T.J. Beitelman’s book of poetry takes on the task of transformation. He looks at how lives can be changed at the linguistic as well as the personal level. Throughout this process, his poems confront shifts of perspective and character of the lyric I, often through the medium of physical objects. His best poems are playful and ironic. They view topics such as flight, language, or spiritual rebirth with an impressive freewheeling wit. Read full review...
Randi Pink’s debut novel, Into White (2017), told the provocative tale of an African-American teenager in Montgomery, Alabama, who wakes up one day to discover she is Caucasian—a prayer Jesus himself has answered to spare her from insidious bullying at her high school, much of it coming from fellow black students. Read full review...
A poetry memoir in the form of an abecedarian is something one doesn’t happen upon very often, but for former Alabama Poet Laureate Sue Brannan Walker, it’s a challenge she skillfully navigates, easily drawing readers into her world of curious speculation and her own personal, unresolved identity. Not only has Walker mastered the art of sharing her wisdom with us, she digs through the trove of history to show us the gems of truth in the legacy of women across the globe who have passed. Read full review...
Dusting for Prints, Poems by Bonnie Roberts
By Bonnie Roberts
Flownwords, Swansea, South Wales, UK, 2019
Paperback $16 or £15
Reviewed by Susan Hazen Guthrie
“I am Truth’s complete fool… A starving pilgrim.”
Moby Dick, Herman Melville
Bonnie Roberts is a philosopher-king, perched on a precipice between Asia and Europe. The moment the cover of Dusting for Prints is opened, she has already, long ago, leapt into the Hellespont…Leander-like.
We – you and I, are the Heroes, holding the Light, as we read.
If I am the guide, then I recommend Dusting for Prints, Poems by Bonnie Roberts, with mind and heart…which, upon reading, may have become a little more whole. Read full review...
At a church reception this weekend an in-law told me, “We live on the worse half of the farm; the better’s under the lake.” It’s a familiar Southern tale: power company bought land, built dam, lake swallowed town. In Caleb Johnson’s debut novel, Janie Treeborne tells her family’s history and in doing so tells the history of the Hernando de Soto Dam and Elberta, Alabama. Elberta’s not a swallowed town, its neighbor is, and Elberta’s people benefit from the lake—that is until eighty years in when the dam’s ready to quit and The River Authority decides to implode it, come high water.
Even with fair flood warning, Janie won’t leave the peach orchard where she lives. Assessing the young man who’s come with tape recorder and microphone to get her reasons for staying put, Janie lands on a phrase which must’ve been a cliché in Elberta back when: “A Treeborne…right down to the bone.” What does she mean? All we have in answer are the stories she tells. Now God hates a frame-narrative, and Treeborne doesn’t escape judgment simply because it’s a novel about storytelling. But if you read past the current day chapters—cleverly titled “Stories We Tell // Today”—you’ll be rewarded with the kooky and often surprising saga of a family and a small Southern town. The tales are pulled from 1929 and 1958, mostly following Janie’s Aunt Tammy, her grandmomma Maybelle, granddaddy Hugh, and a few might-as-well-be family members.
In 1929 Hugh Treeborne works as a digger for The Authority building the dam. The pay’s good, but he’s never at ease with helping erase “more than ten thousand acres of deep woods and pastureland and homesteads that’d belonged to generations of local families.” He eventually discovers a gruesome higher purpose in the work and most of his remaining narrative takes place on what becomes “Hugh Treeborne’s Seven Hundred Acre Junk Garden,” a reimagining perhaps of Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden in Summerville, Georgia. Hugh calls his folk art “assemblies,” and perhaps it’s a propensity for parsing some sense from gathered junk that makes someone “Treeborne to the bone.” These narratives make up Janie’s assembly—and Johnson’s. Treeborne isn’t precisely a novel-in-stories, but it is a novel of stories sculpted out of bits’n’pieces found in Alabama woods.
Not all of Johnson’s novel glorifies storytelling. The stand-alone chapter “This Didn’t Make the Paper Either // 1958” follows a former high school football star after his fall from favor. Ricky Birdsong is reminiscent of Denis Johnson’s (unrelated) main protagonist in Jesus’ Son (1992). Though they differ in innocence as their names suggest, Birdsong’s brain is similarly addled, in his case by repeated football injuries rather than drugs. And he too is more of a mystic than any of Elberta’s bible-beaters. Toward the end of the novel, Ricky sits at Elberta’s most popular diner counter, the go-to haunt of “big-talkers....” He sips coffee and talks to a teenage waitress while “all around him a people’s particular past hung on the walls in pictures and jerseys and clipped newspaper articles stuck inside frames.” Johnson’s handling of Birdsong is as heartbreaking as his prose is poetic. Birdsong’s story is an admonition against small-town apotheosizing and gossip.
Maybe then the frame narrative is a refrain, reminding us: these are stories we tell today. Or stories we should tell today. Regardless, the novel tells us “people’s memories [are] worth preserving. Memory the only thing keeping us from being nobodies from nowhere.” This core belief accompanies all the Treebornes’ most desperate acts. There’s an anxiety in Johnson’s assembly over what happens to those about whom stories aren’t told, or about whom the wrong stories are told, and I can’t help but wonder if his narrative comes from a longing to convey that the backwoods of Alabama’s a someplace, populated by somebodies.
I mentioned Treeborne to a friend recently, and she told me she couldn’t read any more about “lonely people wandering around in the woods.” And let me tell you, there’s a lot of that here. Johnson thoroughly demonstrates his understanding of loneliness and its manifestations, the often overwhelming burden of memory. But memories can be funny and wild and fun too, as the Treebornes’ often are. This novel includes a kidnapping, a tornado, a rattle snake heist, vanished hot-air balloon, prison concert, multiple searches for missing persons, stolen sculptures, grave-robbers and runaways, a film-shoot, a suicide, and bungled murder in broad daylight— during a peach parade! Johnson’s prose too is full of wild treats: “ribs…ringed in with a beautiful pink halo just inside the hard black bark,” “unripe muscadines that popped out of their hard skin like snotty pimples,” and “big bald birds [who] rode an updraft like screws being loosened from a hard board.” How does it all fit into 300 pages? Johnson’s answer: Look what all can fit in a small Southern town.
