Hiba Tahir

MAGICAL NEGRO

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MAGICAL NEGRO BY MORGAN PARKER

“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

DEATH AND OTHER HOLIDAYS

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DEATH AND OTHER HOLIDAYS BY MARCI VOGEL

Marci Vogel’s Death and Other Holidays, the inaugural winner of the Miami Book Fair / Degroot Novella Prize, is a tour de force that comprises a year in the life of April, a painfully average woman who grapples with the vicissitudes of young adulthood after the death of her beloved stepfather. Composed of gorgeous vignettes that chronicle April’s trials and tribulations in 1990s Los Angeles, Death and Other Holidays is raw, honest, and darkly humorous. Vogel’s tight prose reads like something of a diary by its immediacy, capturing the inner workings of April’s mind, and speaks to the aching young adult in all of us. From one section, April recalls a science experiment where researchers measure molecules before and after having people watch them, and they find that the molecules have changed. “Something as minor as taking pictures changes the world, at least on a molecular level,” writes April. Here, too, readers who watch as Vogel’s endearing protagonist battles death and young adulthood will most certainly find themselves changed.

Melville House.

— Review by Hiba Tahir

OBITS

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OBITS BY TESS LIEM

Tess Liem’s debut full-length collection, Obits, centers on an essential question: Can poetry mourn the unmourned? In a seemingly messy but, nevertheless, effective and triumphant collection, her speaker grapples with this uncertainty by setting out to write obituaries for those who have none. Liem’s poems, or obituaries, encompass varying proximities—from those distant to her speaker, mass death victims and the fictional Laura Palmer—to the intimacy of her own aunt. Though she fails epically to complete this task, the journey is a rewarding one. Not only does it display Liem’s prowess for invoking something inimitable in her readers, it also comments on the profound nature of poetry itself. In “Call it,” Liem admits, “I wanted a poem to be a throat clearing // My misunderstanding . . . // To speak as if we all share the same loveliness, the same doom, / is not to speak // of the fact that some people have their hands / around other’s necks.” Liem’s Obits may fall short on its journey to grieve all of those unhonored, rich lives, but it more than succeeds in awakening the reader and will ultimately leave you wrestling with your own ideas about death and elegy.

Coach House Books.

—Review by Hiba Tahir