|Art by Mariama Alizor|
“Yard Dog” by Tade Thompson (2948 words)
No Spoilers: A jazz percussionist working at a club that might cater to a rather rough crowd in the early 1940s finds himself drawn into something way outside his area of expertise when a new regular shows up with a very unusual horn. The piece blends the smooth and smoky atmosphere of noir with a focus on the men on the periphery, the fill-in musicians with their hustles and their hopes, and then adds just a touch of magic that brushes against something huge and ominous. And there is an oral element to the narration, something between a tall tale told over drinks and smokes and a confession, revealing a time when the world was on the brink of something and people got by all the same, grounded by the hurt and feel of a music that calmed and soothed even as it resonated with something like the end of the world.
Keywords: Music, Clubs, Theft, Apocalypse, Jazz, Historical
Review: I love how the story brings in a touch of the supernatural into what is otherwise a Jazz Age story about music and crime. The narrator speaks with a subtle bravado, a vision tinged with nostalgia for this time when he was just learning the ropes, when yes he was involved in some serious shit but it has the remove of time and the feeling that maybe it was a different time. And for me the story is about a shift in that, is about him coming up against this idea, this darkness just below the surface of what he’s engaged in, that he kinda recognized all along but never really acknowledged. The end of the world. A horn that can blow destruction. There’s such an understated wonder to the piece for me, as if the narrator takes this all in stride, not even the strangest thing he’s ever dealt with because, well, that’s the business, and yet in this moment reveals that the end of the world, well, it’s frightening sure, but it’s perhaps no more than he’s always dealing with, than jazz has always been dealing with. And it speaks to me that the music and its beauty offer him a way to cope and to deal with the immensity of this moment and allow him to see that the end is always approaching, but that with the music sounding and the moon shining and the wind cool on his face, it’s okay. Despite the wars breaking out at the time, and injustice that he saw and faced on a daily basis, there is something like music, and the hustle of living. And he can return to his life and keep on going, and maybe find a bit of beauty and meaning along the way. A great read!
“Teddy Bump” by Sheree Renée Thomas (6386 words)
No Spoilers: Ruby is one of four lost girls trapped in Miss Dinah’s playground, where they are forced to play forever. Where they must sing, and be happy, and be grateful, or risk angering Miss Dinah, who can transform them into stones wet from their own constant tears. The setting of the piece is nebulous, a place for girls who go missing and who get lured in by Dinah’s promises that they will be able to go back. Once inside, though, they are stuck in the trappings of childhood play and innocence, punished for speaking their mind or failing to play along with Dinah’s vision of how they should act. It’s a story with some deep shadows, where the pain and trauma and reality of what has happened to them is painted over, gilded with lies and ignored instead of examined or faced. Still, the piece retains a defiance and a tired anger, and a hope that through even this hell, there can be release, and maybe even return, to the lives that were cut short when the girls went missing.
Keywords: Lost, Play, Music, Singing, Imprisonment, Loneliness
Review: There’s a raw loneliness and isolation to this story, and for me it works into the larger themes of innocence and pain. The girls are no strangers to keeping up appearances, likely all of them having lived trying to avoid the unwanted and dangerous attentions of others. Now again they are forced to pretend to be happy and pleasant, to be complicit and innocence. Only, again, these things never saved them. Did not prevent them from going missing in the first place. Innocence for them has always been something people pushed on them as a cloak while denying them the reality of being seen as innocent. Further, being made to appear innocent takes away a lot of their power, their weapons to fight against the danger and violence that surround them. For Ruby, there were few enough times and places she was truly safe, and that reality has now followed her into the strange and magical realm of Miss Dinah’s playground. She is not safe, merely pretending in the hopes that the violence will pass her over. And what I like about this is how the story explores how lonely that is, how exhausting that is, and how it doesn’t even work. And how it allows Ruby to push back, to fight back. To work with the other girls in order to protect each other and escape the prison that expectations and innocence have made for them. And the piece mainatains a palpable tension, a gripping struggle, and a beautiful resolution. The fight between the girls and Miss Dinah is tragic and complex, reflecting in some way how it’s not really the root of the problem, that it grew out of abuses and traumas that are still, here, unexplored. But that first this cycle must be broken. That first girls need to be made safe, and from there the movement toward healing can begin. And it’s just a wonderful story you should definitely check out!
“And Songs Don’t End” by Osahon Ize-Iyamu (5096 words)
No Spoilers: A family avoids nightmares thanks to the never-ending song of the matriarch of the family, the narrator’s mother. Always flawless in her singing, and often terrible in her treatment of the narrator and her sister, the story explores the very strange and often very conflicted nature of family. Of having a mother that is at the same time monster and savior. A mother who seems to hold the family together with her will and with her violence and with her voice. And dealing with the prospect of that voice going silent. And what it means for the family left behind, and their struggle, and their nightmares, and their dreams. It’s a piece that for me speaks to the power of silence, and the release that can come from something viewed as eternal...coming to an end.
