How most people use small literary magazines nowadays, beyond the contributors racking up more scalps for their resumes, I’m not really sure. There must be thousands of them circulating in North America and Britain, on and off line. I can’t tell you any better today who reads them than I could 30 or 40 years ago. But I can tell you what they were originally meant to be, and how The Cafe Review in Portland has been fulfilling it for 28 years and counting.

Small literary publications with no intention whatsoever of making any money have been coming and going uninterruptedly like summer flowers since the 19th century. Before television, many people filled leisure time by reading. After World War I, readers curious about modern poetry as an art form, which was relatively speaking not very many, might seek out small literary reviews while mainstream readers subscribed to The Saturday Evening Post, which occupied their coffee tables and actually got picked up and read — for the enjoyment.

After World War II, poetry as an activity was getting less enjoyable and more like work. Modern and postmodern poetic rhetorics were disassembling enjoyment into head-scratching for a lot of people. At the same time, creative writing programs were taking root in colleges and universities, and by the 1970s practically every English department was doling out a few hundred dollars to support its own literary magazine, mostly run by students. Non-academic underground magazines had a heyday in the 1960s and ’70s. But who was actually reading these magazines, other than the contributors (and one wondered about them, too), was kind of a puzzle back then, and it’s still a puzzle now, when no one seems to take their eyes off their laptops and smartphones, let alone read an obscure periodical.

And yet the whole endeavor has skipped no beats. Well-edited, tastefully made literary magazines can still be spotted in book stores, planted on the coffee table, and picked up from time to time — for the enjoyment of reading a poem or two in one of your New York minutes. Or Portland minute, as it were, in the case of The Cafe Review, which is just straight up the real thing. A poetry magazine that is made to actually be read.

In the Winter 2017 issue, which I recently received, there are a number of poems that will let some sunlight into your digital cave for a few minutes this morning or tomorrow afternoon. I was mowed down by Annie Seikonia’s wistful recollection, “Four Songs of Portland.” Maybe you have to have the city in your own deep past, as I do, to get the full effect of the visuals in these poems (“the cheerful yellow and white / ferries departed blasting / Portland with their song”), but the music is available to anybody:

bittersweet the love that destroyed this city


dark the ashes we drank and glittery

down on the wharves

in the lamp-lit pretty

To me this whole issue of TCR would have been worth the editors’ efforts for just these lines and the stanzas that follow them.

But there are also two of former Maine Poet Laureate Wesley McNair’s harrowing, probing lyrics on his childhood, “My Stepfather’s Cars” and “When They Lay Down,” a characteristically well-crafted variation on set forms in which lines are repeated in patterns from stanza to stanza. Editor Steve Luttrell offers two of his quirky, incisive poems, “Winter Apples” and “Weather Report” which ponders people’s endless propensity to talk about the weather. Flynn O’Brien, of Portland, also has a three-section poem “For Three Poets,” and among the other poems are feisty shots by old-timers Pete Brown (“Robots”), who was a songwriter for the legendary band Cream, and Keith Reid (“I Ain’t Dead Yet”), a songwriting member of the slightly less legendary Procol Harum.

The cover art is by senior editor Wayne Atherton, of Kittery, and inside are well-made glossy reproductions in the contemporary collage-style form by several more very capable artists.

One could do worse than be a reader of Cafe Review. An actual reader, I mean, not just a scalp-collector.

For more, check out the Cafe Review website

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first Thursday of each month. Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].

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