Disclaimer: I am not a practiced reviewer. This review slants heavily toward my own interests and biases and is meant as a personal response to the material at hand rather than as a professional grade commentary. And if that, dear reader, isn’t enough to cast doubt upon my objectivity, I have work published in this issue. With all that in mind, then…
About a week and a half ago the newest Irreantum arrived in my mailbox brimming with poetry and other goodies highly beguiling to my literary sweet tooth. I polished off its 200 plus pages in just a few days and am still feeling thrills of pleasure and surprise.
Angela Hallstrom, Irreantum’s assistant editor, announces at the onset that this issue is a tribute to the journal’s former editor Laraine Wilkins, who died several months ago from injuries sustained in a car accident. Following Angela’s statement, Irreantum’s book review editor David Pace reminds us of Laraine’s vision for Mormon literature, quoting her: “We have more work to do to convince the world we are part of a larger discourse around religion, art, film, history, anthropology, the West, American culture, folklore, spiritual autobiography, poetry and many other relevant aspects of the human experience.” This might seem to state the obvious, but it’s exactly the kind of call to action we need to hear often. Such plain but visionary words reach farther than the eye can see. Laraine’s language — the language of possibilities — is “opening” language, words that release imagination, initiate exploration, and encourage community. It’s not surprising, then, that a wide variety of authors and creative visions converges in this issue, in part, I think, because Laraine’s vision for Mormon art made it possible for them to do so.
Included in the issue’s opening pages is Wilkins’s own poem, “How Long,” sobering in its prescience. “…I come home / from work wishing I could do something / with my yard but knowing it’s better if I help / my daughter with her homework or spin a tale / with her before it’s time to sleep. Because we never know / how long.”
After an intense leadoff of Laraine’s poetry and tributes in her honor there tumbles forth a satisfying diversity of verse, stories, essays, and reviews that make this issue of Irreantum a nicely cut stone. Here are some of my personal favorites.
Many lines from David Pace’s tribute, “The Internal Garden of Laraine Wilkins,” catch my attention, but especially these: “At last, ours will also be a work, I think, that must be underscored by the notion that to love well is its own reward; to love well is our best hope for the emergence of one’s own voice, literary or otherwise.” The relationship between capacity for feeling and quality of literary voice is too little remarked upon. Is this because such an inquiry isn’t considered scholarly or because we haven’t yet come to meaningful consciousness of the relationship or haven’t developed suitable language for discussing it? Of course, scholars might be engaging the subject and I’m just unaware.
The entire section on Mormon epic, which in this case means both epics about Mormonism and epics not about Mormonism but written by Mormons, is fascinating. Especially, I enjoyed the excerpt from “The Exiled King,” a poem about the life and trials of Oscar Wilde, written by Bryan Monte. This poem reflects Wilde’s universal wit with convincing skill. Well done, a very satisfying read.
Darvell Hunt’s story, “Fatal Broken Heart,” excerpted from a novel called Kumina Man, is an interesting “compelled to tell” tale where the first person narrator relates an event that occurred several years before, yet aftershocks of its meaning continue to rock his world.
Much of the issue’s poetry aspires to and some achieves universal rather than Mormon-centric appeal. I think that while the poetry Mormons write for their fellows has its value, the voice seeking admittance to the Great Dialogue throws off the brighter and more engaging spark. Thus I enjoy Lance Larsen’s poem, “A Necklace of Ants,” which asks questions about grace that anyone may approach: “To a clown, is grace a pair of floppy shoes? / To a waitress in Duluth, / A favorite bra she washes in the sink…? / I don’t mean we slip God / on like a favorite accessory but that He delivers us / in ways we didn’t know we needed.” His line that “…grace has a job: to hurt us / toward the good…” is fine. My fondess for ants and bees balks a little at the image of them Larsen projects in key metaphors, but for most people the jitters these insects inspire in our too, too human flesh grants his comparisons the provocative insight he intends. All his poems here have similarly wide appeal.
Carol Ottensen’s poems, especially “To a College Roommate Killed by a Drunk Driver,” also evoked my strong response. Ottensen’s poems have religious, even culturally familiar tones and language yet touch the universal — in this case, the universal feminine. Other poets ranging from Alan Rex Mitchell to Timothy Liu further refract human experience and contribute to this issue’s satisfying and mutliple layers.
I found all the reviews valuable. Of the discussions of Richard Dutcher’s film States of Grace I’ve read so far, the Young family’s (Margaret, Bruce, and Robert) are standouts. Randy Astle’s commentary, titled “A Glimpse Inside the Last Wagon,” a review of Angie, a film in the Fit for the Kingdom series, is quite striking. “It is not the whirlwind, the earthquake, or fire that carries God’s message to us, but his still small voice,” he says. “We need not always make our movies about the prophets, the architects, the martyrs, although they have their place.”
Phyllis Barber’s review of Jacquelyn Mitchard’s Cage of Stars, Heidi Hart’s review of Timothy Liu’s For Dust Thou Art, Paul Swenson’s review of Walter Kirn’s Mission to America, Steven Stewart’s review of Larry Rigby’s The Jager Artist — all intelligent and valuable. But my personal favorite from this section is R. W. Rasband’s review of Neil LaBute’s remake of the 1973 film, The Wicker Man.
I’ve been an Edward Woodward fan for decades and have enjoyed others of his somewhat obscure offerings (including The Appointment — anybody seen that one?). Years ago I stumbled across The Wicker Man. To this day it remains my favorite horror movie, though, um, I can’t watch it very often. When advertisements for the 2006 version announced Nicholas Cage in the role of Neil Howie, I wailed, “NOOO!” Yet the original movie’s effect on me sparked enough curiosity I nearly set my doubts aside to see what spin LaBute put on the story. Rasband’s review confirmed my worst suspicions and saved me time and expense, including the expense of seeing a brilliant and highly complex movie dumbed down. Rasband suggests that LaBute took an archetypal story and made it painfully (and perhaps spitefully) personal, reducing the mad flames of The Wicker Man to a banal fizzle. Witnessing such a sulk firsthand would have deeply aggravated me. This review was an especially delightful and valuable surprise; what a wonder to find it in Irreantum. Warning: In either case, The Wicker Man is not a movie for everyone.
The loving tributes to Leslie Norris in the “Readers Write” department and the poetry that follows them reminds me of what good fortune I had to know such a lovely man. Leslie’s help to me ranged from dog-sitting my husky in his BYU office to keeping a wise and constant watch over my progress as a writer. There are some people who, had they not been at BYU, I don’t know what might have become of me. Leslie is among the foremost. I believe that issuing the call for these tributes was also Laraine’s idea — another example of her feeling for what is necessary. Thus they stand not only in memoriam of Leslie Norris and his contributions to Mormon literature but also in memoriam of Laraine and hers.
Perhaps this issue has been put together with special inspiration in the wake of Laraine’s and Leslie’s passing. But maybe its wonderful complexity and overall quality suggest that Irreantum is experiencing a sea change. Which may mean that Mormon literature overall has caught a rising wind. If that’s the case — if after all the work and prayer and striving Molit is finally on its way to high adventure — well then, that truly is cause for celebration.
So…when’s the party?