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Issue 46 Foreword

Doris W. Cheng

At a time when machines perform many of our daily tasks—when artificial intelligence can generate language in the shape of thought and produce art that simulates the imagination—it’s easy to forget the value of human creativity, to see it as a replicable commodity like so much else in our lives. After all, how singular can human expression be when ChatGPT so ably and uncannily mimics us? But I believe the writing in BLR does something machines cannot: It opens a window into our lives. It elevates unique voices that speak to us across differences in identity or geography or time or political beliefs. It reminds us, in myriad ways, of what it is to be human.

You’ll find a vital energy pulsing with the pages of this issue. When a character in Shastri Akella’s “Stray Gods” gestures to the tender new branches of a fallen tree, he optimistically remarks, “At least it’s still growing.” Akella’s captivating narrative about two Indian orphans who find affinity with each other and a pack of mistreated dogs is the winner of BLR’s Goldenberg Prize for Fiction. It’s a story that shows us, in the words of judge Marie Myung-Ok Lee, “how we are ultimately connected—whether we acknowledge it or not.” 

Fiction Honorable Mention goes to William Klein’s “Childe,” a droll, sharp-eyed story praised by Lee for its “humor” and “beating heart.” As the hapless hero navigates a new job and new interracial relationship, he believes his girlfriend “had a space in her mind for him, how she felt about him, and that was the only person he wanted to be, everything else some draft he could discard.”

BLR’s John and Eileen Allman Prize for Poetry is awarded to Amy Rothschild’s “Dementia Unit for John Glenn,” which judge Melissa Lozada-Oliva described as “a gorgeous juxtaposition of potty-training a child at the beginning of life while recalling a father’s mind slowly deteriorating.” The narrator of the poem muses, “Someday we’d don headsets in Houston / learn physics float weightless / plant a flag on the moon to say / ‘kid, please, just try.’” 

Poetry Honorable Mention goes to “It Has Nothing To Do with Argentina” by Carolene Kurien, which makes “amazing use of the sonnet form,” said Lozada-Oliva, and “packs in amazing symbolism about loss and (in my interpretation) addiction.” The striking imagery builds until the realization that “[t]he burden of this body / is the burden of gravity—nothing can stop / the come down.” 

Misty Kiwak Jacobs’ “Anticipatory Grief” is the winner of BLR’s Felice Buckvar Prize for Nonfiction. Judge Edgar Gomez noted, “With gorgeous prose, great tenderness, and several laugh-and-sigh moments, [it] offers us a deeply felt meditation on mortality from the perspective of a chaplain.” The author’s neurological pain grounds her contemplation: “I just wanted her to bear witness to my grappling with living,” she says, remembering a childhood moment, “with cause and effect, with how a body responds to the vicissitudes of this world.” 

Nonfiction Honorable Mention is “Officium” by Siobhan McKenna, which Gomez described as going “beyond chronicling the day-to-day of an ICU nurse by offering us profound reflections on what it means to give care.” McKenna writes, “In the grip of death’s imminence, a nurse must decide whether to treat death as another task, or to embrace it as an act that braids our existence into the fabric of the watchers and layers who preceded us.” 

Like the prizewinning essays, many pieces in this issue grapple with mortality. The speaker of Amy Ralston Seife’s poem “Ghost Pond” observes her aging husband with the “devoted” eye of a naturalist: “His hunched back, / once holding promise like a fiddlehead fern in June, / is now a drooping phragmite bowed by December wind.” Erin Van Rheenen’s essay “Loaded Gun” describes the burden of caring for elderly parents. “A body lives and breathes and suffers and loves,” she writes, “but it is designed to die. It’s really our lives that are the loaded guns: we’re all waiting for the final bang.”

Several prose selections focus on sexual awareness and the management of unruly bodies. In fiction, Holly Pekowsky’s “Just Say No” follows a high school athlete as she fights her attraction to another girl, while the raconteur of Rashmi Patel’s “All the Known Territories” turns her body into an “impenetrable fort” to cope with inherited trauma. At no time is control over one’s body ever certain. As the bulimic protagonist in Adriana Golden’s “Reflexes” says, “It is a reflex that I cannot fight, an animal sprung from its cage, a monster too clever for Frankenstein. My brain has conquered my body, or perhaps it is the other way around.”

Other work in this issue explores grief, infertility, family relationships, and the overarching problem of living in bodies that experience pain, dysfunction, breakdown. Existence is a fragile thing, a point that’s underscored in Bethany F. Brengan’s poem: “Remember the body / is also a bird, / whistle bones and mites, hopping / in the undergrowth and scooping / up, / sky / up, / dive.”

We are deeply grateful to our prize sponsors: the Goldenberg family for fiction, the Buckvar family for nonfiction, and board members Linda Lombardi and Lesmah Fraser for poetry. And we thank this year’s judges—Marie Myung-Ok Lee for fiction, Melissa Lozada-Oliva for poetry, and Edgar Gomez for nonfiction—for their time and care in selecting this year’s prizewinners. 

I’d like to include in our thanks the authors and poets who believe in what writing can do. As Salman Rushdie says, “It is literature which for me opened the mysterious and decisive doors of imagination and understanding. To see the way others see. To think the way others think. And above all, to feel.” Thanks also to you, our readers, for supporting BLR’s mission by reading—and feeling.