Posts By: Shayla Lawson

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The New Testament, Citizen, and Forgiveness Forgiveness: Contemporary Poetry on the Politics of Race

In light of the recent epidemic of racially charged violence and two grand jury decisions not to indict the policemen responsible for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, I would like to draw attention to three newly published poetry collections that deserve consideration within the current dialogue on blackness: The New Testament by Jericho Brown, Citizen by Claudia Rankine, and Forgiveness Forgiveness by Shane McCrae. These three books have garnered much attention on their individual merit, but deserve consideration in terms of the conversation we should be having about race relations in America.

A poetry book is a kind of rumination. For the average poetry collection to go from the seed of an idea to an ISBN number takes at least 2-3 years—even for relatively established poets like Rankine, Brown and McCrae. All three books were released within a month of each other and, based on their overlapping subject matter, one might suppose these varying depictions of the expendability of black lives result from the July 13, 2013 Trayvon Martin case verdict. But, assuming a typical publication schedule, these books would have been in the editing stages by the time George Zimmerman’s acquittal made headlines.

I say this because The New Testament, Citizen, and Forgiveness Forgiveness all bear testimony to the importance of poets amidst the voices that respond to today’s atrocities. The fact that these books focus our attention of varying views of blackness, of black masculinity, of disappearance, of youth—while our newsfeeds fill with the loss of one black life, after another black life, after another—is more strategic than anomalous.

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Microreview: Sad Little Breathing Machine by Matthea Harvey

There are some writers whose work tends to itch the insides of your ears long after you have put the book down and gone on to do your usual things. Although there are many writers whose works stay with me, Matthea Harvey’s Sad Little Breathing Machine is a poetry collection I feel very lucky to have grown acquainted with. Portions of Matthea Harvey’s writing find me when I am making figurines out of bubbles in the dish soap or humming to the white noise of the A/C in my Elantra. I find the music in this collection meticulous and sentient. ‘[This] little Narrative is so adorable’ quips one of the characters in Harvey’s “Once Upon A Time: A Genre Fable.” I also find this to be true. I cannot think of many works I think of as both adorable and melancholic. The fact Breathing Machine pulls of both makes reading it a pleasure to come back to, and the kind of book one continues to develop a different relationship over time, as one matures, like The Little Prince and its heart-breaking love between a boy and his rose.

Much like the writers Indiana Review celebrates with the Half-K prize, Matthea Harvey does not burden Sad Little Breathing Machine with a definition for the kinds of writing we are witnessing. Is it a collection of poetry? Are portions of it micro-fiction? Breathing Machine is more about the recognition that different stories demand different types of narration—different states of embodiment. I relish the ambiguity of genre in “Baked Alaska, Theory of.” I love how a “country song” resides over the narrative’s complicated protagonist like a benevolent soothsayer to the perils of father-daughter relationships: “O the flesh is hot but the heart is cold, you’ll be alone when you are old.” Not even the enchanted princesses of this other realm are immune from the friction of a family dinner. As a reader, each time I go back to portions of Breathing Machine, I feel continuously delighted by what I uncover in these well-crafted pieces. As a writer, each time I return I gain a greater appreciation for the cogs maneuvering this machine and its craftsman’s quiet handiwork.