Consisting of eighteen taut free-verse couplets, the poem begins, "The morning is hanging out / like drunks on their bottles." Marvelous. She is as adept at alliteration as similes, as with the lines "it was the piano plundering the parlor" and "the mashed grasses grow greener / than tipsy headstones." Aspiring poets should study this poem for its triumph of form over content. In his invaluable book about poetry writing, The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo said that music should never conform to truth, but rather, truth should conform to music. Harrod has a story to tell, but the genius is in the telling, the musical language of authentic poetry.
Linda Johnson writes in "Sitting in the Rain: A Memoir," "I didn't want neighborhood children to find out about the fighting, the drinking, the craziness of my family. I didn't want them to look at my face and know." Perhaps the neighborhood children never found out, but fortunately for us, Johnson shares her extraordinary family history that opens with her mother's ashes being delivered to her and ends with a reference to the fateful cattle cars of World War Two.
Johnson does a masterful job of relating her mother's life and its shadow legacy on her own. Her mother was a member of the Nazi Youth Corps, and once Johnson asked her if she was aware of the Jews who left on the cattle cars and of their destination. "I don't remember. How was I to know? They were going somewhere--no doubt. It was not our concern."
"Sitting in the Rain" also recalls Johnson's father and other family members. It's a complex tapestry of love and resentment, wisdom and fatal ignorance. Johnson is clearly haunted by her heritage, but as her mother tells her, quoting Goethe, "There is nothing more dreadful than imagination without taste." "Sitting in the Rain" manages to encompass both.
One of the touchstones of my own poetic apprenticeship was Philip Dacey'sStrong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms. Dacey makes an appearance in The Briar Cliff Review with the excellent free-verse poem, "Reunion and Reconciliation." It begins with "A long absence / filled with knives," and "Then tentative steps." When the first words between the two parties are spoken, it is "a chlorophyll promise." "In time one hand swims out / and meets another," and the two, now reunited, form "a pulsing bridge / across which small creatures / run in both directions, / back and forth, their tails like lines / waiting for signatures." Dacey is a master of poetic language, and "Reunion and Reconciliation" is a poem freighted with unspoken emotion.