blackbirdonline journalSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
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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 © 2021 by Blackbird and the individual writers and artists

ISSN 1540-3068


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C. Dale YoungC. Dale Young
Alli CruzAlli Cruz
Nicholas Cardell GoreNicholas Cardell Gore
Romie Hernández MorganRomie H. Morgan
Jessica TanckJessica Tanck
Katarzyna JakubiakKatarzyna Jakubiak
Stephen O’DonnellStephen O’Donnell
Andrew KochAndrew Koch
John EnglehardtJohn Englehardt
Claudia EmersonClaudia Emerson
Clauda Emerson & Carole Garmon Emerson/Garmon
Seyed Morteza HamidzadehS. M. Hamidzadeh
Julia B. LevineJulia B. Levine
Irène P. MathieuIrène P. Mathieu
Sarah Rose NordgrenSarah Rose Nordgren
Dave SmithDave Smith
Sofia StarnesSofia Starnes
Amina GautierAmina Gautier
Marilyn NelsonMarilyn Nelson
Inge PedersenInge Pedersen
Wesley GibsonWesley Gibson
Andrew ZawackiAndrew Zawacki
Elizabeth KingElizabeth King
Eleanor Rufty Eleanor Rufty
Kiki PetrosinoKiki Petrosino

C. Dale Young’s story “Intersection” launches a reader into a curiously apt space where many possibilities cross paths: curse and blessing, reality and magic, individual and community, truck and nun, fact and mystery. Unexpected convergences seem bent on running over whatever is aiming for point A from point B, and Young’s narrator tells us, “whenever she approached the intersection she instinctively looked up. It was as if a mark had been left there, one she could not easily make out. Sister Maria Esperanza expected to see a bird or a branch or a quickly rushing geyser of air, but she never saw anything there.”

Our thanks go to the writers gathered here for hunting for the street signs that might give us a geographical anchor for understanding the onrush of events and emotions that threaten in this moment to overwhelm us.

Each spring, Blackbird’s Introductions Reading Loop recognizes new artists of note whose work strikes us as exceptionally fine and full of promise. Joining this company for 2021 are poets Alli Cruz, Nicholas Cardell Gore, Romie Hernández Morgan, and Jessica Tanck, fiction writers Katarzyna Jakubiak and Stephen O’Donnell, and nonfiction writer Andrew Koch.

With the poems “Free Time” and “We Have To,” Alli Cruz highlights the complexities and contradictions of being a person of color in America. In one poem, the speaker’s boss teaches her to shoot a gun even as she questions the system. In the other, the speaker’s mother tells her, “Anak, we do what we have to.”

Nicholas Cardell Gore’s poems “Nigredo (The Precondition for Circumstance)” and “Bring Back the Dead” throw the pressing existential questions of this time of community experience against the stark realities of the past. He draws on the language of spells and alchemy to bring to life “the sons and daughters of the soil.”

“A Fairy Tale” by Romie Hernández Morgan investigates themes of death and love as they surface in a reimagining of her grandparents’ marriage. Here her grandfather’s mother plays the wicked queen. “Her anger like an apple in a story . . . ” We see the weight of colorism that results in a metaphorical death because “she hated how in love he was,” this great-grandmother with “her straight dark parted hair, her white skin and fine nose.”

Jessica Tanck dances around her pain by using allusions that enable her to needle her way into our imaginations. In “Damned If” she explores an abiding hopelessness that ties her to her family and to her own guilt. “This, he said, was God’s native tongue—the language / we needed to get help. But I didn’t feel God in that room. / Instead: stir-fried syllables, unfamiliar touch.”

In “Made of Sugar,” translated by the author from the Polish, Katarzyna Jakubiak takes on the multigenerational story of a family’s bakery in Poland and in the process manages to illuminate a half-century of Polish history. Jakubiak captures both a complicated nostalgia for the old and an uncertainty about the new as her narrator drives: “straight ahead into the infinity of shopping centers, carrying only this childhood rhyme preserved in my head: Pata taj, pata taj, pojedziemy w cudny kraj. Hobbledy-hoy, hobbledy-hoy, to a marvelous land, on we go!”

In another story that explores a larger cultural conflict through the trials of one family, Stephen O’Donnell’s “Bleeding Among the Briars” works through the difficulties faced by Irish farmers as they strive to knit themselves back together after tragedy and in the face of community hostility. The mother working to hold herself and her children together tells us: “People hear things. Say things. One to your face, another to your heel. They fill me with hate. They’re the same, whispering the country over. Must it be the same in the ever after? It must.”

Completing the loop, Andrew Koch’s nonfiction piece, “Movies You Must See Before You Die,” uses cinema to explore his grandfather’s death by demonstrating to readers how our perception of time changes as we fade in and out of each mentioned film. Koch reminds us of the little pieces of us that are left behind once we pass, “In the hope that what’s collected will preserve some other memory,” perhaps one that we have forgotten but that only has “been on pause this whole time.”

Short statements of artistic practice by Koch, O’Donnell, Jakubiak, Tanck, Morgan, and Cruz appear in the Feature “Tracking the Muse.”

Our annual presentation of materials related to the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award includes an excerpt from 2020 winner John Englehardt’s novel Bloomland (Dzanc Books, 2019) alongside videos of his online reading and Q&A. The novel explores the human need for connection by considering the consequences of intense disconnection when a school shooting devastates a southern university town and reveals the complexities of grief and identity. A review of the winning novel by Michelle Goshen also appears in Nonfiction.

The sixth annual Claudia Emerson Reading Loop looks at the poet’s 2007 collaboration with artist Carole Garmon, a friend who was her colleague at Mary Washington University. The piece is rooted in Emerson’s poem “Sewing Bird” and presents Garmon’s recollections of the collaboration and the exhibition which featured it; images of Emerson’s own sewing bird; and two texts of the poem, one as it appeared in her book Figure Studies and a draft as it appeared in the exhibition.

