-Reviewed by Ian Chung-
For a literary magazine that has been around for more than 10 years, Brittle Star’s online presence still feels curiously disorganised, despite the official website having been revamped in March 2010. A quick check with Google reveals that Issue 28 is already out and the magazine is reading for Issue 29, but on the magazine’s official website, clicking on a picture headed ‘Latest issue’ leads to a separate WordPress blog entry about Issue 27 (bizarrely, the actual URL ends in ‘/issue-24/’). Neither the blog nor the magazine’s Facebook and Twitter accounts have been updated since January 2011. If this were my favourite literary magazine, I would regard the effort required for keeping up-to-date with what it was doing as bordering on excessively complicated.
That said, it would be a shame if potential readers/subscribers missed out on Brittle Star because of this. For as Issue 27 proves, there is commendable work to be found in this slim magazine. The official website notes that Brittle Star ‘has earned a reputation for providing a platform for writers at the beginning of their careers, many of whom have seen their work in print for the first time’. In this issue, one such writer is Nick Boyes, whose poem ‘To a Slug’ strikes a balance between applying a child-like imagination to nature’s creatures (‘The ant is a Victorian strongman’) and deploying a more adult awareness (‘the hiding spider / is a cold war secret agent’, ‘you slug, you are a fat friendless child / who doesn’t know why’).
This knowingness also manifests itself in poems like Terry Jones’s ‘Birdsong’ and Michael Bartholomew-Biggs’s ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Fructiculture’. In ‘Birdsong’, ‘Their call-and-repeat-and-warn tapestries’ are immediately reinterpreted in the next line as ‘Sung territories of threat and feathered lust’. The sonic echoes in word pairs ‘tapestries’/‘territories’ and ‘threat’/‘feathered’ (with ‘repeat’ creating a visual triple) subtly reinforce the transformation of meaning. Although the poem closes with the apparently hopeful ‘Somewhere Cuckoo muscles into light’, in opposition to the evocative phrasing of ‘a dark rain of birdsong’, one wonders if a more ambivalent reading is not called for. The previous line (‘Rook guards his crown of thorns’) contains a Biblical allusion to the Crucifixion, which in turn points back to the rook’s folkloric association with death. Furthermore, many cuckoo species are brood parasites, laying their eggs in other birds’ nests, so the element of deceit further undercuts the attempt to read the ending as hopeful.
With ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Fructiculture’, Bartholomew-Biggs relocates the fruit of the Holy Spirit from Galatians 5 to a literal garden. The language of cultivation admirably sustains the conceit with startling ease, allowing the poet to play with both levels of meaning throughout the poem. While the final injunction concerning ‘Self-control’ is to ‘Prune away / extravagant growth’, this is surely not an issue for this poem. While the poem is not divided into stanzas, each attribute is economically dealt with in what almost feel like three-line aphorisms. Personal favourites follow:
are easy to pick. They bruise
with careless handling.
Blossoms mark true Goodness from
Brittle Star also features short articles and literary fiction, and in this issue, Brittle Star intern Saskia Katarina Hidas’s article on the Norwegian poet Gunvor Hofmo is particularly interesting, drawing attention to a European post-WW2 poet who has been compared to Paul Celan and Emily Dickinson. However, in comparison to the featured poetry, the fiction largely feels like it falls short. Luke Thompson’s ‘Quick small steps’ is too chatty without seeming to go anywhere in the end. As for Michael Ranes’s ‘Jani and the boy’, it should just manage to avoid giving offense despite its unsubtle treatment of racial themes, seeing as there is always the excuse that the entire story is ultimately mediated through a biracial narrator. Even if that revelation feels more gratuitous than illuminating.