Spotted so far this spring: a black snake coiled in the side yard flower bed; two other black snakes, one trying to escape a gray tabby cat, the other pursued through brush by a mockingbird; numerous small and partly eaten snakes, dropped and abandoned by hawks and ospreys; a garter snake twining through the fingers of a skateboarder; a dead baby copperhead in the dust of an alley. And the kudzu is ahead of schedule on its way around light poles and over the road shoulders.
A palpable sensation of unease, of nervous agitation as subtext, permeates the warming days—the metaphorical snake in the grass becoming the literal serpent in the garden. There is no surprise, then, in noticing a current of more than the usually apparent anxiety pulsing through much of the work collected here. Pace W.H. Auden, the Age of Xanax seems to have us all pretty tightly in its grip.
Managing this disturbance in the force with work that marks significant beginnings right now and promises of renewed visitation for the future are the writers featured in Blackbird’s annual Introductions Reading Loop: fiction writers Mike Antosia, Tanaz Bhathena, and Renée Branum and poets Jamison Crabtree, Brianna Noll, Saara Myrene Raapana, Will Schutt, and Phillip B. Williams.
Antosia takes on the dead-end world of the down-and-out and provides his teenage boy with enough individual voice and deep emotional compass to set him apart from his literary companions on a well-worn road of worry and melancholy. Bhathena visits the complexities of love as they are manifested against the haunting strictures of cultural pressure and individual failure, while Branum employs language itself as a tool for investigation and protection in a landscape of threat and conundrum.
The poets in this group traverse territories rendered most familiar by the momentary transformations they undergo. The disconsolate brother of Jamison Crabtree’s “golem” recognizes that “hawks are / grackles are pigeons / are motes of dust circling / the drain of sunlight.” Brianna Noll’s stoic tinnitus sufferer hears “pants / instead of stamps” with droll resignation. And Saara Myrene Raapana’s homebound heroine, braving a lake effect blizzard that has “switched the ground for clouds” and navigating, “by touch / through the blank meadow of heaven,” via “Nerf ball” and the odd rope of expended “bottle rockets,” manages to find her way despite the predictable hostilities of bad weather.
No surprise then that Will Schutt’s young father appears, dressed in Peter Lorre’s clothes, to remind the poet (and us) that “Pulling away in the middle” of things is one sure way for any dancer to be reduced to mere “movement on a floor.” Better to place a little faith in Phillip B. Williams’s intuition (shot through with troubled, urgent optimism) that survival often involves negotiation, that we must “Bend as Would a God” to pore carefully over the lessons recorded imperfectly in the flesh, in the palm of a human hand, that “Star of fable. / Each line a daybreak, / a nightfall, / a season stalled / in the body.”
Fifteen previously unpublished poems by Eleanor Ross Taylor, who died in December 2011, at the age of ninety-one, mark the presence of a poet at the opposite end of time’s challenge—commentary from the end of the trip. Each compressed, Dickinsonian poem is accompanied by an image of the working draft from which it was transcribed.
An excerpt from The Serialist by David Gordon, which received the 2011 Virginia Commonwealth University Cabell First Novelist Award, demonstrates how his narrative marshals a wealth of cultural detail in an attempt to process the danger inherent in describing psychopathic and unreasoning violence. A new story takes on the old thrill of the different imposed on the mundane as an aging drunk transmutes into a vampire, and an uneasy pleasure in observing a neighbor coexists with threat and mystery.
In Fiction, Alexander Lumans provides us with the shadowy presences of actual serpents as young Egret opens her screen door to find the first of several unexpected boxes that mirror her own uneasy relationship with the here and now: “When she turned it back over, she didn’t yet know that the scraping inside would become the sound of her own feet dragging through the mud, her search for a porch from which to fly.”
Greg Glazner follows a man dancing daily with the specter of suicide, poised to fall into a void of his own making, and R.T. Smith appears to have found a doppelganger able to process enough material to bury natural disturbances like the simultaneous deaths of hundreds of red winged blackbirds under logical research and description. Susan Nitida’s story of petty cruelty suppressed in memory rounds out the section.
Additionally, in Poetry, Mary Biddinger’s coin-operated fantasias risk, in high style, the bare-faced truth-telling of the rhetorical question: “Who knew windows were flammable / that air was only rented?” while Karen Donovan pushes the envelope of anaphora to similar incandescence. A clutch of prose poem sermons by Roxane Beth Johnson calls across a millennia-wide gulf to find a fortuitous response in the excerpted opening chapter of a new translation of the Bhagavad Gita by Gavin Flood and Charles Martin, and the earthy ruminations of Caki Wilkinson’s wonderful Wynona serve to remind us of the intrinsic value of “surprise reprised,” of how “half-understanding life / over and over” requires “this belief in things after they don’t exist.”
In Gallery, a new video essay by John Bresland and Brian Bouldrey, “Hook,” opens up a moment for us to consider our inner villains, displaying how they endure somehow on the storied boundary between innocence and experience. The narrator, taking his stand in that contested middle ground, instructs: “think of me as a dark heart, its chambers as bloody as the one from which all children are brought, and just as life affirming.” The universality of such shadowy figures, and the fecundity of imagination that embodies them across generations and cultures, also informs Richard Woodward’s presentation of Congolese art at the VMFA as he explores how a legacy of “wrenching changes,” like those brought about by the political and commercial exploitations of the Pende people during the last century, has left its trace in the work of Alison Saar, Renee Stout, and Sammy Baloji, each of whom brings a distinct sensibility into vivid, insightful conversation with those trans-historical forces playing out across the African continent and across the globe.
Also in Gallery, Walter Hart Blumenthal’s essay from a 1921 issue of The Bookman (and found in the Creative Commons) on “The World’s Most Curious Books” reminds us that although Blackbird exists in air and pixels, our roots lie in a long and often playful tradition of books in their many manifestations. And VCU’s Department of Sculpture explores its origins in a video conversation that marries serious art and teaching to tall tales and bricks and mortar sleight of hand.
In Nonfiction, Peyton Marshall travels a great distance to a brother’s wedding, a distance both figurative and real, while Aleš Šteger chooses to contemplate empty walls as a promise rather than a rebuke. Richard Katrovas revisits the publication of a first book, and Mark Jarman suggests that the devotional poem has an abiding home in an American imagination that echoes Whitman and Dickinson rather than Donne and Herbert.Emilia Phillips files a timely report from the frontier of chapbook design and publication, noting the durability and continued excellence of the work to be sampled in this ephemeral format through her lively treatment of print and electronic offerings by Lisa Fay Coutley, Saeed Jones, Patty Paine, Stella Vinitchi Radulescu, and Fritz Ward. Reviews of new nonfiction by Sandra Beasley, poetic page-as-field pyrotechnics by Carol Ann Davis, and the debut novel of Kevin Wilson round out the issue.