This gorgeous twenty-fifth anniversary issue of Gulf Coast—a celebration in poetry, prose and art—while anchored in the present, salutes contributors of past years with luminous grace.
I was quite taken by the brilliant work of Aracelis Girmay's "Ode to the Little ‘r’.” She introduces us to her letter-love:
the two fields of my a's,
making my name
a small boat
that leaves the port
of old San Juan…
Her grandfather, Miguel, and other trusting working souls, would: "eat & be eaten by Chicago." Other cities and citizens bullied them. I was moved by such intolerance of innocents. Their hopes, their speech, the very fiber of their names, are all coldly mocked:
& the teacher saying, "Oh
You mean, 'Are-Raw-Sell-Lease.'"
In this experience, the speaker knows:
…& she used her English
to make an axe & tried to chop
them down. But, "r," little propeller
of my name, small & beautiful monster
changing shapes, you win.
Girmay's characters endure and prosper, caring for what matters, not for what those in charge value and admire.
In Michael Parker's beguiling "Catch and Release: What We Can Learn from the Semicolon (Even if We Choose Never to Use it In a Sentence),” readers find Parker was "introduced" to the semicolon in fifth grade:
A colon, our teacher told us one day, is a fence around the pen with two slats to stop the hogs; for the semicolon, one slat is down, which, I later realized, allows the hogs to experience that age-old anxiety—at the heart of so many narratives—of should I stay or should I go.
Parker concedes his teacher utilized and counted on a fairly simple visual device to brand semicolons into memory banks. He remembers certain odors, then understands. The author slyly makes points for the beauty of the orphaned semicolon. He convinces. He lets readers see how this vital punctuation allows Jamaica Kinkaid's "Girl" to captivate in one West Indian mother’s lilting monologue: “Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don't walk bare-head in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil.” The semi-colon drives home drama and subtext in this detailed parental list. Parker reminds all how valuable one simple mark can become when emphasis is needed.
The voice of Yusef Komunyakaa, as always, is vivid and remarkable. "English," is written in memory of Andrzei Ciecwierz. In a landscape where even the sky is "burning," the speaker is compelled by a girl knocking, as lowered voices, secrets and fear preside. In violence and chaos, horror and fantasy meet:
I glimpsed Alice in Wonderland.
Her voice smelled like an orange,
though I'd never peeled an orange.
I knocked on the walls, in a circle.
Readers find visions, peace, and wishes are ephemeral: “There are promises made at night / That turn into stones at daybreak.” Komunyakaa knows less detail is the better gift, and the poem's genius is universal loss, portrayed with an artist's eye.
Michael Copperman's non-fiction, "To Cut”, is a stark look into the world of "cutting weight." Here, extreme wrestlers lead a joyless life of deprivation and dehydration for the sake of winning, attempting to avoid the 1998 NCAA Weight Class policy. Wrestlers wrap feet in plastic to lose fluid and pounds, or run wildly in wilting heat, covered in wool. When pounds fall by the hour, lives are in the balance, always. The author informs us:
The truth was that wrestling itself was easy, at least for me. Yes, there was the jittery anticipation of the match, and the demands of competition: instinct and execution and all-consuming focus. But I had natural ability and agility and balance. The training and the actual matches didn't demand half the will and devotion that cutting weight required. Cutting was the essence of the sport.
The author, at twenty-one, nearly goes too far himself. Luckily, love of the sport is finally dulled by bodily pain of every kind: “I couldn't go on. I stood, stripped off the plastics and went to the water fountain and drank.” He loses, and wins, as he swallows. The reader is horrified by the many ways these men find to weigh less, to acquire acclaim or purpose. This is a unique view of a life few would want. The writing is matter-of-fact, graphic and replete with horrific unforgettable detail.
I am quite a fan of R.A.Villanueva's instructional poem, "Antipodal":
To get there from here takes longer than you
think, a faith in cardinal directions
and magnetic north. Watch for the trench-blue
of the caldera, the lychee and knives
lining the shoulder of the road. If you
pass harvests of wasp nests or hear swallows
in the hawthorns, you've gone too far...
I love the specifics, the authoritarian voice, the "trench-blue," also those "harvests of wasp nests,” rarely imagined, but brought to brightness by the poet's helpful speaker. It's a poem that requires reading more than twice, certainly. I didn't want to miss a single nuance of these well-wrought lines. The closure is sharp, unique and exactly right.
The Phillip Lopate contribution on essayist William Hazlitt is a fitting treat, since Lopate was a co-founder of Gulf Stream. The art, reviews, and interviews were fascinating, and completed the issue with panache.
Finally, I thoroughly enjoyed Editor Ian Stansel's cheery inclusion of the Sketch Klub's illustrations. This artistic collective's original and joyous illustrations added to the party of words. Wondrous little drawings even livened up the Contributor's Notes. This issue of Gulf Coast is a present to yourself. Read away the night!