This, it appears, is an off-year for the Pushcart small-press annual. There's work of quality, to be sure, but a moderate, particularly safe quality: every literary trend nodded to, but little to catch one's breath over. As frequently happens, the poetry is least commanding. Carolyn Forche, however, has a powerful poem; Joseph Brodsky and Robert Creeley are in good form; Thomas Lux, Jack Gilbert, and Philip Schultz rise above the inert skillfulness of the rest. Also true to form, fiction is better. Jean Stafford's wit, in her last story, is as pleasurable as oiled teak. Susan Engberg, Gayle Whittier, David Long, and Barry Targan display firm handles on certain abidingly solid conventions of contemporary fiction. Leslie Marmon Silko, David Ohle, and William Goyen go colorfully far-afield in search--and capture--of worthy ironies. (Ohle writes a better Burroughs than Burroughs himself these days.) But only the contributions of Francis Phelan--a kidney-punch of a story about an Indiana novitiate during World War II--and Lyn Hejinian's sections from her extraordinary autobiography-in-phrase--are truly memorable, works given their risky heads. Otherwise, almost nothing in this very big book leaves so much as an imprint. The essays are highlighted by David Hellersteins's cancer-doctor's-eye-view of a failing patient; and by two bits of provocation--George Steiner, contra American ""culture""; Leslie Fiedler, on the hypocrisies of writing for money. Both crumble in the mind about two minutes after they're finished, but are agreeably annoying still. There is also-on the self-promotion side--an otherwise unremarkable hash-piece on post-modernism whose author, an appreciative commentator on ""my own fiction,"" edits the magazine that nominated the piece for this collection. By and large, though, a just-plain-unadventurous sampler.