In memory of the poet Ai, whose work appears in this issue (and which I had not happened upon in a long, long time) and who died just this past March of cancer, let me begin this review with an excerpt from what is likely to be the last poem of hers I’ll see in a current issue of a magazine, “I’m the Only One Here”:
I was smuggled into America
inside a ship’s container.
Once a day, the first mate opened it
so we could breathe fresh air.
Then one day, he didn’t come.
Ai built her reputation on telling hard stories. I do not know if she wrote about her struggles with illness, though it would not have been typical for her to do so, her work focused generally on the difficult lives of others. I hope, however futile it is to do so now, that she did not suffer terribly in the final months and days of her life.
The impulse to recount a powerful story through a form not always associated with narrative or not only with narrative is evident in a variety of highly satisfying incarnations throughout the issue. While managing editor Sean Bishop explains the journal was searching for a comic book or graphic novel that does not rely too heavily on narrative – and this one certainly does not – the extraordinary “graphic interpretation” of The Wasteland by Ben Powis, the first section of which appears here, is a beautiful example of the way words and illustrations together combine to create a story distinct from what either form creates alone. Powis has a unique and compelling graphic style well matched to the material in many ways, but also jarring at times, which, paradoxically, serves to enhance the impact of the union of visual and verbal texts.
The same is true of an exceptional piece by Noam Dorr, “Wouldn’t It,” which is classified as a “lyric essay,” a label that seems apt for the style of prose (an elegant, lyrical memoir of a difficult childhood), but does not indicate that the essay is also created of marvelous visual elements (expertly rendered line drawings). I love this piece – the writing is gorgeous and the essay is brilliantly composed and extremely moving with its yearning and sad refrain (“It would be lovely and terrible to live in a world made of…”).
These exciting, provocative works are, incredibly, only a tiny portion of the journal’s contents, which also include poems by G. C. Waldrep, Ilya Kaminsky, Laura Kaisischke, Mark Jarman, and Linda Bierds, among many others; the winners of the magazine’s nonfiction, poetry, and fiction contests; a lengthy section of poems by “emerging writers”; two interviews (Ruben Martinez and Chuck Klosterman); several short stories; an essay by Elena Passarello; and a number of reviews.
If there is a common element or unifying feature in these many distinct and largely satisfying works, it’s a predilection for strong, evocative, language and original images. And a perhaps a sense of restraint, the same holding back while holding forth that makes the graphic/poetic work of Powis powerful – the emotional impact of efficient writing in the best sense of the term, no excess, no sloppy corners or haphazard conclusions, the emotional weight that a slender line delivers. This is equally true of the work by emerging poets, this issue’s stars, and the award winners (of which my favorite is a prose poem by Patricia Colleen Murphy, “Why I Burned Down Namdaemun Gate”: “I set fire to the gate because developers took my property and did not fully compensate me”).
Here is Mark Jarman, from “Sayings,” capturing many of the issue’s strengths in his couplets:
If nothing is permitted, everything is sacred.
Angel at the Bedside
It all looks tall when lying down.
At nearly 270 pages, with its thick cover, high quality paper, and weighty contents, Gulf Coast is simply too overwhelming to read lying down, but do sit up and take notice.