Fiction Non-Fiction Pictures Poetry

The Missouri Review, FALL 2013: ”Transcendence”

A Review of a Review

The Missouri Review’s Fall 2013 edition titled Transcendence contained only twelve writers that often had multiple submissions and the Christian religion seemed to be a major theme underlining many of the essays, short stories, and fiction. Two essays, however, by Kristine Somerville were of more notable topics: one concerning the photographic art of Manassé and the other, a review of four books, focused on the state of American higher education in recent years. There were only three poets published in the entire issue, one having won the Pulitzer some years ago. One might argue that a wider variety of writers, both experienced and emerging, might have been a better option than focusing on a handful of mostly mediocre writings that leaned more to rough musings than well-crafted art forms.

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To begin, James Davis May had five poems published that were certainly not bred of the Romantic era. ”Portrait of the Self as Skunk Cabbage” was bent tightly around a pessimistic nature involving images like ”soil wet,” ”thawed out insects,” ”frost-crusted creek,” ”we hated because it was ugly,” that opened, as the issue’s theme would have it, into transcendence: ”the roots pull the stem / deeper into the soil, too deep, / a gardener told me, / to kill it even if you wanted to” (p 73-74). Another poem that was really enjoyable to read is called ”A Lasting Sickness” where May ends the poem with profound clarity and unease:

forgetting the cause, if it haunts you
like, say, unrepeatable pleasure
or a good dream you’ve never learned
to disbelieve, so that each sickness–
pneumonia at eighteen, shingles
at twenty-three–reminds you
of what others have done for you
and what others will do, their hands
working your clammy wrists and brow,
kneading the minty balm again and again
into your chest, if you began to believe,
as the boy did , that the world
not only acknowledges your suffering,
but turns to soothe it–what choice
would you have but to love that world
you so appallingly don’t understand? (p 71-72)

May is certainly not a T.S. Eliot or Dickinson but his poems do resonate within.

Claudia Emerson won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 2006 and her poem ”Infusion Suite” is about a woman struggling to live with cancer. In the section titled ”6” Emerson writes:

The trees redden beneath it, before loss,
becoming livid with this: rain, cold, windless–
shadowless the light, the sky a low

opalescence. This one a quieter day,
the room empties earlier. I eat
a bowl of soup from the table I make

of my lap. Later, I will win at Scrabble,
studying my sorry trough of letters–
cause double its worth, though, and I puzzle it

with Uz–as in Job, as in the land of–triple–
cheating, really, but we agree we will
let it go this time, all my words small

but costly, and my accounting of them perfect (p 113).

Emerson is able to take the ordinary, as in the game of Scrabble, and turn phrases like ”trough of letters” that dig deeply into the psyche of the narrator’s state of mind as she is coming to an understanding that each word, each action, each choice from now until her death will be judged and shifted through the Universal sieve of justice on the Day of Reckoning, if one is to believe in such things happening after death, hence ”the accounting of them” must be ”perfect.”

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Kristine Somerville’s essay ”Darkroom Alchemy: The Photographic Art of Studio Manassé” reflects on the art of the Wlassics, the husband-wife team in Vienna, and the essay covers their life from the early twenties to their death several decades later. The Austrian pair basically made famous what is now known as the ”Art of Photo-shop.” Olga and Adorján’s photography involved nude females cut and pasted into much larger, every day objects. The photographs were often used for advertisements and referred to as ”joke photography.” But there was more to it than simply jokes and nudity.

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”While the women of Olga’s nude portraits may appear on the surface as posed mannequins,” writes Somerville, ”they are not mere vehicles for passive fantasy and illusion. Olga imbued them with a brilliantly aloof while simultaneously sexual come-hither demeanor. Radiance and warmth tinged with inaccessibility are the qualities most evident in the facial expressions and poses: hooded lids, rouged, slightly parted lips; hands provocatively placed on the hips; tousled hair. Though nude, they wear the mask of fashion and film–twin obsessions of the newly modern woman. They are both consumers and products of the new culture” (p 122).

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Studio Manassé never forgot what their photography was all about, and many might agree that this husband-wife team helped to shape modern photographs, especially in the field of advertising where Adorján would trim the fat off models with a fine razorblade to the film’s negative tape or touch up and remove blemishes with a fine brush.

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Nevertheless, Somerville explains: ”Whether their work was used for press, publicity or advertising, they never forgot that the image must stand as an independent work of art. It must have aesthetic value beyond what it was selling or intended to promote. They understood very well the pleasure of the malleability of the photographic image and created artfully fabricated photographic illusions” (p 128). Below you may find some of these popular photographs from Vienna that helped to shape the field of photography.

