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“Black Bone: 25 Years of the Affrilachian Poets”

By Arelya J. Mitchell*
The Mid-South Tribune

You’ve probably heard of the old saying, “Good to the Bone,” especially if you are a southerner. If you’re not and you haven’t, all you have to do is pick up a copy of “Black Bone” and experience not only its subtitle of “25 Years of Affrilachian Poets” but why this collection of poetry and essays is good to the bone or to haphazardly mix metaphors, good to the roots.

Until a few years back I had neither thought of African Americans living in the Appalachia nor that there was a black literary niche rooted there, ala Alex Haley. So much for stereotyping. But regardless of your race, color, or creed, “Black Bone” will enrich your appreciation of poetry and the almost defunct art of essay writing.

“Black Bone” opens up a world of gifted unpredictable illusive mind-snatching poets. I love this work, and it will remain a collection, I shall return to time and time. Most of these pieces not only demand multi-readings because of their nuances, ironies, and pleasantness, but because of their bold creative structure.

Editors Bianca Lynne Spriggs and Jeremy Paden had the ‘boney-fide’ task of deciding what works went into this collection, and they came up with thoughtful, poignant, and mind-blowing pieces. I don’t believe I am exaggerating with the ‘mind-blowing’ adjective.  One of my favorites (if not my favorite) is “Bless Your Heart” by Gerald L. Coleman. If you are a southerner, you get this; if not, you will still get the sarcasm which borders on good manners with a dash of blaspheme in which the one uttering it will feel quite justified that God will understand his or her “Bless Your Heart.”   This poem is appropriately in the ‘Root’ section of the collection.

Coleman begins in his lower-cased structure and sassy cadence:
“i don’t remember
where i heard it
it was just
in the air
like please, thank you
and ma’am”

Don’t ya’ll, readers, just loooove that? Read it through, and you’ll see that Coleman elevates sarcasm to pure irony or is it sarcasm to irony? Take your choice.

These pieces and essays are a combination of intellectualism, rawness, and creativity. But let me interject here with what I learned in Shauna M. Morgan’s preface which is that this was the second anthology of Affrilachian Poets. Morgan begins with a quote taken from Nikky Finney’s review of “Affrilachia,” a collection of poetry by Frank X Walker and the collection which began this Affrilachian literary movement.

Critic and poet Finney not only described what this first “Affrilachia” collection was but how Walker’s work aided and abetted in defining the term and the region, “Affrilachia.”

 Finney writes in her review of Walker’s work: “Any portrait of land worth its salt must also include a landscape of its people worth its weight in blood, sweat and tears.” Morgan expounds on Finney’s critique: “Indeed, Walker’s debut collection named and helped to define a region and its people.” Yet, Morgan is quick to point out Finney’s harsh but true words of  “The Affrilachian Poets have spent two and a half decades not only producing work with a distinctive poetics of liberation, they also continue to mount a formidable movement against the myth of an all-white region while also documenting those nuanced realities of an ever-changing U.S. American South.” This observation is no more or no less than what Black writers and poets have criticized in the overall literary world— that, like Rodney Dangerfield, their works get no respect.

Morgan credits both Walker and Finney “As the progenitors who collectively make up the fountainhead of the Affrilachian Poets …”
Nikky Finney’s poem “Brown Country” is featured in this collection, and its subject matter explores the irony of why Affrilachian Blacks love the region and its music. She writes in her poetic dialectics and diatribes: “I’m no Dolly or Billy Ray, But I sho am country” and from the beginning to the end Finney holds you spellbound, and that ending is disturbing and surprising.

I strongly suggest you read the preface first before digging into the collection. This might sound like a given, but, we all know that prefaces are often read last or not at all.

Editors Spriggs and Paden grouped the works into categories of “Root,” “Limb,” and “Tongue.”  Spriggs’ own “Black Bone” poem brings up the end of the collection. The piece examines what is ‘black bone’ couched in her lyrical ‘maybe’ observations. She writes pensively:
“Maybe it’s a fossil—
some rare combination
of obsidian & onyx fused together,
excavated from a seam of coal
& conjured into day.”

With this verse, I feel I can pick up a Black Bone—yes, the whole verse and yes, actually ‘feel’ the bone, the texture of it.

 I am intrigued and moved by many of the works in “Black Bone.” Among them are: “One Eyed Critics” by Norman Jordan; “The Dark Room” by Stephanie Pruitt; “Black Diamonds (for Mrs. Sweet Genny Lynch)” by Crystal Dawn Good; and Jude McPherson’s “I Hate Crowds or Yippy Ki Yay Murica.” In the latter there’s a little “F” word here I cannot print in this review, but you get my drift.

Joy Priest’s “In the City” is interestingly challenging in format alone. Sort of James Joycean in that she introduces a boldness as did Joyce dared with his stream of consciousness in his novel, “Ulysses.” Keep in mind, I said in her “boldness” not in stream of consciousness, because her structure is completely different from stream of consciousness. Yes, those enigmatic descriptions of being “In the City” are there, but it’s Priest’s unconventional format of a rambling concrete landscape which pushes her poetry several notches up and beyond.  Where do you continue reading after her first line? You can go mostly anywhere in her unconventional poetic structure. Read it, and you’ll see. It’s a puzzle which seems composed of haphazard pieces, but logical when piecing together the sentences inside her structure. It is like a concrete landscape of a “city” where you can veer off into any direction where a street or sidewalk can take you or lead you. That’s the genius of this poem.  

Hopefully, bookstores, retail stores, and black techno algorithms won’t push “Black Bone” on the back of the shelves and search engines because of the ‘Black niche’ when it deserves also to be expanded into the general literary areas of poetry and essays to be experienced by all. The collection is published by the University of Kentucky Press.


*Ms. Mitchell is Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of The Mid-South Tribune.



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