A Sense of Place at The Common

I’ve recently come across a fresh contender in the lovely summertime stream of literary journals, one that’s absolutely worth taking a look at. The Common is a new publication out of Amherst College, with a calling all its own and a keen, clean aesthetic. Editor Jennifer Acker has assembled a terrific editorial board and roster of contributors, and has put together a very engaging debut issue.

The idea behind The Common is a multifold riff on the word itself. Taking the idea of the village common as a place to gather and share stories, as well as its adjectival sense—the most basic point of origin we all have in common—Acker uses the journal format as a way to meditate and muse on the many meanings of place:

We live in an increasingly digital world, but place is not dead. Where we grow up and live, leave and return to, these places continue to shape our thoughts, conscious and unconscious, and therefore our art. Where are you from? is still a relevant question. The answer, the proper name, isn’t important. What matters is what it’s made of us, and what we’ve done with it. How we’ve accepted, recast, or rejected. We can’t extricate our selves from our places, nor would we wish to…. Far from erasing the importance of our surroundings, our mobile modernity creates a hunger for place-based ruminations. Literature provides the vehicle for these travels.

The contents are nicely curated, a diverse mix of fiction, essays, poetry, and a photo essay on James Nasmyth’s 1874 book The Moon: Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite, which consisted of photographs not of the actual moon’s surface—not a technological option in 1874—but of carefully recreated plaster models photographed as moonscapes. In fact, the terrain covered here is rich in both landscape and the process of its discovery; the sense of place is not a static one. Ted Conover describes teasing out abandoned New Hampshire roads from an old map and, Brook Wilensky-Lanford unfolds a turn-of-the-last-century preacher’s revelation of the Garden of Eden’s actual site—in Ohio. One of my favorite fiction pieces is Sabina Murray’s tale of William Dampier, explorer, cartographer, reluctant pirate, melancholy philosopher. There is new work by Fiona Maazel, Lauren Groff, and a sweetly quirky debut story by Maura Candela.

Poetry is especially well represented, with Mary Jo Salter, Marina Tsvetaeva, Rafael Campo, and a host of others offering glimpses of ancient Greece, modern-day Jerusalem, New Jersey backyard vegetable gardens, the disappearing island of Ferdinandea. Honor Moore’s dreamy song of bed—hers, or yours, or someone else’s—wants to be read aloud late, by lamplight. Acker, working with poetry editor John Hennessy, consciously selected work that was accessible but also challenging, “poems that are clearly steeped in place but are anything but traditional and passive.”

The Common itself is both dense and lush, something to take the time to read through and then revisit. It’s a keeper, well worth the $20 subscription price for two issues yearly ($10 for the digital edition, but it’s a very pleasing object to have in hand). I’m very excited to see where Acker and company go with this enterprise, and I wish them well. There are a lot of nice journals out there clamoring for attention, but this one has a particularly strong sense of identity and deserves a long run. Because, to borrow an idea from the editor’s note, “A strong sense of place says to me: This can only happen here.” And it is happening here, so go take a look.

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