Sans Merci, Shepherd University
review by melissa bierly (susquehanna university ’14) and dana diehl (susquehanna university ’12)
“She was born a fine piece of ebony / That grew tall and healthy in the fertile soil of her tropical / mother’s womb.” With these haunting lines begins “Her Father, the Craftsman” by Lashawn Tolston. Tolston’s language draws us in, invoking the reassuring warmth of motherhood, while raising questions that allude to darker significance: Why ebony? Why like a tree that has no control over how or where it grows, but relies on conditions outside itself? The opening captures the duality that we feel weaves its way through so much of this magazine. There is something familiar about Sans Merci, like an old favorite book to which your fingers have memorized the feeling of the binding. Yet, it also contains the air of something new. The pieces within make us think, make us stop and want to dig deeper, allowing the journal to tread the border of familiarity and newness.
Sans Merci is a long established literary magazine at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia that features prose, poetry, and artwork from its undergraduate students. The small, compact shape of the most recent 34th volume just begs to be held and entices us to leaf through. The cover image, a blurry horizon coated in water droplets, has an easy, effortless appeal that’s somehow calming. Yet, the blurriness of the image and the impossibility of distinguishing exactly what it was an image of add a sense of mystery and intrigue, paralleling what we loved in Sans Merci’s content.
Rachel Allinder’s story, “Just a Guy” is one of the many gems in the journal. Allinder tells the story of a man named Roger and his irate wife and son. Through her language, she creates characters with a depth and believability about them – their voices are strong and poignant with moments of wit that sparkle: “She kept a carton of cigarettes in the freezer. He did not smoke, but the stench from the couch provided him with enough nicotine to keep a decent buzz. Later, he prayed for lung cancer.” The story flows from one character to another, weaving together a seamless narrative about an average man stuck in an everyday cycle of drudgery.
Like “Just a Guy” Sans Merci itself is fluid. The font of the title bleeds black ink in smoky wisps across the magazine’s cover, a motif that recurs throughout the journal. Every so many pages ink blots trickle along the sides of the text, like a drop of food coloring in water. Also, the pieces are well paced – a short story, a collection of poetry, and then a display of artwork. This pattern often leads to pieces speaking to each other in interesting ways. “We Were Anchors,” for example, a poem about a family dealing with death, is followed by “The Copper Bowl,” in which a man comes to terms with his part in a death. The formula is repeated subtly, propelling us through the journal to the final page.
One of our favorite aspects was the artwork. Flipping through Sans Merci, our fingers catch on the colored photography and artwork that hide, like treasures, between the prose and poems. The artworks within each grouping complement one another. Two black and white photographs by Deanna Grace Tabor and Rachel Garletts stare across the journal’s gutter at each other, both picturing women who look trapped. The striking photograph Tragic by Madelaine Richards, however, stands on its own. It pictures the bottom half of a woman floating in the water, her torso hidden just out of frame. Her bare feet and tutu-like skirt create a ripple across a black lake, tantalizing us, making us wish we could see the rest of her. It’s like she’s falling out of the right side of the photograph into a dark vortex, a kind of mysterious Alice-in-Wonderland effect. This photograph represents how we feel about the journal as a whole. It is its familiarity, coupled with its quiet, stunning ambiguity that grabs us and keeps us there, pondering.