Morgan Parker’s third collection ‘Magical Negro’ empowers itself
I have a Morgan Parker poem tacked above my bed. Last February I nailed a copy of “Let Me Handle My Business, Damn,” from Parker’s killer 2017 debut “There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé,” to my wall, where it has remained to this day, again finding me/you/us swimming in winter’s brine.
Morgan Parker is a poet of the powerful area between awareness and authority, a writer who will recompose the details around her, brilliantly, until she finds enough space to thrive. In “Let Me Handle My Business, Damn,” our speaker is “in the tub holding down / that on-sale Bordeaux pretending / to be well adjusted,” keeping it together while keeping it real, a gritty and generous situational awareness that casually grounds the declaration that comes next: “I am on that real / jazz shit sometimes I run the streets / sometimes they run me.” It finds raw glamour and rhythm without loftiness or idealism, and that’s exactly where its power lies.
Parker is able to generate command out of nearly any detail, granting phrases like “bad drugs bad wine mu shu pork” an emboldening, mantric sound before you even realize what the words are. This is tenacity: Morgan Parker can wring purpose and power from anything, rendering creativity and resilience one and the same. And she knows she’s got it — in a recent print interview, Poets & Writers asked Parker “You are a literary superhero — what is your name, your superpower, your kryptonite?” Her response: “Morgan Parker; Morgan Parker.”
In “Magical Negro,” her third collection of poems, Parker derives her superpower from the cultural legacy of Blackness and Black womanhood. The collection maintains the sensory creativity of “There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé,” but complicates it with historical and sociocultural texture. In an interview with Lumina, Parker explains that her previous collection “felt very full in terms of references and colors and places and people and songs,” whereas “(“Magical Negro”) felt full as in, like, a heavy book.”
Full and heavy it is. There are anthems in “Magical Negro,” but there are also histories, indictments and tributes. These poems are about pain, but they refuse to wallow — in fact, they use pain, picking it up and holding it in different contextual lights to illustrate what Publishers Weekly calls “a culture and community where irreplicable nuances are created in spite of, not because of, pain and trauma.”
“Magical Negro” crackles with the power of identity. In “When a Man I Love Jerks Off in My Bed Next to Me and Falls Asleep,” our speaker relays that “When I walk into the world and know / I am a black girl, I understand / I am a costume. I know the rules. / I like the pain because it makes me.” These poems locate a community’s tenacity in spite of its trauma, an everyday superhero recomposition of pain into power through deadpan-statements like “There’s no way a black woman / killed herself, because everyone knows we can withstand / inhuman amounts of pain” in “A Brief History of the Present,” a poem that ends with our speaker describing “tectonic plates clicking / like a jaw, and — stubbornly, like history — my mouth / becoming their mouth speaking who I am.”
“Magical Negro” moves back and forth across time and form to galvanize this power. In one volume, Parker remixes the Confiteor into a satire of Brooklynite millennial culture (“Here is the bright young food co-op. / Here is the steeple.”), writes a tribute to Zora Neale Hurston (one of an excellent many to come out this month), and describes what it’s like to date White dudes named Matt (“Matt smokes unfiltered Pall Malls because Kurt / Vonnegut did.”). The February poem in this collection is “What I Am,” an anthem inspired by Terrance Hayes that finds the electricity in the everyday, in “waiting in line at Walgreens / for my pills and texting / a white man I hope will fuck me,” and in recognizing that “I play / my tarot only at night, my eyes fall, / I get mean, I fall in love, I deny this.”
The collection ends on a powerful reimagining of “It was summer now and the colored people came out into the sunshine, full blown with flowers,” an iconic line from Gertrude Stein’s “Three Lives.” But in “Magical Negro,” the procession is far from flowers and sunshine. It’s “descend(ing) from the boat two by two,” it’s “The gap in James Baldwin’s teeth speak(ing) to the gap in Malcolm X’s teeth,” it’s “Frederick Douglass’s side part kiss(ing) Nikki Giovanni’s Thug Life tattoo.” It’s a choir:
“The choir loses its way. The choir never returns home.
The choir sings funeral instead of wedding, singe funeral
instead of allegedly, sings funeral instead of help, sings
Black instead of grace, sings Black as knucklebone,
mercy, junebug, sea air. It is time for war.”