Laura Lilly Cotten is the co-owner of Thank You Books, a new independent bookstore coming to Birmingham this November.
In Joe Taylor's latest book, a collection of linked stories titled Ghostly Demarcations, the author surprises the reader with Southern, character-driven tales. Taylor examines the grotesque undercurrents running silently beneath overlooked dirt-road towns and communities, describing these rough places, more often than not, with empathy, and although his characters are highly-flawed individuals, he persuades us to feel compassion for them too. Despite their awkwardness and political incorrectness, these characters feel familiar, relatable. Often, their fears, dreams, and traditions interact with their physical environments. For example, in "Ms. Sylvia's Home Cure," our nameless narrator-protagonist and his current love-interest, Sylvia, must shoot down a group of evil cannibal spirits who have haunted Sylvia's childhood vacation home for years; oddly enough, these ghosts have a physical weak-spot, making them vulnerable to bullets—Sylvia's "home cure”—a violent solution for any major problem, passed down to her from her father. Taylor seems thrilled to push against literary horror genre conventions, integrating his own idiosyncratic rules into the mix, honing in on entertainment-value while sustaining a sense of pathos.
Galen, a recurring character who acts as an adoptive older brother to the narrator, is one of Taylor's most original, realistic creations. After a stint in the Navy, Galen returns home and conducts himself like something of a big-shot; to the narrator's admiration, Galen is strong-willed, clever, and skilled at getting dates with beautiful women. However, Galen is deeply flawed, no matter the narrator's appreciation. Galen's hyper-masculinity cannot help but feel like a dangerous intoxicant for the narrator, who sometimes resembles a carbon-copy of Galen, mimicking his macho behaviorisms, reasoning how his best friend reasons; this is not to say that Taylor has been lazy and created the same character twice; rather, the author knows how his male characters' minds work, and he creates a unique juxtaposition between them. While Galen is more sexually active and financially stable, the nameless narrator has more sensitivity, more introversion, and generally more insight than his adored counterpart. Therefore, a tender-hearted, though rough-around-the-edges, dynamic forms between these two young men.
Fans of a good ghost yarn will enjoy this book for its humor, playfulness, and, of course, its horror—nearly every story features a bizarre ghoul or group of ghouls—but more importantly than that, bibliophiles with a desire to read developed genre characters will finish the book wanting to read even more about the awkward narrator's haunted life; since the main character can literally see ghosts, it would not be too far-fetched to expect a few more ghost stories featuring him in the future. If easily offended readers can get past the obvious moral flaws of the men in the stories--they are oversexed, politically incorrect, socially clumsy, and somewhat unreliable--then they will be rewarded with a plethora of humor and tenderness once they break through the surface layer of these men's phony masculinity. Perhaps the best move that
Taylor makes is to paint a spooky portrait of two men enthralled by each other's company—one a bit more than the other, but the reader can go figure that one out—showing how the deep bonds between these gritty characters is what ultimately saves their lives, protecting them from succumbing to the terrible fates of the very ghosts they so often talk about, listen to, talk back to, fight, and run from.
Taylor reminds us that ghosts are everywhere around us, they may even be us, and they have entrancing experiences to share. Ghost stories have always united people, and in this fresh collection, Taylor continues the Southern ghost story tradition most effectively. Recommended for anyone interested in paranormal fiction or tall tales, this book is sure to delight students and educators alike. The best pieces in the book include: "Kids Know," "Angel's Wings," "Galen's Mountain Child," "Ms. Sylvia's Home Cure," and "Hey-hello/hey-goodbye/hey-weep-no-more." With titles like these, Taylor's longtime fans are guaranteed to be satisfied, too.
Jason Gordy Walker has published poems, stories, and book reviews in Confrontation, Broad River Review, Measure, Poetry South, Monkeybicycle, and many others. He has received scholarships from Poetry by the Sea: A Global Conference, West Chester Poetry Conference, and the Auburn Writers Conference. A teacher at UAB, Walker is currently working on translations and a novel.
Forty summers ago it was impossible to turn on FM radio and not groove to the slinky hits of an impossibly hirsute but impeccably virtuosic collective of studio musicians associated with Doraville, Georgia’s Studio One. The road to success was long for the Atlanta Rhythm Section (the first half of the 1970s), their moment brief (basically 1977-1979), but their best-remembered songs remain Carter-era ear candy: “So Into You,” “Champagne Jam,” “Imaginary Lover,” and their remake of the Classics IV’s “Spooky,” an entirely appropriate cover considering that key ARS players had cut their teeth as members of that late-60s’ bubblegummy group. Despite their Alabama/Georgia roots, ARS stood out in Southern rock for not sounding particularly Southern: they shouldered none of the epic tragedy of the Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd, and they didn’t beat to death the Dixie tropes the way other bands did, whether parodically (Black Oak Arkansas) or with leaden seriousness (Molly Hatchet). I remember vividly when Spencer’s Gifts at the mall stocked an ARS Poster alongside the Kiss ones, and I wondered what sane teenager would want these furry, in some cases flabby guys staring from their walls. Not a single one of them looked like a rock star.
Which is exactly how ARS wanted it. As Willie G. Moseley notes, the band was always more about chops than image, which is why they faded off the charts in the MTV age. One might wonder if a band whose logo is better known than the names of its members really deserves a biography, but Moseley’s eminently readable authorized history is, in many ways, less about the group than about two elements far more fascinating than the usual Behind the Music rise and fall: it’s a tribute first and foremost to rock ‘n’ roll entrepreneurship and secondly a celebration of region.
