Far More Than Poetry
When I went to review the latest issue of Blackbird, the online journal that Virginia Commonwealth University publishes twice each year, I discovered someone had gotten there before me. The journal begins with a foreword by the editors, one that not only introduces the contributors but describes them in deftly chosen words and with piercing attentiveness. When the editor has already told you that one of the included poets “hoofs it, bad hips and all, from Port Angeles to Prague in search of the angels of our better natures” while another “reminds us that, despite its direct interrogations, the city’s crucible is transformed as it transforms us”—when an editor has laid this out for you, what is left for a reviewer to do?
Fortunately, as it happens, there is a great deal left to say about the fall 2011 issue of Blackbird, because this is a rich and fascinating collection of work. The poetry alone could fill a syllabus. Consider, for example, the seesawing oppositions of Diane Seuss’ poem “Either everything is sexual, or nothing is. Take this flock of poppies”:
Either the whole world is New Orleans
at 3 a.m. and a saxophone like a drill bit or it’s all clinical sunlight and sad
elementary school architecture, circa 1962, no broom closets opening into escape
hatches, no cowpokes with globs of sap skewered on hickory sticks.
Then compare the long-lined libido of that poem to the soulful frankness of Bob Hicok, who in “Practice makes imaginary backhands perfect” toys with the ideas of “air tennis . . . like air guitar or air making love,” only to land its two lovers on
a picnic table
near where the next morning,
the tide came in
to our tent and said, pretty much,
this is my tent now.
There: enough material for a very good essay about how contemporary poets might write sexuality into their work in the language of contemporary America.
But I can’t possibly stop there, because then we would miss the concise sentiment of Mark Jarman’s poems, or the breathless and bodily yearnings toward the divine in Traci Brimhall’s poems, or the tight puzzle that is Leon Weinmann’s “Korē.”
Most of the poets in this issue are represented by two to four works; Weinmann has only one, and it’s a doozy. “Korē” achieves a remarkable circularity, with a chorus-like repetition of the line “you know a symbol when you see one” sending the reader from the later verses back to the earlier ones. This poem interrogates its own use of symbolism, problematizing any too-quick interpretation even while the symbols themselves are in plain view. This is also a poem that benefits from being online, in proximity to Google Translate, since it uses a little bit of classical Greek. (If, like me, you don’t know Greek, don’t be put off—it’s a minuscule portion of the poem, and reading it once when you don’t understand the references and then again when you do just adds to the pleasing circularity of the work.)
It’s worthwhile to just get into this pool of words and splash around for a while, but take note, too, of the careful work that the editors have done in curating this magazine. Click “browse” and you’ll find a suggested reading order, including two thematic “reading loops.” The first, “Levis Remembered,” is dedicated to the late poet and Virginia Commonwealth University faculty member Larry Levis. The university annually awards the Levis Reading Prize to a first or second book of poetry. This year’s winner, Nick Lantz, is generously represented here by six poems, an interview, an audio recording and transcript of a reading he gave at VCU, and a review of his prize-winning book, We Don’t Know We Don’t Know.
The namesake of the award is given representation too: a long Levis poem, “Elegy with an Angel at its Gate,” is actually the first item on the table of contents, and it is a long, searching, roving poem that rewards attentive reading and calls out resonances in Lantz’ work. Not interested in doing anything by halves, the Blackbird editors round out the Levis reading loop with photographs of some street art made in tribute to the poet, and four reproductions of early drafts of the “Elegy.” It’s fascinating and heartening to find a literary magazine doing this kind of work to keep established writing in the conversation.
The second reading loop is called “Poems in Sequence,” and it highlights ten poets working in linked series of poems. Some of these are highly intentional, like Malachi Black’s “Quarantine,” which is based on the traditional schedule of prayer in Christian monasteries. Others, like Adam Day’s sequence “Vicious Only When Necessary,” grew unintentionally out of the author’s fascination with a particular character. (In Day’s case, it’s someone named Badger, “who is and is not an actual badger depending on the context.”)
But there is far more here than poetry. In between the two reading loops is an essay by Tom Sleigh, “How to Make a Toilet-Paper-Roll Blowgun,” which is by far the most academic work in the issue and addresses, with great attention and urgency, the idea of the artist in times of crisis. Sleigh discusses poet Anna Akhmatova’s stories about surviving in Soviet Russia and compares them to work by Mahmoud Darwish, Jean Genet, and Tomas Tranströmer. At issue is the question of whether the artist has the right to speak for the grief of others, or whether this is an egotistical and doomed pursuit. Sleigh draws distinctions between personal grief and political grievance and then draws these two back together, questioning the extent to which a person’s grief can be severed from the injustices that have been imposed on them. Again, at least one college class session could be held on this essay alone; as this is only a review, I’ll leave it at that and with a strong recommendation to seek out the work.
The rest of the nonfiction section is comprised of some smart, probing interviews and book reviews, and one narrative nonfiction piece, Elaine Neil Orr’s “Driving the Peugeot.” This memoir essay treads some risky ground—it’s about the author’s experience growing up white in Nigeria—but it succeeds, deftly, by simply giving us the narrator’s situation rather than trying to dramatize it. The second-person narration puts the reader there with the narrator, and somehow this perspective also serves to erase the future, so that the narrator’s uncertainty is real, especially when she goes to the United States for high school: “Cheerleading was like horseback riding, you had to be bred for it. It wasn’t something you started at seventeen and anyway, try-outs had happened the year before. Right away you should have known America was impossible. You couldn’t join up this late.”
And just when all this seems like an embarrassment of riches, we’re reminded that there’s fiction here too. There are some interesting themes connecting the selections here. Wesley Gibson’s “The Raccoon” and Katherine Conner’s “Panther Stalks Hinds County” both use wild animals to get their stories rolling, but they play contrasting roles—the raccoon showing up at odd moments to terrify all the characters, and the panther never showing up at all, only serving as a rumor that sets a whole town on edge. Both of these go well with Bryn Chancellor’s “When Are You Coming Home?” as a sort of suite about loss, marriage, and having been through hell.
Hannah Wood’s “Science Experiment to Test the Durability of a Chemical Bond Between Romeo and Juliet” adheres admirably well to the project it lays out for itself in the title, and it adds some levity to the issue in doing so. There’s some wonderful humor, too, in Belle Boggs’ “Death Panel,” about siblings who get a call-in radio show to deliver a verdict on whether their ailing parents should be allowed to live. Boggs’ humor is dry and resigned—my favorite line in this story was the beautifully understated “‘Well, that settles it,’ said my sister, as if that settled it.”
And then—then!—in addition to the fiction and the nonfiction and the poetry, there is a “gallery,” featuring multimedia work, including a sequence of monologues and two illustrated articles about art exhibitions, one about tobacco and one that juxtaposes ancient and modern consumer goods, with provocative commentary.
There’s much, much more here than can be covered in a single review. If you are considering submitting to this magazine, by all means do, and send your best writing. But most of all, I recommend you read it—if doing so doesn’t make you into a better writer (and maybe it will!) it will at least make you into a writer who is in touch with some astonishingly accomplished work.