blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1
poetry gallery features

A joint venture of the Department of English at Virginia Commonwealth University and New Virginia Review, Inc.


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Discovering Stories

On a rainy, leaden day at a rented country place one summer, I ended up snooping around in the basement and lucked on a fruit crate of old magazines. Old Atlantics and Saturday Evening Posts. Their pages were mousy and yellowed and no doubt worthless. I found a vintage '69 Esquire, an issue I remembered as actually having long ago read. An act which was impossible, I thought, as I would have maybe been all of ten. But this wasn't some madeleine of misremembrance.

The first stories and poems I inadvertently turned to outside of a classroom were in the columned glossy magazines my mother lay fanned across our coffee table as an accessorizing splash of decor. Mostly women's journals and an occasional Look. The Atlantic or Argosy now and then. I'm sure I wasn't expected to read or have any interest in the glossies, and I clearly didn't . . . as long as my parents were in the house, since in those pages a kid had relatively unlimited access to the complex and often racy adult world. Something like a premium subscription to cable. Sure, there were bra ads and starlet photos and so on, but eventually I would find the odd inset column where a poem seemed to float by itself in beige space. Befuddling, moody poetry in those vacant days. Or there was a story that wasn't too wordy, even if it frequently made little sense. Who knew what this literature meant or who the writers were who wrote it?

Down in the dusty basement with its junk and radoned coolness, I realized I'd once read a John Cheever story in that '69 Esquire while still a boy. Were there also poems I'd read by Ann Sexton, William Stafford or Sylvia Plath? Poets I had maybe read as I looked for the prurient or some mystery at most. Oh, the difficulty of poetry back then.

Reading contemporary writers now, I am aware that complexity of feeling, of voice and image, aesthetics and sense—in a word resistance to easy translation—may be the very quality that draws me so keenly to the heart of a poem. Surprise. The unexpected perception, secrets and risk. Complexity not for some self-aggrandizing encoding (as I once was certain), but to reach those areas of consciousness beyond the boundaries of everyday utterance and noise.

Cheever once said that literature was "an extremely intimate means of communication, involving sentiments, passions, regrets, and memories that simply don't belong in the spectrum of simple conversation." Yet the arts of poetry and fiction are nothing if not conversations (a discourse if you will) between writer and reader, solitary in their mutually distant instances, both in the writing and in that recreative moment when the reader takes solace in another's speech. Plainly spoken or dazzlingly incanted, why would one read literature at all if not for the pure intimate pleasures of that act? We hope you will find such pleasures in Blackbird, issue number 2.

—William Tester