The entrepreneur is Buddy Buie, a Dothan-bred scrapper (b. 1941) who founded a booking agency in high school, became Roy Orbison’s tour manager, and eventually started a songwriting collaboration with the Classics IV’s J. R. Cobb that led to “Spooky” (a jazz instrumental for which the duo devised lyrics), “Stormy,” “Traces,” and other AM standards. Like Muscle Shoals’s Rick Hall or Capricorn Records’ Phil Walden, Buie envisioned himself as an all-purpose empresario—songwriter, producer, manager, etc.—and founded Studio One outside of Atlanta, where early Skynyrd and .38 Special records were recorded. ARS congealed out of the session musicians Buie and Cobb hired. As for regionalism, the first half of the book offers a vivid picture of the grind fledgling bands like the Webs (which featured Buie’s high-school buddy Bobby Goldsboro), the Bushmen, the Candymen, and the Classics survived as they zigzagged between the Wiregrass and the Big Peach, playing endless one-night National Guard Armory stages, proms, and even the occasional go-go club with “girls dancing in cages.” It was a period when such constant gigging could turn teenage Beatle wannabees into seasoned pros.
Aside from Buie and Cobb, the book’s other star is Barry Bailey, a teenaged guitar wiz widely hailed as one of the South’s most fluid and expressive axemen. Because Moseley is a senior writer for Vintage Guitar Magazine, there is a techie’s emphasis here on gear, especially Bailey’s signature 1969 Gibson Les Paul, affectionately nicknamed “Reb.” The book also emphasizes the band’s professionalism over rock ‘n’ roll hijinks; readers looking for the stereotypical cocaine-and-hookers decadence will have to settle for tidbits on songwriting sessions and recording processes. The focus is a wonderful reminder, however, that popular music is a craft, not a lifestyle or a morality tale.
Moseley’s narrative naturally peaks with ARS’s best-selling LPs, A Rock ‘n’ Roll Alternative (1977), Champagne Jam (1978), and Underdog (1979) when the band shared the stage with Fleetwood Mac and Steve Miller and hobnobbed with Jimmy Carter. The story loses steam as we creep into the 1980s, when AOR (album-oriented-rock) melded into “classic rock” and became a nostalgia machine, effectively putting operations like Studio One out of business. By the 1990s, as the group hemorrhages original members and devolves into a secondary market mainstay touring state festivals, biker rallies, and cruise ships, chapters feel like laundry lists of hired guns and roadies. And while ARS still exists today fronted by original keyboardist Dean Daughtry (the only continuous member) and initial vocalist Rodney Justo (who quit in 1972), time inevitably takes its toll. A multiple-sclerosis diagnosis forced Bailey into retirement circa 2005; Moseley’s final glimpse of “the greatest guitarist ever to come out of Atlanta,” dependent on walkers and a push-button alert device in case of a fall, is both somber and inspiring. Singer Ronnie Hammond (the voice on the hits), bassist Paul Goddard, and drummer Robert Nix all passed away between 2011 and 2014. The irrepressible Buie, celebrated as a local hero in Dothan with a colorful mural, died at his beloved Eufaula retreat in 2015.
One of Moseley’s liveliest interviewees, J. R. Cobb, succumbed to a heart attack just this past May, only a few months after the book’s publication. His passing makes this worthy tribute to a group that always let its musicianship do its talking all the more poignant.
Wildcrafting: And Other Stories I Share Only with My Friends
By Jerry L. Hurley
Mid-Atlantic Highlands; Publisher's Place, 2017
Genre: Memoir; Appalachia
Reviewed by Jennifer A. Sheffield
Jerry L. Hurley starts his book about a personal Appalachia—Wildcrafting: And Other Stories I Share Only with My Friends—by penning a love letter to the men, and women still listening in on the what the neighbors have to say in his hometown of Mammoth, West Virginia. He then prepares an uncanny trip to exhume bodies left behind when he left the places where his family’s roots “spread deep in the mountain soil.” He wants us to not only laugh about strange things that take place within these pages, but to be wrapped in the warmth of his relatives while becoming more in tune with the natural worlds we almost can touch at the close of this collection of memories.
Hurley’s young life in Mammoth was innocent – like a fly on a cracker, and his unapologetic accounts of growing up are accelerated by boyhood hijinks and packed with unmuted tales of crazy uncles and his great granny, brewed in an aged barrel of folksy wisdom. But it is the hard work of wildcrafting—defined as a walk in the woods to seek and gather plants for food or medicinal purposes—that forms the maternal bonds that truly define this upbringing bound to a landscape.
The first selection he unpacks begins with a frontispiece poem, about a morel mushroom, entitled, “Molly Moochers.”
We carefully picked them, each a treasure indeed,
and we took what we needed with no thought of greed.
These golden fried treasures fit for a king
are a succulent herald of what Spring can bring.
His prose shows us what gets hidden in the “deep, shaded places” of his twilight mind serves a purpose for the picker where everyone gets by on meager means and children are tattered with cuts and scrapes resulting from the fun and games they’ll live to tell about. Hurley sets the tone for mischief to ensue throughout each chapter, in which he captures lessons learned on the countryside of life, carefully contained inside a capsule of a child-like mind.
He compares the 1930’s and 1960’s as historical times that hadn’t changed in desperate coal mining towns; where one dollar got him a trip to the pool and a soda pop. This is where unlikely friendships crossed socially acceptable race divides and railroad tracks as his family moved him back and forth from Cleveland, Ohio, before settling again in the familiar hollows of his obscure heritage. Planted there once more, his epic tales of a drunken cow, Halloween pranks, plus exploding frogs, deftly compliment grown-up musings on prejudice, mental illness, the 1945 attack on Pearl Harbor, and homespun religious miracles.
