Jessica introduces the winter 2016 issue

The winter holiday season is officially over in our house as we move into Mardi Gras and the marathon lineup of spring festivals in New Orleans. My daughter and I have taken down our decorations, cleared the stoop of Christmas lights in preparation for next week’s draping of carnival beads, and put the tree to the curb for recycling. For a long time now, efforts to curtail coastal erosion have included placing Christmas trees in the wetlands of South Louisiana. I’m not sure how much it helps, but anything seems worth trying when it’s the ground beneath your home you’re trying to save.

I’ve been thinking about environmentalism at the office, too, in the paintings of New Orleans–based artist Deedra Ludwig, whose work graces The Southern Review’s winter issue. Her vibrant and gorgeous paintings incorporate traditional materials as well as soil and botanical specimens; her aim is, as she writes in her artist’s statement, “to speak for the imperiled geographic locations and tenuous environments,” including the Gulf Coast. It seems appropriate that images so conscious of the environment arrive in mailboxes just as many people in my town are performing what might be their single purposeful act of environmentalism for the year. As my daughter says, “It’s a start.”

And so starts a new year for the journal, our eighty-first, with a diverse range of voices and themes and styles. Mark Irwin has two poems that open the issue, including “Zoo,” in which the speaker and his mother “in her old age” visit the zoo. There the two talk, absorb what is before them, and reminisce. As they are “running toward youth,” his mother calls out to the stampeding animals and then finally “enters / into shadow with them, that diorama we call memory.” It’s a beautiful poem—brief, vivid, and poignant—fitting of memory and the time we get with the ones we love.

I took some time this December, as I normally do, to spend days with my daughter without the worry of work or school (second grade is pretty rigorous now). We made a “canorah” (Christmas menorah) tree topper and ornaments for our family and friends, baked cookies, watched movies, read books, took walks, sang and danced with tambourines, and on and on. I’m always aware of my time with her. I’m lucky to have her; we’re lucky to have each other.

As we all know, families are formed in all sorts of ways, and Jeff Hardin and Al Maginnes both have poems (dedicated to each other) about the good fortune family can be, specifically the extraordinary circumstance of either being adopted, in Hardin’s case, or adopting a child, as Maginnes did. Their poems, “Concerning the Possibilities That Might Have Been” and “How Different a Life Can Be,” present adoption from different perspectives, of course, but at the center of each poem is “a truth” Hardin says he learned, in part, from Maginnes: “All of us are orphans finding homes.”

I also want to mention that the issue closes with three poems from the late Claudia Emerson, written while she was ill. A previous contributor to The Southern Review and longtime author with LSU Press, she was a friend to both, and so it feels right that her words send us out of the issue. Her poems “Spontaneous Remission,” “A Life Beyond,” and “Birth Narrative” are detailed and fierce and, at times, hopeful. In “Spontaneous Remission,” she writes that upon awakening, the cancer in her will be gone, burned out by “the arson that has // become the God” in her. There is no defeat in her words, only an assumption of power through whatever means is available to her. And then finally, the last poem in the winter issue, “Birth Narrative,” recounts the story Emerson’s mother has told so many times about giving birth to her on an icy January day. Filled with tender details, like the “bracelet / of porcelain beads that spell out our last name” and which they still have, it also contains the awareness of each other and time, as they “lie all night together in the emptiness // that is ours alone, and it is as though we know / already we will never forget it, not one / word, until there is nothing else to tell.” And when there is nothing else to tell, there is memory. But until there is only memory, there should be, when possible, awareness and urgency in every lived moment.

To end on a lighter note, I’ll recommend our audio gallery, which this quarter contains poems from Kelly Cherry, Lindsay Stuart Hill, Doug Ramspeck, and Rob Shapiro, as well as essays from Carrie Brown and Sarah Bryan, and stories from Crystal Hana Kim and Hilary Leichter. It’s a great mix of familiar and new voices to the journal that should warm any winter day.

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