Tuesday, November 01, 2022

brown, Fables and Spells (2022)

adrienne marie brown, Fables and Spells: Collected and New Short Fiction and Poetry. AK Press, 2022. Pp. 329. ISBN 978-1-84935-450-9. $17.00.

Reviewed by Julie Reeser

When I first encountered the work of adrienne marie brown, it was through her book, Emergent Strategy. That book showed me a gap in my existence and began the process of filling it in. brown introduced to me the concept of moving through systems in nonlinear and creative ways with whole minds, bodies, and communities. She embraces this perspective again in her new release, Fables and Spells: Collected and New Short Fiction and Poetry. The book is long and complex, ever-shifting like an octopus exploring the environment. It challenges the reader to find a place of relaxed alertness while acknowledging the pain of both change and stagnancy. brown is one of the few writers who makes the reader inescapably aware of the body—not just the reader’s body, but all bodies in space and time and politics. Her work and activism are tender and confident like a practiced lover, alive and breathing.

As befits a book with magic in the title, every element is in harmony: earth, fire, water, and air. The stories about water are particularly fiery with hope and warning in equal measure. In addition to the body as lens with the elements adorning it, the book is divided into specific emotional sections—from emergence itself to grief and love, all the way through to liberation.

The poetry is modern and flowing—“the way the wild wastes nothing / the way the cedar gives me permission”—and combines the prosody of spirituals with the unflinching eye of activism. There are scattered and concrete references to those who’ve come before in both story and poem, but these references aren’t simply dropped like bookends or stones one would carry as weight, but placed like hands held one atop the other, an accumulation that makes the whole being resonate. “Against the Assata Shakur and Bob Marley-postered tangerine brick of my bedroom, we all looked so Afro-Gaugin.”

For me, two of the strongest pieces felt like love letters to women who came before her in a long tradition of changing the world for Black people. The first was a science fiction story titled, “Nikki Giovanni in Space, a Portrait.” Here, the poet Nikki Giovanni is invited to be the first space laureate through a partnership with NASA and BlackSpace, a consortium of Black billionaires. In this future, Giovanni teaches from the inescapable perspective of “the most honest position she’d ever been in… the disappointing and gorgeous Earth at her back, the limitless blackness ahead.”

I’d like to pause there—the limitless blackness ahead. So often, the color black in literature is associated with darkness and evil. The truth of black as a limitless possibility rather than fear or revulsion is divine and done so easily that it shames me how few writers employ it. And that’s where brown shines. She simply lives the truth openly, and actively sets the table for others to partake. Who would not want to sit at that table and participate with such learned honesty and warmth?

The second was a poem so powerful I had to stop and find someone to read it aloud to. I needed to immediately share it, reading it through a throat tight with awe and tears. “harriet is a north star” is a litany and prayer. It is a reminder for those fighting to stay on the hard path and a call to get on that path if you aren’t already there. I loved it deeply. Like many of the poems in the book, I want to read it over and over, wearing it to suppleness and familiarity until the understanding is inherent and automatic. A spell, exactly as brown intends.

Both of these homages embody another line from the book: “you are not in control, you are in collaboration.” The illusion of individual control and monolithic heroes interrupting the good is found throughout each piece until by the end, you’ve learned a lesson about the myth of individualism. This pairs with brown’s healthy lack of absolutism. No one is perfect, and the learning lasts to the end.

Lest anyone ever mistake brown for someone who can’t have fun, my favorite performance of the entire book was the surreal epistolary-esque dialogue with the dinosaur at Chicago’s O’Hare airport from 2015 through the pandemic. The feeling of being seen and embraced gave me so much joy that I wept with it. It’s hard to describe, but it was like reading a much-needed hug. Often, the most absurd leads to a communal connection, and this work exemplifies that truth. “We’re all rooting for you, you know. All the extinct ones. We’re all at your backs. You humans have so much beauty in you.”

While I read this outpouring of action and contemplation, I looked for one morsel—one bite that would explain the tastes and fulfillment of the whole for someone unsure. There is a humbleness in adrienne marie brown, despite her monumental legacy, that grounds and steers the voice and vision. I think it’s captured well in a line from her poem, “a moon kind of night”: “i can’t save anything / only love it all so much.”

That isn’t to say that brown honey-coats any of these ongoing inequities and outrages. She swims purposefully through the same waters we all do. The magic here is clear-eyed respite and renewal. “we have to continue the risk, find the many ways to get each other free,” but it is a powerful magic I feel blessed to have read.

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