Hurley’s “family quilt” is stitched with intimate moments recording birth and death, and a mother’s yarns. The beauty of Hurley’s rhymes and riddles is how he writes about raising eight kids on a moonshine budget with the same grain of salt as he would a road trip in a beat-up car. The hardest lesson learned is as satirical as it is serious. According to Hurley, you have to bury bodies of fresh frogs if you want to eat the legs. In other words, get the worst over with; then, savor what’s good. “I’d eat them again…whenever I had the chance,” he writes, “…even if I had to bury more bodies.” It’s another poem, near the end of the book, about his Aunt May’s weathered feelings for her late husbands that sums up this sentiment.
I like ‘em close so as to put flowers on their graves,
without causin’ too much trouble at my age.
Wipe your feet good and come in
while I put on some coffee.
Ultimately, Hurley’s prose is an invitation for readers to join a journey back through moments both “poignant and jubilant.” Here is vivid picture of a bygone era through the lens of youth, spent under the watchful eye of both forest critters and the memorable characters of a small mining town. Hurley shows us how nature’s bounties provide for those seeking God, and lets us experience revival-sized amounts of amazing grace by letting us into the growing up he did. His pungent description of cooked mushrooms—but also how blackberries get picked in spring and ginseng dug in the fall—becomes a guidebook to all of life as a great adventure.
Just as we must be born to be able to die, the seeds we sow and shots we take go with us, as if we are just passing through. Hurley believes that the secret is not to forget how the forest floor feels under your feet, because without it how else would a person have stories worthy of sharing with her friends. He ends one particular story about blocking the road on a Halloween night, “Oh, we all went our separate ways soon enough, and chose various paths in life.” “But,” Hurley says, “I recall things done in my youth with friends that I will always remember fondly and with good reason.”
Jennifer A. Sheffield studied journalism at Boston University after obtaining a BA degree in Anthropology from Skidmore College. Florida Sportsman, The Chronicle of the Horse, The Albany Times Union, and the Apalachicola Times, have published her stories. She lives in Alabama where she writes an entertainment column for The Eufaula Tribune.
Alabama Poet Laureate Jennifer Horne’s Borrowed Light is a collection of invented happiness, of scrounged-for peace, of borrowed hope and simple solace. It is a balm for a humankind that is no stranger to pain and self-flagellation, for a womanhood that is weary and pinioned. The collection’s entire conceit rests on the titular architectural term: “borrowed light,” light which spills into an otherwise unlit room or passageway from an adjoining, windowed space. Some form of light, literal or metaphorical, finds its way into each of Horne’s poems. It is the simplicity and clearness of this imagery that helps these poems shine, despite the darkness which surrounds them.
The collection begins with a door opening “quietly / so as not to wake the dogs,” a soft, inviting, domestic welcome. Familiar, comforting, but a small thrill, a curiosity for what we may find behind said door. “Morning Gift” acts as a response to Robert Frost’s “Two Look at Two,” the last line of which serves as the opening poem’s epigraph. Horne has played with the structure of her poem here, dividing it not only into couplets but also into two separate numbered sections to denote the stillness and violence of witness. This structure also provides a reminder that a human relationship is a joining of two separate entities who can never fully merge. In Frost’s “Two Look at Two,” a hiking couple are met with their human limitations: “a tumbled wall / With barbed-wire binding.” Yet, for their patience and resistance against their instincts to overcome nature, earth rewards them with the sighting of a doe and buck. In Horne’s “Morning Gift,” the speaker greets a lake on the other side of her door, and what she witnesses there is “Bird…Long neck, gimlet eye, fancy feathered hat.” The speaker is still, witnessing, eating her breakfast and drinking her coffee. Her lack of interference is rewarded as “Two Belted Kingfishers [ratchet] by.” But it is the silence before, the small moment of peace, that our speaker acknowledges as the light in this poem, a light that could not exist without those Kingfishers acting as “disturbers of the peace.”
The second part of “Morning Gift” acknowledges Frost’s poem directly as the speaker’s significant other is revealed as the second witness, the one to read the poem within the poem aloud, to revel in the kismet of their similarities. “Morning Gift,” is itself a gift, reminding Horne’s readers that the smallness and stillness of a domestic life can breed both happiness and surprise, if we let it.
The collection’s first few poems flirt with a similar sort of easiness. They are stillness broken by simple reverie. They give the illusion that the collection’s whole will be the serenity of a quiet life. Until we reach the simmering rage of “Domestic Lessons,” aptly placed as the collection’s fourth poem. Its first section is homey, instructional, a treatise on how to properly make the bed, dust the furniture, fold the laundry. There is little sign of percolating anger until the sixth stanza: “And always, especially to the children / and the man you love, say yes. / It is unwomanly not to yield.” The first section ends, and suddenly we are with the speaker in an art gallery considering a sculpture of “loosely woven white web.” Light pouring in from a window acts epiphanically, urging the speaker, “[before] endless acquiescence / becomes a cage of your own making…it is up to you, / once in a while, / to close the door / and be alone / with your own thoughts.” For femme- and feminine-identifying people, this idea of domestic, womanly imprisonment is familiar, but “Domestic Lessons” wrests away the conceit that the woman, our speaker, is agentless. The poem urges a personal definition of womanhood, a plea for our speaker to recognize her own power and the power of her language: “If you say you are the pillow, / you are the pillow. / If you say you’re the sky, / you are the sky.”
The following few poems, “Simplicity,” “Wick,” “Family Story,” are love letters to women, to feminine spaces, to socially-defined “feminine” arts. They praise female rage and extoll the Biblical Eve, always with the shortest lines, the fewest words, tightly-knit creations that can be held in the hand, their stitches clear, purposeful, economical. One of the collection’s later poems, “Present,” makes a case for Horne’s entire thesis: “When I say that at times in my life / I’ve been saved from despair / by one particular bird, tree, rock, sky, / that’s what I mean by God.” The small, still beauty of nature, but also the vast, jarring indifference of it, the inevitability of death, is proof of life, and that alone acts as deliverance from grief. And the persistence of the soul among that grief to witness the forward march of time is, itself, a miracle: “Each detail is a shading-in / of something hugely necessary. / And here am I: / small, quite small, but present.”
