Gulf Coast Editors Zachary Martin and Karyna McGlynn claim in their editor’s note that while many literary journals announce themes in advance, they are partial to “themes that announce themselves gradually.” In “The ‘Issues’ Issue,” we see the effects of that thinking: a vibrant collection of prose, poetry, and art diverse enough so that you forget about theme while reading, only realizing much later how subtly and cohesively each piece fit into the issue, binding the journal together.
Some issues are easy to spot. Craig Reinbold’s narrative essay “Holding the Plank” treats the sensitive topic of body issues head-on, using a torturous 10-minute plank exercise as framework to chronicle a history of bulimia, sickness, obsession with body image, and the different ways of putting oneself on display. An already tense story is made all the more urgent by the essay’s voice, one that reaches out to the reader more strongly as the difficulty of the plank position escalates.
In Jamaal May’s “Thalassophobia,” the issue is spelled out in the subtitle: Fear of the sea. The poem is an elegy for a lost friend, one whom the speaker can’t help but remember:
Your laugh pours like thick honey. Your arms
open like the gap between your teeth,
and I am uncomfortable like only you
can make me, you stubborn stubbled kiss. You
are that friction on my cheek, and this
is how I learned to kiss my father. . . .
May is particularly adept in his use of rhythm, and the poem offers wave after wave of memorable images—images of the speaker trying desperately to remember and to forget, images of purging, images of clinging, images that unearth emotions of denial and lamentation, hope and unease. Increasingly, the speaker’s memory of his friend becomes entwined with the image of the sea:
I want everything to happen at dawn,
sand between toes and plum
light on the water. You know
I get like this sometimes. I listen
for footsteps that will never come,
remember waves I’ve never seen.
In other pieces, the issues at heart are subtly framed, but equally as strong. In the poem “Apology with Whales and Coyotes,” Chelsea Wagenaar uses the communication of animals to explore communication between humans, the attempts they make to find one another. In “A Brief History of Evolution,” Jim Daniels offers a playful take on the evolution debate. Zack Mueller’s poem titled “my regrets / I will not make it to Rio / too much going on / perhaps some other time / thank you for the invitation” is a kaleidoscope of issues: identity, trust, authenticity, and everything in between.
The fiction in Gulf Coast is also strong. J. David Stevens’s “Art Builds Bridges: A Romance,” one of the standouts, deals chiefly with the issue of love and redemption. A couple devotes themselves to building bridges out of refuse—first is the Bridge of Grocery Tins, then the Bridge of Used Chopsticks, the Bridge of Old Batteries, the Bridge of Spent Incandescent Bulbs and the Bridge of Frayed Unitards. When their bridges slowly begin to decay, the couple’s skill as bridge builders—and their love for each other—is tested. In one last attempt to prove their skill and to bind themselves together, they use their own bodies to span from Alaska to Russia.
“Trust me,” she said and slid her skin against mine. Then she tilted, and the cold Bering Sea rushed to us, our bodies flat and lengthening. The water tumbled over my head, but I still heard the echo of my breath. I could feel Meredith’s lips pressed to mine.
Likewise, the winner of Gulf Coast’s 2012 Barthelme Prize for Short Prose also had a hint of the magical. Selected by guest judge Ander Monson, Josie Sigler’s “The Compartment” tells the story of children who lose their wings as a rite of their passage into adulthood: “When children lose their wings, the compartment opens briefly at the crux of disintegration, in the tender upper back.” Sigler provocatively builds the myth and mystery of what’s inside this compartment, what the “wing-thieves” hope to steal, saying that “in any case—wish or resist—the laws of physics apply: you can’t take in hand what you beheld then. You can’t see your compartment.”
To praise Gulf Coast as one of the best literary magazines in the country would be redundant—it has already proven itself as such. This issue only strengthens that reputation: Although it contains many ‘issues,’ there is certainly no issue with the quality, diversity, and vibrancy of the work within.