Keywords: Family, Loss, Singing, TW- Abuse, Voice
Review: I like how this story balance the very real intricacies of a family shaped by a powerful and abusive personality. The family survives thanks to the mother, or at least that’s how she frames it. They are kept safe from their nightmares because of her song, because of her perfection. And yet it comes with a price. And, really, it comes with more than that, because the physical abuse that the narrator and her sister face isn’t the complete picture of what’s happening here. The abuse goes deeper, because it involves making the whole family dependent on the mother. Which is built on only the mother being good enough to sing. Which leaves the daughters, and especially the narrator, who can sing in the same magical way that the family passes down as part of its inheritance. But who has been denied by the mother, because that power would have unsettled what the mother had built. And the story does such a great job of examining what happens when the mother is suddenly removed from the equation. When it shows just how fragile she really was. Only human, in the end, and yet leaving behind the hurt of a monster. And what the narrator starts to see is that her mother caused a lot of the pain that she claimed to heal. That the monsters attacking from without, that required the mother to sing, were also shaped by the abuse that she wrought. And the piece looks at that, names that, allowing the family to begin to move on, while recognizing that not everyone in the family was abused in the same way, or feels the same way about their mothers. And yeah, it all speaks to true to me, mapping the harm done, the silence that the mother’s song required, and the voices that can grow now that song has stopped. A wonderful read!
“The Percivals: The Bennett Benefit” by Eboni J. Dunbar (5725 words)
No Spoilers: It’s 1900 and Anna Maria Percival is the bisexual vampire slayer you didn’t know you needed. Called out by a friend of her late husband’s, Anna Maria is out to keep the family business going with her sister-in-law and lover, Eleanor. The piece plays out like a pilot for a show I wish existed, Anna Maria haunted and reeling a from loss, finds herself in some fairly hostile waters, navigating a small party thrown in her honor (though more in honor of her diva’s voice and talents) that’s actually a cover for her true (and supernatural) mission. And she deals with casual racism with the same grace with which she handles the much more magical threats, all the while trying to find a way forward from her loss and the holes it has left in her life. The piece expertly mixes grit with upper class propriety, fashioning a paranormal world that pops from the page, and a core pair of characters that I would love to revisit again!
Keywords: Singing, Vampires, Queer MC, Loss, Historical
Review: It’s a rather precarious social place that Anna Maria and Eleanor find themselves in. Though independent to a point because of her voice, the social niceties of the time don’t exactly leave much room for bisexual badass black women. Which means Anna Maria needs to be competent, graceful, and quick on her feet. She also needs help, and that’s where Eleanor comes in, and where the core of the story shimmers with feeling and heart. Because for me one of the best parts of the story is how it handles Anna Maria’s need to hide almost everything about herself and her relationships. To conceal it under a veil of lies in order to protect herself and those she cares about. And yet it’s a pain that she feels very intensely, not being able to fully celebrate and mourn the men that she loved. To not be able to express herself like that in public, because of how she would be judged, because of how those men would be judged. Because of how everyone not white and wealthy would be judged because of her misstep. It’s a wrenching situation, and yet she remains committed to keeping up the legacy of vampire hunting, of protecting people from the hungry things that stalk the night. Even when it’s a constant reminder of what she’s lost. Even when it puts her in danger. It’s a wonderfully fun story, with a satisfying story line that leaves the setting and characters with so much more to explores. Also, please, this should be a show. Someone make that happen. A fantastic read!
“Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie Sing the Stumps Down Good” by LaShawn M. Wanak (14843 words)
No Spoilers: In the late 1930s, stumps are a new and deadly threat, growing from spores into the shape of people and then bursting, this discharge somehow potent enough to kill. It’s led to the quarantine of New York and might do the same with Chicago, unless the local exterminators can keep it under control. For the city’s south side, that means Minnie, a rough and rumble jazz singer, and Rosetta, brand new and carrying a whole lot of religious guilt. The piece opens as a sort of musical ghostbusters, except with strange fungus, while Minnie and Rosetta meet and begin an uneasy friendship. The situation is much more complicated than either of them know at first, though, and soon enough they’re diving into what could be a coordinated conspiracy, one covering up a lot of injustice and tragedy.