“guest house” follows “Present” as a plea wrapped in giddy play on sound. The long-vowel assonance and soft sibilance of lines such as “two crows harry a hawk, / robins arrive at the end / of the second month / woods’ edge warblers / inhabit this house / its good bones” elicit a quiet, happy reverence, as if the reader is watching the scene unfold alongside Horne. The deliberateness makes for delightful, out-loud read, but the poem ends with another of the collection’s main points: “...the day will come / of leaving and goodbyes, / make your art now.”
Borrowed Light saves much of its mourning for its last few pages. We have been given so many gifts before we reach the speaker of “Cemetery Mailbox,” devising a letter to her passed loved ones. Or the speaker of “Monument,” who recounts her miscarriages. Or the speaker of “Tell,” who lists all the moments she has contemplated suicide. “Voice” closes Horne’s collection, and though its speaker “[wakes] to sunlight, the smell of last night’s bonfire in [her] hair,” this last poem is far from the still wonder of the collection’s earlier poems. The Biblical miracles of the burning bush and Ten Commandment tablets are reduced to a “smoking stump” and “tattered notebook.” The beloved is gone, the speaker wondering if the beloved can be attained again. There is darkness here, the heavy feeling of disappointment, the fog of smoke and rain obscuring the light Horne’s collection has promised. But the titular ideology here comes in the form of a call to action, both to the speaker and to Horne’s readers: “I resolve to do as you urged: / begin my true life, start now.” With the beloved’s voice ringing in our ears: “‘You’re not afraid of not liking it…You’re afraid you’ll like it so much it will change you, / demand a life as big as you can imagine, / a voice to match.’”
Horne leaves us there to question our own lives. To look around at our circumstances, our reactions to those circumstances, and ask ourselves if we have let the darkness envelope us so completely that we are no longer living. She urges us to swallow that darkness, as heavy as it might have become, and create our own light in a world that, though indifferent to our survival, is ripe with wonders that can keep us going if we stop to savor them. Borrowed Light is a peaceful book that reckons with its own sorrow, accepts its sadness, and fights to pull itself through that sadness, into another room, where, perhaps, the light is brighter. Where maybe it casts a shorter shadow.
Kerry Madden-Lunsford and Emily Sutton have written a story that I greatly enjoyed reading to my soon-to-be five year old daughter. The story is set in the Great Smoky Mountains during the 1940s. Written from a third person point of view, the tale is about a five year old girl and her pregnant mother working hard to maintain their family farm while the father is away at war. The young girl, Ernestine, is a hard-working, very determined little girl, who enjoys working alongside her very pregnant mother. Each time she faces a challenge, she says, “I can do it, Mama. I’m five years old and a big girl.” As a parent, those words symbolize a child’s transition from baby to big kid. In this delightful tale, Ernestine is shown milking the family cow and basking in the glory of a successful milking. Her mother, who understands the struggles of maintaining a family farm alone, volunteers to contribute milk to one of their neighbors. The young girl is charged with the task of carrying two jars of milk to her neighbor. Slightly intimidated by the distance, this brave girl is up for the challenge. As she embarks on the lengthy journey, she reminds her mother that she is five years old and a big girl. Thus begins the major narrative of the story.
Using the planets as her guide, this tenacious young lady embarks on her journey. Along the way, young Ernestine hears an seemingly ill-fated noise in the bushes and naturally assumes the worst. However, she meets this obstacle with bravery, reminding herself that she is strong and capable. As she descends deeper into the woods, she continues to hear very unsettling sounds, causing her to scurry. Fortunately, each unsettling sound proves to be nothing more than calm, docile animals. Confident of her abilities, she continues on the journey but, eventually, she accidentally drops one of the milk-filled mason jars. Feelings of disappointment overtake young Ernestine as she arrives at her destination. Ever so understanding, Mrs. Ramsay, welcomes young Ernestine and basks in the gift of a neighbor's milk. As the family celebrates this luxury, they thank young Ernestine and, soon enough, send her home. This young girl is able to prove that she is indeed a 'big girl.'
The infusion of figurative language brings to life each element young Ernestine experiences on her journey. For example, "She carried the jars in an old feed sack close to her heart while the mountains slept like giant elephants under a scattering of stars.” Madden's personification of the mountains as sleeping elephants further illustrates the sense of calm and quiet Ernestine experiences on her quest. Another example is the use of onomatopoeia to depict the sounds of the forest: “...she heard a fearsome grunta-grunta-grunta,” and, “...she heard a snuffa-snuffa- snuffa along the path.” The realistic sounds that you can make as you are reading further create a more compelling and immersive reading atmosphere.
In addition to the colorful language, vivid descriptions, and realistic depiction of life in the 1940s, the motivation to keep trying stands out. Even though Ernestine was faced with a difficult task to complete, she perseveres, even at her young age. My “soon-to-be" five year old daughter thoroughly enjoyed joining me in saying, “I’m five years old. I am a big girl!” She immediately found a connection with our main character. When selecting books to read to my young child I hope that she can make a connection to the text in a positive way. This book definitely provided me with that.
Ernestine’s Milky Way is a phenomenal, realistic depiction of a young heroine surviving her world with tenacity and determination. The young girl, Ernestine, demonstrates traits that kids of any age can relate to. Kerry Madden-Lunsford and Emily Sutton were able to infuse various educational and character building lessons in this carefully written book. Ernestine’s Milky Way will be a hit in any elementary school classroom.
In his debut collection of short stories, Nobody Knows How It Got This Good, Amos Jasper Wright explores the complications of existence in his home state, Alabama. No matter where you travel, every place has a cadence, a rhythm and melody interwoven with the sights, sounds, and people. Alabama, The Heart of Dixie, is a place of incredible soulfulness entangled with bondages, past and present, and Wright’s collection captures that. A Birmingham native, Wright shows readers the South as he sees it, from Walmart parking lots to Jaguar dealerships, suburbs to trailers, the book gives us a taste of what the South looks like today. In the telling of everyday moments captured with a careful eye, Wright reveals the funny, the absurd, the horrific, the human.
