Tuesday, December 01, 2009

AGNI 70 (autumn 2009) Keeps us Reading




AGNI 70 (autumn 2009) Keeps us Reading


article by Michael T. Steffen



A good deal of imaginative literature, writing that nourishes not only the thoughts but also the imagery and sensations in our minds, consists of cataloguing items, belongings and surroundings, evoking sensuous experience, prior to being analyzed or intellectualized.

Here are excerpts from two prose pieces in the Fall 2009 issue of AGNI:

…The Imperial…a suite of marble and cherry wood, with Porthault linens, Ayurvedic bath oils, and a tranquil view of an Asian courtyard with a serene and shallow ornamental pool at its center…

She had begun with a white silk blouse, a navy cashmere pullover, designer
jeans, brown leather boots, and a burnt umber silk scarf…
(The Nine-Gated City by Melissa Pritchard, pp. 109-153)


Along the Mississippi River, scattered in weedy stretches of factory silos and warehouses, stood small brick sheds marinated in oily exhaust… Straw tufted from scabrous shed vents, tin chimneys, cracks in grime-curtained panes… Shuttered snack shacks. Conoco stations run dry and vaguer ruins angling from soil or cement, gnarly roots tethered to and somehow sustaining the disco present…
(from Time and Temperature, Ben Miller, pp. 86-89)

Juxtaposed, the radically different subject matter of the two writers gives us one hint at why AGNI is one of the best literary journals in America. It refuses superficial definition, denies readers’ expectation for a class or genre of writing. In doing so, the journal whets our curiosity and interest. Instead of turning the pages in a half-slumber for smooth transitions, we keep wondering, What’s next?


The common thread in both pieces is of a principle. They are well-written with specific vocabulary that gives us detailed pictures. When read through, each piece in its own way digests its visual, tactile and qualified spaces with idea: Pritchard’s story stalking a well-off na├»ve traveler-journalist encountering the intellectually challenging (and dangerous) squalor of Delhi as she investigates the sex trade for an article she is writing; Miller’s essay agilely transcending the idea of an order of idea to his child-explorer’s abandoned landscape on the Mississippi with a term of great insight and acceptance: non-frastrucure.

Both Pritchard and Miller affirm a viable force to chaos over against our society’s technical and personal explorations of, encroachments on and attempts to use and interact with nature, and human nature, on enterprising if not selfish and neglectful terms. It is a probing, urgent theme—a paradox and writer’s risk to portray, this inevitable objective unruliness of the world and of our minds, and trace it in the rule of writing itself.

In his lucid and wonderful memoir Here Were the Two of Us Exactly This Moment, Douglas Bauer demonstrates a similar courage and humanity of observation:

As ungenerous human beings, we are disgusted and frightened by deformity. But when we are children we’re better than that. There’s infatuation in our fear and our disgust is something sensual. As children we want goblins and witches in our worlds… So if I didn’t have a grandson’s easy love for my grandfather [eyes whitened by cataracts, my insert], there was something far more compelling in my feelings for him; he deliciously repulsed me (p. 91).

The French critic Paul de Man often referred to the master romancer Marcel Proust as“the poet.” AGNI 70 offers generous prose with more than occasional brilliance, moments of such careful perception equaled by expression. Yet it is a poet of lines, those meticulously exposed units of written speech, who takes the prize when Eric Rawson finds three words—

The flannel skin

—to describe—to incarnate his daring subject in “The Peach Will Forgive Me” (p. 108). And Nicholas Samaras’ solemnity and acceptance also justify the definition of ample margins for his lines:

…the whitened wind tells me that, with every
person’s death, the world is impoverished
and the earth is enriched (“Prologue/Afterworld” p. 104),

while formal patterns of modest resonance are displayed in Chloe Honum’s villanelle, “Come Back” (p. 169):

The moon has flown, though in its place a husk
clings to the sky. The horses figure-eight
in single file. Through rain-sown drapes of dusk

I try to count them, climb up on the fence.
Their foreheads shine with pearly stars, ghost-lit.
I can’t see all of any horse at once—
they multiply, and shiver in the dusk.

In a sense AGNI enjoys a reputation of distinction in the world of American literary publications—the sense that the pulse and verve of the writing and editing convey enjoyment in the “activity” of this journal. But AGNI really earns that recognition with the consistency (230+ page after page) of quality of the writers and poets it acquaints and reacquaints us with biannually. You trust one who looks for counterpoint will find enough to argue with here as well. Still today as worth weighs again in many buyers’ reluctant consideration, AGNI is easily recommendable for the venture of a subscription.

AGNI, edited by Sven Birkerts
Published at Boston University
is available for $14 at most major bookstores
1 year—$20, 2 years—$38
see agni@bu.edu and www.agnimagazine.org

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