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FROM THE EDITORS
Ukraine is a place Americans almost never talk about. Who can find it on a map? Who has studied its history in school?
—Leo J. Hertzel, “Cossack Country”
In the months leading up to the presidential election of 2016, the North American Review website suffered a constant barrage of cyberattacks from Russia, likely from one of the troll farms that hacked the Democratic National Committee’s servers. Visitors received a blaring red message that our site contained malware. Google helpfully explained: “Attackers currently on northamericanreview.org might attempt to install dangerous programs on your computer that steal or delete your information.” We were infected.
The CIA later reported what would become common knowledge: Russian intelligence hacked American servers to influence US politics and assist Donald Trump in winning the presidency. Presumably, the name of our humble magazine and its .org URL suggested official government business, where one might dig up classified secrets—or cause a little bureacratic mayhem. On the one hand, nothing could be further from the nature of our work. We publish art not politics. On the other hand, what is art for if not to trouble the waters of the everyday, to bestow upon us the gift of the strange, the mysterious, the beautiful, to tear a rift in the surface of reality so that we experience the world anew—and are maybe even inspired to change it? What could be more political than that?
Instead, we imagine Vladamir Putin himself puzzling over the strange, mysterious beauties in our summer 2016 issue, looking for clues, surprised to find something written in his mother tongue, Eugene Dubnov’s gnomic Russian poem “Четыре Пожелания” and its facing English translation by Anne Stevenson “The Four Wishes”:
That a minuscule brook
become a broad stream,
that cold shadows on the hills
protect tender grass from the sun,
that the wind hollowing out the dunes
sound like the resonance of vowels,
that a bone under the earth
become a sprouting seed.
Water, fire, air, earth: the poet wishes for transformation, protection, communion, resurrection, a promise that death becomes life once more. Dubnov was born only three years before Putin in 1949 in the former Soviet republic of Estonia. As children, they were comrades. Today, what are Putin’s four wishes? Control, destruction, subjugation, domination, the promise of authoritarian power, finding expression most recently in his invasion of Ukraine. Putin has invented lies about denazification and demilitarization, claiming to be liberating ethnic Russians from genocide, amid widespread evidence of systematic war crimes by Russian soldiers, including the torture, rape, and execution of civilians.
What would Putin encounter now if he hacked into the NAR’s computers to read the issue you’re now holding in your hands? Perhaps he’d be drawn to Tomaž Šalamun’s “Writing” because it’s written
in a Slavic language like Russian, and he would learn that “Writing / poetry is / the most // serious / act in / the world.” Would Putin linger on Richard Jackson’s elegaic poem “The Crows of Borodyanka,” lamenting the failure of human language to understand the very atrocities he himself is responsible for? Would he be roused to American patriotism by Robert Stewart’s poem about Marian Anderson singing “My Country ’Tis of Thee” on the steps of the Washington Memorial in 1939, or would he recall December 2000 when he resurrected the melody line of the old Soviet national anthem first issued back in 1943 by Alexander Alexandrov? Putin’s love for this “stirring ode” outraged poets, writers, and members of the liberal intelligentsia who felt it signaled a return of Soviet repression. Alexandrov’s pounding, workmanlike military beat on the public consciousness suggested the end of glasnost and the return to a dark, Bolshevik past.
No doubt, a tone-deaf Putin did not hear the public outcry then, only a return to Soviet glory and power. And no doubt today, he would fail to hear the countermelodies challenging power in some of the fiction featured in this issue. He would miss Mary Senter’s “The Ring Bearer” cutting like shards of glass, as working-class patriarchy defines (in its limited and destructive way) what it means to be a man, and a father. Here, a dad is so caught up in his own grief and entitlement that he breaks connections with all those around him. Putin would also miss Nathaniel Moore’s plea for inclusion in a story that investigates liminal spaces and identity as a junior high school student comes to terms with his sexuality. Homophobia lurks at the story’s edges, and the Russian intelligentsia knows how a repressive society shapes, subjugates, and limits the boundaries of friendship.
Sometimes, all you can do in the face of power and tragedy is laugh. This year’s winner of the Kurt Vonnegut Prize in Speculative Fiction is Kellie Wells’s dystopic tale “My Dog Lenny Bruce.” Here a woman deals with our planet’s “state of acute unbecoming,” seeking the comfort of a companion, a dog who does stand-up comedy. As the world collapses, outlaw factions of “pariah dogs” terrorize others. Lenny does his bit for them. Is comedy the answer? We like to imagine these dogs sniffing out Dubnov’s hopeful “bone under the earth.” We hope that is what you’ll find in these pages: art that promises to “become a sprouting seed” in your hands. ●