This is not a collection that is concerned with the absolution or salvation of a city with a disturbing legacy, but rather investigates what it is to be a city with a disturbing legacy. Wright tackles corruption, financial desperation, environmental disaster, the long shadow of Jim Crow and a host of other issues throughout the sixteen stories in the collection. The narration of all the stories but one are in the first person giving readers a wealth of perspectives. A black man with an Albino son struggles to raise him in an unwelcoming suburb. A chef making meals for the death row condemned grapples with spiritual epiphanies and loss. A city boy runs away from his past, taking up residence on an old rundown plantation that his sister attempts to rescue him from. All of the characters are untamed in some way, each of them an oddity born of the South.
One of the strongest stories in the collection, embodying the collection’s overall themes, “Birmingham Goddamn” centers around a man obsessed with the Civil Rights era. Having taken part in the violence against black folks, the former fireman becomes driven by a monomania to understand the philosophical and historical implications of the Civil Rights movement. The protagonist hopes to make a discovery about humanity. He longs to know that mankind is better than his worst mistakes, that others would have been stronger, would have chosen something different.
Wright relates the sixteen stories in Nobody Knows How It Got This Good with language that is soaring and grandiose. There is hardly anything about his writing that is quiet. In one particularly charged moment, he writes: “He uncapped the bottle of peroxide, dousing it on his holocaust chest, the words GOD HATES FAGS whitely working up a froth as his screams rose like lead balloons in the treetops and a mephitic smoke of birds poured from the branches.” Wright rarely uses a five letter word if he could use one with eight. This expansiveness of language breaths into his descriptions, giving the prose a deep sense of place. Throughout the book the language prompts readers to feel that they actually are somewhere, not just reading about being somewhere.
Wright set out to do something challenging and ambitious by taking on so many varied Southern issues and viewpoints. His writing is at times overwrought, failing to recognize the difference between when a word is necessary and when it is simply self-important. This isn’t because Wright is bombastic, rather he clearly wants his stories to be as full and deep as the people and places he’s writing about. Yet the frequent use of overly complicated words like “sanguinolency”, “anthropophagus”, and “borborygmus”, and phrases like “the echolalia of the fustilarian” at times take away from moments of real candor and warmth of the book. The diction of Nobody Knows How It Got This Good is full of risks, it’s just too bad not all of them paid off. It’s the work of an author still coming into his own, and its proof of a writer going someplace.
Andrew Mollenkof is a first-year fiction MFA candidate at The University of Alabama.
I want this country to inhabit the poetic splendor and formal innovation of Ashley M. Jones' dark // thing. I want everyone and their mother to read it, and no child left behind. But first, I want to thank the author, herself, for poeming the difficult space between blackness, americanism, and power, sparing herself no vulnerability, and clearing the landscape of ennobling lies we tuck into postcards and lullabies.
The poems in this collection are inhabited, lived from within the flesh, situated in the state of Alabama, as Ashley makes clear in "Red Dirt Suite":
"I was born in starry Alabama--
the night mixed me up a blue so sweet
I swallowed it whole."
She writes Birmingham as only the lover can write the beloved--from inside the space of intimate questioning. The poems circle around the power of stereotype to fossilize into known histories and received wisdoms.
The first poem, "Slurret," begins by listing racial slurs, and revealing their relationship to commercial culture:
"You a spade, a spook, an open-mouthed
black pickaninny. Ashy Aunt Jemima,
Americoon, you blue-gummed Beluga.
you cotton-picking jigaboo."
The poet's role in speaking to the past is often nostalgic, and Ashley does not abandon this role entirely. In the section entitled, "Side A: 3rd Grade Birthday Party" (a part of the poem "Slurret"), the poet positions her adult mind alongside her child mind with the memory of "that Blond Birthday Party in the suburbs". This juxtaposition of child and woman recurs in several poems and enriches the texture of remembered events by speaking the lived past into the present where Birmingham zip codes are still "chewed like a wad of gum" to establish one's personhood.
To nostalgia, Ashley adds the poet's crucial role in holding a mirror that enables us to see the parts of ourselves we overlook--like the mess in a room we know well. It is this reflective role of poetry that matters more in a world of clickbait, hot takes, and hashtag prayer chains. And it is this lens that feels so imminently personal and challenging, as in "Sunken Place Sestina", where she explores the price of gentrification "at the hipster food hall that fills Birmingham with gentrified spice", and concludes:
"We add spice--call integration equality; call gentrification progress,
reduce our brothers to pixelated dust, turn heartache into wine,
sink further and further beyond a blindingly bright sky."
Many poems probe the difficult, inhumane options offered to black, citizened persons, whether to assume the role of monster or clown ("maybe we're all just shucking and jiving until our time to die") in the limited repertoire of received roles.
Ashley invigorates the ekphrastic form by placing the poet's eye on archival postcards. "Uncle Remus Syrup Commemorative Lynching Postcard #25" examines the once-popular southern past-time of the public lynching by recreating the scene in a chilling layered collage of language and voices. To read it is to know the monstrous depth of our state's socialization, and to grapple with our shared commitment to celebrate a history that teaches us to dehumanize of black men.
dark // thing's greatest contribution to poetics is not an aesthetic or a lyricism or a memorable love-bite--it is the use of poetry to unmask and reveal stereotypes. By harnessing language to experience in such a richly-textured way, the poet makes clear the power of stereotypes in authoring history, in normalizing oppression with "harmless" dehumanizations that limit what black Americans can imagine of themselves, or expect of their role as citizens.
