Strong Recommendations

by Posted on May 19th, 2010 at 3:45 pm

Cover of Gulf Coast 22.1, Winter/Spring 2010

Gulf Coast 22.1 is very good, particularly its prose. Unusually—at least in my experience—its two best prose pieces are supplied by its fiction and nonfiction contest-winners: Dana Kinstler and Kelly Blikre. Kinstler’s “Bird in My Throat” tells the story, from Ava’s, the wife’s, perspective, of a young, seemingly privileged 1960s couple who move down to Mexico after college so that the husband, Malcolm, can work for the federal government and sell and traffic drugs. It is a testament to Kinstler’s reserve that all of this pleasant-seeming exotic adventure—sex, guns, drugs—is nothing more than an acceptable background for her understated depiction of the relatively rapid disintegration of Ava and Malcolm’s marriage. “Bird in My Throat” is an example of the often referred to but rarely written story in which you know the end, essentially, from the very beginning, and that this not only doesn’t ruin the story but makes it better.

Kelly Blikre’s nonfiction contest-winner, “On Our Skin,” struck me (in some way that I couldn’t place) as being something I’d never read before. My best attempt at description is that it’s like an all-business, ten-minute documentary. The story begins:

At twenty, in a run that cuts past a Baptist, a Catholic, and a Methodist Church in one straight shot, the three of us decide we’ve been virgins long enough.

The unnamed narrator, the third girl in the story with Brooke and Cassie, then relates semi-interlocking episodes about such topics as late-adolescent female friendship, loss of virginity, and rape. The narrator is that pretty girl from high school who you hated, who was destined at birth to be best friends with virginal beauties named Brooke and Cassie, but who, when you actually met her, was amazing. The story concludes with the narrator and Brooke, who was recently raped, talking on the phone; the narrator is telling Brooke about skinny-dipping in a public pool the night before, three cars of police watching while she slowly put her clothes on:

“I went skinny-dipping last night,” I tell her, “I got a ticket.”

She tries to laugh. But I don’t mean it like that. I don’t mean to change the subject. I mean to say that I feel guilty, too, that her bed is not my bed and that most nights, lately, I fall asleep right when my head hits the pillow. That I forgot to be scared last night. That I liked the way those men moved their eyes across my body.

“I miss you,” I say.

“Yeah,” she says. Then again, quieter: “Yeah.”

That knocks me over backwards.

I must say I did not enjoy the poetry or “lyric essays” in this issue as much as I did the prose. In both genres, too many pieces consisted primarily of stylization. I realize that that’s not very precise, but I can only say that many of the poems in particular struck me as claiming more for themselves than they deserved.

But then Ross Gay’s poem “Love, You Got Me Good” from the issue does just the opposite. Here it is in its entirety:

Honeybunny, for you, I’ve got a mouthful
of soot. Sweetpea, for you, I always smell
like blood. Everything that touches me, Lovemuffin,
turns to salt. When I think of you
I see fire. When I dream of you
I hear footsteps on bones. When I see you
I can feel the scythe’s smooth handle
in my palm. Love, you got me
standing at attention.
Clutching my heart. Polishing guns.
Love, I got a piggy bank
painted like a flag. I got a flag
in the shape of a piggy bank. For you,
I’ve been dancing waterboard. You’re under
my skin, Love. Don’t know
what I’d do without you,

“Love, You Got Me Good” employs such a simple conceit—affectionate language and troubling content—but is creepy, horrible, and obscene. I wouldn’t change a word. I wish I’d written it.

I want to say I really enjoyed this issue of Gulf Coast; the prose was excellent, and while the poetry wasn’t particularly to my taste, it was interesting and various; they took chances. The interviews and reviews were also excellent. I had the feeling, when I finished reading, that I had been spending my time well, not just in relation to the time that I had actually spent reading it, but more generally. And I often don’t feel that way. So that’s a pretty strong recommendation, right?