The awards issue – and the judges chose well! A poem by Elizabeth McLagan, “All Alien Spirits Rest the Spirit,” chosen by Paulann Petersen; an essay by Alexandra Marzano-Lesnevich, “In the Fade,” chosen by Kim Stafford; and a story by Irene Keliher, “SPN,” chosen by Kathleen Alcalá. Well-composed, confident work; subtle, yet focused and intense. McLagan’s poem is representative of much of the poetry in this issue, poems steeped in rich images of the natural world rendered in careful, round language (“There are rocks that have forgotten the body: / orphaned, smoothed by their journey, tossed up // at random and left to dry in the sun.”) The winning essay, too, sets the stage for the creative nonfiction that follows, other essays (is this intentional or coincidental?) which explore a childhood relationship with the beach/ocean (essays by Julie Jeanell Leung and Susan Buis). And the winning story is also typical of the work in this issue, family dramas that rise above the vast sea of such work, thanks to strong prose and a tendency toward understatement.
This is not to say the issue doesn’t also offer variety. Nancy McCabe’s nonfiction contribution, “Can This Troubled Marriage Be Saved: A Quiz,” written in the style of a magazine quiz, complete with answer key, is quite distinct from the essays mentioned above in structure (the quiz), tone (sarcastic rather than earnest), and style (more casual, breezier prose). Poems by Suzanne Levine and Nathan Elijah Graham are edgier, less dreamy with sharper human portraits, even when they rely on imagery of the natural world as here in this excerpt from Graham’s “Around Here”:
girls don’t flirt with their cigarettes,
I’ve watched them outside the gas station
when it’s Friday night and the streets are slick as cat eyes.
They don’t dance in place. They lean on the glass storefront
like mares against a barn. Out here they wait for recovery.
Josh Waellert’s short story, “Geography,” while also a family tale, lends a distinctive quality to the issue, too, its narrative illustrated with maps of the Northwestern region at the heart of the story. The story moves back and forth in time: 1844, the present, 1943, the present again, recounted by a likeable and satisfying voice. In fact, I liked this narrator’s voice so well, I was sorry when the story was over.