"(Black) Hair" plays with the sonnet corona in a prose form that weaves through the poet's personal history with black hair, and ends on an encouraging note of self-acceptance. "Recitation" brings magic to the prose poem form by using its density and heft to offer an embodied experience of dressing as Harriet Tubman for a school poetry recitation. Ashley leads us through the cosseted feel of a body that struggles with adenoids and allergies, a throat whose breath betrays in sudden wheezes, a body she must believe but cannot entirely trust. "Imitation of Life" explores how we cannot avoid the tiny terrors, the minute complicities, the tangles of careless reactions that lead to the wreck.
For the poet, perhaps nothing signifies as much as what we do to the bodies of the dead, what we put in the mouths of those who can no longer speak for themselves, or raise their voices to refute us. Although I've found no quick formula for honoring other voices when asking them to speak inside a poem, I am inspired by the way Ashley enables the persons that she personifies and subjects to speak through epigraphs. The lengthy epigraphs quoting Harriet Tubman in "Harriet Tubman Crosses the Mason Dixon for the First Time" and "Avian Abecedarian" position the poems to speak with Tubman rather than for her.
In speaking alongside, or after, Walt Whitman, "Song of My Muhammad" is an absolutely beautiful, fiery testament to the black American experience, as sensed through the black body of Muhammad Ali. It is a hymn that subverts the harm of white supremacy. It is a paean not to the strength of the state or the nation but to the single human being who stands in a ring and readies his gloves.
At her reading in the Birmingham Museum of Art, Ashley prefaced the Harriet Tubman poems by addressing the ghosts in the room. She promised to read "in the spirit of powerful women." In this promise, one holds the spirit and legacy that infuses this collection. In chaos, poetry remains resilient as a source of truth and possibility. A poem is an algorithm of resistance against despair. This book is its pulse.
Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Alabama. Her poems and prose are recent or forthcoming in DIAGRAM, New South, Mantis, VOLT, Cloudbank, Prairie Schooner, NELLE, and others. She serves as Poetry Editor of Pidgeonholes, President of the Alabama State Poetry Society, Publicity Chair of AWC, and co-founder of the Magic City Poetry Festival. Her first poetry chapbook, Objects in Vases (Anchor & Plume Press, 2016) won the ASPS Poetry Book of the Year Award. Her first poetry collection, Stories to Read Aloud to Your Fetus (Finishing Line Press, 2017) included Pushcart-nominated poems. Her debut fiction collection, Every Mask I Tried On, won the Brighthorse Books Prize and was published in May 2018. More online at www.alinastefanescuwriter.com or @aliner.
Thirty years after Mojo Nixon’s “Elvis is Everywhere” commemorated the tenth anniversary of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s sad demise, the Big E is as ubiquitous as ever. In 2018 two stellar documentaries challenged stereotypes about his career and cultural relevance, Thom Zimny’s The Searcher and Eugene Jarecki’s The King. NBC recently aired an all-star tribute for the fiftieth anniversary of the still-electric’68 Comeback Special, and the latest RCA compilation, Where No One Stands Alone, proves the artist was as important to gospel as to the devil’s music.
In Alabama we’ve enjoyed not one but now two Elvis-centric novels. Following Mike Burrell’s Land of Grace, comes Philip Shirley’s The Graceland Conspiracy, an ingenious mystery that pirouettes between “Elvis is Alive” myths to the nefarious machinations of a government agency called the National Security Enforcement Office. NESO is as ominously Nixonian as an acronym can sound, conjuring up images of the espionage paranoia of James Grady and Richard Condon popular when the last two hits the Pelvis enjoyed in his lifetime, “Moody Blue” and “Way Down,” were gyrating (somewhat arthritically) up the charts. You could almost call this taut ricochet through Watergate-era conspiracy history Six Days of the 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.
As Presleyites might suspect, Shirley’s starting point is that bizarre Oval Office meeting between Elvis and Nixon in December 1970 (itself the subject of a recent movie). News of that intersection of politics and pop culture didn’t filter out for a couple of years (as the novel notes), and it was even longer—the mid-1980s—before the iconic photo of the odd couple was ever viewed, much less reprinted endlessly on T-shirts and postcards. For Shirley, Elvis’s ambition to be a DEA narc inveigles him with that other pivotal 1970s’ fascination, the mafia, ultimately putting him in the sights, literally, of NESO. “Who Killed Elvis?” was one of the great parlor games of the Carter/Reagan age, and the favorite answer was, “Nobody … because he ain’t really dead.” Shirley has clearly done his research into the far reaches of the Spotted-at-the-Kalamazoo-Burger-King urban legends that diminished the King’s reputation for decades: one of the joys of the novel is its reference to Gail Brewer Giorgio, the godmother of the Elvis-Still-Walks-Among-Us movement. Her bizarre 1978 sci-fi novel Orion first proposed that the King faked his death and led to a kooky bibliography of kitsch titles like The Elvis Files.
Not that The Graceland Conspiracy is a Woodward-and-Bernstein throwback. It’s set circa 1997, with a disgruntled Gen X’er, Matt Boykin, untangling the involvement of both his and his erstwhile girlfriend Kristine’s Howard-and-Dorothy-Hunt-esque parents in Elvis’s death. The timeframe makes for a double dose of nostalgia, taking us back to the early days of Googling, when people still used Yahoo and DVDs. And while Shirley masterfully weaves readers through Birmingham landmarks, large chunks of the book stretch convincingly to Mexico and Italy.
To pinch a line from Paul Simon, fans of thrillers and Elvis alike can have reason to believe their expectations will be well-received in The Graceland Conspiracy.
Let me propose here that Jake Berry’s new collection of poems, Trilogy: Kenosis, is both an eloquent argument for what remains possible on the page and a splendid exemplar of that very possibility. As ever, Berry’s essential project braids together philosophical sophistication, linguistic invention, and an old-fashioned delight in the work of poetry itself.
