In contrast to the offerings of the large publishing houses comes "The Pushcart Prize, XI." Instead of Stephen King, say, whose predictable if well-written novels satisfy our need to be entertained, we get here a sampling of some of the best short stories, essays and poetry published by the small literary magazines and presses across the country. You aren't likely to feel empty-headed and giddy after reading the thoughtful, moving and enduring inclusions in this highly praised anthology, now in its 11th year.
After Cynthia Ozick's introduction, itself an eloquent statement of the modern history and enduring tenets of small-press publishing, "The Pushcart Prize, XI" offers us stories full of imagery: "She's struck speechless by the beauty of their kneecaps, their long suntanned legs. How strong and shaky and elegant they are! Like newborn giraffes!" writes Francine Prose in "Other Lives." Or full of insight: "My mother . . . probably thought that what she was doing was terrible, but simply couldn't help herself. I thought it was all right, though. Regular life it seemed and still does. She was young, and I knew that even then," states a boy whose mother takes on a nonconformist lover in Richard Ford's "Communist."
The themes, mostly, are current fare. Andre Dubus' "Rose" poignantly depicts the psychological damage of a woman who has silently watched the abuse of her children at the hands of her husband. In his last deranged act, he sets fire to their apartment. Rose saves her children only to lose them to a court order that leaves her alone and desolate. "She sees herself in the Laundromat, the supermarket, listlessly drunk in a nightclub where only her fingers on the table moved to the music. I see her young and strong and swift, wrapping the soaked blankets around her little girls, and hugging them to her, and running and spinning and running through the living room, on that summer night when she was touched and blessed by flames."
Mona Simpson's "Lawns" deals with the agonizing guilt of incest. "I never really told anybody. It's not exactly the kind of thing you can bring up over lunch. 'So, I'm sleeping with my father. Oh, and let's split a dessert.' Right."
Tobias Wolff's "Leviathan" describes the lost world of upscale drug abusers. " 'So how does it feel,' Bliss asked, 'being thirty?' The ash fell off her cigarette into the eggs. She stared at the ash for a moment, then stirred it in. 'Mitch had his fortieth last month and totally freaked. He did so much Maalox he started to taste like chalk. I thought he was going to start freebasing it or something.' "
In melancholy time-space juxtaposition, Gary Gildner's "Somewhere Geese Are Flying" depicts the yearning of an expatriate for his rural wife and child. "He drinks from the bottle, wipes his chin on his sleeve. His sleeve? This is not his sleeve. Nor his coat. It's the bum's coat. No wonder he's stinking. . . . His eyes close. He sees her standing in a field of virgin prairie, gathering the wind in her hair."
The best of the poetry in this volume speaks for itself. From the startling imagery of Linda Bierd's "Mid-Plains Tornado"
It's with you all morning. Something wet in the air.
Sounds coming in at a slant, like stones clapping
under water. And pigs, slow to the trough. to Tom Sleigh's powerful narrative in "Don't Go to the Bar," Garrett Kaoru Hongo's "Morro Rock," Dorianne Laux's emotional "Quarter to Six," the strong use of metaphor in "Tide of Voices" by Lynda Hull, Hayden Carruth's mastery of the language in "Plain Song" and Edward Hirsch's moving, "In a Polish Home for the Aged (Chicago, 1983)":
Somehow the morning starts over in the home.
Someone coughs in the hall; someone calls out.
An unfamiliar name, a name I don't remember;
Someone slams a car door in the distance.
\f7 Essays of note include Ted Solotaroff's "Writing in the Cold," an admonition to the gifted young writer against the diversions and stultifying effects of academic employment and the avoidance of pure struggle, and Donald Barthelme's witty and surprising essay on writing, art and style, "Not Knowing."
Finally, Eliot Weinberger's "At the Death of Kenneth Rexroth" addresses the question of why we have largely ignored the most undervalued yet influential poet of modern times. Perhaps, Weinberger guesses, "Rexroth blew the circuits by presenting complex thought in a simple language." Or perhaps Rexroth himself hit the nail on the head when he wrote, "There is no place for a poet in American society. No place at all for any kind of poet at all."
Let's hope this volume helps to negate that observation. A sampling? "The Pushcart Prize, XI" is more like a feast.