Just Because You're Alone, Doesn't Mean You Have to Be Lonely

Review of Isthmus, Spring/Summer 2018 by Petur HK


Tinder is meant to act as a bridge, an isthmus, if you will, between two (or more) strangers, and like any social interaction, it has its own customs and traditions. No one is at home on Tinder—although some do seem more comfortable than others—and generally, it's not a place you want to stay for long. It’s a place to meet and then, ideally, leave together. More often than not, though, who you actually end up getting to know better is yourself and, probably, your own loneliness.

Isthmus Review does something quite similar in its seventh issue. Already on the front cover we're confronted with a pram chugging down a crystalline river in the middle of nowhere North America. The scene is majestic, the picture is black-and-white, and the pram is filled to the brim with passengers. We, however, are left standing on the shore.

On its own, it’s quite a serene snapshot of post-war American life, but as you dig further into the issue, the more you realize that every piece is preceded by one of these black-and-white pictures, each one more stereotypical than the next—a joyful family at the beach, two young women posing in traditional bathing-suits, an inviting kitchen with appliances hanging from the ceiling—and despite their jovial surface, their true motive is the viewer. We’re almost always left out, and when we are invited in, it’s only to remind us of the way we’re denied vibrancy and color and forced to see the picture for what it is, an empty kitchen, an abandoned house, a lonely graveyard in what looks like that place in Westworld where all the dead androids wash up.

There’s no artist attributed, which suggests they might be stock photos chosen by the editors, as if to say that in this time even the art is without a home. The result, of course, is that they serve to amplify this issue’s overarching theme of loneliness.

Sometimes that loneliness is of the desperate, flailing, Benedict-Cumberbatch-as-Patrick-Melrose kind, such as in Benjamin Wagner’s poem, “girls & their pet slugs.” Sometimes it’s of the delusional kind, as in Saul Alpert-Abrams’ superbly balanced story, “I Get High When I Get Low.” Sometimes, as in Graham Todd’s “Savannah,” it’s genetic. His narrator starts the story with, “Loneliness is forty-eight percent inherited despite the hard-wiring for love,” and ends it alone and stuck in a snowdrift. "There is snow, a shit ton, and in that snow there is a car stuck in a drift, a shitty car, a nameless brand with hodgepodge components. Inside it, you think, evolution has brought me here. I have been appropriately Darwin’d."

And sometimes, the loneliness is of a more insightful kind. In Brenda Miller's essay, “Elijah,” we're introduced to a very special house guest who "never showed up in physical form at our sedar," even though he “had his own place setting—with the fancy wine glass, encrusted in brass, brought out for the occasion” and they “anticipated his arrival every time.” Towards the end, Miller tells us she doesn’t “even know what he looks like—Elijah […] Every year, I think I might glimpse him out of the corner of my eye,” before it becomes clear that what the piece is really about is the death of her father and how “I picture Elijah in my father’s flesh […] And perhaps that’s what Elijah’s been all along: the ghost of all we love, come back to join us.”

Ultimately, all the stories, poems, and essays in this petite issue of Isthmus might be about loneliness, devoted to characters stuck in a snowdrift or at table waiting for a ghost to walk in the door, all of them lost or bewildered in some way, but more than that, what they all share is a craving for home, for somewhere to belong. And if you arrive at the doorstop of Isthmus Review the same way I did, a stranger with a strange magazine on the phone in front you and you never quite know if you should swipe left or right, there’s no way for you to know this beforehand, but this is precisely why you must read it.

They have a penchant for short work (the majority barely reaches over 1000 words), so it won’t even take you long. Their website is clean and stylish with a focus on the work with minimum disturbances. It is easy to navigate, since there’s not much to navigate through. The front page consists of a picture from the current issue and a delightfully highlighted button inviting you to read said issue, while the extra stuff they offer on the website, such as interviews and a sparsely updated blog, is neatly tucked away in the banner at the top. On the whole, this seventh issue presents a condensed selection of works by a small handful of capable writers (they’re not even afraid to publish several works, prose or poetry, by the same writer in the same issue), and most importantly, regardless of length, not one piece disappoints.

While you may never have celebrated sedar or, as seven-year-old Josef Rabinovich in Charles Rafferty’s “You Must Keep Your Voice Like Music,” you may never have had to chop off the head of a goat in front of the rest of your class, you will relate to the feeling of not belonging, and what I mean when I say that Isthmus doesn’t disappoint, is that it doesn’t just introduce you to a handful exciting writers—it also doesn’t fail to teach you something about yourself.

In the end, Tinder rarely achieves much more than prove that being along together with a bunch of other lonely people you don’t know is pretty much the same as just being alone, and while what Isthmus attempts is to a great degree just that, it nevertheless succeeds in reminding you that, yes, you may be lonely, but you are not alone.

As John Sibley Williams puts it in “Suburban Liturgy,” “That old hunger to go hungry / for once, to throw our voices / into another’s empty mouth” because “what we know: even naked / here together we’re not naked enough.” Whether clothed or stark naked, in bed, on the bus, or on the toilet, Isthmus is here, with the table set and the glasses filled, waiting for you to walk in the door.