Art Director Jennifer Gunji-Ballsrud introduces the latest edition by saying, “We struggled with the line between elegant restraint and dullness, between expressiveness and eye-candy.” These are tensions exclusive to the talented, and they are made possible by the equipped and impressive staff of artists, alumni from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Indeed the issue is visually striking, but it is also careful and deliberate. Add to it new fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry from Sherman Alexie, Ander Monson, Benjamin Percy, Matt Donovan, Stephan Clark, John Warner, Robert Campbell, Marianne Boruch, Cathy Day, among others, and the result is a sexy literary journal, filled with substance.
Leading off this issue is Benjamin Percy’s “Terminal,” an appropriate title for a nightmarish descent into hell. Written in a haunting second person, “Terminal” takes the reader ascending through clouds, “pink with sunset,” on a strange airplane and descending through clouds with faces “unmistakably etched from black thunderheads, all of them with long trailing beards and gaping mouths that stretch miles across.” The ending suggests that to wake from this nightmare may be just as haunting as living within it.
A definite highlight in this issue is Cathy Day’s “Your Book: A Novel in Stories,” which tells the story of “YOUR BOOK” (another second person story) and its publishing process. Day’s story is bright and hopeful. Although it is hard to put flesh on a character in second person, Day makes up for the lack of physicality with emotionality – tenderly describing feelings of self-consciousness (familiar feelings for any writer) and victory, which is perhaps less familiar; however, Day reminds writers that what they do has impact, even though they may never see it.
Sarah Klenbort’s “Real Men Don’t Cry” is one of the most compelling nonfiction pieces in this issue. A collection of vignettes inspired by A.P. Miller, “Real Men Don’t Cry” grapples with the socially constructed boundaries of masculinity. Klenbort provides anecdotes, even from her own life, which support her thesis that “Girls can slip effortlessly across the lines of gender, while boys are trapped on one side.” She draws on the experience of her own pregnancy as an example: “When I was six months pregnant, I said to my husband, You know it’s okay if Baby’s gay. He paused and thought and finally replied, No, I don’t want Baby to be gay. Then Baby was born a girl and suddenly it was fine to imagine her grown and married to another woman.”
Marianne Boruch’s “Big Sur” is an excerpt from her larger work, a memoir called The Glimpse Traveler, and is another superb piece of nonfiction from this issue. The story documents Boruch’s hitchhiking excursion through the central coast of California with her companion Frances and the rich and mysterious Emil White, who, to me, resembles Christopher Isherwood’s Arthur Norris from The Berlin Stories. My only complaint is that the author’s confidence often collides with a teetering passivity. It seems to me that such an elegant and insightful prose need not be interrupted with so many uncertainties: “sort of,” “What I directly recall…" and “whatever you want to call it.” Despite this small inconsistency, her travel narrative is impressive and engaging.
The poetry included is also impressive. Robin Ekiss’ “Epithalamium, or Elegy for an Electrocuted Elephant,” like Orwell’s famous essay, relives the death of an elephant to call into question human morality. The poem ends, “What have I come to kill / or praise / that isn’t already buried / by its imperfections.” The last lines of Sherman Alexie’s poem “Phone Calls from Ex-Lovers” are also brilliant, though rendered less effective by Alexie’s pretentious plea to remember them. He leaves readers with the memorable lines, “There is nothing we want more / Than to remain wanted / By the ones who wanted us before.”
Amjad Nasser’s poetry is certainly a highlight of this issue. One of the eight poems of his included is “Daily Occurrence,” which starts, “There wasn’t a time when I came home and / a cloud of lead did not follow me. And every time / I opened the door, my own family surprised me.” His honesty is heart wrenching, and, though filled with sadness, his words are beautiful.
The supplements are attractive (as usual) – April Freely’s poem “Garden Valley,” for instance, is as elegantly packaged as it is stated – and these seem to complete an already stellar package.