The Layout of the Carnival

The Summer 2010 issue of the Colorado Review has bold streaks and brushed hints of hyper-glow tinting on the cover. There’s a carnival tent and a menacing sky in dull greys and faded peaches. I find it eerie. As if it’s suggesting something playful is going on, but beware: the thunder’s coming.

Looming cover aside, the layout of the journal intimidates me straight away. A quick flip through the pages shows all the prose together in one hefty section, the poetry following, all clumped together in their verse. (That arrangement always unnerves me; there’s something so rigid about it.)

I open the book, almost resistant, and I begin “Touch”, the first of three short stories. Another tale about the distance between a husband and wife. I brace myself for the slow pace—and before I know it there’s a babysitter mock breastfeeding their baby! The act is unsettling. And quirky. The sexual tension between the husband and the babysitter is almost a worry. (And quirky.) I’m captivated by the plot and the sorrow, and the near-comic manner in which author Candice Morrow tackles them. Then Melissa Lambert paints a masterful image in the story “When the Rains Came” (2009-10 AWP Intro Journals winner). I can still see the terrified and helpless cow being pulled out of waist-deep mud as a group of children look on through the door of their ramshackle school. Finally, Martin Cozza zigzags his way through ‘Pennsylvania Polka,’ and in the end manages to bring that thunder.

In the nonfiction, Rachel Jackson’s “Hellcat Court” slowed everything down for me. Jackson let comparisons and juxtapositions of black/white and ghetto/hip hop cultures remain surface. She presented them, then let them lie. (For example, She told us there was fear, but she didn’t attend to it.) A discerning interview with David Eggers by Anis Shivani follows. Finally, an essay. In the end I can’t help think three consecutive non-fiction pieces can be a lot to ask from a reader, and so I’m back to wanting to diversify the layout, back to being unnerved.

The issue’s penultimate piece is the last of the nonfiction works: “Songs Primarily in the Key of Life.” Brian Kevin takes us through the album of the People’s Temple Choir, He’s Able. If you’re not already experiencing goose bumps then you might need me to remind you that the People’s Temple Choir is the Jonestown Peoples Temple Choir. Some topics are just endlessly fascinating. That a preacher could rise to cult-status and drive 918 people to commit suicide—a third of those people being children—will never cease to astound. I’ve heard the story so many times, but this time it’s new. Kevin introduces us to various people in the choir—those who helped with the sound, produced the album, sang the lead vocals—and all along he’s giving us these animated descriptions of each utterly joyful soul-induced hymnal. The story gets personal, and what’s so appealing about that is it allows us to think of those who died in the Jonestown Massacre as individuals with histories, with real pain before the People’s Temple “lifted” their spirits. But of course we know the end of the People’s Temple, and there’s no reason to rejoice. That’s one of the lingering ironies of this piece. We’re on a rollercoaster of emotions. We want—actually can’t help—to feel happy when the story gets on a role, basking in the music:

The chorus of “Walking with You Father” has this great organ part floating around in the background. It’s wild and unrestrained and not completely on key, and when I hear it, I picture a googly-eyed monster from the Muppet Show band just wailing away on a Wurlitzer or a Hammond B-3. It’s like a carnival anthem on fast-forward, a series of whirring, scattershot chords as a pair of hands bounce with only vague intention from one assemblage of keys to the next. Above it, a pair of duelling divas channel their best Aretha Franklins, proclaiming:

Wash us!

Fill us!

Cleanse us with your power!

While we’re walking with you Father!

But always that reminder that these people died, and that their love for their God and the Christian faith was sorely taken advantage of. Kevin makes reference to it more than once, as if he’s constantly reminding himself: wait…should I get this carried away?…should I allow myself these excited paragraphs? It’s the kind of reading you can’t put down.

Sad to say I wanted, however, to put the poetry down. Not only are the poems all clumped together, but they are arranged alphabetically. I noticed that the fiction and nonfiction sections weren’t showcased alphabetically, so why the poetry? It took me eleven poems and nineteen pages to reach Michelle Hicks’s “Bellaghy” (another 2009-10 AWP Intro Journal winner), which is a tightly crafted and revealing poem about a woman’s visit to Seamus Heaney’s hometown, Magherafelt:

Stepping off the bus from Magherafelt,

I feel my ass pinched by a boy not yet

out of junior school and, deposited

all alone, am greeted by a quartet…

Yet I can’t say that a single poem before “Bellaghy” lingered. I’m of the mind that this wouldn’t have been the case if the editors had opted for the un-alphabetical route, forcing styles and tones to contrast and compliment—and, on that note, I found that the contrasting and complimenting techniques of the combinatory poetics of Trey Moody and Joshua Ware made the hair on my arms dance. There exists in the Moody/Ware works a “feeling” (or poem) element on the left and a “learning” (possibly prose poem) element to the right, and through the winding course of the elements’ dissected connections, we glimpse both humanity and history, humor and awareness. Hats off!

Yet one aspect of the sectioned-off layout always works for me: placing the book reviews at the back. Here, Darcie Dennigan’s reviews of The Tangled Line and Union! were as reflective as they were entertaining, as scathing as they were sympathetic. And I think Julie Carr helped me decide to seek out Andrew Zawacki’s latest, Petals of Zero Petals of One.

But I expected this particular section to work; keeping the reviews at the back is a very common practice with most journals, so I’m just used to it. Still, layout aside, I’m going to say that my introduction to Moody and Ware, my reading about the Peoples Temple with new eyes (and ears), and my discomfort at the teenager dry-feeding a baby with her breasts were more than enough. Succumb to the carnival tent.