While Parker most frequently fixes her canny gaze on “Black everydayness” – past, present and future – she also dedicates a lot of poetic energy to the body, to womanhood, to dating and to pop culture.
Morgan Parker, author of 2017’s astonishing There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, has with her new book Magical Negro once again created a collection that satisfies, challenges and entertains. She often does all of these within a single poem. While Parker most frequently fixes her canny gaze on “Black everydayness” – past, present and future – she also dedicates a lot of poetic energy to the body, to womanhood, to dating and to pop culture. Regardless of her specific focus, however, each and every word of Parker’s collection overflows with meaning, which makes for work that is satisfying on an intellectual level but that would be able to win us over with wordsmithery if it had to.
Parker’s title refers to the trope of mystical side-characters who’ve appeared in American fiction and film for years upon years, and she references it in within her collection through the titles of several persona poems. The titles alone, such as “Magical Negro #217: Diana Ross Finishing a Rib in Alabama, 1990s” and “Magical Negro #89: Michael Jackson in Blackface on a Date with Tatum O’Neal, 1990” are poetry in themselves: funny, critical and provocative. But they are, of course, more than titles, and in these “Magical Negro” poems in particular Parker uses her words as both a rapier and a hammer. She can slice with artistry or with force, yet all of it cuts right to the bone.
Though there are only seven “Magical Negro” poems spread across the collection, the rest of the poems fit in well. The collection isn’t overly “collected,” which leads to variety, surprise and delight. A winding maze with a laugh-out-loud finish line will be followed by a brisk and bloody lament that knocks the wind out of you with even more force. While the experience of being black in America and black in the world binds all of these poems together in a sense, another connective thread is indeed something that calls back to the title, which is the subject of tropes. Clichés and stereotypes are used, analyzed, presented for speculation and finally ground into dust. Some are used for humor, of course, but Parker’s excellent humor is almost always used in service of a more critical endeavor. Statements like, “Oh Matt. He knows he’s a white man but doesn’t think of himself as a white man,” will cause a chuckle but then cling to the brain. Lines like, “I think about walking into traffic, and suddenly, your dick,” may elicit a chuckle but are also strangely relatable. “Holy grail pussy” should just become an adjective on its own, but it’s used in service of a bracing poem of enormous depth (“Magical Negro #3: The Strong Black Woman”).
There are hundreds of lines, thousands of words that could be pulled from this collection to demonstrate its quality and intelligence. It’s that kind of reading experience: One that will cause you to pause after a poem and think about it, digest it, only for it to spring back into your mind while you’re at the grocery store and move you to tears or bring about a belly laugh while you’re collecting your morning coffee. It will cause jealousy from other writers and probably offend some folks who deserve to be offended. But it most notable for the level of readerly satisfaction it provides in a mere 90 pages. It grips from the very first poem (“I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background”) and will not let go until long after the last words are read.