The first of three sections, “Scale,” is a kind of formal mediation on the spiritual poetics of postmodernity. At once theological, archaeological, and musicological, these seven gestures open an inquiry into the secret nature of our poetics. Like the poems of its brilliant dedicatee, Gregory Vincent St. Thomasino, “Scale” searches for, excavates, and claims (in the name of goodness and deep truth) certain unmapped spaces of hermetic lyricism. Berry’s capacity for poetic utterance is admirable indeed not least for the way in which it transmutes the received tropes of self-disclosure and torques the language of epiphany:
out from – sheltering
as the lungs
across the bed
toward zero (face to face)
This is our habitation
along the way
dust on our
a shoulder blade
inscribed in Greek
(as was the Orphic inclination):
body σῶμα soma
water ὕδωρ hudor
spirit πνεῦμα pneuma
an octave apart
a spike in the earth
There is, of course, an urgent human narrative here and indeed in the entire collection. Death and its attendant transfigurations haunt this book. We feel it as much in the line breaks and internal stresses as in the declarative aspects of the poems, which are nonetheless arresting:
with an essential,
more than knowledge
more than life
one step beyond
“A Second Octave” stages a further modulation of Berry’s philosophical-spiritual exploration. And if the turn here is more inward, it is perhaps also more emotionally explicit. It is among this fine book’s many high achievements that the confessional is never conventional but, rather, always framed inside the dual expressive motifs of a searching mind and a singing heart. I find here, a discernible invocation of Charles Olson’s lines “As the dead prey upon us / they are the dead in ourselves.” And as these are inscribed for yet another extraordinary dedicatee (and an important Olson scholar), I might point as well to the complexity and range of reference in Berry’s poems. Folks, here is a book informed by an architecture of formal design and the architectonics of metaphysical unity:
for Jack Foley
Out of death –
such abundant nothingness –
a fire is lit
in the imagination
(who understands this mysterious capacity?)
Even the seeds we do not want
spring to life
when he was taken from us
even though we did not know
who or what he was
All those dead
But our sorrow
cannot prevent spring arriving
“Kenosis,” the titular and final section, is, in some sense not only the center out of which the whole book spins but also the singularity to which it finally returns. Dedicated to yet a third essential artist, David Thomas Roberts, the language here fuses the energies of the previous sections in a dramatic synthesis of stentorian pronouncement and oracular vision:
To surrender completely, utterly
To be broken
as the earth is broken
as the seed is broken
and surrenders its spirit
so the sky is broken
and the rain pours down
We have every reason to celebrate the courage implicit in the title’s meaning for contemporary poetics and the vanguard of postmodern spirituality. Moreover, we might also envy Berry’s willingness to investigate those originary forces and the ways they animate his work. I do not know what we must surrender or how, but my own intellect and faith tell me that Berry is showing us something we need to see. Withal, Kenosis is an elegant, daring, and beautifully honest work. Berry says that “memory is the past made sacred.” I believe this book does the same for the presence of language itself.
Carey Scott Wilkerson—a dramatist, Pushcart Prize-nominated poet, and author of four opera libretti—is Assistant Professor Creative Writing at Columbus State University.
Closed Ranks is a powerful and methodical memoir that captures a wrongful historical account of the untold murder of Bernard Whitehurst Jr., an African American man who was senselessly killed on December 2, 1975 by a white officer on the Montgomery police force.
Foster Dickson brilliantly presents the institutional corruption that had become entrenched in the South during a time that is now seared in our nation’s memory. His personal narrative reveals the countless acts of deception orchestrated by the Montgomery Police Department to mask police brutality towards an innocent and unarmed man mistaken for a robbery suspect.
During the period immediately following the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, several political antics occurred amongst the City of Montgomery councilmen, and within the purview of local law enforcement. Substantial evidence pertaining to the convoluted case was prohibited and never voluntarily disseminated to the Whitehurst family, which in retrospect, created a difficult time for the family to put in perspective.
Within this captivating narrative, Dickson illustrates the ways in which this controversial case came to be a conundrum of sorts, as he delves deeper into his research through interviews, police reports, and judicial documents. Through a laborious pursuit of the truth, Dickson meticulously uncovers the sobering, untold story on behalf of the Whitehurst family.
This astounding work recalls a time in history when racially charged comments and actions were far more prominent than today, and appallingly, taken as a matter of course in daily life. The Whitehurst family was at a disadvantage, to say the least, to seek justice against the perpetrator who left their guiltless loved one lifeless.
In addition, the family faced a further legal difficulty, that many citizens at the time considered unconstitutional. During the 1970’s, a law was permitted, the “fleeing felon rule,” allowing police officers to open fire on a “fleeing felon.” Protected by the judicial system, Donald Foster was never demoted, fired, or charged with a crime.
Bernard Whitehurst Jr., a husband and father of four, never received lawful justice, nor did his family receive compensation from the scandalous bloodshed that took place over four decades ago. The family finally received a formal and long-overdue apology in the summer of 2012. Despite the darkness and despair endured from such an inconceivable event, this gripping saga closes with the celebratory tribute that took place in 2016 to honor the life and legacy of Bernard Whitehurst Jr.
Throughout his text, Dickson vividly recaptures the shocking event, paying homage to the Whitehurst family. His unique and image-rich style will impel readers of all races and creeds to take an intimate look into a period of notorious inequality. Dickson delivers his content precisely, leaving the reader with a clear and well-organized interpretation of the events as they took place. The structure of the text itself allows the reader to easily follow the storyline of the case.
Potentially, the vast collection of political names and dates during the political period may confuse and overwhelm readers, possibly diverting from the narrative itself. However, Dickson is keen to present hard facts, and all “secondary” or supplemental materials is never less than helpful in clarifying this often-complex case.
Closed Ranks is an engaging and fascinating read thanks to Dickson’s meticulous research which incorporates a vast backlog of legal documents and reports. His resourcefulness and the care with which he handles his material goes to considerable, and admirable, lengths in affording Bernard Whitehurst Jr. the justice he did not receive during his life.