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Highlights from Artifice Magazine, Issue One

It’s always nice to get a beautiful art object in the mail, and so I was happy to receive Artifice Magazine, Issue One with its classy satin cover and embossed title, and, more importantly (I soon learned), its content, content that mirrors the form in which it’s contained.

Christopher Phelps’s “Word†” is a playful, reflexive piece, drawing attention to itself as an artifact, to its artifice. As such, it’s the perfect introduction to this new journal:

This footnote would like to apologize for being in the rain shadow Word saw,
looking down, relieved to be for a few apical moments,
wordless.

Susan Slaviero’s poems “Phenomena of Probability” and “Pandora’s Robot” are texts as much marked by their rugged formal textures as for their concern with ribcages and wire-riggings; and with robots. And there’s mention of mermaids in the former and “milkdrowned homunculi” in the latter. From “Phenomena of Probability”:

Theoretically, there’s a way to create a ribcage from guitar strings, to
fashion jawbones from vintage bracelets. It so happens that a female
form is best woven from titanium knitting needles, peppermint hips,
the ends of French cigarettes…

Language is made flesh here; it’s a place where a woman “is a semicolon.” And in “Pandora’s Robot,” after “the brass plate over her sternum” is opened, the robot “let[s] out language. / Let[s] out codes / like apocalypse, alchemy, calculus.”

Another robot appears in “Backatcha” by Davis Schneiderman and Kelly Haramis:

“I told you that I didn’t want to do reality, but that robot is kinda sexy in a near-future kind of way. Check out his chrome-rimmed motor.”

“The first shot,” says Douchebag, “is to come on to the robot like you want him in an angular mathematical way, but at the same time you want to refuse his advances in a fractal swirl of irrational numbers. This will be made more difficult by the elimination challenge: the robot from the future picks one member of the zero tribe to warn about an impending catastrophe…”

Ori Fienberg’s “Collectors,” a collection of four smaller pieces, also works within a speculative atmosphere. These pieces throb along like Ben Marcus’s brainy fragments. Here children have dinosaur bones beneath their skin, and some even “have a brain in their behind.” Young men in a village are literally “put out to pasture,” and “line the fence and bleat for their mothers.”

In “A Brief Exploration,” a man “begins an excavation of himself” and finds “missing caps of a thousand ballpoint pens…fossilized dinosaur bones, vials of honeysuckle nectar, and Scrabble tiles spilling from burlap sacks…” And like Marcus’s fictions there are some eccentric meditations on language:

With a burnt tree trunk in a notebook made from the sheets of drywall, he
began to collect words.

First heavy words for the light: ethereal, vaporous, and indistinguishable.
Later light words for the heavy: time, love, life and death.

Speaking of meditations on language, David Silverstein’s texts explore how, in his words, “consciousness / does not live / without / language and language / is beginning to overwhelm / human / consciousness.” In a kind of merging of a famed Oulipian maneuver with Joseph Beuys’s blackboard drawings (what Rudolph Steiner called “thought-drawings”), Silverstein offers some engaging tactile texts. And his final piece, “dissociation • divagate,” resembles one of those CIA blotted out files. Silverstein’s texts are beautifully visceral eviscerations of the hegemony of the dictionary, or at least I’d like to think so.

Lance Olsen’s “How to Unfeel the Dead” is a sad, and lyrical, evocation of loss, and manages to be both compassionate about, and critical of, denial:

Step two | Perhaps one afternoon on the way to the video store you spotted your spouse’s car peel off from traffic and veer into someone else’s burning. Perhaps your spouse saw yours. Perhaps one evening your dinner guests noticed you two never burdening the same room at the same time. Perhaps it was you who did the noticing. Perhaps one of you secretly began to enjoy dressing up and looking bereft.

Melancholy, if not torpor, suffuses Tim Jones-Yelvington’s “My Mother’s Funeral”:

I don’t celebrate Mother’s Day much since my mom died. What a lot of faith you need to start with nothing and believe you can create something good and important. A familiar set of circumstances: attachment to a new place, a new way of defining oneself. You detach and enlarge the Self simultaneously. It’s majorly hot, an asteroid with great hair.

It’s the qualifying “much” that’s the heartbreaker here.

Inanimate objects are anthropomorphized in Gregory Lawless’s “Apples, Crosses.” Here a shirt “is tired of having a man inside it,” where a “pillow is tired of smelling like dreams,” but it’s also a place where a “man is tired of having a man inside him.” Strange things also happen in Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney’s “The One about the DMV” where it’s announced that the narrator has never been born. More strange things happen in Kyle Hemmings’s “Lord Voldermort’s Shady Past,” where the hiding of a blind pig leads to “seven days of rioting”; and in “Robot Dog” where the eponymous dog “ramble[s] on with fuzzy logic conditionals.”

Speaking of weird atmospheres, in Blake Butler’s Lovecraftian “AND THIS WOULD HAPPEN TOO IN OTHER HOMES” you’ll find a “drowned” library, a room that “stunk of America,” and a clay replica of a child who resembles the Golem, that mythical figure from Jewish folklore, here an icon who “whisper[s] on [its mother’s] teeth,” and “curse[s] in furious tongues,” and that could “invert itself or cry rice out from its eyes.”

Cynthia Reeser offers some writing advice in “Story (Prepackaged): Designed for Easy Disassembly and Transport,” a story constructed as a set of instructions: “To combat writer’s block: One soft cat in lap, brainstorm document until at least one page is written. Rewrite.” I can’t speak about the merits of a soft cat in your lap, but can’t argue with the necessity of rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting.

In “Conmee,” William Walsh presents another of his sparkling texts derived from Ulysses. These declarative sentences move stridently along, depicting a man who “read in secret,” “finished explaining,” and “blessed both gravely” swathed in mystery.

