“Death is the only cultural truth,” proclaims Morgan Parker in her third and latest collection Magical Negro—a stunning compendium of both present and past black experiences which explore themes of personhood, loneliness, displacement, and despair, among others. Comprised of searing commentary on subjects that range from ancestral grief to daily struggle, Magical Negro loses no gumption in between topics. Parker organizes her verses in three large sections—“Let Us Now Praise Famous Magical Negroes,” “Field Negro Field Notes,” and “Popular Negro Punchlines”—where each section informs or speaks to the others, and all teem with Parker’s signature abrupt and often surprising humor, putting her extraordinary skills on conspicuous display. “Have you ever felt like a square peg / in a round hole?” Parker asks in “The History of Black People,” the last poem in the first section. “Do you sometimes dream / of a handful of Skittles sprawling on February lawn?”

In the second section’s final poem, she engages again with the progression of time, stressing, “I am only as lonely / as anybody else . . . It isn’t / summertime.”  From “It was Summer Now and the Color People Came Out Into the Sunshine,” the last poem in the book, Parker provides stunningly powerful descriptions of famous black people, past and present in communication and simple acts of overlap: “Martin Luther / King Jr. Boulevard kisses the Band-Aid on Nelly’s cheek. / Frederick Douglass’s side part kisses Nikki Giovanni’s / Thug Life tattoo. The choir is led by Whoopi Goldberg’s / eyebrows. The choir is led by Will Smith’s flat top,” before ending with the deceptively simple, “It is time for war.”

“I worry sometimes I will only be allowed a death story,” Parker says in another poem. Magical Negro is so much more than that.

Tin House.

—Review by Hiba Tahir