Maggie Smith’s poems speak of the dangers and beauty, the tragedy and sadness, and the unforgiving joys of the world. Her poems recall the past with reflection and nostalgia, while looking through a fierce lens at the present and hoping wildly for a future, with nuance and precision and the kind of rhythmic breath that runs down a spine. And they call for attention, serious attention, to the proximity of perils, hopes, fears, dreams, desperation, lost girls, unclassified stars, motherhood, home, nature, and death. Shaping her collections to deliver warnings and reminders, memories and re-imagined myths and fairy tales, Smith constructs dwellings from her words, spaces originating in nature, in domestic life, and then shakes out their meanings so that we understand so much more than the words ever intended.
The stories of Seth Borgen’s debut collection “If I Die in Ohio” (New American Press, 2019), winner of the 2017 New American Press Fiction Prize, are stretched with strands of humor and sadness that surprise, that leap about, leaving the reader laughing, sighing, nearly crying, and then laughing all over again. One moment J.D. Salinger—humor edged with something quirky, unsettling, even tragic—and the next moment Eudora Welty—precision and sleight of hand balanced with a situation of unease, all lakeside on a summer’s day—the writing calls out and creates compassion and understanding. It becomes clear that no one else but this author could’ve written these characters, assigned their different measures of vulnerability and daring and kindness and confusion, as well as their circumstances. There are stylistic notes here that might recall previous writers, but in the writing they have shifted into a new narrative approach, one that is distinctive and bold. Endings become beginnings; men who have nothing in common have everything in common; borders crossed lead to a love that was there all along; the realization that what is feared lost was lost long ago. With this collection come stories that beckon and tease, that persuade and enlighten. To read them is to be astonished.
In his short story collection “Sweet and Low” (Blue Rider/Penguin, 2019), Nick White writes of love, trouble, family ties, and queerness, all wrapped in the heartbreak and lyricism of country songs and storytelling. Set mostly in the small towns and farmlands of Mississippi’s hill country and wide-open delta, these tales are layered with the language of the South and its complicated structures of masculinity. The reader finds herself inside a modern version of Southern Gothic, the softness of the stories here turning crystalline and then hard and brittle, as the characters contend with each other, their endings and outcomes always unexpected.
On her way to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Sister Mary Aloysius
Drove past many signs: Earthworms Here. Have Many Rabbit. Calicos
In Burlap Sacks for Free. There were wooden crosses, some upsided
From a weird wind of such flaccid heat
Through miles of nothing much—until a shrewd
Of cottonmouths braided in a knot so vast
Across the asphalt She had to stop the car.
She waited as they wound and ragged and sieged their way across
The two-lane road, and then she traveled on.
Rafters of Slack Turkies. Nurse-Cow’s Pail. Push hoes, malt forks, unrusted
Mangleknifes. Here is the sheriff in his hammock on his clutter-land
Not quite yet woken from his dream of herding
All the Negroes out to anywhere
Sister Mary Aloysius carried in her pocketbook
A blue transistor radio (with hymns, which lived inside) to the man
Waiting in the heat and soil of the death house in Angola not too far ahead.
The warden would, in short order, confiscate the thing.
Music, it is known, he said Stirs the emotions.
As it stirs my emotions, too.
I cannot bear to hear it anymore.
Myself, I listen now only to the sound
Of right-wing radio at home and on the roads because it quickens me,
Keeping me abroad, awake, and chary by its miscreance and gall.
From time to time a rogue joy overtakes me
And I fall off the wagon of my diagnoses (pernicious melancholias), obtuse
And unappeasable to my own warden and
My pyschopharmacologist alike. A bougainvillea-colored cloud
Stays in one quadrant of the sky.
I’ve come down with
The woolly horribles.
I have fantods, I have rabbit, I have shame, even far from here—
In the Corridor. Where I am safe and warm and white.
I have listened to the Freedom Caucus in our House
Of Lords recite by heart
The full text of Green Eggs and Ham
In the filibuster of the over and the over and the over once again.
In my nightmares all of heat and red, of the Rorshachs of their throats
In the shapes of lumpy garnet yams, I am of
My country, it is not of me.
Image from the gouache on panel painting, “Open Space,” by Larry Moore.
Poet, essayist, and cultural critic, Hanif Abdurraqib has produced two celebrated volumes in recent years—“The Crown Ain’t Worth Much” (Button Poetry, 2016) and “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us” (Two Dollar Radio, 2017). Collections, respectively, of poetry and essays, both walk the territory of family, friendship, and community with compassion, depth, and clarity. There is no shying away from the disparity and death that crack open these worlds; instead, there is facing them, staring right through them to what truly is and what could be. Broken bodies, broken glass, mothers’ arms, closed caskets, hunger, jukeboxes, brothers, ghosts, bullets, grieving, missing those gone and those gone missing. And inside of all this is the thought: What would it be like to look up into the stars instead of fleeing “midnight and questions that come with it”?
What Is a Sketch but a Chalk Outline Done in Pencil or Words? An Interview with Nafissa Thompson-Spires
Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s debut story collection, “Heads of the Colored People,” selected for the 2018 National Book Awards Longlist for Fiction, strides into the worlds of black women and men, black girls and boys, upending stereotypes and straining against the limits of the expected through a dark, provocative humor. With a Ph.D. in English from Vanderbilt and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Illinois, and as a Callaloo fellow, Tin House alum, and Sewanee scholar, Thompson-Spires infuses her writing with scholarly works, 90s pop culture, and contemporary concerns. Black culture and identity in conversation with the tensions and politics of race are angled in ways that refuse definition. Through the unique cast of characters in twelve exquisitely startling, hilarious, and at times poignant stories, questions are asked about connection, collaboration, assimilation, resistance, and vulnerability.
In the stories of Jamel Brinkley’s expansively beautiful collection, “A Lucky Man” (Graywolf Press/A Public Space Books, 2018), selected for the 2018 National Book Awards Longlist for Fiction, fathers and sons of the Bronx and beyond try to make their way, to negotiate and understand their world. The language here is at times lyrical, always honest, revealing the reach and fascination and discomfort of the places—of the city, of the mind—in which the characters dwell. As Robert Hunsberger (Duende) writes: “Told in nine vivid short stories, Jamel Brinkley’s debut collection, “A Lucky Man,” tugs sharply at the tender threads of intimacy, race, and masculinity. Brinkley’s prose, as fierce in its vigilance as it is in its empathy, casts new light on the delicate and heartbreaking truisms of American manhood.”
C. Morgan Babst
Lush with the scents of ligustrum, a fallen magnolia, an evening breeze off the Mississippi River, New Orleans author C. Morgan Babst’s debut novel, “The Floating World,” sings the world of aftermath—of devastation, desire, the city’s dead. Here is the city of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, above and beyond the ruptured levees, inside the psyche of a family wrought with longing and despair at the sight and reek of their drowned home. The five members and three generations of the Boisdoré family reveal this story in ribboning, intersecting storylines, emphasizing the truth of the novel’s epigraph from Virgil’s “Aeneid”: “Each must be his own hope.”
Bay Area author, alumna of Harvard, Radcliffe, and UC Berkeley, Hilary Zaid surprises, and her debut novel, “Paper is White,” is indeed an astonishing and successful surprise. Balancing weighted subjects with blue skies and beautiful slices of cake, with wedding arrangements and secret encounters, Zaid measures out humor with generosity, hope with passion, even grief with impossible understanding. Through narrative spun in first person, lead character and heroine Ellen Margolis finds her way in late 90s San Francisco, where elderly Holocaust survivors reveal their stories, relationships grow close and become divided, and the past lies like a wedding veil across the future.