Seyed Morteza Hamidzadeh, in poems translated from the Persian by Negar Emrani, processes aspects of religion and faith that result in culturally and personally conflicting demands. As the poet tells us: “no one of name and of any prophets sent you hellos, greetings, or endings” and “She was frightened with the teeth’s chant through the crossings of the borders.”

Julia B. Levine’s poems take on her grief after the loss of a friend to suicide, calling out to the “god of rapture and razors” after finding her “best friend’s car empty as a bone.” “I believe there are angels lost in our bodies,” she tells us, “and by angels I mean the tenderness we carry for others / as what carries us.”

Irène P. Mathieu’s poems demand that we remember, whether it be New Orleans after Katrina or the “blind men & women workers for a local factory.” “I can’t stop / writing about a place that no longer exists,” she explains, “whose light I still use for navigation. after every crescent / city parade there’s a flock of crêpe paper seagulls / trying to escape gravity.”

Sarah Rose Nordgren grants readers a precisely drawn window into ways people master nature by shrinking the real into the artificial—replacing the mystery with the manageable. As “Feathers” details the peculiar connections between bird hunting and women’s fashion, “On Stillness” tells the tale of a deteriorating former art conservator as he finally takes his place as part of a museum.

New poems by Dave Smith employ meditations on John James Audubon’s Peewees, writing obituaries, a breakable childhood relic, and the process of watching his granddaughter grow to approach the less easily defined or described mysteries of aging, art, love, and family. “Do you know what breakable means,” he asks his granddaughter, “and she answers ‘I know,’ looking away, sure / now big danger breathes somewhere near us. / As the power in dream does, holding its tongue.”

Sofia Starnes’s poems examine the interdependence of beginnings and departures. In “Genesis,” the history of creation, embodied in a fawn, the “successor / of echoes and repeals, all that tweaking through / millennia,” faces the common end that is detailed in “Crib Loss,” where we are suspended in “the tiptoe-tread of grief,” the achromatic stillness of loss.

In Fiction, Amina Gautier’s “Perish” focuses on a queer, Black English professor in the emotional aftermath of discovering she has been denied tenure because of a technicality. While the main character struggles with “. . . her life splintering apart” as she is forced to confront the inevitable doubt and guilt, she is troubled by how she will break the news to her family, “a child to be raised, a wife to be loved, both of whom deserved better.”

Marilyn Nelson continues her translation from the Danish of the late Inge Pedersen’s fiction with, “That’s How It Goes Here,” which is the fifth installment of a previously untranslated novel. Here the narrator is in distress after her boyfriend, Bjorn, is invited to join a gymnastics team in Australia, and though “. . . he pulled me close and whispered, but we’ll see each other before then, you’ll come to see me in Copenhagen, and for sure I’ll write you more than one letter,” we doubt that these gestures will be enough to sustain their relationship.

In Nonfiction, the sixth installment of Wesley Gibson’s memoir You Are Here continues the story of his experiences as a young gay man living in New York City at the height of the AIDS epidemic. This section focuses on Gibson as he helplessly watches his roommate John deteriorate which causes his anxiety regarding his own health to spike. Gibson’s hypochondria pulls him in opposing directions as he simultaneously reassures himself and grapples with the sense of impending doom that begins to overtake him. “I had already jumped to the edge of the cliff and was now staring into the abyss.”

Andrew Zawacki remembers his late friend, Slovenian writer Aleš Debeljak, in an essay dedicated to revisiting a correspondence in postcards that took place over a period of years. As Zawacki concludes, “It would be wildly understated, albeit true, to speak to him now, in an essay on postcards, the way so many postcards end: wishing you were here. But this is not about endings, and it is about how my noblest friend continues to call to us. As if leading a poem up into the light, Aleš once began a short postcard to me: Elation perhaps, ordinary happiness for sure.”

Blackbird editors present short reviews of recent books to complete the section.

In Gallery, artist Elizabeth King takes on new work by her friend and fellow artist, Eleanor Rufty, in an essay that studies how Rufty practices an alchemy of figurative abstraction to harness a number of well-honed tools in the service of drawings and paintings that exist for us “in the moment between moments, in the sense of suspended time.” Accompanying the essay is Rufty’s artist statement and a commentary from 1997 by Wesley Gibson, another longtime Rufty friend.

In Features, a reading by poet Kiki Petrosino, captured last fall as a part of VCU’s Visiting Writers Series, and a short essay by Blackbird Managing Editor Hayley Graffunder that provides a take on publishing in the year of Covid round out the issue.  

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Levis Remembered
Blackbird Vol. 20, No. 1 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 of contributors who show remarkable promise.

Tracking the Muse closes out the Introductions loop with these contributors writing, at our invitation, about their creative process.

A Reading Loop of material by or about the 2020 Cabell First Novelist Award winner
John Englehardt.
 video icon

Claudia Emerson
A Reading Loop featuring poetry, essays, and photos by or about Claudia Emerson.

Managing Remotely: Blackbird in Pandemic

A Reading by Kiki Petrosino from White Blood video icon

The Rebecca Mitchell Tarumoto Short Fiction Prize is awarded periodically to a short story published in Blackbird.

Reviews Under Nonfiction, find reviews of work by
   John Englehardt
   John James
   Ocean Vuong
   Claire Wahmanholm

Contributor News Awards and Recent Books

In Previous Issues Featured contributors
   Richard McCann
   Claudia Emerson
   Elizabeth King
   Amina Gautier
   Dave Smith
   Norman Dubie
   Tomas Transtr√∂mer
   Wesley Gibson
   Marilyn Nelson
   Inge Pedersen