The changing leaves on the cover of the latest issue of Alaska Quarterly Review creep from cracks in a wall of solid rock. Arriving in my mailbox as the hills around Anchorage glow red and the birch turn golden, the image by photographer Ray Corral evoked my traditional moods of autumn: the apprehension of losing summer’s warmth, the touch of melancholy as flowers brown and wither, the inner call to hunker down and prepare for more challenging times. But the colorful foliage against the dark blue slate also struck me as a perfect metaphor for the longer season upon us. Which, I suspect, is why AQR editor Ron Spatz is launching the new volume at an event entitled “Beauty in a Time of Darkness.”
As anticipated, the Summer & Fall 2019 edition of AQR delivers plenty of beautiful writing. For 37 years, Spatz and a dedicated core of volunteer editors have compiled stories, essays, poems and special features that have earned the journal a devoted following and many national accolades. This issue continues the tradition, and does not disappoint. Many pieces moved me deeply, and several have stayed with me.
Of the twelve short stories, “Ex Party” by Lee Conell strikes closest to home for me. It tells the story of a man who has invited all of his ex-lovers to a cocktail party, yet when they arrive, he is not there, having left a note that he is out buying more wine. In his absence, the group finds a common bond in their grievances against him and develops a strategy for confronting him that involves a woman at the party who protests that she is “not totally ready.” What follows is a humorous but unsettling exploration of how power can be abused and the vulnerable exploited even by (perhaps especially by) those professing lofty goals and best intentions. Ultimately, it’s a haunting story of complicity and betrayal that remains troubling because it rings true.
Other stories are equally strong, on a range of themes. “Silver” by Victoria Waddle, “Blue Houses” by Nancy Reisman, and “Linear B” by Jane Gillette resonate with me because they touch on the accumulation of “things and things and things” (“Blue Houses”) in their powerful explorations of aging and the passage of time. “Porco Dio” by Rachel Rose and “Ramp” by Mark Jacobs are gripping because they lay bare, through very different lenses, the pain of family alienation and dashed expectations. “The Fence” by Jeremy Griffin conveys the intense loss and hopelessness of two people held responsible for tragedies they didn’t intend to cause.
Three personal essays in the volume delve poignantly into issues that are perennially timely. In “Icon,” Richard Adams Carey details the nation’s first multiple homicide committed with an AR-15, which took place in Colebrook, New Hampshire, in 1997. Carey meticulously describes the human loss and profound community impact when a well-armed resident, disgruntled over fights with local authorities, targets a beloved member of the community who has devoted her life to community service. In “The Witching Hour,” Kelly Sundberg reveals how well meaning friends, family and therapists – even a prosecutor - downplayed her ex-husband’s abuse and challenged her anger, making it harder for her to leave a violent relationship. And in “Love, Crazy?” Deborah A. Lott describes how her close relationship with a niece is threatened when the niece stops taking medications for bipolar disorder and suffers a gradual breakdown that frays their mutual trust.
The poetry section features 26 poets and includes many gems. Doug Ramspeck’s “Small Nation” and “User Manual” are heart-wrenching reflections on growing up with a father’s temper and a brother who eventually goes to prison. “Midwest Physics: Second Law” by Rushi Vyas touches a related theme: protecting his mother, and himself, from his father’s violence. In contrast, Rebecca Foust returns to her Southern childhood home from a big city in the West in “I Learn to Field-Strip an M-16.” She recognizes her distance and the conflicts it brings, but ultimately pays a tribute to her father that is piercing in its honest self-examination.
Finally, the volume ends with a special feature, “The Lonely Islands: Attu and Kiska, Alaska,” a photo essay collaboration by former Alaska Writer Laureate Nancy Lord and photographer Irene Owsley that is, to me, the highlight of the issue. The two traveled to the Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska in 2017 for an artist residency program under the auspices of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. In lyrical prose and stunning imagery, they have documented both the long-abandoned battlegrounds of the World War II Aleutian campaign and the remote, rarely visited island landscapes. Owsley’s images, captured in a palette of rust reds, vivid greens and countless shades of gray, reveal the hulks of sunken battleships still rising from the waves, the mounted barrels of anti-aircraft guns still aimed towards the sky, the carved out shelters where men hunkered down for protection. Yet the patterns and muted colors are so serene and aesthetically pleasing, and the vegetation so wildly restored, that it took more than one pass through the collection for me to remember the fierce warfare that took place there, or the thousands of soldiers who lost their lives, or the villagers forced to abandon their homes forever.
Lord’s essay reflects this dichotomy between the tragic history of the islands and the beauty of their natural landscapes. She details the numbers of sorties and bombs that fell seven decades ago, the immense suffering from isolation, weather and ailments, and the thousands of dead and injured. She describes the commemorative efforts made and the monuments mounted, notwithstanding the great logistical difficulties. But she also observes the pigeon guillemots that nest among the wreckage today, the tundra ponds that have formed in old bomb craters, and the ripening cloudberries that cluster near decaying fragments of a miniature submarine. Despite the human grief the islands hold, nature has not despaired, but carried on.
The public is invited to attend the debut of the latest edition of AQR on Saturday, October 12, at 7:00 PM at The Writer’s Block Bookstore and Café, 3956 Spenard Road. The program will feature presentations by AQR founder and acclaimed editor Ron Spatz and AQR Contributing Editor Bonnie Nazdam, author of the novels LIONS, a Finalist for the PEN USA Literary Award in Fiction, and LAMB, winner of the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. The evening is sponsored by the Center for the Narrative & Lyric Arts in Anchorage.