blackbirdonline journalFall 2017  Vol. 16 No. 2
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Founded in 2001 as a joint venture of the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of English and New Virginia Review, Inc.

Copyright © 2017 by Blackbird and the individual writers and artists

ISSN 1540-3068



Solmaz Sharif  Solmaz Sharif
Larry Levis  Larry Levis
Erica Dawson  Erica Dawson
Jessica Franck  Jessica Franck
Miguel Murphy  Miguel Murphy
Ryo Yamaguchi  Ryo Yamaguchi
Karrie Waarala  Karrie Waarala
Lisa Coffman  Lisa Coffman
Alan Zhukovski  Alan Zhukovski
Alexandra Teague  Alexandra Teague
Lee Conell  Lee Conell
Riley Kross  Riley Kross
Peter Taylor  Peter Taylor
Nicky Beer  Nicky Beer
Kelly Cherry  Kelly Cherry
Ken Weitzman  Ken Weitzman
Allison Dorothy  Dorothy Allison
LeRoy Henderson  LeRoy Henderson

Since our inaugural issue in 2002, Blackbird has included a Browse menu that reflects how the editors have found ways that various pieces in an issue speak to or against each other. This menu acknowledges our belief that any literary journal mirrors its moment’s zeitgeist as well as its editors’ biases and pleasures, both serious (lyric mastery) and less so (no dead dogs).

Creating the Browse menu and writing the Foreword constitute our last tasks before we publish and require that we reread the entire journal. We are frequently taken aback by the correspondences that arise in what we read and by the subtle force of our unconscious influences. Blackbird v16n2 particularly illustrates this phenomenon.

Entering the issue, we immediately encountered Megan Blankenship’s “Hail Mary,” the poet and poem at the top of our alphabetically ordered selection of poets and their work. The first line of that poem happens to be “It has been hard for all of us.”

This line exemplifies much of what we have felt in the past year and speaks for much of what we found expressed in the poems, stories, essays, plays, and gallery pieces that we have chosen to publish.

Our Browse menu asks that you begin your visit to Blackbird by reading this poem. Then we suggest that you proceed to the sixteenth Levis Remembered, which highlights the work of Larry Levis and celebrates Solmaz Sharif, winner of the twentieth annual Levis Reading Prize.

To represent Levis’s work, we have chosen to call attention to his poem “In 1967,” an elegy of sorts for the Summer of Love fifty years in the past. The poem recognizes that resonating underneath that summer (and its moments of ecstasy) were the thrumming bass notes of the Vietnam War, a conflict worth remembering in our present, fractured world. Images of manuscript versions of the poem appear in Gallery.

Also included in the Levis Reading Loop are three poems from Sharif’s prizewinning collection, Look. Charged by a documentary instinct, Sharif’s poems enact what her collection’s title unequivocally begs of a reader: they lay bare and examine war’s consequence. Her poems notice and refuse to turn away from violence; they unflinchingly label that violence as brutal, ruinous; and they explicate a “sanctioned twoness” within American culture—a culture in which consistently shrouded, unacknowledged violence has marred the language itself.

The world-making of the writers gathered here seems clairvoyantly determined to project a universe where alt-facts lead into deeper realities rather than lies. Hence Bruce Bond’s optimism that mankind’s “animal heart,” first drum of the world, “must have known something we did not” as it brought ashore its “suitcase with a sea / inside.” Maybe this explains why one of our most profound clichés as a species is the one that marks truth and facts as cold and hard—bathed as they must be in the same “salt / and tide” as that luggage.

When Erica Dawson’s Eve “clowns” her Adam, she’s not joking. She’s laying claim to her own power to call things as she sees them, demanding from him, “What have you done today / but touch your chest and wonder why there’s not / a battle scar from me”—taunting further, maybe just for the record, “like you had a play / in it, did something more than split . . .”

Jessica Franck offers a luminous case study of female sexual initiation in the form of one young woman’s appreciation of her own “body’s seams, sun caught / in between,” debunking the duplicitous innuendo that “touch changes a girl” re-tilting the idiom of “for good” back toward “positively” knowing forever has always taken care of itself.

Karrie Waarala’s classically executed sestina rests solidly on its six lodestone end-words: girl, right, others, tangled, woman, and museum—the latter two of which create a provocatively forward-looking couplet that envisions “all transition and artifice bending toward woman, / chimera emerging from youth’s wallpapered museum,” even as it catalogs the enduring effects of all the excess testosterone lingering in the zeitgeist.

Striking another note, and too self-conscious and hyper-serious to grasp the irony of the words “‘To Thine Own Self’ etcetera” “inked” in “ornate script” near his own “wholesome / areola,” the tatted specimen of toxic maleness on display in Miguel Murphy’s “Hamlet” both fascinates and appalls.

Though Blankenship’s poem may have articulated certain rumblings in our personal psyches, she is not the only contributor tasting the winds of change and finding that they leave a bitter note on the tongue, a sensation that innovation itself has somehow run amok. We all remain, as Ryo Yamaguchi portrays the moment, “forever damaged into something new.”

Many voices raised here defibrillate individual human hearts gone numb from constant suffering in the face of communal apathy and forgetfulness. Lisa Coffman confesses she loves the fiddle because its music “can carry such grief” even as it reanimates the zombies of Altoona’s graveyard shifts and draws them “cracking and stretching their hands” into the “beaten part of town” to jam with a three-quarter fiddle named Beauty.

Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan, in translations by Alan Zhukovski, reminds us that the flowing waters of history matter now more than ever, that it is worth every effort to work one’s way upstream and “break through to the winter and the sources, / when everything didn’t seem so inalienable, / when you could change everything[.]”

On a similar note, Alexandra Teague’s Pandora hurls warnings down the corridors of the centuries regarding the dangers of pure denunciation, reminding us that her “lilies grow in the same jar as winter, / as white supremacy” and so urging us not to forget “quantum physics, / compassion, the pithos of reason[.]”

In Fiction, Lee Conell crafts a tale about the lives of fantasy fiction–obsessed teenagers—a tale about young friendship trying to find a foothold in a reality inhospitable to unicorns. The story opens in Central Park in 2002, and Conell’s narrator notes that “we let the new emptiness in the skyline speak for itself and we let the new heft to our bodies speak for itself.” 

In “Strange Fire,” Riley Kross introduces a southern Bible-thumping community in the 1980s, where a moderately harmless teenage fascination with all things sexual takes a nasty turn into the cruelty of grown men, a cruelty that demands the judgement the narrator fears. “I glanced back at glowing Moses,” his narrator notes. “He knew what I’d been thinking, and he was aiming those stone tablets at me, damning me to a far greater blaze.”

Caitlin Mullen’s “Solutions” points to sexuality used as self-punishment by a young woman dangerously swamped by her working-class father’s illness and her outsider status at a prestigious university. Her emotions threaten to overwhelm her, and she reflects that “your anger is so total, so huge, you feel like that low ridge of mountains is something you could reach over and tear apart with your hands.”

Peter Taylor’s “The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court,” republished here to celebrate the publication of Library of America’s edition of Taylor’s Complete Stories, examines a different kind of coming-of-age—one undertaken by an adult whose memory of certain events during his wartime military service, their traumatic violence and his possible heroism in the midst of them, has gone missing. Taylor’s Roger notes “there have been moments when to deny anything at all would seem to deny everything and to have begun a great unraveling that might have ended I know not where.”

In Nonfiction, Kelly Cherry invites readers back to Russia, 1917, in a piece that reconstructs time and highlights dedication, revolution, and the twisting path history often takes: “Nevertheless, you, the reader, are wondering how the Cheka and Siberia have entered the story. Well, we did let you know that things are very dreamlike around here.”

Nicky Beer provides some respite from the pressing vigilance that this moment seems to demand as she reflects on the mesmerizing effects of aquariums, exploring their history and comparing them to masterfully crafted poems: “We go to poetry for how it dislodges us from our complacency with language, just as we go to aquariums to be dislodged from the predictability of our terrestrial element.”

In Gallery, Ken Weitzman’s pointed, pithy dialogue examines the complexity of his characters’ interiority as they struggle to “find meaning, so they’d go beyond their pathetic limits and experience the world, themselves, as . . . as sacred.”

Also in Gallery, a transcription of a talk given at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and hosted by Dr. Sarah Eckhardt presents a retrospective of Richmond native LeRoy Henderson’s most poignant photographs. Whether documenting rural Virginia life in the ’60s, civil rights activists, anti-war protests, or the Women’s March of January 2017, Henderson’s work illuminates what it means to witness the zeitgeist in an ever-evolving America.

In dialogue with our past and present histories, the 1917 Suite in Gallery reflects on events in America one hundred years ago. The excerpts we have collected have been chosen for their ability to resonate most deeply with injustices our country still faces today.

In Features, Dorothy Allison, a self-described “runaway redneck girl with a gift for language,” discusses the difficult themes of her works and writing process, ranging from violence to humor, rage to sexuality: “Rage can be a really strong engine for producing work. Begin with revenge. It’s a great place to start. But if you stay with revenge, it’ll kill you or you’ll kill yourself in the service of it.”

Audio captures of readings by Mary Lou Hall, Hanna Pylväinen, Colson Whitehead, and four VCU alumni writers also appear in Features.

Reviews by Emily Block, Gabriel Boudali, Kelly Cherry, and Chelsea Gillenwater of new books by Vi Khi Nao, Dalia Rosenfeld, Lisa Russ Spaar, and Melissa Bashardoust round out the issue.  

Return to top menus  |  Browse issue



Blackbird Vol. 16, No. 2 is archived in its entirety.

Business elements with a shorter shelf life remain linked in the left menu as a matter of record. If you are seeking up-to-date policies, submission guidelines, technical help, or contact information, please visit our current issue at

A Reading Loop featuring the work of Larry Levis and poems by the twentieth annual Levis prize winner, Solmaz Sharif.

A Conversation with Dorothy Allison audio icon

A Reading by Mary Lou Hall & Hanna Pylväinen audio icon

MFA Alumni Reading audio icon

A Reading by Colson Whitehead audio icon

The Rebecca Mitchell Tarumoto Short Fiction Prize is awarded periodically to a short story published in Blackbird. Adam Latham is the 2017 winner.

Under Nonfiction, find reviews of work by Vi Khi Nao, Dalia Roesenfeld, Lisa Russ Spaar, and Melissa Bashardoust.

contributor news
Awards & Recent Books

in previous issuesFeatured contributors
Norman Dubie
Tomas Tranströmer
Amina Gautier
Peter Taylor
Nicky Beer
Kelly Cherry
Hal Crowther
Bruce Bond
Erica Dawson
Catherine Pierce
Susan Elbe