“I must be frank about this – the American Present baffles me.” Not longer after making this pronouncement in his interview here with Irene Keliher, David Leavitt reminds us what Grace Paley said about finding a subject or coming to terms with what one is compelled to say: “For me there is a long time between knowing and telling.” Turning what baffles us into something we can know and tell about, in ways simultaneously original and unique, yet recognizable or, at least, meaningful, is what good writing is about (although I may end up no less baffled). Gulf Coast satisfies this goal admirably.
In this issue that includes Barthelme Prize Winner Kevin Allardice’s “Dominoes,” a “lyric essay” composed of three brief bios of pivotal moments in dealing with illness that begin “Take,” and “And take” and “Now take.” Let me show you something, Allardice seems to be saying, yet not having articulated the situation for which these descriptions serve as examples, make them all the more powerful. Jenny Boully also contributes a curious and fascinating lyric essay, “from ‘not merely because of the unknown that was stalking towards them,’” of which the italicized portion comes from Peter Pan, as do phrases quoted in the piece. The essay is a dreamy, fairy-tale-like meditation on what is real, what is imaginary, and what is known. I ended up fairly baffled by it, but also intrigued and happy to have encountered it.
Impressive, too, are two short essays by Slovenian writer Ales Steger, translated by Brian Henry. Just the first sentence of “Tacitus at the Underground Station” will demonstrate Steger’s agility as a prose stylist: “A thick hour, as long as the trip from the Berlin District Charlottenburg to Prenzlauer Berg, turned thin because of the names on the bars.”
Poems in this issue, like the prose, are characterized by strong, willful voices making determined, often bold assertions. “Today my total gravity will be monstrous,” writes Nicky Beer in “Black Hole Itinerary” (Beer has magnificent poems in scores of magazines these days). “When you say red you don’t have to say blue,” writes Beckian Fritz Goldberg in “Dog.” “I was not startled by the books that flopped at my feet / like lifeless school marms or little spineless soldiers,” writes Maureen Seaton in “Babel.” “To your veins we’ve clogged with butter / we give thanks,” writes this issue’s featured poet David Wojahn in “Ode to Black 6.” Wojahn contributes four strong poems here and an interview with Anna Journey. “My mental landscape contains passages of Yeats, but it contains the theme song from ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ but they’re both stored somewhere in my synapses,” Wojahn explains. That juxtaposition between popular and “high culture,” might well describe Gulf Coast’s editorial viewpoint, and it works well for Wojahn as for the magazine.
Finally, I am always happy to find serious essays that explore and analyze literature without resorting to academic jargon, essays intended to help us achieve greater understanding (un-baffling, as it were). This issue’s featured essay is by Tony Hoagland on “the new poetry.” Irene Keliher follows up her Leavitt interview with an essay on “Looking for the New Post-Gay: New Frontiers of Queer Fiction,” and there are a number of intelligently composed reviews, as well, including Erik Ekstrand’s review-essay on writing about prose poems.