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Lit Mag is a Beautiful Curation of Creative Pieces

Review of Isthmus, Fall/Winter 2015 by Laura Page


Isthmus editors Ann Przyzycki and Randy Devita do not include a note to preface, nor is there a stated theme for this, the fourth installment of the magazine. Rather, the works speak for themselves, and for this reader, Isthmus 4 is a beautiful curation of pieces that speak to comings and goings, appendages of spirit gained and lost in the context of family and human connections. All of the pieces together add caveat or context to what it means to be an individual living with and without other individuals. The result is a collection of collisions and capitulations, shutting-ins and striking-outs.

Speaking to kinship, three of the four longer pieces showcased in this issue are about family bonds. First, Alison Condie Jaenicke’s non-fiction piece, “I Slept Well if You Slept Well,” is a sister’s reflection on the life of her more adventurous younger sibling working in the Peace Corps. Elements of dysfunction and misunderstanding get sloughed off when an accident handicaps the younger woman and each of the women’s narratives begin to make sense to the other. This piece is about separation across miles and across emotional planes, but it’s also about coming together and “grafting” personal histories to reach understanding.

Second, the less optimistic, but equally compelling story by Julie Day, “Holes in Heaven,” is about two brothers covertly plotting a reunion with their parents by means of a bazaar science experiment. They both believe their parents to have traveled not to heaven, as in the afterlife, but to the heavens as a physical place contained in small, dark nebulae. Threaded throughout this story is a constellation of complicating factors, such as the twin brothers’ rivalries and insecurities, their loneliness and what it drives them to. The ending is startling and elegant.

Third, “Why Shaya Eats,” is a sad and persuasive nod to loss and associated addiction. A young man in a Jewish Orthodox community struggles to gain some emotional equilibrium after the loss of several important figures in his life, including his father. He uses food to fill a hole that only seems to be getting larger, and in a way, his own largess is a misguided way of signaling to his community, the world, that he exists, that he has something to say. This story is tragic in its poignant portrayal of the way actions speak—often cry—louder than words.

The fourth narrative, “Arrivals & Departures,” chronicles a middle aged man’s sojourns and the chance encounters he has with women. Though an element of physical attraction or need plays out in each of these human collisions, there is a playfulness in each, a vein of compassion that makes each interaction or escapade tender, and ultimately highlights our human need for companionship and understanding.

The poetry selections in Isthmus issue 4 are sparse, but pull their weight in setting the overall tone of this issue. Becka Mara McKay’s “Blue Medina: A Kind of Pilgrimage” is about deprivation, about needing air to breath in an emotional—and perhaps literal?—way. It’s about spiritual respiration, meditative and full of longing.

In a different way, Brendan Cooney’s poems “Spinneret” and “Slab” are also about needing air. The former is a meditation on entrapment, hunger, and the very personal process of building oneself up from scratch, as it were, all backgrounding an image of a spider’s meticulous web-weaving. “Slab” is an aftermath. In it, a bad—or perhaps once good, but gone sour relationship is the take-away. Again, a somewhat macabre image is used to illustrate something else—resignation, regret, perhaps disbelief: a slab of meat, a butchered thing hanging, exposed from a hook. The narrator pokes and tickles it, looking for signs of life where there is none. It’s a disgusting, beautiful, very sad poem.

Bret Shepard’s poem, “Details of Air” is about breakdown, emotional, relational—in micro-sequence. It really feels as if the narrator in this poem is feeling the “clumsying of the body” one synapse at a time Shepard’s second piece, “Of Public” asks a pointed question: which ‘self’ is more authentic, the inner self or the outer, social one? What are the trappings of each and what do they say about the individual? This poem in particular informs this issue of Isthmus by outlining the jigsaw edges that are the mechanism of connection between people.

Finally, Mercedes Lawry’s poem “December” is about missing. A poignant feeling of a person’s presence even when they are absent. This reader found it a fitting poem to wrap up the poetry selections.

This fouth installment of Isthmus leaves a bittersweet taste; it highlights the beauty in human interactions—often a tragic beauty. It looks at dysfunction and it looks at need, it looks at affection and lust and blood bonds. And ultimately, for this reader, the issue says, “Be human and relate. It’s worth it.”