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More Images from Studio Manassé: manasse.tumblr.com

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The most interesting piece, many would argue, is Somerville’s review of four books called ”Dissing Academia: From Casuistry to Common Sense.”

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On the first book, Somerville writes: ”In In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic, Professor X gives us a bleak view of the college classroom” (p 175) and goes on to explain ”how professors are forced to cope with the deficits in their students’ previous schooling by surreptitiously introducing basic skills” and that ”many students are being put in classes that they simply can’t pass, with or without remediation” while ”fifty percent of community college students drop out before their second year” (p 177). Professor X does not paint a pretty picture when it comes to the reality of American higher education, and others had some harsher criticisms.

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The second book reviewed is The Education of Millionaires: Everything You Won’t Learn in College About How to Be Successful by Michael Ellsberg, a Forbes.com blogger. Somerville’s criticism of Ellsberg is rational and just as harsh as Ellsberg is on the education system that produces more swine than shepherds; Somerville writes: ”The Education of Millionaires oozes with unbridled anti-intellectualism. Ellsberg reduces a college education to self-exploration with expensive, fancy books or a long break before adulthood [not entirely wrong there]. Maybe that’s what he got at Brown in the ’90s, but times have changed [they certainly have]. College is no longer the pastime of eccentrics, as he seems to think [I hope not]. Ellsberg’s rant that universities are hopelessly sclerotic [there’s a word for you, having nothing to do with eroticism but rather meaning: one’s rigid inability to be adaptive] and removed from the ‘real world’ is ultimately tiresome, dull and self-serving” (p 179). Somerville pulled no punches there.

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Jeffrey J. Selingo’s book College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means to Students focuses on the more reasonable causes to an otherwise diseased state in American higher education. Somerville explains that ”Selingo [who is one editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education] makes quick work of the myriad of familiar problems facing higher education–flagging support, huge federal budget deficits and falling household incomes” (p. 180). Actually, ever since the Reagan administration, with Bush senior in the vice-presidency seat, the federal government has continually decreased funding to private and public institutions of higher education causing these colleges and universities to annually increase tuition. We, as in this generation, is now beginning to witness the direct effects of legislation instituted some twenty-five years ago. The catch is that the government keeps making the same redundant, half-brained policies of spending on military rather than education.

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What is troubling is that the economy of employers is split and unable to make up their minds as to whether or not a university diploma is absolutely necessary. ”Selingo reveals that employers are split,” writes Somerville: ”’45 percent of hiring managers prefer students acquire an education that specifically prepares them for the workplace; 55 percent favor a broad-based education”’ (p 181). This is a corporate-centric view to take: what do the companies and employers want. Many will agree that higher education is more than just preparing for a job or career later on. And it sounds like companies want a greater number of under-educated employees in order to train them more adequately and then to establish a firm dependency between company and employee, who has no formal education, and would be inadequate in any other job with the skill set acquired at the former company. The losers, in the end, will be everyone.

Higher education, however, can be about other things than skills. ”According to the Pew Research Center,” Somerville writes, ”three-quarters of those who have attended college feel that it helped them to grow intellectually and mature as a person. [Selingo] also maintains that they live longer, happier lives with better, more satisfying working conditions, more civic involvement and engagement in the arts than those with a high school diploma” (p 181).

To finish, the last book is called College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be by Andrew Delbanco, a professor or American literature at Columbia University, who, as Somerville explains, ”offers an informed, often entertaining discussion of the history, current state and future of academia” (p 181).

If you are looking for quality fiction and poetry, this issue of Missouri Review is less than satisfying; if, on the other hand, you are seeking some incredible essays that will instruct and enlighten you, this issue is a must read. Also, regarding the review ”Dissing Academia” I would recommend reading In Defense of American Higher Education (2001), edited by Altbach, Gumport and Johnstone and the book called Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk (2005), edited by Hersh and Merrow.

James Davis May, American Poet

James Davis May’s work appears frequently in literary journals: Five PointsNew England ReviewThe Missouri Review, and The New Republic. James Davis May is not to be confused with British television host James May, who also happens to write poetry. Website:  jamesdavismay.com

Claudia Emerson, American Poet

Claudia Emerson is an American poet. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection Late Wife. Website: claudiaemerson.org

Kristine Somerville

Kristine Somerville works at The Missouri Review as marketing coordinator and teaches at Stephens College and the University of Missouri—Columbia.

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CG FEWSTON

CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy). He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong.

He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Fathers Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.

You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 350,000+ followers

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