Keywords: Spores, Memory, Music, Friendship, Queer MC, Chicago, Historical
Review: This story is amazing. Can I say that? Well, I just did. The cast is fantastic, the setting draws on the deep divides within Chicago and the country, and yet at its core I feel the piece is about empathy and coming together, especially through music. The stumps respond to music, after all, and I feel that it’s because music is something that so many people understand. That they’re drawn to. Maybe in different forms, or across many different styles, but music has a way of conveying meaning and nuance without words, in a language all its own. And that allows it to resonate with the pain that the stumps seem to represent. Which makes music the most important thing to control. Enter the SPC, which enlists singers with the gift to really evoke with their music in order to co-opt their talent and silence them at the same time. They aren’t allowed to sing outside of work, and at work they are only singing as little as possible, with no audiences. At a time when class and racial injustice is leading to riots and worse, those in power are desperate to hold onto the system that has benefited them. And using the stumps works into that, creating a climate of fear where they’re able to silence dissent and use control to make it so the most volatile and dangerous elements to the status quo are those most hurt by the stumps. It’s a system that Minnie and Rosetta stumble across, and I just love where the story takes that, showing how this phenomenon that seems almost designed to get people to understand each other and empathize with each other can be used instead to divide and destroy people. But the story really shows how conspiracies like this are fragile, built as they are on privileging a minority of well off white people. And when people come together in understanding, realizing they are connected by pain, by joy, by hope, and that they share an enemy—the same one that has been trying to manipulate them all—then real change can happen. And it’s a super fun piece, and an incredible way to close out the issue!
“Ella Hour” by Uche Ogbuji
This poem speaks to me of distance and travel, and bringing something out into the dark of space to keep the bones warm and the spirits high. Music. To capture that bit of Earth, that bit of complex joy, in order to help people with the realities of space travel. or reaching out past the Earth and the solar system and farther still. I like how the piece buids and flows, not using sentence structure but focusing instead of the music of poetry, the rhyme and sound and metaphor. It’s also a longer piece, over two pages, and it moves between stanzas with shorter lines and shorter stanzas with longer lines, giving the piece some balance and structure, a feeling of moving outward, spiraling farther and farther from home, from Earth. And I like how the piece acknowledges the difficulty of space, of all that distance, of the need for something to both ground humans pushing beyond the gravity of Earth and push them forward, outward, willing to take risks and to go where no one has before. And the idea that what’s best to prepare people for that is poetry, is music, is powerful and apt. Because music does inspire and provoke, does poke and prod while it caresses and comforts. It is a part of something very human that can be taken with, a living memory of so much, and yet always new, always hitting the ear in slightly different ways. For me, the poem speaks to how powerful music can be, and how even as people leave the Earth behind, if they don’t want to repeat its mistakes, they need to carry with them something to remind them of what they’ve survived, as well as a promise of what’s to come. It’s a wonderful piece and definitely worth spending some time with!
“I Sing the Lady Electric” by Latonya Pennington
I love the imagery and narrative of this poem, which to me tells the story of a person visiting a club where an android musician is performing. For the narrator, it’s an incredibly loaded moment, Cindi (the android) coming to stand for so much. For freedom from expectations and norms that feel constraining. For all that is sensual and alive and vibrant. The piece is centered, with short stanzas and short lines that set a tempo and a sort of breath. For me, at least, the piece is slightly breathless, pulse rising and racing, everything crashing together at the moment when the narrator gets to stand up and dance, their time with Cindi magical, full of fulfilled dreams and desires. More than that, it seems a sort of awakening, an affirmation, that puts the narrator in a place where they don’t feel like hiding. Where they want to match their inner feelings to their outer appearance and the way they move through the world. Unafraid, unapologetic. They want to be bright and bold, and going to this club, and listening to the music, and dancing in the air, all gives them the confidence and strength to do just that. For me this poem is a celebration and a dance, the narrator getting into a groove that might be like a runway, Cindi waving them on, running them through the preflight so that they are ready to fly. To reach escape velocity from the ground, from the restrictions telling them that they can’t, or shouldn’t be who they are. And it’s an exhilarating, excellent read!
“night chimes” by Lisa Allen-Agostini
This poem is alive with desire, with a yearning and an absence. The narrator is stuck, trapped in a state of night where sleep offers no relief or release. Where everywhere seems to whisper a name, a remembrance of a person who is out there, somewhere, but there is a danger and a doubt. For me, at least, the poem seems to speak of infatuation, and that particular time when it’s almost unexpected, when you find yourself awake for want of a person, and realize what that means, with all the possibilities that could bring. Which are mostly probably good, yeah, but there’s also the chance that things...well, that things will not go well. And the poem acknowledges that, from the way that the narrator hesitates because it might all end in heartbreak, to the way that they sign off at the end, with a sly nod to the pied piper, that they recognize in some way that this could be leading them directly into a cave they’re not getting out of. But oh the music, oh that feeling of wanting. It’s there and it’s undeniable. And I just like the way that it builds this mood, this night suddenly pointed with desire in a way that it wasn’t the previous night, and maybe not deciding right then whether or not to pursue it, to venture out. But feeling it all the same, and holding that feeling close, exploring it, and getting at the electric hum of it. A great way to close out the poetry, and the issue!