Reviewing the New England Review

It is the dream of most, if not all, young writers to have their name in print, whether it on the cover of their novel or next to the title of their short story that was published in a literary magazine. You want people to know your name. You want to leave your mark, your name carved into the pages of history inside literary giants such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Tin House.

Another big name that lies upon the tip of the tongue of many aspiring writers is the New England Review, a quarterly journal sponsored by Middlebury College that has been running for over thirty years. According to their website, their mission is to publish “new fiction, poetry, and nonfiction that is both challenging and inviting” and to encourage “artistic exchange and thought-provoking innovation, providing publishing opportunities for writers at all stages of their careers.” It’s a claim that they have certainly lived up to, with this issue offering a mix of both familiar faces, like the previously published Joseph McElroy, and new ones like Maria Hummel.

One of the first things about NER’s 34th volume that grabbed me was its cover. It’s not overly flashy; in fact, the majority of the cover is a deep black save for a fiery orange that stretches across the bottom right hand corner. But the way it’s done is so clean-cut, it’s almost natural the way it sifts from dark to bright. If you want to read deeper into it, it’s almost as if that cover is saying that the black of night will eventually give way to the brightness of the dawn. It’s this idea—transition, the giving way of one thing to make room for another—that winds up becoming the sort of theme to this issue. Time, perception, forward motion, all those ideas and others besides come together in the interspersed pieces of poetry and prose, each piece having some sort of relationship with the ones that become before and after it.

While underrepresented—some would say criminally so—the fiction pieces in this issue are the ones that stand out to me the most, particularly “Lost Things” by Lisa Van Orman Hadley. While only three pages long, it leaves a sizable impact. Predictably, it’s a story about loss, with the narrator recounting the numerous things she has lost over the years. Hadley drives the point home using repetition and a set pattern, with nearly every paragraph is another item in the long list of items, people, and things that have been lost to the narrator and her family over time, from teeth to embryos to even her father’s slowly deteriorating mental state. This repetition hits us again and again, until we ourselves begin to feel hollow, as if each item has caused us to lose a part of ourselves as well. However, it becomes apparent that the work isn’t just a reminder of the constant presence of loss; it’s akin to a commentary on loss’s nature, on whether it’s as bad as we believe it to be. Hadley seems to be suggesting that it’s just a necessary part of life; things need to go away to make room for new, better ones.

However, not all the prose pieces are as short or as straightforward as Hadley’s piece, such as “Finding One’s Way as a Writer: A Sequence of Letters” by Italo Calvino. In comparison to “Lost Things,” Calvino’s work is interesting in concept—the letters create a montage sequence of sorts, with each one creating a clearer and clearer picture—but dry and tedious in execution. For the most part, these letters serve to document Calvino’s various thoughts on writing (a pet peeve of mine, to be sure; while it probably sounds odd coming from a writing major, I just don’t like works that do that, as they can come off sounding rather pretentious) although there are personal details dispersed throughout the collection, such as when he talks about his impending visit to America with Mateo Lettunich. Despite these brief gleams into Calvino’s personal life, it just wasn’t enough to grab my attention, and I quickly skimmed over this piece before moving on.

Part of New England Review’s mission is to present “a broad spectrum of viewpoints and genres, including traditional and experimental fiction, translations in poetry and prose, criticism, letters from abroad, reviews in arts and literature, and rediscoveries.” This edition lives up to this, as it contains samples from almost every genre imaginable, from translations like Yves Bonnefoy’s “Voice in the Sound of the Rain” to Kathleen Chaplin’s nonfiction piece “The Death Knock.” Some of the pieces are more outlandish and experimental than others, such as “Sons” by Michael Coffey. Coffey seems to implement every technique imaginable as he spins this long, convoluted tale of a man missing his son after sending him away, from italics to changing the format of the story itself. However, there’s such thing as too much, and I got lost among the always-changing structure of the story, to the point where I felt like the experimentation overpowered the narrative. But that doesn’t mean that will be true for everyone else; it’s a story that everyone should read, if only to appreciate the time and effort put into it.

There are 17 poems in this issue, five more pieces than there are of prose.  Even someone like me, who frankly doesn’t really understand poetry, can appreciate the excellent work put on display here. My personal favorite was Andres Rojas’ “Mirror Memory,” which deals with memories and how they are never truly forgotten, and serves as a great companion piece for Hadley’s “Lost Things.” “Closure” by James Hoch is another poem that I enjoyed, as it plays with expectations and doesn’t provide closure for the speaker or the audience, just lets both continue to tread water.

Overall, I really enjoyed New England Review’s issue. It lives up to their high standards, as every piece in here deserves its place within these pages. However, its true attraction is its universality. There is something for everyone to enjoy, the casual and serious reader alike. Whether you’re looking for something mind-bending, a pleasant read at the beach, or even if you’re just looking for something fresh and new, this is a publication that will have it. The New England Review is a publication I whole-heartedly recommend to everyone, and I know I’ll be impatiently waiting for the next issue to arrive at my doorstep.