As a found text (if that’s what it is), Derek Phillips’s “Poem Stolen from a Fifth Grader’s Essay about Why Endangered Animals Should Be Protected” didn’t do much for me. “Look at me!” it seems to say, “I’m a recontextualized text, I’m an example of artifice,” but, alas, it doesn’t offer much else—an awkward addition to an overall fine collection of texts.

In Contrapasso, Roxane Gay offers an imaginative post-Judgment Day menu of family affairs:

FEATURED DISH

Fish with Human Oils $7.95

To satisfy sloth—To be sucked into the mouth until the rancid taste of it constricts and you are left, eyes bloodshot, tearing, hands grabbing at your own throat, desperate. To revel in dirt, in grime, in squalor, until filth becomes second skin stretched over limbs, veiling eyes, consuming everything.

The collaborative pieces from Neil de la Flor, Maureen Seaton, and Kristine Snodgrass have some nice chunks of jabberwocky:

And a pork kid with ribbles and knife for fobbeling the poet-temptress
antifascist mouse was found asleep at the wheelbarrow.

Jefferson Navicky’s “The Collagists’ Biography” provides at least one possible description of Artifice’s first issue, since the texts here seem to respond to the idea that “art and literature need[s] to reflect the insanity of the times,” but how it can also “create an infinite subtlety of loss.”

I initially found Andrew Farkas’s noirish “Police Procedural” a bit slow going (it might have been that it seemed out of context with the rest of the largely experimental stories here) until I learned that it was really about nothing:

Leaning down, you’ve gotten used to seeing the outcomes of such performances, the gruesome details, victims shot several times with large caliber rounds, once with a small bullet, stabbed any number of times, bludgeoned, strangled, throats slit, entrails everywhere, decapitations, but you are not prepared for what you see today. You are not prepared at all, not sure what to say, not sure how to proceed, not sure what to tell your partner.

Underneath the sheet is nothing.

Farkas’s twist on the sleuth story is inventive and expertly controlled, and, as with any good mystery, it ends with a surprise.

At a certain point in Hamlet, Ophelia, potential wife of the prince, goes mad, speaks in riddles, and sings songs about death. Carol Berg’s “Ophelia Again,” re-envisions those moments:

[Omens. O love! Clasp my blue]

Omens. O love! Clasp my blue
other mouth. Spit shards of charged
other. Mouth, spits shards. Of char. Get
out. Licks green. My caution. His
out-licks green my caution. His
one mouth! Hamlet’s creamy tongue.
One mouth—Hamlet screams tongue!

Things aren’t always what they seem within Artifice. And in “Sketch for the Fantasist’s Tales,” by Jessica Bozek, birds aren’t simply birds but “understory birds” that “have a strength beyond their size.” It’s an evocative miniature, and a fitting end to a magazine that also has a strength beyond its size.

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

17 thoughts on “Highlights from Artifice Magazine, Issue One

  1. Thanks for writing this, John. You’re such a reader! Your enthusiasm for contemporary fiction is so contagious.

    That said, no one ever sends me beautiful art objects in the mail, grump grump grump. (They know I’m too busy reading comic books, I guess.)

    1. Unless it’s the latest McSweeney’s, or some pretty chapbook, it’s your standard nondescript thing like a review copy (which I also dig, for different reasons), or some other basic thing, like bills (actually, no, we’re paperless on all that), that comes in the mail.

      Now I’d like some comics! I was such an avid collector as I kid, and I’m afraid if I started again, it’d turn into the addiction it once was.

      1. I still do go to comic book shops, but I don’t ever buy anything. They’re like zoos.

        Not having any money helps.

        (If I did have money, I’d probably just spend it on Magic cards.)

  2. I too enjoyed the issue, & that Farkas story in particular. It belongs with Barthelme’s “Nothing: A Preliminary Account” and Calvino’s “Nothing and Not Much” in the canon of works about nothing. “Seinfeld” is self-professedly about nothing, but it ought to come with a disclaimer–its nothing was produced in a factory in which something may have been present.

    1. You know, I hadn’t thought of either of those stories. And considering that I read Calvino’s The Complete Cosmics a few months ago you’d think “Nothing and Not Much” would be fresh on my mind:

      If I tell you I remember it–began Qfwfq–you will object that in nothingness, nothing can remember anything, nor be remembered by anything, which is one reason why you won’t be able to believe so much as a word of what I am about to tell you.

      I did think of Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, though, where the world is destroyed by “the Nothing.” The movies are terrible, but the book’s delightful. As is his book Momo.

      1. Cool, John. I’ve been meaning to get the Complete for a while. Now you’ve got me envisioning a class just entitled “Nothing” and all the fun one could have with a syllabus for that class. Plus the lovely confusion. Students explaining to their parents or the registrar that they’re taking nothing this semester.

        1. Ha! Yes, you could read and talk about various vacuums and voids, various schools of classical Greek and existentialist philosophies, the various “egoless” states in strands of Eastern religions, or you could spend the whole semester parsing out the meaning of the lyrics in “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the place where “Nothing is real and nothing to get hung about.”

          And, yes, the Complete is definitely worth getting.

  3. John – we are reading the same stuff! I just wrote some notes to post for Artifice #1 as well. Great stuff! Roxane’s piece is crazy good.

  4. Hi John. Thanks for doing this considered and considerate review. Another quick correction: In the final section of “Word,” it’s “being in the rain shadow,” not “being the rain shadow” . . .

  5. Thanks for writing this, John. It is great to see people talking about this really incredible magazine. One tiny correction. In the paragraph, it should be until filth becomes second skin rather than fish.

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